Bayard Ashcroft, Harvard '14
My dear Bayard:
I must agree that your pilgrimage to the Delaware Water Gap via the famous flyer of the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad, namely The Phoebe Snow express, made my own journey to Atlantic City by high-speed bus seem rather "tame" by comparison. However, when you have finished this letter perhaps you will concede that "the shoe is on the other foot," so to speak.
Before I reveal the details of my own latest adventure, I feel that I owe you an explanation. You warned me that your last letter (SI, July 5, 1965) was to be considered "top secret," because it contained the text of a communication from the White House acknowledging your support of President L.B.J.'s SAF (See America First) program and the receipt of your picture postcard of the Delaware Water Gap. Although I cannot see that such a letter quite merits your description of it as "classified information," I respected your wishes as far as the chaps at the Harvard Club were concerned and showed the letter to no one. At home, through no fault of mine, it was another story.
October 1, 1967
To come directly to the point, Mother found your letter in going through Father's suits, which I have been wearing since he was mortally injured in a fall from a 42nd Street trolley car some 30 years ago. Father left an enormous wardrobe and, as a result, I have not had a new suit of my own since our senior year at Harvard. I often brought up the matter of a new suit for myself over the years (I so wanted one with the modern zippered trousers), but Mother insists that Father's things become me very well. She periodically inspects them for signs of wear, and it was while thus engaged that she came upon your letter.
Understandably, I think, she was furious when she read your disparaging remarks about Atlantic City and your sister Lodge's reference to me as "a pip-squeak." I have never seen Mother so agitated. Seated on a sofa in the drawing room, she lashed out angrily with her cane, leading me to marvel anew at the vigor of the woman at age 95.
"Bayard Ashcroft," she said icily, "is a muddleheaded fuddy-duddy, and his sister Lodge is one of those insufferable know-it-all Radcliffe types who go through life seeking to trade on their field-hockey reputations." (Mother, as you must remember, Bayard, is Vassar '91. She excelled at volley ball.)
I sought to placate her.
"Granted that what you say is true, Mother," I said, leaning forward from my vantage point on the footstool, "still one must admit that Bayard's idea of turning his trip to the D.W. Gap into an SAF mission in support of L.B.J, was rather a stroke of genius. And he does have his letter from the White House, which I am sure he will leave to the Harvard Library in his will."
"Rubbish," said Mother. She was silent for a moment. Then she unscrewed the top of her cane and tilted its glass vial of brandy, which Dr. Japes prescribed for use in the event that she ever felt faint while rowing on the lake in Central Park. Almost immediately the color returned to her cheeks. She took up your letter and glanced through it again. Then she said slowly:
"So seeing the Delaware Water Gap was Ashcroft's lifelong ambition. Tell me, Phipps, have you had an ambition since young manhood? Some secret dream? Some hidden passion? Your heart's desire? Think, boy. Be frank. Hold back nothing."
"Yes, Mother," I said, "I do have a dream. A secret ambition, my dearest heart's desire, as you so aptly put it. I have long dreamed of making a pilgrimage to the retail sporting-goods store and mail-order factory of the late Mr. L. L. Bean in Freeport, Maine!"
Slowly mother raised her cane to her lips and drained the last of the brandy from the glass vial. As she screwed the top back on the cane, a faraway look came into her eyes.
"It may surprise you to know, Phipps," she said gently, "that your own dear father was one of the first Harvard men to order a pair of Mr. Bean's famous Maine hunting shoes. And he smoked nothing in his pipe but Mr. Bean's special blend of tobacco for hunters and fishermen."
I leaned forward on the footstool. "I never knew!"
Mother pushed me upright with the tip of her cane. "I like your plan, Phipps. By all means, you must make your pilgrimage to L. L. Bean's. We shall think of it as a sort of memorial to your dear father. I would ask that you wear one of the Norfolk jackets he loved so well."
"I will, Mother, I will, indeed."
"Carte blanche, my dear Phipps. I give you a carte blanche. Go, son, and Godspeed."
Well, Bayard! Mother had never given me such a blanket permission to travel.
Carte blanche, she had said. This meant that I could realize another dream of dreams, i.e. I could go from Freeport to Bar Harbor and there book passage on the well-known automobile and passenger ferry, Bluenose, for its six-hour voyage across open ocean to Yarmouth, N.S. In other words, Bayard, no Delaware Water Gap for me. For the first time in my life I would go abroad!
Despite Mother's distrust of aircraft, I flew to Portland, Me., and thence went by taxi to Freeport. The Bean buildings—salesrooms, offices and factory—dominate the main street of Freeport, a town of about 8,000 population. In the salesroom I went "hog-wild." I ordered a case of baked beans and a pound tin of tobacco in memory of Father, a case of steamed clams and two decks of playing cards, a pair of the famous Maine hunting shoes, several plaid shirts, a fishing knife, a porkpie hat and (another dream come true!) a pair of flannel slacks of the modern zippered variety—these last to be wrapped for me to take along on my trip abroad.
En route to Bar Harbor, I opened my portmanteau and drew out the colorful travel folders I had obtained from the Nova Scotia Information Office in New York City. One folder contained breathtakingly beautiful color photographs of the province that is known as "Canada's Ocean Playground" and "almost an island." I was especially interested in the Bluenose, the ship that would take me overseas. I was fascinated as I read that she was 346 feet in length, had a displacement of 6,000 tons and was capable of making 18½ knots with her six 2,000-hp diesel engines. She was named, of course, for the great fishing and racing schooner Bluenose, built in the 1920s and so famous for her victories in races from the Grand Banks to Gloucester, Mass. that her figure is stamped on Canadian dimes in circulation today.
I had to smile as I read that the name Bluenose derives from the fact that Nova Scotians are called Bluenosers, because hard winters tend to turn noses blue. The original Bluenose was wrecked on a Haitian reef in 1946, and the present great ferry was registered in 1954, soon after Eastern Steamship Lines had discontinued its service between Boston and Yarmouth. Today's Bluenose can accommodate 600 passengers and 150 automobiles. She has every modern convenience—two luxurious lounges, day cabins for those passengers wishing to nap (I determined to engage one), a bar and a first-rate cafeteria.
At the Bluenose's wharf in Bar Harbor, the great ferry was a sight to take one's breath away with her gleaming white superstructure and red smokestack bearing the insignia "CN" for Canadian National Railways, the operators. I hurried to the ticket window and asked for a round-trip ticket ($10.40), adding in French that I would like a cabin avec salle de toilette. Since all Bluenose employees are bilingual, the ticket clerk nodded understandingly. The price for the cabin was $5.50 each way.
My first act upon being settled in my cabin was to change to my zippered flannel trousers from L. L. Bean's (I mastered the mechanism of the zipper without the slightest difficulty). I put on one of my new wool plaid shirts and Mr. Bean's special porkpie hat. I decided to wear Father's Norfolk jacket as Mother had asked and, thus attired, I hurried on deck.
Now there occurred, Bayard, an incident that was to affect my whole expedition in a way that I shall not soon forget. Rounding a corner just as the Bluenose drew away from the wharf, I collided with a buxom lady with such force that I was literally bounced off the ship's rail. Then I was amazed to hear the woman, not unattractive for one of her size, burst into great peals of laughter. Although I did not immediately see any reason for her merriment, I said automatically: "Sorry! Phipps Piper, Harvard '14, here!"
She continued to laugh. Then, pausing for an instant, she said, "Wilhelmina Beaver, Panhandle Divinity College, '36. You may call me Sister Billie, Brother Phipps."
I could not quite bring myself to do that on such short acquaintance. Whereupon the woman shifted an armload of books and gave me a resounding slap on the back. As I fell forward, I noticed that the books she carried were works of Bennett Cerf, famed for his collections of old jokes, many of which he used to relate on the What's My Line television program.
"I beg your pardon!" I said with some irritation.
"Laughter is love, Brother Phipps," she cried.
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand, madam," I said.
"Of course you do not understand, Brother Phipps," she said, "I can tell that by your liverish look and sunken chest."
"Really!" I protested.
"Laughter is our best medicine, Brother Phipps," she went on. "Medical science tells us that a good hearty laugh exercises the diaphragm, larynx, many, many little-used muscles, stimulates the circulation and develops the area of the lungs! Look at me!"
She threw back her shoulders, roaring with laughter.
"My word!" I exclaimed. She was indeed, Bayard, the picture of robust health. She looked at me more closely and said:
"I see that I have come upon one who has not yet heard our Message." She put the Bennett Cerf in my arms and said, "Come, Brother Phipps, we shall have a bite in the cafeteria, and I shall tell you of the Message that will change your life, dear man."
Well, Bayard, once we had carried our trays to a table in the cafeteria, Sister Billie Beaver related (amid occasional peals of laughter that made other passengers turn and look at her curiously) the Message of her mentor, Bishop "Tex" Mitchell, the evangelist who founded Panhandle Divinity College and is now broadcasting from a powerful radio station across the Mexican border. It seems that certain enemies of Bishop "Tex" forced him to leave the country following wholly unfounded charges made by a certain baton twirler in the college's football marching band.
Despite the desperate effort of his enemies to silence him, Bishop "Tex" had continued to win followers, who were known as the Love Laughers—the name growing out of the Laughter is Love theme. Since Bishop "Tex" had established permanent residence in Mexico, he had personal representatives throughout the world, spreading the doctrine that since people laugh when they are happy, happiness can be generated by laughing for little or no reason. According to Sister Billie, Love Laughers were meeting in all the principal cities of the U.S. Services usually began, she said, with a reading of "ticklers," such as are to be found in the works of Bennett Cerf. Sister Billie said that when a suitable fund had been raised, a monster "laugh crusade" was to be launched. It was hoped, she said, that Bennett Cerf could be persuaded to appear in person and read from his works at Madison Square Garden in New York. I must confess, Bayard, that my enthusiasm for the "laugh crusade" grew as Sister Billie talked (and laughed) on.
"If memory serves," I put in, "it was Max Beerbohm who said that of all the people who have lived on earth, not one is known to have died of laughter!"
Sister Billie looked at me with unmistakable admiration. She then threw back her head and laughed so heartily that I found myself joining in. "Never," cried Sister Billie, "have I seen the Love Laughers' philosophy grasped so quickly. Brother Phipps, I am convinced that you have a call for our great work. Now I am on a mission to win converts in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and on Prince Edward Island. I invite you to join me! Do you have traveler's checks?"
"I have ample funds," I vouchsafed, so caught up by the sheer magnetism of Sister Billie Beaver that I had completely forgotten that even now I was on my way abroad without Mother's specific permission. Happily, at this instant, something happened that brought me to my senses—thanks, in my view, to the first objective of my pilgrimage, i.e. my visit to L. L. Bean's store at Freeport, Me.
Upon hearing that I was not without resources, Sister Billie jumped to her feet with the loudest laughter I had yet heard from her. Trays clattered to the floor all along the steam-table line as startled diners turned to look. I myself was hurled back from my chair as Sister Billie's sudden leap overturned the table, emptying the contents of my tray (scrambled eggs and kippers) into my lap.
"Bless you, Brother Phipps!" cried Sister Billie Beaver, peering down at me over the table's edge. "I hereby joyfully receive you into the Love Laughers by virtue of the authority vested in me by Bishop 'Tex' Mitchell, our beloved leader and president emeritus of Panhandle Divinity College. Your name will be laughingly mentioned in the next broadcast by Bishop Tex' over the 500,000-watt radio station in his Mexican sanctuary! Come, Brother Phipps, on your feet, man! Let us repair to the observation lounge and put your signature on the traveler's checks that we shall airmail to the bishop as a free-will offering!" She turned to the astonished passengers and shouted: "Everyone now! Join me in singing from page 49 of our hymn book, Always Leave Them Laughing When You Say Good-bye, by the late George M. Cohan!"
Sister Billie burst into the song and, incredibly, some of the diners joined in. While they were all thus distracted, I crept away on all fours. My new flannel (and zippered) trousers were a complete mess of eggs and kippers.
Safe in my cabin, I sought first to remove my trousers. Then, to my dismay, I found I could not budge the zipper. It had been fouled by a kipper. I started to ring for a steward, but so great was my discomfiture, that I thought better of it. How I wished that I had worn one of Father's button trousers. Obviously the trousers must be removed. But how, how? I hurried to my things and searched feverishly for the L. L. Bean fishing knife. I found it, opened the long gleaming blade and in the twinkling I had cut the entire zipper area from the Bean pants and donned a pair of Father's button variety!
I hid in my cabin for the rest of the voyage. I could hear Sister Billie Beaver's shouts of "Brother Phipps! Brother Phipps!" But I was determined, now that my mind had been cleared by the zipper episode, to have nothing more to do with the woman. The more I thought about her eagerness to get her hands on my traveler's checks and her outlandish "laugh crusade," the more convinced I was that she was not the innocent she appeared to be. I now suspect, Bayard, that she was an international agent of some sort, assigned to keep me under surveillance as a Harvard man abroad.
I remained in my cabin during the 90 minutes the Bluenose remained in port, and although my view of Nova Scotia was limited to what I could see from my porthole (I spied a scowling Billie Beaver on the wharf), I reflected with satisfaction that I had been abroad and had made my L. L. Bean pilgrimage as a memorial to Father. All in all, I think that you and your sister Lodge will be forced to admit that my adventure was somewhat more meaningful than your own pilgrimage to the Delaware Water Gap, which is now considered old hat by those of us who are seasoned travelers. But keep up the good work.
With warm regards,
Phipps Piper, '14,
New York, N.Y.,