Accident on the Bridge at Chappaquiddick: Do you know what happened 40 years ago?
— Heather Conn photo
(A condensed version of this post was published in The Coast Reporter in Sechelt, BC, Canada on July 17, 2009.)
If Mary Jo Kopechne had lived, she would have celebrated her sixty-ninth birthday last week.
Early last month, almost 40 years after Chappaquiddick became synonymous with Kopechne’s name and that of U.S. Democratic senator Ted Kennedy, I peered down from the notorious Dike Bridge in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. This otherwise innocuous span, about 10 feet wide and 75 feet long, sits by the easternmost coast of the Vineyard, a well-heeled island retreat about seven miles south of Cape Cod.
Amidst the area’s rural tranquility, it took straining to imagine that this plain structure, which straddles a six-knot channel and leads to Cape Poge lighthouse and a wildlife refuge, ever bore any stain of tragedy. (Kopechne, passenger in a black Oldsmobile owned and allegedly driven by Kennedy, died on July 18, 1969, after the vehicle plunged off the bridge into about 15 feet of water. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury and received a two-month suspended sentence.)
Nothing suggests that this planked span ever played a role in the death of a young female campaign worker or ended an ambitious senator’s run for the U.S. presidency. Except, of course, that it’s now one of the most fortified small wooden bridges you’ll likely ever see. With stanchions, thick wooden railings, and huge galvanized bolts jutting from its horizontal sides of pressure-treated 12 x 12 beams (all added after the accident), this bridge looks like it could withstand a nuclear blast.
(Immediately after the incident, some tasteless souls added graffiti that read “Ted loves Mary Jo” and “Ted’s car wash.” Others hacked off or hammered out tiny pieces of the bridge as mementos. When the car was towed to a local garage, zealous souvenir-seekers stole pieces of it, from its windshield to door handles. Thankfully, e-bay didn’t exist then.)
Some might consider this site a bizarre tourist attraction, but the conflicting accounts of the Kennedy accident have always fascinated me. From everything I’ve read and seen, I certainly don’t believe that Kennedy was driving the car, for instance. I think that Kopechne, likely scared and disoriented, wound up alone at the wheel, in a vehicle unfamiliar to her, in an area she didn’t know.
(Earlier that evening, a police officer had walked towards the vehicle when she and Kennedy were reportedly parked in the dark in the area, but had not approached the occupants. I think that Kennedy chose to avoid any possible discovery and subsequent damage to his reputation by choosing to walk home, leaving Kopechne to find her way. There has been some suggestion that his nephew, Joseph, might have been involved; he was reportedly seen later that evening in the area, wandering alone on a main road, soaking wet. )
Curious to see the bridge, my husband and I drove our peppy blue Smart car, rented in the Vineyard’s northeastern town of Oak Bluffs, to the site via the three-vehicle “Chappy ferry.” It took barely two minutes to cross to Chappaquiddick, an island-within-an-island; the Vineyard itself is only 100 square miles. Thankfully, we were there in early June before the summer crowds, when the on-island population swells to 120,000.
I was surprised to find no mention of the bridge in local media or tourist literature; area bookstores did not display any of the many tomes written about the accident. After all, sensationalist stories, even decades old, sell. Notoriety brings tourists, especially during a recession.
But “Hype your infamy” is no Vineyard attitude. Guess that’s one reason why so many Hollywood types flock there for holidays. This laid-back haven of 15,000 yearround residents nurtures the privacy of its celebrities, whether they’re residents or summer visitors, from the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton to singer Carly Simon.
At the time of the Chappaquiddick accident, Kennedy had spent decades competing in an annual regatta in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Today, he’s instigated and influenced more positive changes in the state of Massachusetts than any other politician, according to my husband, a long-time fan and Mass. resident. Yet I’m a west-coast Canadian; in my eyes, Kennedy lied about the Chappaquiddick incident and ignored advice from close friends and advisors immediately afterwards to tell the whole truth. Now it looks as if he’ll die without us ever knowing what really happened. The late Dominick Dunne, a novelist and Vanity Fair crime columnist, said that Kennedy “lived recklessly, performed brilliantly in Congress, and often failed miserably in life.”
If you would like to read more of my travel stories, please visit
http://www.heatherconn.com/category/travel/ and http://www.thetraveleditor.com/authors/846/Heather_Conn/