The Night of Walpürgis
With that backdrop sketched out, Greg and Alicia will be thrown into the lion’s den of corrosive academic politics at the Hernsteins.
The minds and attitudes of our youth were in their hands as university professors. How they interpreted national and world events would shape the future to the extent that students viewed them as role models.
On the other hand, they were themselves impressionable young scholars. They wielded a great deal of power in the arena of political correctness and the conveyance of ideas.
The very young tended to have opinions but not iron-clad beliefs. Wisdom and—unfortunately–cynicism came with age and experience.
Elizabeth (“Beth”) Hernstein gave Alicia a call to confirm her presence at the dinner party. There would be two other couples in attendance: Harry and Grace Smitherman from Biology and James (Jim) and Carole Simpson from Psychology, both close friends of the English chair, Richard Hernstein.
Greg had met the husbands at campus functions but didn’t really know them well. Alicia had also met them at an Arts & Science mixer back in the fall. At least they would be dining with colleagues they had previously met. This allayed some tension that comes when dining with guests who are complete strangers.
Alicia made a mental note to contact Grace (whom she knew better than the others) to ask about how to dress for the event. Both she and Greg realized how important it was to impress or at least have the Hernsteins consider them to be cooperative faculty members.
Greg was well liked by his students; personally, he found the intellectual atmosphere and collegiality of the school to be challenging and cordial. He was in no hurry to seek employment elsewhere.
The school year was drawing to a close and the exam period would be starting up in a few weeks. It was odd that Beth had chosen the Norse holiday of April 30 (Walpürgis Night) for her dinner; it was originally a Druidic celebration and was now associated with witches’ covens, massive bonfires to ward off evil spirits, and wild antics in Germany and Scandinavian countries. It could be, of course, that she wasn’t aware of this coincidence. The Walpürgis Night was a time of pagan revelry and the worship of witchcraft.
Alicia mentioned this to Greg who shrugged it off. “Good God, Alicia. There are pagan festivities throughout the calendar. I’m sure Beth Hernstein is not a practicing witch!” They both laughed at such a notion.
Alicia put on her best dinner dress that was now getting very tight because of her pregnant state. She wore her grandmother’s pearls; Greg gave her a hug of appreciation. “You’re dazzling. I’m a lucky man!” he exclaimed. She gave him an adoring look and they set out for the Hernsteins who lived a few blocks off campus.
“Well, the Reynolds are here,” Beth Hernstein called out when she answered the door. “My goodness, don’t you look chic, Alicia. I just love your pearls!”
Greg shook hands with Richard Hernstein and exchanged pleasantries. “Our other guests will be here shortly,” Beth explained.
They wandered into the kitchen where Richard fixed Greg a scotch and soda; Alicia could only drink a Sprite because of her pregnancy. The television set in the den was on; Richard had been watching the evening news and had forgot to cut it off.
There was a political special on the upcoming Congressional elections where the Democrats were facing an uphill battle for reelection. Greg was hesitant to comment on the current situation in Washington at a dinner party. Politics would be best laid aside until later in the evening.
Richard in turn mentioned how dour the political scene looked for hard-core activists in their pursuit of a carbon-free society and the implementation of alternative energy sources.
Fortunately, just as Richard was going to invite Greg to offer his opinion, the bell rang. There was a loud din of greetings and laughter. Alicia recognized Grace Smitherman’s voice. “Surprise. Jim and Carole don’t live very far from us so we decided to come together. We’re being woke in saving on gas by car-sharing.”
The Smithermans and the Simpsons were entrenched in the college political scene and were long-time friends of the Hernsteins. In a way, Greg had the rather uneasy feeling that he and Alicia were going to be evaluated this evening by the invitees.
In fact, Harry Smitherman had been head of the selection committee that had brought Greg to campus. He was very impressed by Greg’s portfolio and accomplishments in such a short period of time since obtaining the doctorate.
This was the first time that Greg had met his wife, Carole, at a social gathering.
Greg had little if any contact with Jim Simpson in Psychology. Since Richard was obviously a left-wing Democrat, Greg assumed that his guests would share the same political affinities. If politics were brought up, it would like preaching to the choir
They found themselves sitting in the living room which was the largest room in the house. Beth had displayed a wide variety of antiques, inherited from relatives, and certain modern pieces that complemented her refined taste. She was carefully coiffed, and dressed in a trendy but suitable dress that flattered her figure. She exuded sophistication and genteel manners.
At forty-eight she was a striking woman. Richard was considerably older than his wife, but still vital and energetic in his late fifties. There were a large number of family photographs spread across several tables. Their two children were shown at various stages of development: among those, horseback riding and boating at the lake house.
Biology and psychology were two areas that Greg was not knowledgeable about so he assumed that conversation would be steered away from “shop talk,” or whose research the assembled guests might find intriguing.
In effect, Alicia had minored in German and had taken several courses in biology and psychology at the undergraduate level. For obvious reasons, she would be more qualified to discuss these domains with some degree of intelligence. It was important to listen carefully to how the guests were expressing their opinions. Caution and being circumspect were essential in the art of faculty communication.
Halfway through the dinner, there was a knock on the door. Beth looked very surprised and stared at Richard. He excused himself and went to greet the visitors.
“Heather! My goodness, what brings you to town? I thought you were still at Yale…” Beth stood up and went to say hello to their daughter, Heather, who was studying for her exams at Yale or so they thought.
“Hi, everyone. I’m sorry to be interrupting you, but I thought I would take a few days off before exams begin. I can do a lot of work on line.” Beth hugged her daughter and looked somewhat askance at the tall, nice-looking young man who stood behind her.
“Oh, sorry. This is Bedford McCauley. He’s a good friend and I invited him to visit with me.” Bedford was a relatively dark-skinned individual whose mother was Cuban and whose father was Jamaican–as they would learn later on. He was a member of the Yale football team and also played basketball. Heather had mentioned him in her e-mails but both Richard and Beth were not expecting him to be accompanying their daughter.
“My goodness. We’re right in the middle of dinner. Would you like to join us? Or, if you like, I can prepare something for you and let you have dinner in the kitchen or the den.” Beth was obviously upset and was struggling with the unexpected interruption.
“I don’t have any problem with your joining us,” Richard said, ”but we’re probably going to be discussing school-related matters for the most part. Why don’t you have dinner in the kitchen, and then we can gather together later when we finish?”
Richard put his arm around Heather’s shoulders and directed them to the kitchen. “It’s really good to see you, Bedford. I’ll look forward to chatting with you after dinner. We need to get back to our guests.”
Beth explained to everyone when she returned that their daughter had unexpectedly returned from school and would be spending a few days with them. The tall young man was a friend of hers from Yale and would also be staying with them.
“That reminds me of Carole’s daughter,” Jim offered. “She would bust in any time without letting us know.” Alicia surmised this was Carole’s daughter from her first marriage who was living out of town. “Sometimes, she would bring a friend or friends and we would have to scurry around to accommodate everybody.”
Grace intervened and sympathized with modern-day children who were very impulsive in their social lives. “Cheryl was never very good at forewarning us. Sometimes she would give us a call on the way home or even when she was almost at the front door.” There was a great deal of commiserating and laughter at these familial contretemps that seemed to be typical of faculty children.
“You’ll see, Alicia,” Grace interjected. “Once your child gets to college, a lot of weird stuff can go on. Let’s hope you’ll be prepared.”
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be ready for the unexpected,” Alicia chuckled and Greg smiled in agreement.
Conversation flowed smoothly and politics were carefully avoided during the rest of the meal. Beth had prepared a lemon meringue pie that all found delicious and they finished dinner with coffee while Beth settled for a cup of decaf.
Both Greg and Alicia had learned a great deal about the family activities of the Smithermans and Simpsons; very little was said about the college intrigues of the moment although there had been an occasional allusion to some administrative problems.
Greg breathed a sigh of relief and anticipated that the rest of the evening would be chit-chat about non-controversial issues.
They assembled in the den and Richard put on some 1960s oldies that he would listen to routinely after dinner. He had a particular preference for Rosemary Clooney and her light-hearted style.
Beth was more of a classic music type. She had majored in vocal art in college with an English minor. If asked, she would occasionally perform for her guests, singing songs of past eras with an “art song” from Franz Schubert thrown in according to her mood.
Richard inquired if anyone would like an after-dinner liqueur or cognac. Both the Simpsons and Smithermans voted for cognac. In a jovial manner, Carole asked Richard if he had any old Beatles’ songs they could listen to.
“Greg, I hope you two remember this era that we enjoyed decades ago?” Harry Smitherman asked.
“Sure, my father is a big fan of John Lennon and I heard their records a good bit.”
“Beth, that was a wonderful meal. The roast was delicious. Now, if you have the energy, could you sing us one of Schubert’s master songs, “Die Forelle (the Trout)?”
“Carole, you always have a way with enticing me to warble a little after meals. Let’s see if I can find the music.” Beth sat down at the piano and performed “Die Forelle” with skill, a very tricky art song about a wandering trout and a fisherman.
Everyone applauded and Grace stated: “Wonderful. You’ve made Fischer-Dieskau jealous.” “Hardly,” Beth replied, warming to their appreciation.
Richard next put on a Beatles’ album that totally changed the musical dynamic of the room. He got up, grabbed his wife and danced around for a few minutes to an energetic number.
It was then that Heather and her friend appeared at the door and entered the den. “Wow, mom. That’s was pretty cool.”
“Well, young lady, we haven’t forgotten how.”
Richard arranged a few chairs and invited them to sit down for a while. Heather settled in but Bedford had to stretch his legs out to feel comfortable.
“If I understand Heather correctly, you play both football and basketball for Yale,” Richard asked Bedford. “Yes, sir. I’m on an athletic scholarship. I was lucky to get an offer.”
“Oh, that’s nonsense,” Heather said. “He’s really talented. Yale did very well this year because of Bedford. He’s also majoring in English. That’s where we met.”
“Interesting. I guess many of my professors have retired since I graduated,” Richard said. “The campus still looks about the same, but a lot of things have changed.”
“Bedford comes from an academic family, Dad. His father is a History professor in Jamaica and his mother teaches Spanish at a local high school. His brother is a lot older and teaches History at a university in Texas.”
“You are indeed blessed, Bedford, to have such a rich background,” Grace added. “None of our children were athletes although Charlie did play baseball for his fraternity.”
Harry mentioned that he and Grace had been to Jamaica several years ago on a tourist outing. There were very impressed with the beaches and friendly population. “If memory serves—and it’s not what it used to be—Jamaica was a British protectorate for many years.”
Bedford looked a little surprised by the colonialist question, but answered affirmatively, stressing the fact that the country was now totally independent of foreign intervention. It had gained its independence in 1962 from Great Britain. For many years before the British occupation, the island had been ruled by the Spanish who had mistreated the native Tainos after its “discovery” by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the Americas.
“Well, I’ve certainly heard of Usain Bolt, the Olympic champion. The world’s fastest man.” Richard mentioned, to display his knowledge of Jamaican history.
“Yes,” Bedford replied, “All Jamaicans are very proud of his accomplishments. He’s very, very popular throughout the island.”
“Colonialism had its good and very evil components,” Harry stated. “I once read about how brutally the Tainos were treated by the Spanish invaders. It was truly inhumane.”
Heather took on a very protective look.
“Look, folks, Bedford is not here to talk about Jamaican history. He’d rather discuss American football that he knows a lot about.” Heather sensed that the guests were underscoring the past and not really cognizant of how far Jamaica had progressed since 1962.
“Heather is right,” Beth said. “Jamaica is truly a tourist paradise.”
Greg entered the conversation by mentioning the fact that, according to what he had been told, Bedford’s mother was Cuban. He lamented the harsh life she must have led under the Castro regime.
“Actually,” Heather said, “Bedford’s mother escaped with members of her family to Miami a long time ago. Her father had relatives in the area; in a sense she grew up as an American and is an American citizen. She met his father at the University of Miami where he was studying History.”
“Now that’s really interesting, Bedford. I assume you grew up in both countries and speak two languages fluently.”
It became obvious that Bedford was not comfortable with the interrogation he was being subjected to. “Yes, that’s true. I speak English and Spanish, since we speak both at home.”
Jim Simpson, as a psychologist, was interested in bilingualism and its effect on children and their relation to a linguistic community where both languages were prevalent. “Noam Chomsky, the linguist, had this theory of ‘Universal Grammar’ where he claimed that very young children were wired for linguistic acquisition, no matter what culture they lived in. Young immigrants can pick up a language in no time where their parents will struggle for years to master the ‘foreign’ language of their adopted country.”
Heather stood up and waved her hands. “Bedford is here as my friend, not as a scientific experiment,” Heather spoke out. “I wonder if we could talk about something else.”
Jim looked irritated by Heather’s reproach but he fell silent and there was an awkward pause throughout the room.
Beth motioned to Heather to follow her into the kitchen and she closed the door.
“Heather, Jim Simpson is a dear friend and meant no harm in asking Bedford about his linguistic heritage. It’s just something he’s accustomed to doing.
“While we are talking about Bedford, I would like to know how far along in your relationship are you with him? Is this something serious? I want to be an understanding mother, but I would feel very uncomfortable if you two intend to share the same bedroom unless there is a serious commitment on both your parts.”
“If you’re asking if we’ve had sex, the answer is yes. I really don’t know where we are long-term. Bedford is surrounded by girls and I’m not sure he wants to commit to anyone at the moment. This is the twenty-first century, Mother. We’re adults and can make our own choices.”
“I hope I don’t have to lecture you about contraception. I hope as well that you realize that if you are giving yourself to someone with no strings attached, your chances of forming a lasting relationship are not very good.”
“Mother, that’s so uncool these days. We women can use our bodies as we see fit. I really like Bedford but I’m not sure he’s ready for marriage. His parents are more interested in his finishing his studies…and, who knows, maybe hooking up with a ‘good’ Jamaican girl.”
Beth was silent for a few seconds. “I’ll let you decide. Keep in mind that your mother is no naïve puritan. Your father and I had a lasting commitment—an affair, if you like—but it was based on love. I’m not proud of some of the things I did, but I knew he was the man I wanted. You need that attitude above all.”
“Let’s see what happens. Right now, I feel good about our relationship.”
“You’re mature for your years, young lady. Now, let’s be polite to our guests.”