A Few Seconds Along a Chain Link Fence

A moment is a blink of time. Everyone has a moment. The difference for each person is not simply in what the moment is, but also in what the moment becomes. Each of us has the opportunity to give it meaning, to carry it on. Most moments are lost, some are recalled. Here is a moment that I’d like to share with you.

A few seconds along a chain link fence.

I wrote in my first book, A Tragic Turn: Six Leaders and the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr., about the moment when Robert Kennedy first heard that King had been shot. It was late in the afternoon of April 4, 1968, a Thursday. It was one of those Midwestern days on the knife’s edge between winter and spring, when freezing cold and rising warmth clash and struggle for control. As it often does, the fight spawned a series of tornados in Indiana.


Kennedy walked toward the ladder into a small plane on the tarmac of a county airport near Muncie, Indiana. He’d been at the local university, Ball State University, as part of a presidential nomination tour and had to travel to another campaign event. A chain link fence bordered the tarmac. Along the fence dozens of people had gathered to watch him, cheer for him. Kennedy was popular. One of the people was a young man who said, “King’s been shot.”

“Is he dead?,” Kennedy asked in reply.

In the moment that it took for those words to register in the mind and consciousness of Robert Kennedy, we feel a flow of wrenching events.

Is he dead?

Those words harkened back five years to the death of Kennedy’s brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the President of the United States assassinated in November 1963. This was the second dead Kennedy brother, the first, Joseph Kennedy Jr., had died during World War II. This eldest Kennedy was intended to be groomed as a political candidate after the war, a potential American president according to his father. But death voted early. And death had voted again with the killing shots of 1963.

Now death had possibly come once more. Kennedy would have to wait on a fuller report about King’s condition. All he could do now was board the small plane with his team and a group of reporters and fly to Indianapolis.

In his head echoed the moment between a young man and himself, separated by a chain link fence.

The plane gained altitude into the gray sky and a mix of rain and snow.