CHAPPAQUIDDICK, Mass. -- Tourists on bicycles and mopeds anxiously rush off the 'Chappy Ferry' bombarding island residents with the question they've heard repeatedly for 13 years: 'Where's the bridge?'
With a resignation borne from seemingly endless replies, inhabitants politely direct the swarms of visitors to the sandy road leading to the spot where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's car careened off a bridge into Poucha Pond July 19, 1969.
Undaunted by the replacement of the original humpbacked wooden bridge by another, the curious still peer through the clear, cold waters where Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old secretary from Pennsylvania, drowned.
Time has not dampened public interest in Chappaquiddick, particularly with Kennedy this fall seeking his fourth term to the U.S. Senate and increasingly touted as a 1984 presidential contender.
What has changed is the attitude of area inhabitants. Until recently they would not even entertain questions about the incident, insisting that prying reporters and tourists were turning the rustic hideaway into a circus.
Now dwellers talk freely about what had been a tabooed subject.
Martha's Vineyard tour bus drivers point out Chappaquiddick across the 150-yard-wide strait and the quaint Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown where the closed inquest into the fatal crash was held.
The sign is gone that once asked guests of the Shiretown Inn to refrain from asking employees about the accident, and camera-toting tourists have become a bonanza for the ferry operators and those renting bicycles, mopeds and cars.
'Business is excellent' this year, said the owner of a bicycle rental shop.
Operators of the Chappaquiddick Ferry from Edgartown have seen business soar with tourists the majority of its passengers.
'We'd like to forget about the incident, but have come to realize that is not possible,' said Edith Potter, a member of the Board of Selectmen and year-round Chappaquiddick resident. 'This just isn't going to go away.'
'It isn't that people mean to be impolite' in shrugging off queries, she said, 'but the crowds have congested the ferry and tarnished the island's image. It also gets rather tiresome answering the same questions year after year. Sometimes I wish the bridge could just be torn down.'
Sightseers were initially so intent on garnering souvenirs they gouged out chunks from the wooden planks, forcing a rebuilding of the bridge in the early 1970s.
Even the newer arched version bears scars from tourists anxious to leave an imprint. Initials, names and dates have been carved into the foot-high side barriers. Empty beer and soda cans litter the path.
Under a sign saying, 'Warning Bridge Unsafe -- Use at Your Own Risk,' someone has scribbled in red letters, 'Ted K.'
Street Superintendent Larry Mercier said there has been no need to undertake major repairs again, but emphasizes that the Dike bridge is not for automobile use. There's nowhere for a motorist to go anyway: the road fades into sand dunes.
Islanders fish off the bridge, well aware of the deceptively treacherous current underneath. They bring their families across to the serene Atlantic beach beyond and even park with girlfriends and boyfriends at the picturesque spot near the water to watch the sunset after the tourists have left.
Neither the side barriers nor the signs were there when Kennedy went to a cookout on Chappaquiddick that fated night, drove his car off the railless bridge, and swam back much later fully clothed across the strait to his hotel room at the Shiretown Inn.
He emerged some nine hours after the accident and reported it to police, saying he tried in vain to rescue Miss Kopechne, whose lifeless body was pulled from the car by a scuba diver.
Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, was given a two-month suspended sentence, the minimum under the law, and placed on probation for a year with his driver's license suspended.
Cab driver Penelope Riseborough, frequently hired by tourists to make the trip to the accident site, says she followed the Chappaquiddick procedings closely although she was but a youngster. She doesn't mind talking about it.
But like many of the new voters, Ms. Riseborough, 22, resents those who 'still hold grudges and have come up with their own negative theories' about what happened on Chappaquiddick.
Assuming a protective attitude toward Kennedy that's becoming common among the young here, Ms. Riseborough believes he is safe from a major Chappaquiddick rehash so long as he doesn't run for president.
'He's done a good job in the Senate, but I'm afraid outside of Massachusetts a lot of people distrust him just because of the accident. It shouldn't be that way, but I'm convinced it is,' she said.
But patrolmen directing traffic, waitresses in restaurants and hotel personnel have become used to the stream of questions they previously tried their best to ignore.
The framed sign that hung for years on the wall by the lobby desk of the Shiretown Inn read: 'Please do not ask us to answer questions concerning the Kennedy incident. Thank you. The management.'
'I remember that sign,' said hotel clerk Pat McLeod. 'It was actually there to deter people from going into the room where the senator stayed and possibly stealing things.'
'Visitors ask us all the time about it, and we tell them. No one has told us not to,' the cheerful graying woman said. 'I think it (the sign) was eventually stolen and has never been replaced.'
Wharf Officer Lynne Pachico is frequently approached by tourists wanting to know where they should line their cars up for the ferry that accommodates only 50 people and three automobiles at a time.
The accident 'has become part of the island's history,' said Ms. Pachico, 21, who said Kennedy is so populare here 'the past doesn't damage him.'
If Kennedy does run for national office, Ms. Pachico said, she hopes he is prepared for some unpleasant accusations regarding his reactions under pressure.
The barbs have already started.
Several Martha's Vineyard residents have received what one describe as a 'horrible' comic book mailed to Kennedy's constituents by a radical right organization called, 'Citizen's Organized to Replace Kennedy.'
While Gary Curran, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based group, said the Chappaquiddick section 'shows how Kennedy acts under stress,' locals were irate about the 'ugly way' in which the comic book portrays the accident.
'We consider it trash,' said Kennedy aide Brian Delaney, 'full of inaccuracies, distortions and misrepresentations.'
Martha's Vineyard, including Chappaquiddick, has a total population of 10,000 swelling to 60,000 during the tourist season. In his last senatorial race in 1976, Kennedy defeated his GOP opponent by a margin of 2-1.
While his Vineyard constituents have learned to live with Kennedy's past, they know they'll be drawn back into his limelight if and when he runs again for president.
'We're asked about it all the time anyway,' said taxi driver Kurt Magnuson. 'It's something he'll have to be ready to discuss.'