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A Day to Remember - Part II

By Robert Eltinge Lasher

The cars moved slowly toward the village through a George Innes landscape of sun slanting against elm-graced meadows and onto the wild purple asters which the old people called Summerís Farewell. An aroma of ripening apples, Concord grapes, hay and barnyards drifted through the windows, prompting the president to ask the princess if the air was too much for her. Would she like the windows raised?

"No, thank you, sir," the princess responded and, with a mischievous glance, "Surely, Mr. President, with all your influence, could you not control the winds?" which brought yet another presidential chuckle .

There was a last vista of fields and beyond them the blue-shadowed Shawangunk mountain ridge. The lavender Catskills were a distant backdrop as the cars dipped down the long hill leading into the village of New Paltz. At the corner of Main and Chestnut streets, the presidentís car paused to let traffic pass. This was the hour when villagers fetched their mail at the post office. They did double takes when they saw the limousines and recognized the president. He waved to them and called out cheery hellos. Spotting a friend, I waved as well.

Arnold directed the driver to the old street on the western edge of the village where the lowlands called the Flats meet the Wallkill River. This was where, on a slight rise, the Huguenots had built their houses, first of log, later of stone. Most of the latter remain. With their high-pitched roofs and low eaves, they resemble the old houses in northeast France where the settlers had lived before fleeing from 17th century religious persecutions. Roosevelt explained all this to Princess Martha, occasionally asking us to confirm a point or to expand on one.

I suggested stopping at my cousin Lanetta Elting DuBoisí house, originally built in 1694 and hardly changed after an addition in 1724. Not only was this one of the most interesting houses on the old street, but so was its occupant, whom I was confident would rise to the occasion.

The front door open, I went in, calling to Cousin Lanetta, who answered from the basement kitchen where she was putting up grape jelly. When I told her who was on her doorstep she responded airily, " Oh, yes, Bobby - Stalin and Churchill too, I suppose." But after she took a peek out the window she muttered, "GraciousÖwell, well!" and followed me out to the car.

Cousin Lanetta with her black velvet neck ribbon, bushy eyebrows and angular face, had an unmistakably French appearance and a courtly manner to go with it. I made the introductions and she responded with the little bow she reserved for special circumstances.

"Itís a great honor you do me by coming to see my house, Mr. Roosevelt," said my cousin.

"I didnít come to see your house, Mrs. DuBois, I came to see you," the president replied. It was this remark, Cousin Lanetta later admitted, which succeeded in melting her Republican reserve.

Cousin Lanetta entertained Roosevelt with two or three stories about the house and family, a subject which led to genealogy and the mention of a Dutch forebear. "Well, well, I think heís an ancestor of mine, too," responded Roosevelt. "We are either fourth cousins three times removed or third cousins four times removed." We all laughed, and she invited everyone inside. All accepted except the president.

I sat with him alone, except for a Secret Service man who stood near the open car door. The other security men had fanned out around my cousinís house and up and down the street where they blocked off traffic. (Only later did Arnold and I learn that before the arrival of the president, we had been investigated. Agents had visited friends and neighbors and questioned people at the college, at stores we patronized and even at our favorite tavern.)

By then a small crowd had gathered on the opposite side of the narrow street. The president said hello to them and waved. Several of the bystanders smiled back and returned his wave. Not so another of my cousins, Bob Deyo, whom I had noticed was sitting on his front stoop across the way. Cousin Bob, and antiques dealer well-known for his outspoken Republican views, was glaring at the president who, luckily, didnít appear to notice.

"This street has not changed at all," said Roosevelt, looking at the buildings. "I remember visiting several of these houses years ago. Some didnít even have electricity."

"Cousin Lanetta still hasnít," I said, "not a telephone either. She wonít have them."

"She is a real traditionalist," the president observed as he offered me a cigarette and fitted one into his holder. The car lighter failed, so I dug a kitchen match out of my pocket. After a slight hesitation, I scratched it on the sole of my shoe, lighting his, then my own cigarette.

"I see youíre a real countryman, Bob," the president said with a smile as he accepted my light. At this, Cousin Bob rose from his chair, stamped across his stoop, went in and slammed the door.

Roosevelt, oblivious to this lamentable display of temper, went on to ask me about the local economy. Did many tourists come to New Paltz in the summer? What freight did the Wallkill Valley Railroad carry? What was the state of farming here? He also asked about the political leaders he had known in Ulster County - but most of them were before my time. In the end he brought the conversation back to two of his favorite subjects, history and architecture.

Glancing out the window, he joked, "Well, hereís my cousin," as Cousin Lanetta came out of her house with the princess.

"Now please donít go just yet, Mr. Roosevelt," she said, and hurried back into the house, returning with a basket of shiny red McIntosh apples.

Princess Martha accepted one and began to eat it as did the others, including the children and the security guards. The president, however, slipped his into his jacket pocket. "These are my favorites," he said to Cousin Lanetta, "but Iíll save mine until after supper." Cousin Lanetta out the basket with the remaining apples in the car by the presidentís feet, giving us all a big smile and a final bow before the cars moved off. (My cousinís house is now a museum open to the public as the Bevier-Elting house.)

The president asked the chauffeur to drive by the New Paltz State Teachers College (now a branch of the State University of New York) where he had laid the cornerstone for one of the buildings when he was governor. I remembered it well, having been an 11-year-old bystander in the small crowd of spectators that day.

Arnold asked if there were other places the president would like to visit, but after a look at his watch, he answered, "Iím afraid I must go - my telephones are waiting for me." We hastened to say he could leave us there at the college, but the president would have none of that, insisting he take us back home.

I hoped on the way back that Mother might have a chance to meet the president, but as we got out by the horse block, I saw that the car and Mother were gone. As we said good-byes, the president urged us to visit him the next time he was a Hyde Park. Due to war-time secrecy about his travels, however, we never knew when he was home. He died a year and a half later.

The president and his entourage were barely out of sight before I rang up Aunt Frank.

"Aunt Frank, who do you think came here this afternoon?" I asked.

"Well, who, Bobby?"

When I told her, she said, "I do hope you invited them in."

"Yes, I did. I showed them around, and since they seemed interested, I explained how the Franklin works."

Aunt Frankís only comment was characteristic: "Well, they must have been impressed."

(Mr. Lasher resides in New Paltz, Ulster County, NY. He is a former war correspondent for Voice of America and a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer. We thank our dear friend very much for his kind permission to reprint this article.)
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