“Stop it, Becky. You said yourself it’s not a date, but a chance to see Mrs. Roosevelt.”
I take a deep breath. She’s right. I’m getting carried away. I grab my long burgundy wool coat and a crocheted peach scarf that Patience lent me and go downstairs to open the door before the man even knocks.
“Well, don’t you look nice!” The captain stands on the porch in a black tuxedo with a silk collar and a black tie. I had been worried I might be overdressed and am relieved to see that the form-fitting red velvet gown is just right. Without knowing why, I tuck a lock of my hair behind my right ear.
“Patience, my friend, made the dress for me. I’d introduce you, but she’s in the family way and confined to bed for the rest of her term. Her husband, Dr. Hester, is a vet and is out on a call. . . . Have you been to the Hotel Torrington? I hear it’s lovely.”
I’m nervously prattling on as he takes my arm and leads me to a spotless older model dark blue Ford. He must never use it or he’s spent most of the day polishing the chrome. “Nice auto, Captain.”
“Please call me Norm.” He starts the engine. “Had her a few years, but I keep her in the garage at the camp. Mostly I use one of the CCC trucks if I have to go somewhere. The boys at the motor pool washed and shined her for our outing.”
It takes us almost three hours to get to Torrington. The roads aren’t too bad, but there’s a snowdrift on Hog Back Mountain and for a few minutes, as we slip and slide, I fear we’re going to have to get out in our fancy clothes and shovel, but we make it through.
The captain tells me he grew up in Ohio, and for most of the way our conversation is entirely about the camp and the local area. I’m pleased that I can give him a little synopsis of the mining wars in West Virginia since it may help him understand some of the tension among the CCC boys. It still matters whose pappy stood with the UMWA and who fought the unions, tooth and nail.
He also was unaware that the state was split in its loyalties during the Civil War. More than sixty-five years later, half the citizens still think of themselves as Confederate and half are loyal to the Union.
At last we cross the iron bridge over the distant end of the Hope River and enter the small city, or what is called a city around here. The Torrington Hotel, the tallest building on River Street, is lighted up like a fairy castle, and when we pull under the canopy, the bellhop runs over, assists me getting out, and takes the car around back.
I slip my arm through the captain’s, partly because he holds it out for me and partly because I’m shaking inside so much, I need someone to lean on. How did I get myself into this? I only accepted the invitation because I didn’t want to hurt the poor man’s feelings, and now I would give anything to be home reading Edna St. Vincent Millay.
We enter a lobby carpeted in red and paneled from floor to ceiling in gleaming oak. A coat girl beckons us over and takes our wraps. To the right, a curved marble stairway leads to the next floor, and through glass doors at the end of the room we can hear an orchestra and a male vocalist doing a rendition of a Richard Rodgers tune, “Isn’t It Romantic?”
At the open double doors we pause to get our bearings. Golden chandeliers hang from the ceiling and the area is ringed by small round tables covered with white tablecloths, each with a candle and floral arrangement.
A maître d’ takes the invitation that the captain removes from his breast pocket and seats us at a small table near the front. Ten feet away is a raised platform with a long table and an American flag. I see now that the band is playing from the balcony and already some people are dancing.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been to a larger town,” the captain remarks, as he runs his hand over the scar on his right cheek. I resist an urge to ask how he was wounded.
“Me too. I feel a little awkward.”
“You don’t look it. You look beautiful.”
I swallow hard. No one has called me beautiful in a very long time. “Thank you,” is all I can think to say. “I wonder who will be sitting up front. At least we have good seats.”
“Oh, I imagine someone like the mayor, the regional head of the Conservation Corps, maybe some other Washington politicians, and Mrs. Roosevelt.”
“Do you really think she’ll come? I mean she’s so important.”
A colored waiter pours water into our crystal water glasses and explains that dinner will be served a bit later, buffet style at the rear of the room, because they’re still waiting for the guest of honor. “And yes, ma’am, Mrs. Roosevelt will be here! You can count on it. She loves this place, stays here all the time when she’s doing her work for the miners. Knows us all by name.”
“Thank you,” Captain Wolfe murmurs as the maître d’ stiffly beckons the chatty waiter away with a white-gloved hand.
“I thought the superintendent was going to be here with his wife?” I comment, looking around.
“He was supposed to be, but his wife wanted him to come home for the holidays. Between you and me, I don’t think she likes this mountain life very much. Want to dance?”
The band begins “Stardust.” “And now the purple dusk of twilight time—Steals across the meadows of my heart . . .” Already five couples have entered the floor. I let out a long sigh. I got myself into this, and you can’t come to a ball without dancing.
Captain Wolfe leads me onto the oak parquet floor with his hand on my back and accidentally touches my bare skin, but moves down to the velvet respectfully. For a man with a limp he’s not a bad dancer; in fact he’s quite graceful. Just as we’re returning to our table, there’s a rustle near the double doors in the rear and a parade of dignitaries marches in, led by an imposing gray-haired gentleman. The band switches to a rousing version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and everyone stands.
“Governor Kump,” Captain Wolfe whispers. Behind him, arm and arm with another woman is none other than Eleanor Roosevelt! Almost six feet tall and looking like a queen, she passes our table wearing a long flowered dress with a three-foot string of pearls around her neck, probably real. Her hair is held back in an old-fashioned style and she has a little overbite, and from the light in her eyes she strikes me as an intelligent woman, full of curiosity.
Her companion is tall too with short dark hair and an aquiline nose. She’s wearing a plain black dress with no ornament except a golden brooch, and her movements are fluid and athletic. This must be Lorena Hickok, Mrs. Roosevelt’s special friend, the one people whisper about.
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