Friday, August 9, 2019

Bill Anderson – "Ninety-Nine" (1959)

I had a nice little ride on a ferry boat
To the rock where the prison stands

I’ve been vacationing on Cape Cod since the seventies, but I only started taking day trips to Martha’s Vineyard – which is just a short ferry ride from the Cape Cod village of Woods Hole – a few years ago.  

The island has an extensive network of bike trails.  I make sure to ride the most scenic of those trails – the one that goes from Oak Bluffs (where most Martha’s Vineyard ferries dock) along the edge of Nantucket Sound to Edgartown – every year.

The Edgartown Harbor lighthouse
When I arrive in Edgartown, I first spend some time watching the boat traffic in Edgartown Harbor.  Then I have lunch, visit the Black Dog Kids store to buy some togs for my grandsons, and hit the island’s two breweries.

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This year, I decided to take the shortest ferry ride in the United States and visit Chappaquiddick Island for the first time.

The two privately-owned ferries that carry cars, bikes, and people from the Martha’s Vineyard town of Edgartown to Chappaquiddick Island and back again traverse a distance of only 527 feet – one tenth of a mile less one foot.  The journey takes less than one minute to complete:

Chappaquiddick is small – it covers only about six square miles (that’s roughly 3800 acres) and has a population of fewer than 200 souls.

There’s not a lot for tourists to see or do on the island.  There is one store, a community center,  a fire station, and a snooty beach club.

The snooty young lady guarding the entrance to that snooty beach club snootily told me I couldn’t take this photo of that entrance:

And there’s the Dike Bridge across Poucha Pond – the site of perhaps the most famous one-car accident in history, which took place just over 50 years ago.

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On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy hosted a party at a friend’s summer cottage on Chappaquiddick Island for six women who had worked together in his brother Robert’s 1968 presidential campaign.  

The women were all single and in their twenties.  The six men who were at the party were all older, and five of them – including Kennedy, whose wife was pregnant and confined to bed at the time – were married.  (Just sayin’.)

Ted Kennedy
Kennedy decided to leave the party about 11:00 PM – supposedly to return to his hotel in Edgartown.   

One of the women at the party left with him – supposedly to return to her Edgartown hotel.  (Given that she left her purse and room key at the party, that seems doubtful.)

The next morning, a fisherman and his son saw Kennedy’s car submerged in a Chappaquiddick pond.  When the authorities arrived at the scene, they discovered the dead body of Kennedy’s passenger – Mary Jo Kopechne – trapped in it.

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At that moment, Ted Kennedy was using a pay phone at the Chappaquiddick ferry dock to call various people for advice.  When he heard that Kopechne’s body had been recovered, he took the ferry back to Edgartown, went to the police station, and dictated this statement:

On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 PM in Chappaquiddick, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, I was driving my car on [Chappaquiddick Road] on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown.  

I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dike Road, instead of bearing hard left on Chappaquiddick Road].  After proceeding for approximately one-half mile on Dike Road I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge.  The car went off the side of the bridge.  

The Dike Bridge in 1969
There was one passenger with me, one Miss Mary [Jo Kopechne], a former secretary of my brother Sen. Robert Kennedy.  The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom.  I attempted to open the door and the window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car.  I came to the surface and then repeatedly dove down to the car in an attempt to see if the passenger was still in the car.  I was unsuccessful in the attempt.  

I was exhausted and in a state of shock.  I recall walking back to where my friends were eating.  There was a car parked in front of the cottage and I climbed into the backseat.  I then asked for someone to bring me back to Edgartown.  I remember walking around for a period and then going back to my hotel room.  When I fully realized what had happened this morning, I immediately contacted the police.   

On my recent trip to Chappaquiddick, I retraced the Kennedy’s route on my bicycle.  Since then, I’ve done quite a bit of reading about Chappaquiddick.  I’ll tell you what conclusions I drew about Kennedy’s story in the next 2 or 3 lines.

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The title of today’s featured song – which was a 1959 hit for country singer “Whisperin’ Bill” Anderson – refers to the 99-year prison sentence that has been handed down to the song’s protagonist.

The song doesn’t mention Alcatraz by name, but it’s clear that he’s going to serve his time on “The Rock,” the forbidding island penitentiary in San Francisco Bay.

Seven days after Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, Ted Kennedy pled guilty to one count of leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in bodily injury.  He was sentenced to two months’ incarceration, which was the minimum sentence for that offense – but the sentence was suspended, and the rat bast*rd never spent a minute in jail.

Click here to listen to “Ninety-Nine.”

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon: 

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