By Richard Hoover
You may remember that rocketing into the sacred past is one of my tiresome obsessions. But must our vehicle always be some antique full of story and character? No! Encountering those with extraordinary historical credentials will do perfectly. So, January 1950, age 10, outside the Alabama Department of Archives and History, I shook the hand of 108-year-old Tom Joar, Jefferson Davis' servant when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy. (Note: Google "Joar" for some remarkable African slavery associations!).
My dietician mother pumped Joar for secrets of longevity. Breakfast: two slices of steak, a pint of buttermilk, coffee with cream and sugar. Lunch: peas with fat back, cornbread, butter and jelly. For supper, batter cakes with syrup. He quit whiskey, age 80. Smoked a pipe and cigars. Cigarettes, he said, "ain't healthy." Young people, he observed, were "too rapid-- nothing flying in my day but buzzards; now, planes are up there!" Mother recorded further: "The Yankees sure captured this town. Course, people were scared... no fighting -- Yanks were bad to fight with." Sure enough, Google reveals that Montgomery fell with scarcely a shot on, April 12, 1865!
Even at 10 I was alive to the idea of a small world, that all humans, living and dead, were separated by only a few links. Well, there I was, and shall ever remain, but one degree of separation from President Jefferson Davis!
But this boggling thought was out-boggled when, age 25 and a little outspoken, I summered at the Library of Congress. After a few beers with a fellow grad student at a Georgetown watering hole, he asked what I thought of the florid interior. I said it recalled how Julia Dent Grant redecorated the White House in 1869. He: "she was my great-great-grandmother. Would you like to meet the family?"
Sundays thereafter we attended Sulgrave Club luncheons hosted by Princess Cantacuzène, Grant's granddaughter and my friend's great aunt. Born in the White House in 1876, married into Russian nobility in 1899, she was a historian and memorialist who chronicled life in Russia before and during the revolution. With her brother, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant III, "Aunt Julia" presided over a small group of White Russians. These shared her past and were grateful for her efforts in facilitating the escape of thousands of White refugees from revolutionary Russia.
Here was time-traveling at its best! To her brother: "Willie, do you remember when Buffalo Bill and the Wild West show came to Vienna? (Note: that was in May 1890). Remember the party Mother and Father gave, how they rolled up the carpets to avoid a mess? I will never forget the sight of all those Indians sitting cross-legged on the bare floor eating ice cream!" (Note: the parents were U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Austria-Hungary and Mrs. Frederick D. Grant).
Conversations drifted to old Russia. Here I would insert my foot badly, learning that "wisdom" about the past was not shared by those who had actually lived in it! Hearing of my Russian studies at Indiana University, everyone pressed for details. "The worker's question in Tsarist Russia," I intoned; "how the old regime, using Bismarckian Germany as its model, sought to improve workers' conditions." Heads shook in disbelief. "Why would you ever pick a boring, wretched topic like that?" someone asked.
Later, I again frosted everyone. Joining a conversation on Rasputin, I submitted that he was an old fraud! Conversation stopped, heads shook. Someone said gravely, "You must understand, Mr. Hoover, we do not share your view, and consider him a great man!" (By the way, my wife met Rasputin's assassin, Prince Felix Yusupov, in Paris back in the
1960s -- another historically credentialed encounter!)
I also remember a ball in St. Petersburg. Protocol demanded that everyone arrive before the royal couple. Aunt Julia related how she was assisting the tsarina with her wardrobe. Time was running short. Finishing her duties, she raced off, down dim flights of stairs. A shadowy figure suddenly materialized, and Aunt Julia crashed straight into Tsar Nicholas.
"Late for the ball! Aren't you ashamed!"
"But your majesty, it is only because I was attending the eEmpress, your dear Alexandra Feodorovna!"
Helping the princess to her feet, Nicholas said kindly: "In that case you are excused!"
And then Nicholas ... Goodness! Wait, I've exhausted the Northern Virginia Daily's word limit. Dear Reader, 'til we next rocket into the past!
Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer (1969-95) who resides in southern Warren County.