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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 grounds.

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 the 1850ís.

"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. "Letís go!"

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 asked.

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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