October 03, 2008

Elsie and West Point

My friend Elsie,

was a grande dame par excellence she lived high up the Hudson Valley in a house overlooking the river.

Horses, goats (‘perfect lawn mowers’), bees (best honey I ever had), chickens, on occasion my father, and the best cook I can remember, shared their lives with her.

She had married a Swedish diplomat (Dad was chagrined) had a son, divorced (Dad was happy), and returned to the United States.

After I settled in the States, Father ask me to visit Elsie (‘you’ll love her’). I did. For many years upon arrival at the house her first question always was ‘how’s Hans ?’ I was too self-absorbed to take notice. Much later did I realize, that they shared a love for each other that lasted to the end of their lives.

Vlasta was Elsie’s cook. I tasted strangely exotic yet subtle food, unlike anything I had ever known.
It was not, I thought, so much an unplaceable national cuisine as an evocation of a profound past, which stirred some atavistic memory I could not trace. Something with aubergine? With nutmeg, unnamable spices and cream…This was not haute cuisine as we generally know it: it was immensely intricate and yet bold. I tried again to analyze it. Here was suavity and opulence too, without in any way being the cuisine of stuffed peacocks and pieces montes.
‘Ah! That is Vlasta’s secret,’ said Elsie. She has been with me ever since she left Europe. She was an assistant to her Parents and Grandparents at the great houses of Vienna.’
She added that Vlasta seldom let anyone to her kitchen and preferred to work alone, jealously guarding her secrets.

This was cuisine of crossroads. West co-mingled with the East in the best Balkan tradition.

When I much later was to be admitted to her confidence, I knew that I in fact was watching some of the last rituals of the great old houses.
Thus echoes of the Balkan sounded even in New York in the late decades of the last century.

When I stayed with Elsie and I should find myself depressed by the state of America, she would send me to West Point.
‘Why? I ask, ‘You’ll see’ she said.

After dark one evening I made my way alone to the Plain, the great playing-field and parade ground of the Academy. This was like an American fiction. The moon was rising, the Hudson lay dark below.
A train wailed somewhere. A military police coasted by. There was not another soul about.
Over four thousand young American men and women I knew were hard at work there: steadfast before computer screens, deep into ballistic theories, economic principles, translations from…, comparative equations or historical relevances. They were prepared as an elite to lead the armies of the Republic.
The police came back again. ‘You okay, ma’am?’ Sure, I said.
West Point is a world of it’s own. A place where the old American values counted still. Honor and duty were watchwords and to tell a lie was to betray ones heritage: a place too, so it appeared that evening, where purpose was so exactly matched by appearance that the whole scene became an allegory.
I was observing only from the outside, but nevertheless I was greatly cheered by all this. A quarter of West Point’s cadets drop out, and I don’t blame them, but the ones who survive seem to me just fine. I tried hard to detect symptoms of fraud, hypocrisy or arrogance in the ones I met, but they seemed to me, to resurrect a phrase, ladies and gentlemen every one. If this is an elite West Point produces, it is a very attractive elite, and hardly homogenous: there are cadets black, brown and yellow, Jewish, many be-spectacled, short and even some who look like a little plump for press-ups. They come from all backgrounds, and the one thing they have in common, so West Point likes to think (me, too) is the devotion instilled to them, during their four years in the place, to principles, that the Founding Fathers would have approved of.

I am anything but a militarist and I was surprised as I pottered around West Point to be so affected by it’s atmosphere. Partly, of course, it was the contrast between this place of old-school values, and the contemporary world outside. Partly perhaps it was the aesthetic appeal of order and tradition, set against the glorious landscape of the Hudson valley. But perhaps it was chiefly a sense of nostalgic déjà vu.
Mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Hyped up as I was by these conjectures, West Point never lets you relax, just as it never lets the Long Grey Line drop its guard.
The sundial presented by the Class of ’33. ‘Duty, Honor, Country’, thundered the text around General McArthur’s statue.
‘To be good officers, you must be good men’, said the shade of General Sherman.

‘If you admit you’re wrong, a coach said, ‘you’re already right, and you don’t get yelled at.’
Best of all was a little scene a witnessed on Saturday afternoon, visitor’s day.
A young cadet emerging from her barracks in her semi-dress uniform, very smart and very flattering.
I followed her down the path towards the Eisenhower statue, brisk as could be to where her father was waiting to meet her: and then-talk about symbolism! Here was your very image of a kind countryman, a figure from an old magazine cover, wearing boots and a floppy brown hat, his face shining with pride, and happiness. She broke into a run, her cap went skew-whiff for a moment, and into his arms she fell.

Thank you, Elsie.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Today, as I read this, is Veterans Day. Most fitting.