Sunday, April 15, 2012

Travels with Jack: Hyannis Port

Sam at Boston College
My elder son, Sam, is at that bittersweet moment in his junior year of high school when college looms imperatively large.  Which is how my husband Mark and I found ourselves sandwiched into a rented Ford, traversing the back roads of New England in the unseasonably gorgeous days of March.  Ten colleges and a week later, the boys took off from Logan for home--and I turned in the opposite direction.  Toward the Cape.

Three of my sisters are lucky enough to live on Cape Cod, and it was high time I drove Route 3 to Route 6 and the steel arch of Sagamore Bridge and spent a few hours catching up on all our lives.  If I stop to think about it, there's probably not a year in my life when I haven't spent time on Cape Cod--it was the one place in my family's perpetual moves and perambulations that remained constant, a touchstone for all of us.  Each summer we returned to the same old rambling white captain's house perched on 6A, and walked the squelching black path through the marsh back to Barnstable Harbor.  We ate ice cream at the Four Seas and swallowed our first raw oysters at the Christopher Ryder House.  We chased fireflies in the dusk and burned our shoulders so badly that dermatologists despair of us.  We were completely happy.  Which is why some of my sisters, after their own years of wandering, have returned.

The traffic was light that final weekend in March, and the weather iffy--soft Irish weather, when the mist merges with spray from the sea in a perfect haze of gray.  Everything looked ghostly, haloed by fog.  The perfect time to go hunting for Jack.

We piled into my sister's car and started in Hyannis, where there's a tiny museum sharing space with exhibits of the Cape Cod League.  I'm a sucker for anything baseball, and remembering one summer game on the grass field at Nauset High, was almost diverted--but the sound of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy's voice jerked me to attention.  She's there in the JFK Museum, almost grotesquely poised for the camera, offering a 1960s tour of the Kennedy Compound via video screen.  The perfection of her hair and pearls, the carefulness of her diction, the imperiousness of her glance--it all recalls a time when public images could be controlled with an iron hand.  And the rest of the exhibit is much the same: a TechniColor spread of the Kennedys at play, mostly during the summer, on Cape Cod.  Walking through the rooms is like morphing into the pages of Life magazine.

But then we hit the road, and some of our old family memories.  Drove down the winding dune-grass lanes of Hyannis Port, past the dock where Jack kept his Wianno Senior, Victura, to the place where the street signs suddenly read All Traffic Turn Right, as the compound nears.  My sister hesitated, although the road was utterly empty, not even an ambling dog appearing out of the mist; and dutifully turned right.  We mounted the steep slope to the Hyannis Port Club and watched a foursome stride up the final hole.  When they'd disappeared into the warmth of their cars and driven away, I got out to look at Brigadoon--which is how the compound seemed, separated from the green fairways and sand traps as if on an island, rising splendid and mythic and alone against the sea.

At that point, my sister found new determination: we abandoned our vantage point on Sunset Hill, below the old stone church of St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, and drove purposefully down all those lanes suggesting politely that we turn around.  We pulled up before the compound entrance.  We were completely and blessedly alone.

It tells you something, that entrance.  Just a simple little sign saying: Private Drive.  No guards, no electronic gates, no surveillance to speak of--although I'm sure surveillance is there.  The single impression you receive is one of careless privilege, like Jack's smile.  These people were secure in their Brigadoon, and their neighbors made certain of it.  Until that crazy day in Dallas, almost fifty years ago.

The main house on the Kennedy Compound has been donated to the nation, for charitable and educational purposes, by the late Teddy Kennedy and his wife, Victoria.  National trust preservationists, led by presidential historian Michael Beschloss, will be spearheading the effort prior to the opening of the compound to the public.  This is not, as I understand it, an attempt to turn Hyannis Port into Mount Vernon; rather, the house will become a center for education in leadership.  I imagine people will be lobbying heavily to be included in the center's programs, if only to set foot in the rooms where Rose Kennedy once posed for the cameras.

See it before all that happens--before the nation owns it--if you possibly can.  Choose a misty day in the off-season, when the view is improved by the sight of a few golfers toiling up the hill, bags on their backs, and ghosts are wandering through the dunes.  Jack's compound--the place he loved, where he learned to sail, where he hacked around the course and ate ice cream himself at the Four Seas--is receding swiftly into memory.  Catch a glimpse of it before it goes.