Teddy's Letters

Back in the eighties I used to lead delegations to Central America. Usually they were mainly for US church groups. Some were for a human rights organization, some just for people who were curious about what was really going on in that region that our government had gotten so deeply involved in.

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. Our delegations would talk to human rights organizations, faith groups, government officials, displaced people, etc. to give people in the US a sense of what was really going on down there because the media seemed so baffling about it all.

On one of my early 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 wrote to him about it, and a few weeks later I got a personal letter from the Senator written "to whom it may concern," that Stan Duncan was a big deal and was traveling under his guidance and that I should be taken care of and treated with respect etc. It was great.

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 think I was his pet project, the guy he would write the annual letter for, and he always asked how I was doing and how the trips went. I'd always write back saying the trip was fine and all was well, but never much more than that. 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 with me just in case. I would take it out and show to an official who was getting a little suspicious about our intentions. We were there usually as a church group, and that should have been safe enough, but occasionally we traveled into an area that we weren't certain about. It was important to me to take my delegations "behind the scenes" in some of these areas to help them get a real look at what was happening, because our tax dollars were paying for much of the carnage across the region. And the governments of many of those countries, especially El Salvador and Guatemala were not fond of our doing that at all.

There was one time, however--it was March, 1988. I was up in the Suchitoto region of northern El Salvador. Which was the center of the rebellion and all gringos and human rights representatives were ordered out. I had been living in El Salvador for about six months at that time, ostensibly doing research on economic development, but also still doing human rights documentation, this time with a hand full of human rights journalists from several different countries.
We were visiting villages that had been the scenes of bloody massacres by the Salvadoran military. We reached the region by pickup, foot, and 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 our bus and took us in. They confiscated all of our bags (which included all of our documentation) and destroyed everything. And they kept all of us in jail for three days. I don't know about the others--we were in different quarters--but I was terrified. The guards working with me grilled me day after day about 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. 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 Kennedy's letter. He read it silently several times. Then he slammed his hand on the table, tore it in half, and threw it to the ground. He said that this was nothing, it means nothing, it was irrelevant 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 out of the room and left me alone. I picked up the pieces of the letter and started to put them back into my backpack, but before I could 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.

After I got home I was exhilarated and relieved and I told the story many times to friends and family, but one person I never told it to was Teddy 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 the timing was just right and we would eventually have been set free anyway. On the other hand, you never know. Our situation looked pretty grim for a while and who knows how many days would have gone by? Each day the guards were growing angrier at our silence about why we were there and what we were really up to.

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 Senator’s office.

I never thanked him for that and I never actually even met 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 to Boston and became a student again at Harvard. I started a new life and a new career and 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. I never thought about it until you were no longer alive. 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 simple and easy, and sometimes heavy and profound 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 had it not been for you. Thank you. Thank you a lot.