Saturday, May 06, 2006

Maybe He Didn't Really Sleep Here But.....

Here, as reported in the April 19, 1981 New York Times, is what they would like you to believe.

Wethersfield is believed to be the oldest town in Connecticut. Settled in 1634, it entered the history books on May 22, 1781, when General George Washington arrived to meet the commander of the French fleet, Count de Rochambeau. Rochambeau had come down from Newport, R. I., to discuss joint strategy for ending the Revolutionary War. Over the next five days - in what has been called the Yorktown Conference - the two planned the final campaign that brought the war to a close at Yorktown, Va., four months later.

Now here is the real story.

Count de Rochambeau - whose full name was Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur but preferred to be called "Count" because (a) he thought nobility titles were real "babe magnets" and (b) no one could pronounce all those damn other French names anyway - and General Washington did indeed both come to the town of Wethersfield on that famous day in 1781. And they did meet privately in the yard behind Joseph Webb Junior's house.

But they were not really there to see each other at all. Rather they both independently had come to confer with the elders of the Order of the Rubicundus Allium Cepa - one of the many Onion Cults that flourished in the British colonies and the precursor to the modern day Men's Garden Club of Wethersfield. And the topic of their summit was neither military action nor even politics. Instead the General and the Count were there to discuss how they might obtain, for their own personal use, some of the town's world famous Wethersfield Red Onions.

It seems that both men had developed an almost obsessive interest in acquiring what Washington liked to call "those sparkling rubies of the foul-smelling plant world" - albeit for widely different reasons.

General George, in spite of his fame and renown as a successful militarist, surveyor, and professional wooden tooth model, secretly yearned to be one thing and one thing only - a gentleman gardener. His competition with Thomas Jefferson for horticultural supremacy fueled by the latter's snide references to Washington's animal-ravaged gardens as "Mount Vermin" - had already almost single-handedly scuttled the formation of our young country.

And when Jefferson published his highly touted "Garden Book" - full of entries such as:
Mar. 30. Purple hyacinth begins to bloom.
Apr. 6. Narcissus and Puckoon open.
Apr. 13. Puckoon flowers fallen. -
Washington publicly commented that "Jefferson's description of his horticultural triumphs can only lead us to hope that there is much, much more to the pursuit of happiness than old Tom is telling us. And anyway, who but a garden buffoon would boast of a Puckoon?"

However Washington knew from his onsite garden spies that the one crop Jefferson had been utterly unable to grow was the fabulous Wethersfield Red onion. And it was on that one vegetable that our future first President decided to stake his gardening reputation.

Although Rochambeau also grew flowers and vegetables on his Chateau Briand estate, his interest in the W.R.O. had nothing to do these horticultural pursuits. Instead the Count, accompanied as always on this trip by his wife and twenty-three of his mistresses, had heard that the reddish-purple bulbs were simply irresistible to women as evidenced by (as he would say in his thick French accent) the "larggge num-bare of really hot cheecks" in the town after which the vegetable was named.

For obvious reasons both the General and the Count wished to keep the existence of this extraordinary meeting a secret. However the town fathers of Wethersfield recognized the tourism potential of being able to memorialize the event and thus sought to orchestrate an occasion that could be celebrated, for profit, in future years.

First they concocted the cover story about war strategizing - even though anyone with any amount of political acumen knew that Rochambeau would never leave the sunny beaches of Newport for anything as mundane as that. Then they set out to create a quiet, dignified welcome that could be endlessly and selfishly exploited until the end of time.

Being unsure by which roads the two visitors would be entering the town and what their route would be once they arrived, the leaders decided to cover every last one of the streets and pathways with the scarlet peelings of their pungent smelling town emblem - up to and including the narrow walkway that led into the back yard of the Webb House. Even though the town was small, this still required that the entire harvest of available onions be sacrificed to this herculean decorative task.

They were rounded up from every nook, cranny and root cellar of the town. Men, women and children jointly shed their tears as the community pulled together to gather, peel and lay out the welcoming carpet of shiny, scarlet onion skins. Every speck of dirt or grass upon which it was possible that the town's celebrated guests could walk was covered. And all of these roads led to the path into the backyard of the Webb House where the town planners had prepared the piece de resistance of the visit - full-size, lifelike replicas of the General and the Count, in full dress uniforms, shaking hands and smiling in full-photo-op poses.

By chance the two traveling parties met just outside of town's south end and preceded together into the center. Along the route the townspeople cheered and showered their visitors with tiny little diced onions.

The visiting dignitaries were formally welcomed by the town fathers in front of the Webb House. And they were visibly moved to tears by both the village's overwhelming hospitality and the overpowering aroma of the weep-inducing vegetables.

General Washington dismounted his faithful horse "Blueskin" and warmly shook the hands of the Mayor and the other town fathers. The Count leapt down from his mount "Philanderer" and quickly began embracing and kissing the Mayor's young wife. When the Mayor attempted to disconnect Rochambeau from his child-bride in order to greet him himself the Count resisted. As did his wife. When the Mayor finally succeeded in separating them, his missus overpowered "hiz honor" and reeled the Count back in for another round of "official town greetings". Finally a group of six town fathers and the Mayor were able to disengage the couple and drag Rochambeau and the Mayor's wife in opposite directions thus allowing the formal ceremony to begin.

At which point it began to rain. And rain. And rain. The precipitation pelted down with a ferocity beyond that which any of the townspeople could remember. And the regal path of onion skins suddenly switched into a slippery slope of slop.

The first to fall was the Countess de Rochambeau followed in turn by each of the Count's twenty three mistresses, the last of whom skidded into the Mayor's wife causing her in turn to take out the entire town council and the Mayor himself.

Rochambeau began laughing so hard that he also lost his balance and slid into the onion replicas of himself and the General. Then other guests began dropping until the only one left standing was the future first President of the United States.

Realizing that there was no opportunity whatsoever to retain any degree of dignity for this ceremony, and mindful of the historic potential of the occasion, Washington took two halfhearted steps forward, willingly lost his footing, and crashed to the ground - his tricorn hat flying to the side.

Pulling himself slowly to his feet, with a huge smile on his face, the future Father of our Country said, in his familiar stentorian voice, "Remember this day carefully citizens of Wethersfield. For someday you will be able to say honestly that "George Washington slipped here"."

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