A movie just released to the public, titled "Chappaquiddick", presents a version of events that linked now deceased Ted Kennedy, a former US senator representing Massachusetts, to the drowning of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, on Chappaquiddick Island. I read that the movie itself did not do well at that box office, so far. Nevertheless, based on police and court documents, I reflected on the drowning incident after visiting Martha's Vineyard and Chappaquiddick a few years ago.
There is an island called Chappaquiddick. It is really a kind of sandy marshland that butts up against the larger vineyard -- that is, Martha's Vineyard, separated in two places by only a narrow ocean channel that can be swam or crossed by either a relatively short span of bridge or ferry ride. It is a well known landmark in the US solely because of the scandal-tainted tragedy that unfolded when a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, was discovered trapped and expired in a crashed vehicle (Oldsmobile) submerged in the shallow channel.
US Senator Ted Kennedy, by most accounts, had been in the same car the night before and was assumed to have driven into the channel (Poucha Pond), to have attempted unsuccessfully to rescue the young woman, to have then left the scene in shock, to have forgotten about what happened, and eventually to have been charged by police for various relatively minor indiscretions such as leaving the scene of an accident. State Police detectives George Killen and Bernie Flynn were assigned by the district attorney's office to investigate the accident.
"Huck", a police officer on the island that night, saw a car with two passengers who appeared to have lost their way onto a dirt by-road.
Detective Flynn mentions "Huck" in a report that eventually put together a scenario for the accident; a verbatim account below that largely was either discredited (by Ted and supporters) or not taken seriously by key officials:
"I figure,we've got a drunk driver, Ted Kennedy. He's with this girl, and he has it in his mind to go down to the beach and make love to her. He's probably driving too fast and he misses the curve and goes into Cemetery Road. He's backing up when he sees this guy in uniform coming toward him. That's panic for the average driver who's been drinking; but here's a United States Senator about to get tagged for driving under the influence. He doesn't want to get caught with a girl in his car, on a deserted road late at night, with no license and driving drunk on top of it. In his mind, the most important thing is to get away from the situation."
"He doesn't wait around. He takes off down the road. He's probably looking in the rear-view mirror to see if the cop (Huck) is following him. He doesn't even see the f---ing bridge and bingo! He goes off. He gets out of the car; she doesn't. The poor son of a bitch doesn't know what to do. He's thinking: 'I want to get back to my house, to my friends' - which is a common reaction."
"There are houses on Dike Road he could have gone to report the accident, but he doesn't want to. Because it's the same situation he was trying to get away from at the corner — which turned out to be minor compared to what happened later."
"Now there's been an accident; and the girl's probably dead. All the more reason not to go banging on somebody's door in the middle of the night and admit what he was doing. He doesn't want to reveal himself." And the funny part about it was, 'Huck' was only trying to give him directions.”
Now, many, many years later, I ventured onto the infamous spit of land for only a brief time via the Edgartown ferry. The famous “Dike Road” bridge link apparently was no longer whole at the time (but may now have been restored).
In the account above, I diverge briefly from a simple travel report to speculative musings, as there is a ghost wind in this place. Actually there was a very mild breeze when I walked along one of the island’s dunes. I wasn’t thinking about Ted Kennedy, partying, and social consciousness then; only separation. A withdrawal from society and its norms of behavior could very conceivably happen here. This is where making love in private may defy isolation and loneliness. A man of notable leisure, a senator, a rich person, could mistakenly assume all of the universe is his domain to rule alone. He is a law unto himself. But suddenly the universe balks. Something serious goes wrong. It is unbelievable in Ted’s own mind. His life is spared but another is sacrificed and he can’t explain it. So it is story time.
Everything that has gone before is at stake, and Ted must dwell on its consequences. I, or we, can sympathize at this point, for we know the brutality of public opinion and condemnation. A tragedy has unfolded and it is beyond control or instruction. Ted probably didn’t have an active conversational relationship with God at that time (or ever), so he probably reverted to having a dialogue with the devil instead. He made a Faustian pact, that would keep him intact as the amiable senior senator from Massachusetts until his turn to return the favor arrived. By then, most of us had forgotten Mary Jo, and the world turns.
I do not judge, but only speculate. Would I have behaved differently? I believe so, but am not absolutely confident. If I had an Olds and 28-year old beauty beside me in it…, if I was wealthy, if I were a member of congress, if I....???
Old whaling church, Edgarton
“Sometimes a fog will settle over a vessel’s deck and yet leave the topmast clear. Then a sailor goes up aloft and gets a lookout which the helmsman on deck cannot get. So prayer sends the soul aloft; lifts it above the clouds in which our selfishness and egotism befog us, and gives us a chance to see which way to steer.” - C. H. Spurgeon. (Known as the "Prince of Preachers”, he championed the Reformed Baptist tradition as the pastor of the congregation of the New Park Street Chapel (later the Metropolitan Tabernacle) in London for 38 years. (b. 1834)).
Moving off the island I felt a soft relief, even as the moon began to arise from the eastern horizon. The ferry launched me back to the larger island, Martha’s Vineyard. Edgartown, my namesake town (you know, Edgar), offered social dining and communal activity, allowing for a return from the ghost island. I had a rental car and a woman with me, to whom I turned my attentions -- sober.