Phipps Piper, '14,
New York, N.Y.,
My dear Phipps:
Let me assure you straightway that I was greatly amused by your account of the high-speed bus trip [SI, May 8, 1961] your mother gave you permission to take to Atlantic City. A good show for persons like yourself who have time to frivol.
Well, Phipps, I dare say you have been wondering what I have been up to lately. I am afraid I cannot match the excitements of the Atlantic City Boardwalk. But I have been active in a more serious area, and have been in contact with our national government at the highest level. I shall have to be very careful as I write this not to reveal anything that might be interpreted as "classified information."
To begin. For some time now, Phipps, I have been casting about for some way to play a larger part in public affairs, specifically to give what support I could to the admirable programs of our President, L.B.J. Naturally, I saw no way to be of service to the President in the more complex problems facing him—those involving the Great Society, medical care for elders, beautification of highways and all that—but then one day I was thrilled to read that President L.B.J, had issued a call for action to which I could respond. In this appeal to all patriotic Americans, the President urged that those of us planning to travel should see the natural wonders of our own land before taking U.S. dollars abroad. In other words, L.B.J, was saying, "See America First!"
July 4, 1965
Reading the President's message, I was filled with excitement. As you know, Phipps, I have traveled very little. Buzzards Bay, Woods Hole, the South Shore in the summer months—that about tells the story. (Father, as you know, felt that there was no need for anyone living in Boston to go anywhere else.) But through the years I have had one great dream, derived solely from my reading of travel magazines, and that was to ride The Phoebe Snow, crack flyer of the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad, through—actually through—one of our grandest scenic wonders, namely, the Delaware Water Gap. The very thought that, with Father gone, I might bring this dream to fruition sent my spirits soaring.
Did I dare? I put the question to my sister Lodge (Radcliffe '19, you will recall) and she replied in her usual forthright manner, "If a pipsqueak like Phipps Piper can take a high-speed bus to Atlantic City, surely you should not hesitate to fly."
I protested. "Now see here, Lod," I said. "I have no intention of flying. My plan is to ride The Phoebe Snow of the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad through the Water Gap as my way of backing up the 'See America First' program of President L.B.J."
Lodge shook her head impatiently. But then she said in a kindly way, "Bayard, you have kept to this old house in Louisburg Square for so long that you have completely lost contact with the outside world. For instance, the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad has been merged into the Erie Lackawanna. Furthermore, in order to catch The Phoebe Snow, what you have to do is fly from Logan airport here in Boston to Newark, N.J. There you take a taxicab to Hoboken, where The Phoebe Snow originates. Now, I'll take care of your tickets. You get busy with your packing."
That is Lodge for you, always cutting to the heart of the matter.
Well, Phipps, I could fill scores of pages with an account of my first flight by four-engine airship, but I must get on directly to my efforts in behalf of the L.B.J, program in which I was so deeply interested. Next morning, at 10 o'clock, I found myself sitting in the observation car of The Phoebe Snow in the Hoboken yards. This magnificent train was everything I had been led to expect. I felt an overwhelming need to talk to someone, and presently I had the opportunity. A woman of powerful physique entered the car and took the seat beside me. If she had been Radcliffe or Smith (which I could tell she was not) I would have judged her to be '23 or '24. She wore a striking hat that looked like a great bowl of pink and red roses, artfully arranged. Her dress was a pattern of huge wild flowers, opened to full bloom. Draped over her arm, oddly enough, was a raincoat of the type often affected by the late Humphrey Bogart.
"Bayard Ashcroft, Harvard '14," I said brightly. "Bound for the Delaware Water Gap, by any chance?"
She looked at me strangely. "Not if I can help it," she said. "I'm opening tonight in Elmira."
"Oh," I said, "you are an actress?"
She shook her head. Just then the attendant approached and said politely, "May I serve you folks?"
"Why, yes," I said, turning to my neighbor. "Shall we say Sanka for two?"
"You say it," she said. "I'll say Grand Dad. Twice."
"One Sanka," said the attendant. "One double Old Grand Dad bourbon whiskey. Yes, indeed."
I glanced at my watch. It was just 10:15 a.m., our departure time. Even as I looked at the watch The Phoebe Snow began to move, gliding noiselessly out of the yards. I jumped as I felt a hand laid heavily on my arm.
"Here," said my neighbor. "My card."
"Oh, thank you," I said. I looked at the card. It read, "Bunnie Mae Feathers. Palmist. Available for nightclubs and private conferences. Special rates to Elks, Odd Fellows, Red Men and other bona fide fraternal organizations."
"You read palms!" I exclaimed. "In nightclubs?"
She closed her eyes and nodded. "Give me your hand," she said. She studied the palm and frowned.
"Hmm," she said, "man of action. Athletic type. World traveler. Lover of natural scenic wonders, water gaps and so forth. A Harvard man."
"Great Scott," I exclaimed, "does Harvard show on my palm?"
"Definitely," she replied. "You see the vinelike effect here on the lower third of the lifeline?"
"Definitely ivy," she said. "I've seen it often, playing the nightspots of Washington, D.C."
I was aghast. "What else," I said, "what else shows?"
She studied my palm intently, finishing off her whiskey and signaling the attendant for a refill.
"This line cutting across the lifeline at the point of ivy," she said. "I don't know if I should tell you this or not."
"Please do," I said. "Please do."
"All right," she said. "You asked for it. Harvard, you are quite a ladies' man."
I was horribly embarrassed, Phipps. I sought to make a joke of it.
"Oh, perhaps in my day," I said archly.
"Your day," said the Feathers person, "is not yet over. There is a definite Don Juan twirl here late in the lifeline."
I snatched my hand away. I simply had to get out of there, Phipps. I jumped up and said, "Must get back to my roomette. I'm on a government mission and must study some papers."
"O.K.," said the Feathers woman. "That will be $10."
"Ten dollars?" I cried. "What for?"
"I just read your palm, Harvard," she said coolly. "You knew I was a professional palmist. I gave you my card. Want me to take this up with the conductor?"
"No, no," I cried. I reached for my billfold and drew out a $10 bill. As I started away, she called after me, "Don't forget the check, Harvard!"
I paid the attendant and hurried back to my car. I tried to console myself with the thought that an inauspicious beginning of a trip frequently means a happy ending. Things began to improve almost at once. On my way to my roomette, I passed a bedroom in which the conductor was seated. He was not yet busy with his reports and invited me to sit down. I asked him if I would get a good view of the Water Gap from the vantage point of roomette No. 11, and he said I would, although the view would be even better from the observation car. I said I disliked observation cars and preferred to remain in my roomette.
We began to chat, and I learned some interesting things about The Phoebe Snow. Phoebe Snow was not, as I had been thinking all along, a Revolutionary War heroine. I had her confused with Molly Pitcher, Phipps, who brought pitchers of water to the wounded at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey. Phoebe Snow, my conductor friend informed me, was invented by an advertising man back at the turn of the century when the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (as it was then known) burned dust-free anthracite coal. Phoebe Snow was pictured as a girl wearing a white dress and hat which were never soiled by cinders. Verses were written about her. One that the conductor recited ran like this:
Says Phoebe Snow about to go,
Upon a trip to Buffalo,
My gown stays white from morn till night,
Upon the Road of Anthracite.
My spirits lifted enormously. I determined to put the unscrupulous palmist, Bunnie Mae Feathers, out of my mind from then on. I thanked the conductor profusely and asked if he would be good enough to alert me in my roomette as we approached the Water Gap. He said he would. A very decent chap, just the sort one would expect to find in authority aboard The Phoebe Snow.
Back in my roomette, I began to think of the excitements that lay ahead. In addition to seeing the Delaware Water Gap for the first time—the big adventure—I was planning to do a bit of trout fishing. As you know, Phipps, my experience had been limited to bottom-fishing for scup in Buzzards Bay as a boy. But I rather thought I would be a match for the trout (rainbows and browns were plentiful in the Pocono Mountain streams, Lodge said) and, although I had no fishing "gear" with me, I knew a telephone call to Abercrombie & Fitch in New York would take care of that. Abercrombie's, I was sure, would dispatch a courier, if necessary, with all the equipment I would need.
It was a pleasant prospect, but of more immediate concern was my first glimpse of the Water Gap. I began to go over my notes. Did you know, Phipps, that the Water Gap was once one of the great summer resorts of the nation? It had great hotels and attracted thousands upon thousands of visitors from New York, Philadelphia, indeed from Boston itself. Among the notables who spent summers there—or at least visited the Gap—were John D. Rockefeller, the elder; Walter Hagen, the great professional golfer; John Philip Sousa, the famous bandmaster; and President Teddy Roosevelt, who, upon first viewing the Gap, exclaimed, "Bully!"
I checked over the notes I had copied out of Volume DAMASCU to EDUC of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I read with even greater excitement than I had at home: "On the New Jersey side of the [Delaware] river is Mt. Tammany (about 1,600 ft.), a cliff of which has been weather-carved into the profile of an Indian, once so common to this section. On the Pennsylvania side Mt. Minsi rises approximately 1,500 ft. The river elevation is about 300 ft. The gap, some two miles long, is the result of erosion by a river which once flowed northward, acting along a line of faulting at right angles to the strike of the tilted rock formations. The river's present course is thought to be young geologically, and the gap exposes Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian strata."
It was heady stuff, and I felt my heart pounding. I stared out the window for some time, scarcely noticing our stop at Blairstown, N.J., where the vista broadens into a thrilling panorama of valleys and mountains. Then I was startled out of my reverie by the conductor, who came to the door of my roomette and said, "Coming up soon now."
"That's right," said the conductor. "I'll stand by here so you don't miss the first look at it."
I glued my face to the glass like a street urchin pressing against a candy-store window.
The Phoebe Snow rounded a long curve, and far ahead I could see our diesel locomotive. Then the tracks straightened, curved again and suddenly, there in the far distance, I could see quite clearly a definite break in the mountain range. How can I describe it, Phipps! The unbroken mountain range and then suddenly the effect of—how shall I say it?—the effect of a huge bite taken out of the range, leaving absolutely nothing against the bright blue sky except my very dream come true—the Gap!
"You see it?" said the conductor.
I nodded, unable to speak for a moment. Then I said, "Sir, do I understand correctly that we actually go through the gorge, that is to say, the Gap?"
"Right smack through her," he said. "And in a few minutes now. Brother, this means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
I looked at him. I am afraid, Phipps, that my eyes had grown misty. "At this moment, sir," I said, with the deepest emotion I have felt since that day in June 1914 when my diploma from Harvard was placed in my hands, "at this moment, sir, I am thinking of what this means to our President, L.B.J."
The conductor looked at me oddly. "I don't get it," he said. "Never mind. We're heading into the Gap."
Phipps, all that I had read, all that I had dreamed over the years had not prepared me for the magnificent spectacle. The sides of the gorge towered above us. I was literally breathless for an instant or so. Then, making out the various age-old strata on the sides of the gorge, I jumped to my feet and shouted: "Ordovician! Devonian! Silurian! God bless the President of the United States! See America First!"
I fell back, completely drained. I beg you to believe, Phipps, that I was so emotionally wrought up that I have no clear recollection of leaving The Phoebe Snow at East Stroudsburg. My next memory is of sitting at a writing desk in Room 333 of the Penn-Stroud Hotel in Stroudsburg. I held a pen in my hand and was staring at a sheet of Penn-Stroud stationery. Then—as if my hand were being guided by some force outside myself—I found myself writing firmly as follows:
The White House,
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW,
I was so moved by the President's appeal that I have come here 10 Stroudsburg, Pa. to see—for the first time—one of nature's great wonders, namely the Delaware Water Gap. It is truly a magnificent sight, and I am most grateful to the President for suggesting that we "See America First." You may be interested to know that the D. W. Gap is but two hours from Hoboken, N.J. via the crack train of the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, namely, The Phoebe Snow.
Postcard of D. W. Gap enclosed.
I hurried down the stairs and posted the letter in the box outside the hotel. I can't tell you the feeling it gave me, Phipps, to send this tangible evidence of support for an L.B.J, program off to the White House. I did not presume to think it would come to L.B.J.'s personal attention but, on the other hand, if he were unable to sleep some night (and I am sure that gallant man is no stranger to insomnia) he might just possibly come down to his orifice and glance idly through the day's mail. By some chance, I liked to think, my letter might catch his attention—or at least the picture postcard of the Gap would. At any rate, I felt a real sense of "involvement" in public affairs.
Now I had an opportunity to take in Stroudsburg. From a visit to the public library I learned that a blockhouse known as Fort Penn had been built on the site of the town by one Jacob Stroud back in Revolutionary days. Strolling down Main Street, I came upon another interesting historical note. Stroudsburg is the birthplace of the J. J. Newberry variety stores, now nationwide.
Then, as I looked in the window of a sporting goods store, my thoughts turned to trout fishing once more. The window was filled with rods, reels, flies, waders, creels, fishing vests and hats, etc. Suddenly I heard a voice at my elbow.
"Aiming to go for trout?"
I turned, Phipps, and beheld a heavily bearded "codger" of the sort one visualizes in reading about "quaint characters" in Reader's Digest.
"Why, yes," I said. I put out my hand and gave him my name and class.
"Nate Martin here," said the old fellow. "Maybe I can help you. I'm a fishing guide."
I felt this meeting to be a great stroke of luck, Phipps.
"Well, Nate," I said heartily, "you may be just the man for me. I was looking at this—gear, I believe it is called—and I was about to go back to the hotel and telephone Abercrombie's in New York and have them rush me down the things I'll need."
"You don't need to call no New York store," said Nate. "You can get anything you want right here on Main Street. And with me guiding you, I'll venture to say I can save you a peck of money."
Well, Phipps, Nate Martin insisted that we shop around the various sporting goods, hardware and Army-Navy stores on Main Street and then drop in at Newberry's basement. We ended up by buying something at each place, and Nate Martin did indeed save me money. For instance, one Main Street store wanted $14.95 for waders. Nate got them in Newberry's basement for $4.95.
The next day Nate Martin called for me in his car (a Pope-Hartford, if you can imagine, Phipps), and we drove to Stokes Mill on Brodhead Creek, a tributary of the Delaware, which, in turn, empties into Delaware Bay. There were literally hundreds of fishermen on hand. I waded out into the stream behind Nate, and soon it was apparent to him that he had a novice in tow. I made a complete mess of my attempts to cast my line. After a bit Nate suggested that I jump from one boulder to another and try another spot. Now, I do not like to say this, but I could swear that the Martin fellow tripped me as I jumped. At any rate, I fell into the creek, and as the swiftly rushing waters closed over me, I thought for an instant that I was a "goner." Interestingly enough, Phipps, one's whole life does not flash through one's mind at such a time. What flashed before me was a big black newspaper headline reading, BAYARD ASHCROFT, HARVARD '14, FOUND FLOATING IN DELAWARE WATER GAP. But the vision quickly faded away as I felt Martin's strong hand pulling me out of the water and up to my feet.
I had "had it," Phipps. I asked Martin to drive me to the Penn-Stroud at once. In the lobby—J was still dripping wet—he presented his bill. I was so anxious to be rid of him that I asked Lester Smith, the desk clerk, to pay him and charge it to my account. As I started upstairs, Mr. Smith called after me, "What about this item, '$100 miscellaneous'?"
Still dripping, I turned back to Nate Martin. "What in the world is that for?" I demanded.
"Saving your life," said Nate Martin, coolly.
"Well!" I said, bitterly sarcastic. "Most reasonable, I must say!"
"It's what I usually get," said Nate.
Well, Phipps, I had to chuckle when I had recovered and was standing on the station platform at East Stroudsburg, waiting for the Hoboken-bound Phoebe Snow. I had been "fair game" for old Nate, and he had given me an adventure I won't soon forget.
I had looked forward to enjoying The Phoebe Snow's observation car on the trip back to Hoboken, but as I entered the car whom do you suppose I spied? Bunnie Mae Feathers, the palm reader, returning from Elmira! She was reading the palm of a fat man, who suddenly burst out laughing and gave Bunnie Mae a nudge with his elbow. I rather suspect she had just told him about the Don Juan twirl late in his lifeline.
I went back to my roomette, and soon The Phoebe Snow was gliding through the Delaware Water Gap again. It was brilliantly beautiful in the bright afternoon sunshine. I stood at attention, Phipps, and as we passed through the gorge, directly below the exposed Ordovician, Devonian and Silurian strata, I turned in what I judged to be the direction of the L.B.J, ranch in Texas. Then, saluting smartly, I said in a crisp, military tone of voice: "Mission accomplished, sir!"
As ever, your friend,
Bayard Ashcroft, '14,
P.S. Astounding news, Phipps! Just now the postman brought our mail, and in it was an envelope bearing the simple inscription, "The White House." Just that, no ZIP number, nothing else.
My hands trembling, I opened the envelope as carefully as I could. The letter was notepaper size. At the top of the page was imprinted again, "The White House. Washington." I shall give you the full text, Phipps, begging you to remember that you must regard it as top secret, not to be shown to anyone, not even your mother. The full text:
Thank you very much for letting us have your vote in favor of "Seeing America First."
I am glad that you did take the trip to Stroudsburg and even more pleased that you sent us a picture postcard of the Delaware Water Gap. I have never seen this beautiful stretch of the Delaware River, but you have inspired me to try to take the trip.
(Signed) George E. Reedy
to the President
Truly, Phipps, one's cup runneth over!