Martha’s Vineyard political mayhem, 1965 – a memoir

Scene of the crime, 1965. (Map made in 1892 by my great-grandfather, George W. Eldridge, who was well known for his charts of the waters from the Chesapeake to Nova Scotia. The map shows railroad lines that used to cross the island.)

The Washington elite tear up Martha’s Vineyard – 1965

William P. Bundy, David Ginsburg, Nicholas Katzenbach. Three giant heroes in my life – but not when I knew them, because I was just 19 and didn’t know from heroes. That would happen later. But let’s offer some thumbnails of these men here:

  • June 1963. US Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (on right) squares off against George Wallace at the University of Alabama just before JFK federalized the Alabama National Guard and forced Wallace to step aside, allowing two black students to enter the college for the first time. He owned a smallish home in the woods in the town of Chilmark. Truly great man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Below, Attorney David Ginsburg when he was appointed head of the Kerner Commission by Pres. Lyndon Johnson, 1967.  David was a very cool guy and a terrific Dad. David and family rented their summer house from ACLU founder Roger Baldwin (below). He also penned the Kerner Report’s most quoted line: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • On Air Force One, c. 1967. Bill Bundy, in glasses, with LBJ, Walt Rostow, Dwight D. Eisenhower… Bill, wife Mary, and son Mike had a rented farmhouse on a hillside in Chilmark, overlooking the water. Bill wanted me to call him Bill, so I did.  Like the others, he was generally in D.C. during weekdays, then on the Vineyard on weekends.

 

 

 

 

 

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I have no idea how I got this job, or why I took it…

Let’s go back to the summer of 1965, after I’d finished my freshman year in college, and the soon-to-be-famous Martha’s Vineyard (where my father and grandmother were both born, and where my great-grandfather George W. Eldridge moved to in the 1860s, as I recall)) and this crazy job I had being a professional “friend” to two kids – David Ginsburg’s son and daughter, both young teenagers. It needs to be said right here Ginsburg, Bundy, and Katzenbach were among Kennedy’s and Johnson’s “Best and Brightest” team in Washington, and they naturally hung out together on the Vineyard in the summer – along with the man who seemed to be at the center of it all, Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU. All of them were very brainy progressive super-educated people whom I was proud to know, for two months that summer.

Roger Baldwin, ACLU founder. Not sure of source of photo, but this is how he looked about the time I met him.

 

 

I don’t know how or why I got this gig, but I had no other job prospects and working on the Vineyard in the summer for pretty good $ seemed just right. And after I met the Ginsburg kids, Jonathan and Susan (and I think Mark was in there, too), I said, sure. They were great kids!

What to do? Crazy-ass Treasure Hunt!

Well, with me in charge, we were all bound to get into some kind of trouble or another. Main idea? Keep the kids busy!! First, the group expanded past Jonathan and Susan to Bundy’s son, Mike, and to the Katzenbach kids, John and Chris. Katie Wilson popped in too – she said she was British PM Harold Wilson’s granddaughter, but I thought she was kidding. I still don’t know. Second, I decided to involve them all in a day-long, three-team, round-the-island treasure hunt, in cars (these kids were all 13-15 or so, and no one could drive, so I hired two others). I spent days scouting the island, then writing and organizing punny-oblique rhyming clues for the three teams, and another few days placing them in tiny envelopes where they needed to go all around the Vineyard’s 100 square miles. I knew the island very well – I’d driven cab there a couple,of summers, and spent my entire childhood and adolescence in summers there.

How it worked, sort of.

Note that the clues needed to take you to places in the same order as clues for rival teams, so everyone traveled the same route, but that they had to be spaced apart: i.e., Clue # 1 for Team 1 was Clue # 11 for Team 2, and Clue # 21 for Team 3. Tricky!!

I organized teams so that each one included an “island expert” – someone who knew the Vineyard pretty well. Somehow we commandeered three station wagons (remember “station wagons”?) that could hold about 6 people each, plus a driver. I forget who the drivers were, but I was one of them, and each driver had a secret list of where all the clues were and the location of the treasure. We were under strict orders to:

  • keep at or under the speed limit everywhere
  • not reveal or hint at anything, until 20 minutes had passed and the team was still flummoxed. This was designed to be an 8-hour game, not 28 hours. After 20 minutes, we’d just tell them what the clue meant, and where we were going to get the next one.
  • obey what the team wanted – bathroom breaks, grab a snack, drive ten miles out of the way to the wrong place…

That’s me on the left, the only pic of me I have from the mid-60s, just to remind those involved what I looked like back then. Guy on the right? I dunno – some pol.

Teenagers? Start your engines!!

After days of preparation, the whole enterprise was fraught with danger. I had many clues placed (tape, thumbtacks, staple gun!) on private property – people I didn’t know – and some on public property where tourists and others could easily see them. So many many things could go terribly wrong.

I had broken the law. The kids would be breaking the law. Someone could go to jail. Children of Washington’s Best and Brightest in the slammer!

But we set off – at 8 in the morning somewhere near the airport in the middle of the island so that each team would be roughly the same distance away from their next clue.

I won’t make you sweat through the whole hunt. But here are a few highlights that are fairly memorable…

  • Edgartown Drug Store. I’d prearranged with a drugstore clerk to hold clues and give them to whoever gave her the right password. A nonsense word like Afghanistan Bananistan or Galoomphickus. Treasure hunts have to have plants, allies, and passwords to be truly cool. It worked beautifully – for all three teams. They said the nonsense word and got the next clue.
  • Breaking and entering. I’d planted clues in someone’s garden shed, private property, no idea who. There was a padlock on the door hasp, but it was unlocked. The next day, the sumbitch owner had locked it, and the first team to get there had to crowbar it open somehow. B&E!!
  • Stealing rowboats. I had taped three small clue envelopes to the stem of the bow of the schooner Alabama anchored in the middle of Vineyard Haven Harbor. She had no masts, no rigging, no name at the time, and had rusty chainplates and looked derelict. BUT: the only way to get out to her was to “borrow” a dinghy! Theft! Larceny! Malicious mischief! But this was 1965, and no one cared, no one chained their dinghies or roped them together. Easy-peasy dinghy theft! (Owner of the Alabama, Bob Douglas, was pissed at me for my clue describing his schooner-to-be as a “rusty scow.” She’s now a beautiful vessel with gobs of canvas, below.) Every team successfully made it to the “rusty scow” in borrowed dinghies and back without incident.

Alabama under full sail.

  • Main Street, Vineyard Haven, things get hairy. It happened that I was the car driver for the team that had John and Chris Katzenbach included. We were about to enter a monumentally weirdo-zen moment… Main Street, Vineyard Haven, I had clue envelopes in one of many hanging flower pots along the sidewalk. The pots were over head-high, hanging from streetposts, and featured (as I recall) geraniums. Useless flower. I parked, the kids got out, and they started feeling around in the flower pots for another envelope. John’s the tallest, and he’s grabbing potting soil from one pot or another, and of course a cop shows up. He’s bullshit. What are you doing?  I told him about the treasure hunt, but he wasn’t buying it. Who are these kids? he wanted to know. I said, they’re treasure hunters, my team members. Yeah, but WHO are they? And here I just couldn’t help myself: Officer, they’re Katzenbachs. Sons of the Attorney General. Major league eye-roll, throws up his hands, turns and walks away.

I fought the law and law lost, I fought the law and the law lost.

Here’s John Katzenbach, about the time he wrote his best-selling novel, In The Heat of the Summer, which became the movie The Mean Season. Highly successful novelist and screenwriter, and a super kid at age 15, funny and smart.

You can write John at  authorinfo@thestoryfactoryla.com

No idea what his kid brother Chris has been up to.

The treasure: was it worth it?

Yes. Cash. Money. Coins. In a box I buried somewhere. Quarters, half dollars, I forget exactly, but maybe $20-$30 from my summer earnings. My team didn’t win, but whoever won was very happy and they talked about this experience for days. Weeks. Years. Amazingly, all three teams got to the final treasure location within about a half hour of each other, after about 8 hours of sucking gas. Wild.

No one hurt. No damage done (except to that garden shed door – sorry!). No disruptions or unseemly rowdiness. A few laws were broken, but hey.

Postscript

There’s this word starf*cker for people who can’t get enough of attaching themselves to celebrities and dropping their names and so forth. I know a few people like that, and I’ve had a few of my own moments like that, but in the summer of 1965 I was too innocent, having too much fun to care that the parents of my charges and their pals were who they were, major players in Washington, all trying to improve the world. It was a bunch of kids, including me as a 19 year-old, hanging out, planning mayhem. No starf*cking. Just friends.

  • ACLU founder Roger Baldwin died in 1981. Bill Bundy in 2000, David Ginsburg in 2010, and Nicholas Katzenbach in 2012.
  • Mike Bundy and I became good friends over the next few years, staying in touch. He did prison volunteer work for awhile, focusing especially on a convicted murderer he was convinced was innocent. I lost track of him after that until just ten minutes ago!. Mike was (is) intensely intelligent (like his Dad), and feels injustice personally.
  • Katie Wilson is a mystery – no idea what happened to her.
  • I reconnected last year via email with Jonathan Ginsburg through his law firm in Virginia. Jonathan went to Yale, graduated cum laude in 1973 Like his father, his focus has been on immigration law and progressive causes. The budding genius I knew in 1965 has done wonderful things for many people. His brother Mark and sister Susan are alive and well, but I have no further information on them. UPDATE 8/9: Susan just wrote, I’ve done some homework, and she’s had a significant impact on all our lives as a D.C.-based attorney. Read about her work in gun control for Pres. Clinton here, among a ton of other government policy work. Wow, what a resume.
  • UPDATE 8/7: I’ve now reconnected, via email and phone, wth both John Katzenbach and Mike Bundy. Quite a thrill, since we haven’t had any contact for 50 years. John remembers more of those treasure hunts (there were actually three of them, over three summers) and that in one of them a clue was placed atop a huge petroleum tank in Vineyard Haven. No way did I put it there – I’m not into heights. Mike is in fine shape, living outside of Boston, and has terrific memories of those adventures. I see these reconnections as a way of closing the circle… Hugely satisfying to me.

And then there’s the island itself. The chance of pulling off another round-the-island treasure hunt with all its associated shenanigans in 2017 is nil. The island is jammed, awash in money and stardom and political poo-bahs, cops and security everywhere. You do this thing once, in 1965, then just walk away.

My last trip there was in 2004 to bury my mother. My father, younger brother, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great-aunts and uncles – are all there in the same plot. It was an appropriate time for a “final trip” to the island, and so it appears that’s how it will remain.

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My books here – nedwhitebooks.com. Thanks.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.