The Other Time Martha's Vineyard Was in the News
I grew up on Martha’s Vineyard. Every now and then when the island appears in the news memories of my childhood come back to me. The latest occurrence—the great De Santis airlift—was wacky and whimsical. Observing from afar, as an Israeli Jew closing in on retirement, it seemed dream-like, unreal. And remembering other times that the Vineyard was in the news, especially those that I lived through and witnessed first-hand, I realized that now they too were more dream-like than real for me, whispers of a past life, and that some sort of transmogrification had transpired in my head and that my memories were no longer mine, the personal had become public, and that what was once close and dear and well-known to me had become foreign, obscure, sometimes even threatening. I obviously had a hand in this sea-change by removing myself physically to a point halfway around the world, and spiritually to a point no closer than that. And as is my wont nowadays, I retroactively search for and inevitably discover a Jewish or Israeli angle to these Vineyard occasions. I know, I know. But remember my by-line: “endless talmudicisms.” So, a Jewish Vineyard we shall have and celebrate, if only for a few paragraphs.
From a Jewish perspective, things have changed on Martha’s Vineyard. Today there are two active Jewish centers. Chabad of Martha’s Vineyard, Orthodox in orientation, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, a Reconstructionist synagogue that started as the spiritual center for the few original Jewish families on the island and has since grown impressively. Chabad is focused on outreach to fellow Jews and their particular concerns, where the Reconstructionist movement puts more of an emphasis on Judaism in the context of a wider humanistic outlook. The old joke has come to life. A Jew was stranded alone on a desert island. When he was finally rescued, his rescuers noticed that there were two synagogues on the island. They asked him why, if he was alone, did he have two synagogues. He answered: “I pray in that one, and as long as I live, I will never set foot in the other.” Now a Jew can be a complete Jew on Martha’s Vineyard and choose in which synagogue not to step.
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ISLAND IN NEWS, NAME NOT NAMED
The funny thing is that when Martha’s Vineyard first hit the big-time, it wasn’t even in its own name, rather, it was in the name of a geographical appendage called Chappaquiddick. The papers ran with that and who can blame them. It is a name fun to say and fun to type. And it had a cute nickname: Chappy. A cook-out gone bad, a young woman dead, the Chappaquiddick incident blocked Ted Kennedy’s path to the presidency. Given the nature of that sad and tragic story, and the people involved, it can be said that Martha’s Vineyard dodged a bullet when the press chose to use Chappaquiddick for the headlines. Martha’s Vineyard depends on summer tourism for its economy, and bad press could affect that. As an aside, on that very premise Stephen Spielberg created what is considered the first summer blockbuster film—Jaws—appropriately filmed on Martha’s Vineyard. Of course, a little notoriety is good for the tourist business, as long as it stays out of the headlines. Once you were in a gift shop, you would find Chappaquiddick easily enough, on post cards and t-shirts. Perennial best-sellers. This manipulated disassociation was not entirely without a foundation. Chappaquiddick had its own sub-culture, slightly different than that of Martha’s Vineyard. It is an island of an island. If those present at that fateful party could be seen as a New England liberal version of “Good Old Boys,” then Chappy residents, though not inbred as far as I know, are white-collar hillbillies to Martha’s Vinyard sane and stable residents.
Well, sane and stable until the Kennedy machine in full family-protection mode came to Edgartown, the small town across a narrow straight from Chappaquiddick that Ted famously swam that night, fully clothed running away from the terrible thing that had happened towards his hotel room where he flopped on his bed, soaking wet and fell asleep. That’s what he said. There was no-one in America who heard that story and did not contrast it in their mind’s eye with an earlier swim by an older Kennedy brother. That would have been the swim that the future president John F. Kennedy took in World War Two when his PT boat was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer. With the straps of the life-vest of a seriously wounded seaman clamped between his teeth JFK swam for miles in shark-infested and Japanese patrolled waters to bring his men to safety. A grating, painful contrast that Ted had to live with for the rest of his life. An inquest into the Chappy incident was held in Edgartown. What I remember was at that time I believed myself to being more an expert on the map of Chappaquiddick than anyone who did not live on that sub-island, and more knowledgeable than many who did live there. And I remember that when the official version of the event came out, I thought: “what a bunch of crap!” I was referring to the claim that Ted, trying to get Mary Jo to the last ferry back to Edgartown and her hotel room, had made a wrong turn and ended up flipping his car off Dyke Bridge into Poucha Pond. Not only did I at the time believe that this claim was a howler, but so did the judge at the inquest and everyone not named Kennedy. Regardless, Ted had been able to get out of the car, and later claimed that he made attempts to dive down to the submerged vehicle and save the woman who was with him, Mary Jo Kopechne, whose name deserves to be remembered. Conspiracies abound, but all agree along with the official inquest results that she must have survived for at least a half hour in an air pocket. Had Kennedy run to the nearest house and called for help, she may have lived. In the end, he was charged with leaving the scene of the accident and served no time. The general feeling among Vineyarders was that if it had been one of us at the wheel of that car, the outcome would have been quite different. I never met an Islander who did not accept this as a truism.
This is how I became an expert on the road (sic) of Chappaquiddick. Remember Western Union? Not the money-transfer part of it, but the messaging service, through teletype machines (Google it). My parents, who owned a small gift shop in Vineyard Haven, “The Sea Chest,” somehow managed to obtain the agency for Western Union on Martha’s Vineyard. There was nothing like those teletype machines. They would jump to life when a message came in, rattling the shop and the air within. Your notifications on your smartphone are puny in comparison, whimpering cries for attention. Wham! Wham! Wham! Carriage Return! Message coming in! All caps! Now that’s a notification.
At that time, when a telegram was received, standard operating procedure was to call the recipient and ask if they would like to have the telegram read to them over the phone. Most did. Then they would be asked if they wanted the original copy delivered to them. Most did. This is where I came in. Ordinarily a taxi was ordered, and the driver delivered the telegram. Two summers before Chappaquiddick, my father had made me an offer. If I delivered the telegrams, he would pay me what he normally paid for the taxi. It was an unbelievable deal. I was too young to drive so I hitch-hiked. All over Martha’s Vineyard, including Chappaquiddick. One delivery to Gay Head at the far end of the island would bring in twenty-eight dollars at a time when my friends were flipping burgers for less than a dollar an hour. Chappaquiddick, though just across a sliver of a channel from Edgartown which brought in a measly twelve dollars, was a gold mine at thirty-two dollars a pop. Over the course of the two summers that I delivered telegrams, I delivered 15-20 telegrams to Chappy. At the time there was only one paved road on the island. Every house on the island was connected by dirt roads to that main road. So, in traversing that road many times, I became an “expert” on Chappy. Or expert enough to say in full confidence what I wrote above.
A CRUEL MOMENT
Eight years later I was the sole expert witness at a different kind of inquest into the incident at Chappaquiddick. I was away at college in Indiana. Sometime after getting to know each other in our dormitory, another student approached me and asked me what I was doing for Thanksgiving. I had no way of getting home to Martha’s Vineyard, so I was planning to stay at the dorm. He invited me to his home, and I happily agreed. Only after we were turning into the driveway of his home, did he tell me that his father wanted to ask me some questions. About Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Now he tells me I thought, and yes, I had evidently exhibited my expertise at some time in the dormitories, thinking that I was in the company of young men who came from families who were not infatuated with the Kennedy mystique. That I was, but this young man’s family was Catholic. Not for the first time in my life, and certainly not for the last time (oh woe is me) I wished that I had had the good sense to keep my mouth shut. My hosts were as pleasant as could be, the feast was delicious, but the occasion was unbearable. The dining room was narrow and long and just sufficed for the table and those sitting at it. The family, Catholic and large, was well dressed, ready for mass, from whence they may have just come. I joined them at the table, in my jeans and flannel work shirt and shoulder-length hair—the ubiquitous uniform of New England adolescents and young adults in the Seventies. The walls of the dining room were bare, except for two modest portraits. One hung on the wall behind the head of my friend’s father, who sat at the head of the table. It was a portrait of their Saviour. At the other end of the table, on the wall behind the head of my friend’s mother, was a portrait of John F. Kennedy. That right there, being under the gaze of Jesus and JFK, spoke volumes about the way in which that family saw the world, and how they had educated their children. And I was there to desecrate. During the meal there was small talk. What my parents did for a living, what I majored in, what sports teams I liked. But through all that I knew what was really on the menu, a great and terrible moral reckoning that I could not avoid. The problem was not just that I knew that what I would tell them would be disconcerting to them. It was that my audience had endured 8 years of conspiracy and conjecture and had held fast in their loyalty to Camelot. This was becoming a built-in integrity test. Was “my truth” strong enough to overcome this loyalty? Would the wham wham wham of my teletype words break through their whimpering protests? In addition, eight years down the line I had changed too. My generation followed the tail end of the hippy sixties, but what had been for them revolution and iconoclasm for us was an empty shell of a lifestyle. A lot of freedom was going around in those days. Free…well, free everything. A I’m-ok-you’re-ok relativism was the extent of our ideology, if such a shallow world view could be called that. On top of that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the incident anymore. Who was I to judge? Where in the past I would imagine myself in Ted’s place after the accident, and that unlike his, the outcome of my trial would be incarceration, now I was imagining myself in Ted’s place during the event itself, and I was not sure that I would have been any less of a failure than he was. Heroism is real-time. There is no planning it and there is no faking it. Mary-Jo certainly expected heroism on the part of Ted. How could she not? Was he not the younger brother of John, who swam miles through shark-infested and Japanese patrolled waters, dragging gravely wounded sailors to safety? Dyke bridge was small change compared to that. True, Ted was not John, still he should be able to manage this lesser task. Yes, she was under water but not deep, and she had air for the time being. Ted was not in the car so he must be ok. He was surely waiting for the tidal current to slow down before saving her. Mary-Jo did not struggle and did not panic and did not drown. She died of asphyxiation; she slowly wilted unto death, head strained towards the air pocket, a true believer in Camelot to the end.
Dinner was over, the table cleared, and there we sat. On cue my friend’s father turned to me and said: “My son tells me that you have some knowledge of what happened at Chappaquiddick. Would you be willing to share this with us?” I did not hesitate, and I told them what I knew. And yet. And yet. As I was speaking and implying that this married Catholic man was not taking this young Catholic woman to the ferry, rather he was taking her to a secluded beach, I heard whimpering from across the table. My friend’s younger sisters were sitting there, eyes beginning to tear, the youngest sister whimpering. At that precise moment I remember a wave of doubt. And yet, And yet. Was it not possible that an innocent though boozy mistake had been made? Of course it was possible. This was a moment of clarity, but sadly, though acutely aware of the emotional torture my friend’s sisters were enduring directly across the table from me, I had not the mental agility to see through to the extent of that clarity and to understand that there, in that place, Ted was not the point of the story. Mary Jo was. These girls understood that instinctively, because they were living the same life that Mary Jo lived when she was their age. They were good Catholic girls, something at that time that needed no further explanation. The parents thanked me solemnly and gathered their girls who were now openly crying. They were torn helpless broken birds, crying Mommy Daddy. Though at the time I was a stout non-believer, I had the distinct feeling that the Cosmos had put me to the test and had found me lacking.
There is a term in Judaism, “nikarin divrei emet,” that I am translating here as “the truth is self-evident.” This term does not refer to a universal rule, rather, it pertains to the particulars of specific events that are recognized as indisputably true. A classic example is when Joseph interpreted the chief butler’s dream, the chief baker “saw that the interpretation was good.” (Meaning true) Gen. 40:16. The commentators ask how he knew that the interpretation was true and then they reply: “the truth is self-evident.” Joseph’s interpretation would be certified only after the events described happened, so how could the chief baker know already that the interpretation was good? The person doing the interpretation, his character, his history, his voice, and style of speech, all combine to lend credence to what is said. In the absence of proof, we are talking about some feeling, or internal conviction that the truth has been told. A belief.
By all accounts, including those in the endless conspiracies, Mary Jo was a young woman of strict Catholic morality. As such, under no circumstances would she have agreed to intimate relations with a married man. That is what was most hurtful to her parents while they were alive. Everything damaging said about Ted cast immoral aspersions on Mary Jo. It was simply assumed that whatever the mighty and powerful Ted Kennedy wanted, or demanded, he would have received. In this case, it is simply not true. The truth in this case is self-evident. Whether wanting or demanding, he would not have received physical intimacy from Mary Jo Kopechne.
If that is Mary Jo’s story, what now is Ted’s? What would he have expected from Mary Jo? Even if he had “checked the water” with her through eye-contact, he would inevitably have received a quick, slight negative head shake, politely hidden from everyone else, and he would have understood and complied. On that night, with Apollo 11 racing to the moon, Ted was, at most, looking for a sympathetic ear. He would have received that from Mary Jo. It needs to be remembered that they had something in common: grief over the murder of Robert Kennedy less than a year before. Mary Jo had worked on his campaign, and Ted, well, Ted was not only Robert’s younger brother, he was also the next in line, either for the presidency or for an assassination.
There remains leaving the scene of an accident. The truth here is also self-evident. He did leave. Beyond his legal guilt, he was convicted by a public blinded by celebrity or pre-conceptions, or deafened by the teletype machine, of the unforgivable crime of failing to be a hero. It is not a crime; it is a shortfall. Society needs heroes and needs to cultivate and encourage heroism. Just as it needs to embrace those who fall short. Second acts are not only possible, they are necessary, following regret and repentance. Ted’s second act saw the runt of the Kennedy litter become the Lion of the Senate. He served the public for the rest of his life. There is a lasting value in that.
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