Showdown At The Bohemian Grove

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In 1963 I spent the summer parking cars at the Bohemian Grove, an exclusive all-male retreat on the Russian River in northern California. Although I’d heard rumors of Bacchanalian feasts and highroller negotiations, while I worked there the place seemed essentially a summer camp for grown-up boys. The general mood of heightened relaxation was marred by one significant exception—my boss, whom I shall call Siegfried. Impeccable in dress and manner, fierce in temper, rumored to be a former storm trooper, Siegfried was the manager of the Grove. Although none of us on the parking crew were old enough to have had any military experience, we all felt an urge to come to attention in his presence.

Because so many of the guests at the Grove were famous, and because the point of the encampment was to leave the annoyances of the outside world behind, Siegfried informed us at our initial indoctrination that under no circumstances—and he repeated, under no circumstances —could anyone ask for an autograph. “Do your jobs,” he then concluded, leaving me with the impression that I had two equally important duties: (1) park cars, and (2) do not ask for autographs. Since I had never once asked anyone for an autograph, the prospect of spending the next four weeks continuing a lifelong habit did not seem particularly challenging.

And for the first 10 days it wasn’t. Celebrities came and went without incident. Wernher von Braun, Richard Nixon, Art Linkletter: They were all pleasant, and we were all business. Then Robert F. Kennedy arrived. I can’t remember what kind of car he stepped out of or even what he was wearing. What I do remember is his tan and teeth and tousled hair and our entire crew leaping from our perches on the parking-lot fence to surround him. I’m not sure which of us first stepped up with a blue windshieldwashing paper towel, but I know that all six of us swarmed around him while he signed his name atop the hood of his car. So absorbed were we in his luminescence that not one of us noticed the arrival of Siegfried until he made his presence known with a guttural clearing of the throat. We turned to see him, realized we were engaged in the ultimate transgression, and froze in place.

“Mr. Kennedy, welcome. I apologize for zee boys’ behavior. Zey know it is forbidden to ask our guests for autographs.”

We knew that Siegfried’s justice would be final and unalterable. The only question was whether he’d fire us on the spot or wait till the end of the shift. But at that moment of despair, Kennedy’s voice, higher and more youthful than I had imagined, broke the silence. “Oh, I think there’s been a misunderstanding. These boys did not ask for my autograph. I asked if I could give them my autograph.”

For an instant no one spoke. The Attorney General’s suddenly steely eyes looked directly into the former storm trooper’s. Our heads swiveled in the direction of Siegfried. He blinked.

“As you vish, Mr. Kennedy.”

Then, with unerring intuition Kennedy added, “I’m sure I’ll have a chance to chat with these young men again when my stay is over.”

“Absolutely,” surrendered Siegfried.

Kennedy gave his signed paper towel to one of the attendants and in a nod to Siegfried’s pride said, “We’re running a little late. I’ll catch the rest of you fellows later.”

He waved to us and boarded the Bohemian Grove’s transport bus. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and headed back to our fence, with one signature and six jobs. We weren’t sure our employment would outlast our protector’s stay, but a few days later Kennedy left and we remained.

Although since then I’ve had a number of jobs more prestigious than parking-lot attendant, keeping them has never required the intervention of the Attorney General of the United States.

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