Back in the eighties I led a number of delegations to Central America. Usually they were for US church groups. But some were for a human rights organization.
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. and 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 a social worker from Ponca City, Oklahoma, 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, but I did write to him and weeks later I got a personal letter from the Senator saying "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 in any situation that might come up. It was great.
Every year after that, just before my trip I would write him again and every year dutifully he would compose the same letter. I never met him and he never met me, but we had a funny relationship. 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, an icon: Senator Edward Moore Kennedy from Massachusetts, and I was just some kid from Oklahoma who was freelancing trying to save the world and trying to not get killed while doing it.
I didn't need his letters all that often, but every now and then it felt good to have one with me just in case. I would take it out and show to a guard or official when they were getting a little testy or suspicious about our intentions. We were there as a church group, and that should have been safe, but occasionally we traveled into areas we weren't totally certain about. It was important to me to do that so that North Americans could get behind the scenes and look first hand what was really happening, since 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, doctors, teachers, development workers 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 projects, but also still doing human rights documentation, this time with journalists from Australia, Britain, and Scotland. We were interviewing refugees from the villages that had been the scenes of bloody massacres by the Salvadoran military. We got into the region by bus, pickup, foot, and on one occasion hiding under bags of grain on a supply boat going up a river. We were able to get some good interviews, notes, and pictures, and I was very 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 (including a Bible that had been given to me by my aunt when I graduated from high school). And they kept all of us in jail for three days. I don't know about the others--we were kept in different quarters--but I was terrified. The military guards working with me did not treat me badly, but they 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.
That wasn't totally untrue. There were a number of re-population villages in the area that I had in fact been looking at--those were villages made up of people who had fled into Honduras from the fighting in El Salvador and were now coming back and "re-populating" new villages. They were a form of economic development model and I claimed I was there to study them. But they didn't quite believe it (and with good reason).
Finally after my third day there someone came to see me who could speak English. I think he had just arrived at the compound because I had not seen him before. He asked me all of the same questions all over again with an increasingly impatient, angry, ominous tone. This time, since he probably could read, I hauled out Teddy Kennedy's letter. He looked at it silently for a long time (I remember wondering if he was having trouble with some of the words). Then when he got to the end he grew even more angry. He tore it in half and threw it to the ground saying 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, folded them up, put them back into my back pack, and started to sit down, but before I could do that the door came open again and the guards that I had been interrogated by for the last two days came in and escorted me out of the compound and, without saying a word, pushed me into the street. I was free. Moments later, while I was still standing there trying to understand what had happened, my friends were pushed out the same door and there we all were.
We were exhilarated about being out and alive and through the ordeal. We jumped up and down screaming and laughing and decided to celebrate by going to a local bar and having a beer.
But unfortunately I never thought much about the letter after that. I've told this story a number of times to all of my friends, 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 we would eventually have been set free, after all back in those days the worst thing that the Salvadoran government wanted to be known for was killing off a citizen of the country that was giving it one million dollars a day in aid.
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 and angrier at us and at our stone wall of 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 alive had it not been for that yearly letter that Kennedy sent with me, saying (incredulously) that I was an important somebody 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 Kennedy office.
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. After that trip I came back to the United State and moved 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 in an improbable, unlikely, and slightly impossible way, it is just 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.