First out of the ski shelter halfway up the mountain at Vail, Colo. was Senator Ted Kennedy, and behind him was his namesake son. Teddy Jr. moved with surprising ease, swinging one ski-booted foot forward, as his strong, small arms dug the special ski poles into the snow. The pants leg on his right side was neatly pinned up.
“Are you going to help him with his skis, senator,” someone asked.
“No,” Ted Kennedy replied with a sudden grin. “He usually helps me with mine.”
The boy slipped his boot into the binding, crouched down to fasten it, and was done. And then, as his father had said, he pushed himself over to the senator’s side and bent down to see if he needed any help. Father and son headed for the lift.
The air had a refreshing bite, the sun was dazzling, the powder crisp. And Teddy Kennedy, 12, an enthusiastic skier since he was shorter than the poles, was about to demonstrate that the tragic loss of his leg was not going to take him off the mountain forever.
Last November a rare cancer of the cartilage required amputation of Teddy’s right leg above the knee. The operation was a success, but the ever-present possibility of a recurrence has meant that the youngster must undergo chemotherapy every three weeks in a Boston hospital. However, the massive doses of the drug needed to kill cancerous cells destroy normal cells as well. To minimize these side effects Teddy is given shots of an antidote every six hours, both in the hospital and away—shots which the senator has learned to administer himself so as to lessen his son’s anxiety. The recovery rate for this kind of therapy is about 70%—though the family shies from talking statistics for fear of upsetting the boy even more.
There has been another kind of therapy for Teddy, too, the familiar Kennedy regimen of boisterous activity. Within a month after his operation, young Ted had been outfitted with an artificial leg and was sledding with his father in the snow outside their Mc-Lean, Va., home. The following month the family was in Florida, where Teddy went fishing, sailing and swimming. He was given a special three-wheeled bicycle which he pedaled around Palm Beach with his crutches stashed in a basket under the seat.
The trip to Vail, during the Kennedy children’s spring vacation, was in fact a substitute for the family’s traditional Christmas ski holiday, which was canceled because of Teddy’s operation. Vail was chosen because the slopes are moderate and clear, and privacy not hard to achieve. The senator, his son, his daughter Kara, 14, 6-year-old Patrick and a babysitter all stayed at the condominium of a friend. (Kennedy’s wife Joan, who was not feeling well, stayed at home in Virginia.) Most importantly, Vail offered instructor Blair Ammons, who specializes in teaching amputees to ski.
Ammons’s instruction is crisp and firm. It involves the use of special poles and a single regular ski, outfitted with a safety binding that allows the foot to pull free with any twisting motion.
Teddy’s sessions with Ammons began early in the morning and went as long as six hours, with young Kennedy alternately skiing and resting at the restaurant or shelters. Ammons found the boy eager and willing to learn, and marveled at his stamina. After two days of private instruction young Ted was ready to show his prowess.
On the third morning, instructor Ammons pushed off down Swingsville Trail, Teddy Jr. close behind. They zigzagged across the hill picking up speed. The senator followed, watching his son anxiously. Teddy’s turns became more confident, his fear of falling (and looking foolish) clearly diminished. Halfway down the hill they stopped to rest. Friends gathered around. Skiing even a gentle trail on one leg is a muscle-straining business. The senator shook his head with pride and said quietly, “He’s really some kid.” Everybody beamed.
That kind of adult adulation can be pretty hard for a shy 12-year-old to take. Teddy Jr. suddenly whirled on his one ski, pushed off and aimed for the bottom like an arrow, leaving father and instructor and friends behind, a grin on his young face as wide as the trail.