Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 65 - BEFORE THE FIRES

I didn’t learn to read until I was seven, and this was long before that, but I already had a sense of the difference between the them and the us. The them, to me, operated in a bigger sphere, as opposed us, who were self contained in the formal summer houses. Also, as opposed to other thems made up of local people, or of aliens who might be dangerous.

We rode over to Peckett's, a White Mountains inn on the scale of a hotel. It turned out we were there to see Nana, who was rolling bandages for the Red Cross. Our Nana, so confident, her white hair perfectly in place close to her aristocratic head. In retrospect that time to me seemed something out of movies or novels about World War I, not World War II, which the English were in now and Gaga and Nana wanted Americans to be in too. Rolling bandages.

To my amazement, Nana was in charge of this end of the war effort. She had on a white Red Cross uniform. Women were coming to her with questions, and she was able to answer their questions and greet family at the same time. I would never again think of her as just our grandmother. She was an important leader.

That was the only time we went to Peckett’s, though it often came up in conversation about other times. At some point when I was a child it burned down, as so many of the old hotels in the mountains would. The older people spoke of it with sadness, the way they spoke of good times in the 19th century. It seemed that it was as old as or older than, as established as or more established than, the big rambling Sunset Hill House, which did not burn down until the 1970s, and where our Southern grandmother was often in residence, sitting all day on the long porch that circled it, gossiping with other mostly old ladies, many of them Southern like herself, who had been coming since long ago it had become the thing to do to go to the White Mountains in the hay fever season. The Sunset had the same view, the absolutely essential view, of the Franconia Range that we had from all the family houses. And it had a certain excitement for me, as public places always did – something a little risqué about a billiards room, a putting course that felt like the miniature golf attractions which we would pass on long drives but for which we would never stop. And there was also a smaller than usual nine-hole golf course with a caddy shack club house. And in the hotel itself certain nights were for gambling on Keno (a rarified word for Bingo). The old ladies on the porch talked of how the manager, Mr. Haslam, was not a real gentleman. They suspected he was plotting to turn the billiards room into, horrors, a cocktail lounge.

Peckett’s had been more safely sedate, it seemed. Aunt Betsy was friends with Sig Buchmayr, who had been brought over to Peckett’s from Austria to introduce Alpine skiing to America. Sig was still around when I was a teenager, by now married with triplets, and almost as respectable as the summer people. He was not associated with an outré, for this place, new ski resort called Mittersill’s at the foot of Cannon Mountain, which was owned by an Austrian émigré named Baron Hubert Von Pantz, whom summer people liked to say was probably not a real baron and who chased after celebrities. They said it in the same tone they used for any outsiders who thought well of themselves. Mittersill’s was for outsiders and Sig was mostly an insider.

The Sunset was on a borderline, though much closer to the smaller Peckett’s than to the flashy and common Mittersill’s – as, for example, because the Sunset ladies donned white gloves on Sundays and walked downhill about a third of a mile to the place where Davis Road, a properly picturesque dirt road, our road, began. This was the place where the small Episcopalian summer church, St. Matthew’s, was situated. Mother and Dad had been married there. By the time we were in boarding school, Peter and I, dressed in our school blazers, were taking up the Sunday collection there. We stood facing front as everyone sang, a few of them with good voices, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holly Ghost.”

Nana was in charge of everything St. Mathew’s, just as she was always the leader. I never doubted her in the years that followed, not even in the few times I – though apparently nobody else – saw her doubting herself.

She had been a rich socialite in Chicago and left Chicago with Gaga because, she said, they had become too liberal or radical for the place – though they now were based in a tight Republican. Anti- Semitic summer community. It was after Gage died that Nana told me about why they left Chicago, and also why they had come to the White Mountains. They came here, she said, because Gaga felt it was not healthy for a writer to associate only with fellow artistic people.

Gaga liked to take his old brown Dodge touring car up to the Sunset, turn it around, put it in neutral, and coast all the way down, turning off on Davis road, coasting through the birch woods and the entrance to the estate of Otto Mallory from Philadelphia, who had been his Princeton roommate, coasting along as our family houses came into view, and then, still coasting, turn down the long winding driveway to one that was not in view, the biggest, White Pines. He would make it almost to the door.

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