Bobby K. Hayes of Calico Rock, Ark

HE WAS two politicians down the hand-shaking line from J. William Fulbright of Fayetteville: Bobby K. Hayes of Calico Rock. It was June 1, 1968, three nights before Bobby Kennedy was shot. He had not been at the head table at the party dinner, but Fulbright had. He had not been asked to speak, because Fulbright would have been embarrassed. But he was down on the Benton County Fairground, Bentonville, Arkansas, and he was running against Fulbright for the Senate. The senator, home from Washington in a careful gray suit, would scarcely acknowledge he was there.

In a field of four, Fulbright was far in front, and Bobby K.— behind Justice Jim Johnson, the George Wallace man, and Foster Johnson, the retired encyclopedia salesman — was considered the last man in the pack. He had buttoned all three buttons of his powder-blue jacket, a black comb peeked out of his breast pocket, and his pants cuffs collapsed around his ankles. The senator’s Philadelphia wife, Betty, was with him. Bobby K.’s Lorene, and the two kids, and Earletta, the girl who lived with them like a daughter, were far away, seeing the sights in Texas.

He lunged for people’s hands, and squeezed hard, like an Indian wrestler. “How do you do,” he said. “I want you to remember me: Bobby K. Hayes, candidate for the U.S. Senate.” He had an Ozarks accent with odd peaks and valleys and curves. “Remember me.” It was less an entreaty than a statement of fact.

“I’ll get you something from the car.” He excused himself and ran to the parking lot, head down and knees high, pumping his elbows. It was a 1967 Mustang Fastback, deep navy blue, with two big loudspeakers on the roof, pointed outward so the people could hear. And on the doors were words for the people to see: “Bobby K. Hayes Candidate for U.S. Senate.”

His platform was mimeographed. He would bust up the big corporations and break up the plantations and redistribute the land; he would bring the boys home from Vietnam and find everyone jobs and fight for equal justice; he would stop all this foreign aid until we could build some bridges here at home, and pay at least $2.50 an hour, and provide Medicare for everyone, old and young. And he would restore prayer to public schools.

The platform had a familiar ring. It was William Jennings Bryan updated, the Populist half of Huey P. Long. He had outlasted the New Deal and the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society, and he was still there. People said he had gotten rich.

“He’s off his nut,” one of the people said. Bobby K. Hayes was thirty-seven, a self-made-Ozarkshillbilly-millionaire-with-hardwood-flooring-plantsall-over-the-map. He met payrolls and worked a few hundred hicks. “It don’t make sense.”

“I’m running for civil rights,” he said as we stood by his car. “Fulbright never voted for a civil rights bill in his life. Fulbright is with the corporations. I’m hitting him on the issues.” He doubled his fist. “He’s anti-labor, and he voted against Medicare, and he’s giving this money away. And there’s this Vietnam stand: you take now, he just says stop the bombing — and you see what the headlines say today, our boys are still dying; and you can buy an M-16 rifle on the streets of Saigon for only eighty dollars.”

Five days later, Bobby Kennedy was dead, and Bobby K. was home in Calico Rock.

CALICO ROCK

There were hills like worn knuckles, and mottled bluffs, a railroad track and a bridge and the White River, rushing and cold. There was Main Street, with its old building of sturdy native stone, and a flooring plant where white smoke rose; they stoked the boiler with sawdust. There were homes for 773 white people — the Indians had died off long ago, and the town was too poor for Negroes. It was an odd corner of the mountain South, far from the nation’s heart. Bobby K. was in his office, once a funeral parlor. He seemed both older and younger.

BOBBY K.

He waved while he talked on the phone; 2:10 P.M. Over his inner office was a sign: “Employees Only. No loafing or visiting. Bobby K. Hayes.” Under a glass counter in the outer office were snapshots of him on a hunt, and there were antlered heads on the wall. There were ad layouts: “Now through the ideas of men comes the elegant new concept of Parquet Flooring by Hayes Bros.” There was a notice from the federal government: “Equal Employment Opportunity is the Law. Discrimination is Prohibited.” It was a small stone building, not unlike those in country towns like Johnson City, Texas. It didn’t look like a mortuary.