Chappy Joe

When neighborly kindness is extended to tourists, it can be surprising – welcome, but surprising.

The late summer sun beat down on us and we halted at the fork in the road. The prissy stroller that we were pushing our two-year-old daughter in was no match for the ragged terrain that lay ahead. We had not seen another human being since we left the ferry more than a mile back, and our water and snack supply was meager. The smell of failure hung in the air.

That’s when Joe pulled up, looking like a big, gap-toothed fairy godfather. Fishing poles on his old Land Cruiser stuck out in multiple directions like demented magic wands. “Do you need a ride to the beach?” he called out of his window. I glanced at my husband, Gary, who gave me an “it’s up to you” look. Where we live – Raleigh, North Carolina – hitchhikers are a rare sight. Where I was raised in the Midwest, hitchhiking was reserved for folks with wizened forms and hard-luck stares. I noticed Joe’s car had many years’ worth of official-looking Island parking decals on a rear window. Looking at his obliging face, I surmised he wasn’t a madman trolling for fresh-off-the-ferry patsies like us. After all, you don’t hear about any crime waves on Chappaquiddick. I yelled out “yes” and we climbed into the truck.

We were on a mission to see Dike Bridge, where many years before, Mary Jo Kopechne and Ted Kennedy plunged into the waters inside his car. As a political junkie, this is a story that holds grim fascination for me: a dark night, a questionable rendezvous, death, a time lapse, and only one witness – the senator himself. That’s not the reason why we decided to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. But as long as we were here, I couldn’t leave without seeing Where It All Happened.

Once the truck moved forward and we started talking, I felt strangely at ease. Joe was like an old friend, but one you have never met before. As we chatted, Joe announced we needed to see much more than the bridge. He planned to drive us over the bridge, through the dunes, to the beach, and back to the ferry. Gary and I exchanged quiet smiles at our luck.

Then, like a flick of a switch, anxiety churned in my gut: What if he’s a serial killer in smooth disguise as the friendly local? Joe looked to be in his early sixties and strongly built. I suddenly imagined this ride would end with Gary and me chopped into little pieces and our daughter, Nora, trapped in a cabin in the woods. With surreptitious fervor, I looked around his car for any Ted Bundy–like clues. Handles on the inside of the doors? Check. Any knives or guns? No, just a lot of fishing tackle. Any stashes of jewelry or other mementos a serial killer might collect? None. At that, I took a deep breath and tried to enjoy the ride.

Joe told us about his wife, who was vacationing abroad with one of their children. With pride, he acquainted us with stories about their passel of grandchildren and the good times they have on the Island. The grandchildren call him “Jagi Joe,” Polish for grandfather. Nora warmed up to him immediately.

Soon we rolled across Dike Bridge and my heart skipped a beat. Joe told us the guardrails on the bridge didn’t exist back in the days of Mary Jo. It would have been easy for an unsteady car to go overboard. I peered down at the waters below. It did not look terribly deep, but surely deep enough to cause unforgettable harm. As we drove away, I turned in my seat and watched the bridge through the rear window.

Absorbing the moment, I turned back around and saw yellow dunes stretching out before us. Joe expertly piloted the Land Cruiser over and around each treacherous hill, stopping along the way to assist neophyte drivers stranded on various dunes – their shiny, four-wheel-drive monsters perched helplessly while the tires spun. He would lean out the window and casually offer tips such as letting some air out of the tires and turning the steering wheel this way or that way. The grateful drivers followed his every word and each escaped their sandy traps.

At last, we made it to the beach; Joe stopped the vehicle to fish and Nora raced up and down the shoreline, splashing in the cool water. We chatted about our jobs, business, and politics. I still felt a little nervous, and now Nora was hungry. It was a long way from here to get to the other side of the island, get on the ferry, and find somewhere in Edgartown to eat. Seeming to read my thoughts, Joe invited us to have lunch at his house. He announced we needed to see Mytoi, the Japanese garden, too. He told us he had a conference call after lunch and we could take his truck to Mytoi. Afterward, he would drop us off at the ferry. Suddenly, I felt ashamed for harboring any suspicions about Joe, because while I had been wondering if we could trust him, Joe had clearly decided he could trust us. Gary and I accepted his invitation and got back in the truck.

We drove for a time and then Joe veered off the main road and took us through a series of twisting paths. My suspicions sprang up again. Then he pulled into a driveway and I quietly exhaled. His house was not a lonely cabin where psychotic manifestos were written. It was pleasantand there were neighbors. Joe gave us a shorthand house tour, told us to get comfortable, and started pulling food out of the refrigerator: pickles, cheese, soda, beer, peanut butter, and bread – just what my own father would pull out if he didn’t have the guidance of his wife and suddenly had company. It was perfect. We slowly feasted at the picnic table in the backyard, and Nora played on a tire swing.

After lunch, Joe dialed into his conference call and tossed us the keys to his truck. Feeling a little hesitant, we drove off and found our way to the main road that leads toward the Japanese garden. Then we noticed Joe had left his wallet on the dashboard. Once again we marveled at our trusting new friend. But then we worried that the wallet could be stolen while we were in the garden. With thumb and forefinger, I picked it up and placed it in the enclosed console between the front seats. When we arrived at the garden we rolled up the windows and locked the doors – something I’m sure Joe never does.

After the garden, in a final kind gesture, Joe deposited us at the ferry launch, completing our deluxe Chappy tour. The whole visit felt like a dream, so we snapped a few photos with him and his faithful Land Cruiser. These days, we correspond through e-mail, where I get occasional glimpses of Joe’s world – dressing up as Saint Nicholas at Christmastime, and rounding up post cards for a grandson’s school project. Always the consummate host, Joe has offered us a standing invitation to return. While I wouldn’t make a habit of hopping into a car with a stranger, what happened on Chappy that late summer day makes me so happy we did.