As a skinny teenage busboy, Juan Romero knelt beside a mortally wounded Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. On Saturday morning, more than 42 years later, he knelt again, this time beside RFK’s grave on what would have been Kennedy’s 85th birthday. Getting up the courage to visit Arlington National Cemetery was not easy for Romero, a construction worker from San Jose who has been haunted for decades by the events of June 5, 1968. Under a soft blue sky, with fall colors exploding across the velvety slopes of the cemetery, Romero walked off to be alone and have one last good cry before visiting the grave.Romero was wearing a suit for the first time in his life, saying it was the proper way to show his respect for a man whose memory he has tried to honor by living a life of tolerance and humility. “Sorry,” he apologized to his daughter, Elda, and friend, Rigo Chacon, who had made the trip with him from California. “If I can get it out of the way now….” Maybe a good cry would help him keep his composure, he said, when he finally stood at the grave.
Romero is kneeling at the senator’s side, comforting him. He was shot while shaking Romero’s hand. Ever since, he has felt partly responsible for his death. He believed that if he had not been so determined to congratulate Kennedy after winning the California primary, he might have seen and stopped assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
That busboy, Juan Romero, has lived the last 42 years trying to honor the memory of the man he admired.
The site of the shooting, Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, has since become a learning complex named after RFK.
Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times
Photo: Busboy Juan Romero, 17, kneels by mortally wounded presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. Credit: Boris Yaro / Los Angeles Times
I’ve been busy working in Los Angeles on the feature film “Atlas Shrugged.” The accompanying news story in the L.A. Times almost got by me. Such is the pressure-packed responsibility that I’ve been assigned to deliver this long-awaited motion picture based on the novel by Ayn Rand to theaters on April 15, 2011. I promise I’ll speak more about “Atlas Shrugged” and share lots of interesting factoids with you in my future posts. But with the limited time I have, today it has to be all about RFK.
On June 5, 1978, I was running the Filmed News Dept. of KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. That’s when “film at eleven” was really “film at eleven.” I had just finished watching the celebration of RFK winning the Democratic California Primary Election on TV. Since it was broadcast live there was no need for my Film Crews or myself to be at the Ambassador Hotel.
Having just turned off the TV, my telephone rang. It was the News Desk at KHJ, who told me that RFK at been shot and I was to go to the Ambassador Hotel as fast as I could. I slipped on my clothing, ran out the front door and jumped into the KHJ-TV mobile unit parked in my driveway. I vividly remember speeding on the Ventura Freeway, weaving in and out and passing slower vehicles. Then the events become a blur. The next thing I knew I was inside the Ambassador Hotel Ballroom– the specifics of where I had parked and how I got inside are lost in the whirlpool of my emotions and fog of memory.
Nevertheless, there I was, standing alone in the very spot where RFK’s Victory Celebration had occurred earlier that evening. A uniformed LAPD officer stood guard at the doorway. Confetti littered the floor. Balloons were strewn about. My imagination ran wild and I heard the sound of the celebration in my mind. What I do remember is walking around the empty Ballroom and shooting footage of confetti on the floor and balloons dangling from the ceiling. Tears streamed from my eyes and blurred my vision, making it difficult to frame the images that Viewers would see on later that night on TV.
After leaving the Ambassador Hotel my next stop was Good Samaritan Hospital. RFK had been transferred from Central Receiving because of the lack of a qualified Neurosurgeon. I set up my Auricon sound camera next to all of the other film cameras in the dirt lot. The camera lenses were all pointed toward a solitary room, located on maybe the sixth or seventh floor, with its light on. Crowd psychology permeated the chilly night air and we all agreed that’s where RFK was fighting for his life.
RFK was mortally wounded and didn’t make it. He joined the likes of his brother JFK and Martin Luther King. The next and last time I saw RFK was on the south side of LAX. A transport plane was parked in an area that was cordoned off to the public and a fork lift was raising the U.S. flag-draped casket to the open cargo door where it disappeared inside.
Two years ago, I was invited by Miramax Films to a Special Screening of “Bobby” at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. All of the people who were at the Ambassador Hotel that night were asked to speak. We all shared our stories about what we had experienced that fateful week. For me, it’s that image of the flag-draped casket disappearing inside the cargo door of the aircraft parked at LAX that I shall never forget.