Early in life, I think we all become aware that we live in a universe that is comprised of two worlds…our own and a larger, outside one. Our own world is comprised of friends, family, school, and takes place in the immediate area that surrounds our home. The other world is the one that we read about in the newspaper, or observe while watching television…the world that is populated by famous people, and is the setting for important events in the fields of politics, sports and entertainment. Usually, except in cases of nationwide disasters or war, the two worlds remain separate, allowing most of us to live a normal life, regardless of what is happening in the outside world. But occasionally, the two can briefly intersect, sometimes by accident, a phenomenon I experienced for myself 45 years ago.
History will tell you that 1968 was one of the most traumatic years of our lifetime. Assassinations, anti-war demonstrations, and major social unrest all contributed to what seemed like general chaos in the U.S., while Europe was busy dealing with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. But my world was remarkably unaffected by any of this, as I was much more preoccupied with the day to day drama of my first year of high school. Yes, I paid attention to all of the major events happening in and around our nation in 1968, but frankly, I was more concerned with my algebra class than anything Walter Cronkite was talking about. And when school let out in June, my attention was directed at hanging out with friends and playing softball, and not to the riots taking place in Detroit and Chicago. It was the daily search for fun that led me and three of my friends directly into a brush with the outside world.
One of our favorite sources for amusement was the San Francisco International Airport. In 1968, SFO was much smaller than it is now, with fewer terminals, free parking (if you knew the layout) and a lot less security. On a hot summer night, I, along with my buddies Bill, John and Larry, hopped into Larry’s Chevy, and made the short drive over to the airport. Usually, our nights at SFO consisted of “goofing” on people, paging fake names on the white courtesy telephones, and playing catch in the hallways with the football that Bill always brought along. But this night would be different, as shortly after hearing “Dr Zachary Smith…white courtesy telephone…” over the intercom (good one John), we were handed a flyer informing us that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Democratic candidate for president, was scheduled to arrive by plane in San Francisco at one of the outside gates within the hour. With little warning, our paths had crossed with the 1968 Presidential Campaign.
For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, or are old enough but have just forgotten, the 1968 race for the presidency was a wild ride that took several unexpected turns. Early in the campaign, President Lyndon Johnson, struggling with the Vietnam War, and facing strong primary challenges within his own party from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, announced he would not be a candidate for reelection in November. Now pitted against each other, Kennedy and McCarthy squared off in the crucial California primary, with the winner having a clear path to the nomination, and the loser facing elimination. Tragically, minutes after winning a decisive victory, RFK was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. McCarthy’s loss and Kennedy’s death almost immediately elevated Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy, much to the chagrin of the many young people who were attracted to McCarthy’s anti-war message, and had devoted many months working on his behalf.
When the four of us arrived at the gate, there were already hundreds of people gathered behind the barricade that had hastily been set up to separate Humphrey’s plane from the throng. As we quickly noticed, the crowd was split evenly between supporters of the Vice-President and sore loser remnants of the McCarthy campaign, who were there to heckle Humphrey (unless you counted Larry and Bill, who were solidly behind Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon). Clutching Bill’s football, I could see Humphrey’s plane taxi toward the gate. Just as the Vice-President disembarked and started to make his way over to the crowd for some campaign handshaking, I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and saw that I was confronted by two large men in dark suits…Secret Service agents who were very curious about me and the football I was holding.
One has to remember that we were still living in the wake of the Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations, and our government was understandably a bit jumpy when it came to the lives of presidential candidates. While one agent held me in a hammerlock, the other carefully inspected the football. To be honest, I found the situation quite thrilling. Moments earlier, I was merely a dorky lad of 15, but now I was a suspected terrorist. But it didn’t take long for the agents to realize that the football was harmless, and that I was as unimportant as I appeared. With little emotion, they gave me back the football, and disappeared into the darkness. Before long, Humphrey too was gone, whisked away by limo, no doubt to meet with some of his top Northern California donors. Soon, the entire crowd had dispersed, and the four of us were heading home in Larry’s car. As we were leaving the airport’s grounds, we spotted a McCarthy supporter hitch-hiking in front of the 101 on-ramp. At this point, Bill requested that Larry slow down enough for Bill to address the young man. As we pulled alongside the long-haired chap, Bill shouted, “**** you, and **** McCarthy.” His point eloquently made, Bill rolled his window back up, and Larry returned us to the safety and tranquility of our own world.