Friday, November 2, 2012

Day 23 - Chappa-Quit-It

“I went through a lot of difficult times over a period in my life where [drinking] may have been somewhat of a factor or force.” Ted Kennedy

Heading into the last non-drinking weekend. Um ... yay!!!??!!!

Another fascinating (if creepy) adventure on the New England trip was a hop to notorious Chappaquiddick Island - where in July of 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy's hopes for the White House were dashed forever.

Was drunk driving really a factor in that deadly accicent? Or, as he testified, was the Senator actually sober when his car flipped into Poucha Pond? (Poucha Pond. They have such cute names for water bodies on Martha's Vineyard, deadly as they can be.)

I was five years old when Ted Kennedy's Oldsmobile went off Dyke Bridge on Chappquiddick Island and the only passenger - a pretty young political assistant - was killed. Even though the details were a bit beyond my comprehension at the time, I could tell the news had knocked Vietnam off the front page. Allusions to sexual misconduct between married men and single women, a private party at a luxurious mansion and allegations of alcohol abuse made the story irresistible to grownups. Especially when mixed with a dash of the Kennedy's power.

"Mary Jo Kopechne" is a name that I could pronounce (or at least get close) since the first time I heard it on the radio. It just seemed to slide off the tongue.  Born to Polish-American parents in Pennsylvania, she was a popular assistant and secretary and a member of the "Boiler Room Girls" - the nickname given to six young women who worked long hours in a windowless, stuffy room on Robert Kennedy's Presidential campaign.

This party was actually a reunion of the girls at a luxury rental house on "Chappy" as its affectionately known locally. (Just to give you an idea of the real estate prices on the island, today you'll pay about $10,000 to rent a house for a week and some of the compounds available with powdery white beachfront run upwards of $15 million to buy.)

There were six young women at the party. And six men. But no wives. It was a hot July night on a remote, wealthy resort island ... but one of the guests wasn't drinking? Hmmmm. Sure, I buy that. Happens all the time. Who needs booze? Not me. Obvi. (23 days sober!) Besides, drinking on a hot summer night sucks. Especially if you're on vacation. Waste of time. Everyone knows that. They played Yahtzee instead. Everybody loves Yahtzee!)

Anyway, accounts are truly mixed about how much alcohol was drunk that night. But Ted Kennedy insisted that he was sober when Mary Jo asked him to drive her back to her hotel on the main island. One witness testified his car was driving about 20 miles per hour ... and that it was too fast for the dirt road, especially at night.

Hard to imagine any road that couldn't be handled at 20 mph, but having been on it recently ... in broad daylight ... I concur. That road is absolutely treacherous!

We had just left lunch at the Atlantic, when the hubs said, "Hey! Let's take the ferry to Chappaquiddick!"

A few things came to mind when he said that. First of all, I wasn't sure about another ferry ride on the gray day. But the name itself sent a little rush of nausea through me. Because I'll forever associate the word with the mysterious death of a young woman. And, to me, a mysterious death is even creepier than one with all the facts. Then I whispered "Mary Jo Kopechne" to myself, as I probably have every time someone mentions Chappaquiddick since I was a little girl.

"Really?" I said, feeling major resistance. I didn't have to say: "Do we have to?" It was apparent in my tone.

"It's the ferry where they shot that mayor scene," the hubs said, referring to one of my favorite scenes in Jaws. And probably if I thought about it, one of the most influential film scenes of my life, even if it doesn't make cinephiles drool. I just loved the subtle power play between Mayor Vaughn (who didn't want the beaches closed after the shark attack) and Chief Brody (who did). That sealed it for me. "Okay, let's do it!" I said.

As it turns out, the Chappy Ferry is "always on time" because just 527 feet separate the two islands at that point. So we got into a small line of rusty pickup trucks and waited our turn.

The boys running the Chappy were serious men's men, relaxed but friendly. We got off on the other side and drove along narrow, paved Chappaquiddick Road.

The trees and underbrush on either side of the road were so dense, you couldn't see the multi-million dollar summer homes that dot the beaches.  The trees were so thick the branches almost closed up over the car. Colorful mailboxes were the only indication of life. It was so private, so incredibly remote.

The paved road gave way to light-colored sand as we crossed onto Dyke Road, the infamous spot where the accident took place. But it wasn't a dirt road like the ones you might remember taking to summer camp. It had a slippery, almost quicksand like texture to it. The hubs said it was like 'driving on snow.' The back of the car was fishtailing as we went along and my heart started to speed up. I don't know if it was because it had been raining earlier or if wealthy Chappy summer people just like taking their lives into their own hands, but the whole place had a really unsettled atmosphere to it. Lonely. Isolated. Private. Dangerous. If you like condos in Boca Raton, this is not the summer place for you. It was bizarre and unwelcoming, almost totally undeveloped looking in some places. The message from the people who lived or summered on this island was clear: Sure, you can visit ... if you're nuts ... but we're not gonna make it easy for you.

At one point, it simply became too slippery for the car. Maybe a pickup or a SUV would've handled it better, but we were literally sliding back and forth. The hubs found a place to turn around and we did. Heading back to the ferry, I felt my heart slowing down. I just kept staring at the dark trees, imagining how black and desolate the place must've looked close to midnight that fateful night in July ...

I should say that despite the salacious details of this "Boiler Room Girl" reunion, MJP was never noted to be a wild party girl or a big drinker. According to most reports, she was a devout Catholic and very proper. But she also left that party without her keys or her purse ... or her panties. Apparently, she was going commando under her presumably polyester bellbottom pants (it was 1969, after all).

Ted's heavy Oldsmobile lost control on the dirt road (read slippery sand!!) and slid off Dyke Bridge - which had no barricades (obviously, the locals have always been trying to make entree into their part of the world dangerous). When the car hit the water, it flipped over onto its roof. The Senator allegedly escaped from the driver's seat and made it to the surface. He then claimed to have made several attempts to dive back under and rescue Miss Kopechne, though he could not free her from the backseat where she was.

(What the hell was she doing in the backseat?)

He decided to go back to the party for backup. He brought two of his friends to the scene to help free the girl. This was around midnight or 1 a.m. When the trio couldn't get her out, Ted - who was apparently in shock - went back to his hotel in Edgartown. Where he complained about another loud party. Made some phone calls. And went to sleep.

He did not report the accident until the next morning - after the car had been found. He was given a suspended sentence for "failing to report." His driver's license was suspended for one year because the Registrar of the Massachusetts RMV deemed he'd been driving "too fast for the conditions." But he was re-elected to the Senate, though his hopes of the Presidency - not to mention his reputation - were ruined. And ever since "Chappaquiddick" - an enclave of super-rich summer people who obviously prefer privacy to convenience, have been dealing with curious tourists on day trips. Maybe that's why they don't fix the dirt road.

By the way, Miss Kopeche did not drown as was widely reported. The diver who was called to the scene the next morning got her body out of the car in a matter of minutes. She was found in the backseat, her body in a position as if it was struggling upward for air. Apparently, Miss Kopechne - just one week shy of her 29th birthday (Ted was 37 ... God was he ever 37? He always seemed so much older to me)  suffocated to death. She had actually found an air pocket that kept her alive for at least two to four hours before the lack of oxygen finally killed her. They're convinced if police had been notified at the time of the accident, that she would've survived. 

Oh. My. God. Four hours upside down in a car submerged in salt water. What a horrible way to go. 

I hope to hell that - despite her reputation - she was drunk out of her mind that night.

Mary Jo Kopechne
The Chappaquiddick Incident
The Shark Guys
The Chappy Ferry