A Day to Remember - Part I
By Robert Eltinge Lasher
New Paltz, Sept. 1943. I was 24 years old, exempt from the war
due to a physical disability. Summer was ending. I asked Arnold Verduin, an old
family friend who was visiting us, what we should do about a trunkful of
documents dating back to Colonial times which had been stowed away in our attic.
Arnold, a history professor, suggested we start by cataloging them and he
offered to help me do it.
Since neither of us knew anything about cataloging, Arnold
drove across the Hudson River to the recently opened Franklin D. Roosevelt
Presidential Library at Hyde Park to see how it was done. Allen Frost, head
librarian, offered to help and went on to ask Arnold if the library could
microfilm the documents for their Hudson Valley history files. My family agreed
to lend them and Arnold delivered them to Mr. Frost, who promised to finish the
job within a fortnight and to return the papers to us in the library truck.
A week or so later Frost called me saying the papers could be
returned about 3 oíclock the following Thursday and asked if both Arnold and I
would be home, adding that someone he thought we might like to meet could be
coming along. "Who?" I asked. All Frost would say was "Iím not
sure - the arrangements are not yet complete."
We were still speculating about the mystery visitor as we
waited for the library truck on Thursday afternoon. As it turned out, our
guesses didnít even come close. At a few minutes past 3 p.m., we were
astonished to see, not the truck, but a black limousine turn into the driveway,
followed by three more black limos. In the back seat of the lead car sat a man
smoking a cigarette in a long holder and wearing pince-nez glasses and a fedora
with its brim turned up all around. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself!
As the cars slowed to a stop a posse of Secret Service men and
soldiers burst out of them and swiftly took up positions around the house and
I rushed to the kitchen to tell my mother while Arnold went
out the front door and down the walk to the cars. Mother was in the midst of her
messy annual chore, making chili sauce from the last of the garden tomatoes.
"President Roosevelt is here!"
Of course she didnít believe me till I drew her to the
window. She gasped in amazement.
"Come on, we must greet the president!" I urged.
"Not like this," she declared, tossing off her apron
and running up the back stairs.
"Hurry up," I called after her as there cam a
knocking at the kitchen door. I opened the top half of the Dutch door to find an
army sergeant half hidden by a stack of brown-paper-wrapped, red-ribbon-tied
packages in his arms - the documents. As I took them from him I heard the
rapping of the front door knocker.
I dashed out to the hall, opened the door top and found myself
facing an elegant middle-aged woman who looked somehow familiar. Hadnít I seen
her picture in the New York Times?
Arnold, who had met her outside and had invited her into the
house, rescued me.
"Your Royal Highness," he said, "may I present
Bob Lasher? Bob, this is Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Martha of
Norway." I pulled open the bottom half of the door, bowed, and said,
"Welcome, Your Royal Highness, wonít you please come in?"
The princess entered, followed by her master of household,
Count P. Wedel Karlsberg; her three children, Prince Harold (now King of Norway)
and the Princesses Astrid and Ragnhild; Marine Colonel Jimmy Roosevelt, the
presidentís son and aide; Miss Margaret Suckley, the presidentís cousin; and
Mr. Frost of the library. The president had remained in the car.
I led them into the sitting room. The largest object in this
room, our cast-iron, brass-trimmed Franklin stove with its urn-shaped radiator
on top, fascinated the count, who asked how it worked, how old it was, etc. He
was joined by the royal children in kneeling and peering up the flue. I
explained that the stove had been in place, and in use, since the house was
built in 1826, adding it was especially useful during war-time fuel shortages. I
also told them that I cut and split the wood for it myself - I still do. "I
do not know what our people would do in these times were it not for their
wood-burning stoves," said the princess who, with her household, was a
refugee from Norway, then under Nazi occupation.
The princess proceeded to ask questions about the French and
Dutch settlers of our Valley, why they had come, how they lived, and so on.
Since she also expressed interest in their domestic arrangements, I invited our
guests into the kitchen, still pungent from Motherís steaming chili sauce. ( I
wished sheíd hurry.) Spices and a bowl of squashed tomatoes stood on the
center table, Motherís apron lay on the floor, and a thickly populated sticky
fly tape dangled from a beam. But it was the crackling coal range - stoked up
for the sauce - that drew their attention. I explained how the stove worked and
told them it had replaced the huge fireplace where the cooking was done up to
"smells good in here," Colonel Roosevelt remarked as
he looked around the room. Glancing out over the lawn through the kitchen
window, he added, "Sorry, but we better go - the boss is waiting."
I felt a rush of disappointment that Mother had not yet
appeared as we walked out across the porch and down the bluestone walk to where,
in the soft September sunshine, the President of the United States sat in his
limousine with its doors wide open beside our old stone horse-mounting block. I
was sorry too that my sister was away and that my father was at work in New York
City. Even great-aunt Frank (short for Frances), the family matriarch at 89, who
had spent the summer with us, had left for her winter quarters only a few days
before. She, more than anyone, would have delighted in a presidential and royal
visit to her beloved birthplace.
Arriving at the car, someone introduced me. The president
immediately put me at ease with his famous smile, reaching out the door to shake
hands. "How do you do, Bob?" he said, asking if our place had been
long in the family and if we still farmed it. I had to admit that all we had was
a victory garden - and that all we got from it was what the woodchucks left to
us. "They are rascals, arenít they?" the president said with a
sympathetic shake of his head.
After asking us about the catalog Arnold and I were planning
to compile, the president said it could be of help to him after he retired.
"I hope someday to do some writing on the history of the Hudson
Valley." Craning out the door to look up at the trees, he asked if we ever
tapped the sugar maples. I told him I had got quite a good yield of syrup the
previous spring. "Thereís nothing better on waffles and pancakes,"
he told Princess Martha, who was back in her place at the presidentís side in
the car. "You must try it while you are with us."
Referring to the street in New Paltz where the original
settlersí houses still stood, the president said, "I visited Huguenot
Street years ago and went through some of the old houses - absolutely
fascinating." Arnold asked if he would like to revisit them. The president
asked the princess, who replied she would like that very much. "Fine,"
answered Roosevelt, who then turned to us. "Well, hop in," he said.
Arnold and I got into the jump seats directly in front of the
president, the princess and Miss Suckley. His car moved into the lead again,
which evidently was the way he liked it. As we turned out onto the road I
glanced back at the house. There was Mother in a clean dress standing on the
veranda. I would have liked to ask them to stop, but it was too late.
Besides, the president was asking me a question. "Have
you visited my library?" I had heard that the new library was one of
Rooseveltís pet projects. I had not yet been there, I said, but was looking
forward to seeing it.
"You really must come over - Iím sure youíd like it.
I have a special room in the basement for trophies and odd things I have
accumulated over the years. I call it my chamber of horrors."
"Where you keep old Republicans, perhaps?" Arnold
Roosevelt roared, throwing his head back. Then, as he offered
us cigarettes and lit one of his own, the president cocked his head, gave me a
quizzical look, and asked, "Are you a Democrat, Bob?"
"Yes, sir," I replied, "but what else could I
say in this company?" My rather flippant answer was received with another
of Rooseveltís great laughs, and the driver and Secret Service man up front
joined in. (Mid-Hudson citizens in those days were predominantly Republican and
had a record of voting against their famous neighbor.)
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