Teddy's Letters

This week the President, Vice President, legislators of both parties, and friends and family near and far gathered in Boston for the opening of the new "Edward Kennedy Institute of Politics." It was a grand occasion, and, this being Boston, many local TV and Radio stations covered the event from front to finish. Each special guest giving testimonies to how for more than fifty years, Ted Kennedy had lived and worked and legislated his way into a central place in American Politics.

I wasn't invited, so I thought I'd write him a note.

For years, back in the eighties I led a number of delegations to Central America. Usually they were for US church groups or human rights groups, and one was just dubbed, the "Friends of Stan Duncan."

This was during the days when the Reagan Administration was supporting the rebels against the government in Nicaragua and the government against the rebels in El Salvador and the politics of both were murky and complex. Our delegations would talk to human rights groups, faith groups, government officials, displaced people, etc. to help get a sense of what was really going on because the media up here seemed so baffling about it all.

On one of my first trips, someone recommended that I write Ted Kennedy's office and ask him if he would send along a letter of safe passage, just in case we got in a difficult--that is, dangerous--situation. I hadn't thought about that before, but I did write him and two weeks later I got a personal letter from the Senator addressed to "to whom it may concern," saying that Stan Duncan was a big deal and was traveling under his guidance and that he should be taken care of and treated with respect etc. It was great. No cover note, just the letter.

Every year after that, just before my trip I would write him again and every year dutifully he would compose a similar letter. We never met, but we had a funny relationship. I was his pet project, the guy he would write the annual letter for, and after that first one, he would occasionally ask how the trip went and how I was doing. I'd always write back saying the trip was fine and all was well, but never much more. He was, after all, Edward Moore Kennedy, the senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, and I was just some kid from Oklahoma who was freelancing, trying to save the world, and trying to keep from getting killed while doing it.

I seldom actually needed the letters, but now and then it felt good to have one in my pocket just in case. I would take it out and show it to an official here and there who was getting a little suspicious about our intentions, usually with no comment or response. We were often there as a church group, and that made us a little bit safe, but occasionally we traveled into an area where that was less helpful and we were a little uneasy. I couldn't avoid those places. It was important to me to take my delegations "behind the scenes" in conflicted areas to help get a real look at what was happening, because our tax dollars were paying for much of the carnage across the region. But the governments of many of those countries, especially El Salvador and Guatemala were not fond of our doing that.

There was one time, however--it was March, 1988--when I was up in the Suchitoto region of northern El Salvador, the center of the rebellion and all gringos and human rights representatives were strongly encouraged to stay out. I was actually living in El Salvador at that time, ostensibly doing research on economic development, but also doing human rights documentation with several international journalists.

We were visiting villages that had been the scenes of bloody massacres by the Salvadoran army. We got in to the region by pickup, then hiking, and then hiding under bags of grain on a supply boat going up a river. We got some good interviews, notes, and pictures, and I was pleased about that, but on the way back government troops stopped the truck we were on and took us in. They confiscated all of our bags (which included all of our documentation) and destroyed everything. And they kept us in jail for three days. I can't speak for the others--we were in different quarters--but I was terrified. We were nowhere. We had nobody back in San Salvador who was watching for us and could call an embassy if we didn't return. Anything could happen.

The guards working with me asked me day after day why I was there and what I was doing and who I worked for. I couldn't just say that I was there documenting their own human rights abuses, so I continued my line about doing economic development research.

Part of my work actually was researching development work in villages that were being repopulated by people who had fled the killing for Honduras in earlier years. But they suspected (with good reason) that my motives were more than merely academic.

Finally after my third day someone arrived who could speak English and who seemed to have more authority than the guards who had been talking to me. He asked me all of the same questions all over again, with an increasingly impatient, angry tone. This time, since he could read, I hauled out Ted Kennedy's letter. He took it and read it silently for several minutes. Then he slammed his hand on the table, tore it in half, and threw it to the ground. He said this was nothing, it means nothing. It was irrelevant, he said, to their questing, and they still needed to know the truth about why I was there or I would never go home.

He turned and walked stiffly out of the room and left me alone. I picked up the pieces of the letter and started putting them back into my backpack, but before I finished, the door opened again and the guards came in and escorted me out of the compound and, without a word, pushed me into the street. Moments later, while still standing there wondering what had happened, my companions were pushed out the same door.

We were exhilarated and excited and screaming with relief, but unfortunately we rushed straight back to San Salvador, and I seldom thought much about the letter again. I've told this story many times to friends and family, but one person I never told it to was Ted Kennedy. I have never written him to thank him for saving our lives.

It's true that he may not have. It's possible that nothing would have happened. It's possible that we would eventually have been set free anyway. On the other hand, you never know. Our situation at least felt grim and who knows how many days would have gone by? Each day the guards were growing more and more impatient at our silence.

There's a real chance that none of us would have made it home had it not been for that yearly letter that Kennedy sent with me, saying (impossibly) that I was important and that I was to be taken care of and treated with respect, with the implied threat that if I was not, then there would have hell to pay from the office of the senior Senator of Massachusetts.

I never thanked him. I never saw him. I never called up or wrote or dropped by, and never told him that I might not be alive today had it not been for his help. Eventually I moved back to the United States and then to Boston and became a student again at Harvard. I started a new life and a new career and somehow never remembered to express the gratitude I owed him for his help. And now I can't.

Except that maybe in an improbable, unlikely, and slightly impossible way, it is actually slightly possible that the big ball of life and fire and laughter and compassion and humor and drive and strength that he was for so many years might still be with us in another way and in another realm. Who knows? And if that is so, and if he is perhaps mysteriously or spiritually or cosmically listening in, then perhaps it is time to finally say thanks.

I never did that when you were alive, Teddy, and I should have. I never thought about it until you were no longer alive to hear it. But the truth is, I may well be one of the hundreds of thousands of people across the country and the world whom you helped over the years in sometimes simple and easy, and sometimes heavy and difficult, ways. I wish I had said it earlier, but at least I'm saying it now. I might not be able to be here writing this, or doing much of anything else today, had it not been for you. Thank you. Thank you a lot.