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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Oberholzer’s Rorschach

II. What was learned at Cherry Lawn School

"The school was a surrealist combination of elements."
--Morris H. Philipson
The country was in its adolescence the way I was in mine. Things were just ripening to maturity as the country readied itself for accomplishments yet to be achieved. Col. Lindberg’s prize-winning Spirit of St. Louis hung suspended from the entrance of the old Smithsonian “castle,” but the anticipation of numerous further accomplishments to come justified the plan for a whole museum of its own for events in outer space.

A feeling of family characterized the attitudes of the citizens to one-another. For example, at about that time, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Mellon, behaved like a rich relative giving an enormous dowry when he built a museum for his personal collection of works of art as a gift for the nation’s front lawn. The modest tone of a family portrait album had been set by the founding fathers who had nurtured and publicly celebrated the national life down through the four or five generations.

The FBI had its role in creating this state of mind growing up in me. I became sensitive to the many institutions and organizations that made up the network of family-like connection that supported this interpretation. So I was ripe for the rhetoric of the representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation when, taking the tour through J. Edgar Hoover’s current headquarters, a fine, upstanding officer on Hoover's staff gave my family the pitch that it would be a fine, upstanding, American thing to do to be fingerprinted then and there for the purpose of identification if, God forbid, some untoward event should make identification necessary from teeth or scars or deformities not yet available in order that people with such a need — for insurance policies, for example — would be able to identify their loved ones, solving an otherwise complicated mystery and averting the long suffering of family members.

My parents and my brother declined to press thumb to inkpad, but I went through the ritual, and as I saw the white lines on my hand turn to black, snakelike curves on the cardboard paper, I identified myself as a soon-to-be fully empowered voter in the national elections of this great republic. And my fingerprints on file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be, in part, my contribution toward keeping tabs on the national family for our mutual protection. It is to such lengths that the paternalistic benevolence of our government goes to contribute to the general well-being as well as our consideration for each other.

I am in awe to think I could have been so naïve. How was it that I somehow mistook this idea as reality — in spite of the environment in which I had been steeped at Cherry Lawn School?

The school was a surrealist combination of elements. The classrooms were designed around the shape of a swimming pool. French doors would open out onto a terrace so that in temperate weather, classes would be held outside, with the director of the school meandering around behind one student at a time to work through her commentaries on Periclean Athens. A 19th century clapboard farmhouse had been transformed into a recreation hall and a gym.

The latter structure was forced into a state of unnatural cohabitation with the boys’ dormitory, which stood proudly demonstrating the silhouette of a transatlantic passenger plane as designed according to Bauhaus architectural principles from the greatly admired Weimar Republic generation of political liberals who brought such images with them when they escaped from Germany not because they were Jews but because they were socialists or both.

One way of characterizing the student body as a whole was to see it as a miniature United Nations. Each one of these people was a universe unto himself. No-one knew what awaited people constantly under the pressure of their tutors promoting belief in their own talent. Who could have known then that the director Mike Nichols would grow up to restore and renovate the American theater on stage and films? No-one could have predicted that as being any more likely than that Henry Rosovsky would leave Berkley for the deanship of Harvard graduate studies and later come to oversee the transformation of Harvard’s undergraduate programs. Nor could I ever have fathomed how rapidly would be my destiny to learn of an astonishing subtraction from the sum total of human knowledge that had occurred with the loss of a rich trove of meticulously collected soundings taken from the era’s greatest psychoanalytic thinkers. Not, that is, until I met the small, anemic-looking kid with black hair who would become my roommate, Emil Oberholzer Jr.

One faculty member who embodied a multi-volume historical novel was Frau Margarite Lande, a German widow who preserved her husband’s French name and taught German classes. Frau Lande was the widow of a direct descendant of French Protestants murdered during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. No one gave a thought to the possibility that her son Peter Lande would one day become a diplomat in the United States Foreign Service, carrying out 500-year-old diplomatic policies after decades of negotiation with the new generation of Japanese who became the self-taught survivors of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

Conversations were held in French during mess hall at lunch (but not at dinner). The mademoiselle in charge of language improvement was probably the only Cuban national who regretted Castro’s revolution some years later, but then her preferences in styles of all sorts established her taste as some three centuries behind the times. This fact was counterbalanced by the rumor circulated among the students that an adjunct instructor in the social sciences was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. The rumor that the social scientist was a member of the Communist Party has to be balanced by the counter-rumor that he produced cartoons under a pseudonym for the New Yorker. And that reminds me of Diego Rivera.

1 comment:

  1. I am grateful to you for this post. As an alumni of CLS's last years (shuttered after my 11th year), I know once again, I was in an life altering environment.