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Tale 2 – Two Degrees of Separation from President John F Kennedy

In 1990 the American playwright, John Gaure, wrote the comedy drama Six Degrees of Separation. It became an immediate Broadway hit and spawned the 1993 movie of the same name, starring Stockard Channing and Will Smith. It was based on a true story about a well-spoken black youth who inveigled his way into New York high society by claiming to be the actor Sidney Poitier’s son. 

The theory is that everybody on the planet is connected by six intermediaries i.e. you are one degree away from everybody you know, two degrees away from everybody they know and so on. 

With 7.5 billion people in the world, I doubt if it’s capable of being validated. Nonetheless, it gives us something to think about when there’s nothing good on TV, and it can be used to massage our egos when we’re feeling like non-entities because we’re not “rich and famous”.

This tale is about my own experience of such ego-massaging.

On 8 February 1986, nursing a hangover from the previous evening’s party, I took a flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo-2 airport to London Heathrow. Unlike today’s space-age building, the Sheremetyevo terminal was, from the outside, a forbidding, grey edifice that resembled a dystopian secret police detention centre.

1980s Moscow, Sheremetyevo-2 airport –  image courtesy RIAN Archives.

Those were the days when British Airways separated business class from economy by inviting you to turn right or left as you entered the plane. For my first few trips I was carefree enough to turn left; but on subsequent occasions I spent my money on more important things in Russia. 

I plopped into a window seat and closed my eyes, hoping to encourage my hangover to dissipate quietly – but it wasn’t to be. I was woken by an American male voice: “Don’t you want to see us taking off from Moscow?”. I opened my eyes, stared at the man, and blinked 1,000 times. Was I dreaming? Surely not? But it couldn’t be, could it? 

It was. It was US Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy – the brother of the assassinated President John F Kennedy (1963) and the assassinated US Attorney-General Robert Kennedy (1968).

I was touching arms on a shared seat rest with one of the most famous men in the world – and so it would be for the four hour journey to London, each of us being a captive audience for the other, as the flight was packed.    

My first thought wasn’t “WTF!?” (that exclamation wasn’t in common usage in those days) but the word Chappaquiddick, a small island in Massachusetts where on the night of 18/19 July 1969 Senator Kennedy negligently drove his vehicle into a river, resulting in the death of his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne. 

Within 24 hours (in the days before the internet) the incident was worldwide news. He pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident (amid rumours of drunkenness) and received a two-month suspended jail sentence. His driving licence was also suspended for 16 months.

The Kennnedy Brothers

This event blighted his subsequent aspirations to become President.

Back to my ego. As interesting as it would have been for me to have discussed Chappaquiddick with him, my head ruled my heart and I didn’t broach the subject. I even managed to keep my mouth shut about the assassinations of his two brothers, despite having read several books on them and, being the lawyer, wanting to know what had happened on the grassy knoll on that fateful day, 22 November 1963.

Instead, we engaged in intermittent small talk about Gorbachev and his ideas for liberating Soviet society from its economic malaise with his policies of perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness).

One thing I couldn’t stop myself from doing, however, was to ask him for his autograph. It was a spur of the moment decision as I had no idea he’d be on the plane. He said yes without hesitation. I produced a Russian language text book with a grovelling apology that would have put Dickens’ Uriah Heap to shame, as I didn’t have anything more suitable. He asked what he should write. I told him it was my (then) wife’s birthday – it wasn’t, but I had to think quickly on my feet, I mean, seat.  

See the image below for his response.

Teddy Kennedy’s authorgraph

The third tale “The Czech Mate” will take us back to the world of how the Soviet people improvised when starved of the proper tools.