Thanksgiving with the Von Trapps

It is strange indeed to be at the Trapp Family Lodge in northern Vermont as the world is chaotic with conditions not unlike those that forced the Von Trapps to flee their native Austria for Vermont in the first place. We arrived two nights before Thanksgiving, and it was already a cold and exquisite snowscape. We like to go at Thanksgiving because the restaurant there serves up an incredible meal, complete with meats raised organically on their own farm, including ham that is also smoked there and easily the best ham I’ve ever eaten. The last time we’d been for Thanksgiving, three years before, it was unseasonably warm, in the sixties during the day, so no snow was to be had then. Not so this time. White fields and white mountains and tall pines pillowed with white. The lodge is on a mountain, a few miles off the main road, and the view of the valley below is spectacular. We unpacked and headed out for a walk to breathe the impossibly clean air and expunge the effects of too many hours in a car. We had approximately an hour before the sun set.

The snow was too deep to hike in the mountains without snowshoes, which some people were doing, while others cross-country skied. Thus, we walked on the gravel road and started the same time as two others, a father and teenage daughter. All soon peeled off and returned to the lodge save for me and the other father, who was originally from Long Island but now lived in London where he worked in finance.

“Britain going to survive this Brexit mess?” I asked.

“They’ve got a deal on the table now, but no one likes it.”

“They’re never going to get a deal they like,” I said, knowing he already knew that.

“It’s unbelievable how stupid the lies were that people believed when they voted for that,” he said.

“I’ve stopped being amazed by what people will believe,” I said. “But I’m still amazed by the utter soullessness of the people who will say those lies. I despise Boris Johnson.”

“Dark times are spreading,” he said.

“And I don’t see them stopping anytime soon,” I said. “The world gets its own momentum on these things, and they have to just play themselves out. People change their minds only after a lot of wreckage and damage.”

He nodded agreement.

We actually ran into Johannes Von Trapp out walking in the direction of the lodge, and we exchanged a friendly hello. He lived on the property and ran the business and, in his seventies, is one of three surviving Von Trapp children. He was the youngest and, unlike most of the others, was the fruit of Maria and the Captain as opposed to the Captain and his first wife. I’d been surprised the previous weeks to learn from a few friends that they had no idea The Sound of Music was based on a true story. Every day, the Von Trapp Lodge offers an array of activities ranging from bowl making and glass blowing to knitting circles and nature hikes. One year I went to the lecture on the real history of the Von Trapps during which Johannes came in to answer questions. Things I learned: the family did not escape by walking through the mountains but rather just boarded the train for Switzerland, acting as if it were merely a day trip for a picnic, so there was no rigor of a trek through the Alps, but they did flee with nothing more than the clothes they wore: life with just one pair of underwear and socks certainly poses its own hardships. I also learned they chose Vermont over Colorado because those early decades they made their living as a singing group, and back then there just wasn’t enough audience out West to sustain them.

The Lodge came about by happenstance. Through the years of eking by as singers and farmers, the Von Trapps had a constant parade of visitors at their mountain home. The family were consummate hosts, and eventually it was agreed they should just open a lodge, which they did, modeling the main building on Tyrolean architecture not unlike lodges in the Austrian Alps.

                           

In the early years, the family used to come into the dining room and sing during dinner, but one by one they died off, all of them buried in a fenced in family plot right next to the lodge, which is a tad weird. They could have moved it off a bit further, but the place draws some real Von Trapp groupies, and to be a Von Trapp groupie you have to be at least seventy years old, which means it would have been a serious hike for those oldsters to pay respects at the graves of The Captain and Maria (and others).

It is rather odd, the affection people develop for this family of folks they’ve never met. I’ve heard not a few of the older guests go on and on about how much they love Maria, as if the old gal hasn’t been dead for decades and as if they ever knew her in the first place. A local pizza place, Piecasso, has a popular trivia game on Wednesday nights, and my family goes to play every time we’re in town. This past year, there was a salty old local gal sitting alone at the bar who said her usual teammates were out of town for the holiday, so we asked her to join our team. She was a hearty lass with a sharp wit who’d spent her life in the outdoors, and after a while I felt like I’d gotten to know her well enough to ask, “What do the locals think of the Von Trapps? I mean, do they think it’s kind of weird how this singing family with its own musical generates so much affection around the world?”

“No, not at all,” the lady said. “Look, everybody loves The Sound of Music. The lodge provides a lot of jobs, and the family has been around for decades now, so everyone in town knows at least one of them pretty well. They’re all super nice folks.” Then she paused before she added, “Although word was Maria could be a real bitch.”

Dear God I laughed as hard at that as anything in recent history.

The Lodge burned down in the seventies, but the family, I think already under the leadership of Johannes, opted to rebuild. The inside is also designed to resemble an Austrian lodge, and while the dining room is spectacularly beautiful, my favorite room is the lounge with a bar, a huge fireplace, and a piano where someone plays every night. Across from the lodge is a health center with a terrific indoor pool and an even better outdoor hot tub that overlooks the valley and seats twenty-four. I’ve never been in it where at least a few of us didn’t take the challenge of rolling around in the snow then getting back in the tub. Strangely, the truly painful part is the getting back in—feels like sharp pins are pricking the skin everywhere. There are thousands of acres for hiking and cross-country skiing, and also on the property is a Bier Hall where one can get Austrian food and beer brewed by the Von Trapps. Vermont has become quite the micro-brewery scene. For breakfast, a half mile from the lodge is a small kaffeehaus with a low ceiling, wooden roof beams, a stone fireplace, and a vanilla almond Danish I’d sacrifice my son for.

                                             

The Lodge takes its food very seriously, much of it being locally and organically grown and made. I’ve already praised the ham, but they do a lot of their own beef, too, as they have many head of a kind of cow I’d never seen before, and that’s saying something for a kid raised in rural Illinois. It’s called Scottish Longhaired, or Highland, Cattle, and it’s known for the high quality of its beef. And it actually has long, flowing hair.

As I sat in the library playing chess with my son (we both suck) and waiting to be seated for my Thanksgiving meal, I spotted a man from the Roaming Gnomes, the team that won trivia at Pie-casso the night before. (Our team was called The Ditch Kids, a reference to my sliding into the ditch earlier in the day during a sudden squall that dropped a slick inch of snow onto the mountain roads; a terrific family from Massachusetts stopped with shovels and helped dig me out. The teenage son and I did all the shoveling while the father, who was battling cancer, supervised. He drove a snowplow for part of his living and was a practiced hand at freeing motorists from snow ditches. “Pack a shovel and kitty litter in your car,” he advised. “It works better than sand.”)

“Hey,” I said to the man in the library, early sixties, Pakistani-looking, standing and surveying the library, searching for someone. He looked at me. “You’re from the Roaming Gnomes,” I said. “My team came in second to you.”

He approached, unsmiling. “I have to make a confession to you,” he said.

“You were Googling the answers?” I ventured.

“Not that,” he said. “But we played trivia at another bar Monday night, and most of the questions were the same.” At which we both laughed uproariously.

For dinner, we sat next to a family with one child, a teenage daughter wearing a dress with what I thought, at first, was a picture of Jefferson on the front before I realized it was Alexander Hamilton. “I’m guessing you’re a huge fan of the show,” I said. “Best musical ever,” she said. The parents were both public school teachers, she English, he Band, and we talked throughout dinner. We spoke of Thoreau and Walden, the mother’s favorite book, and we spoke extensively of music and musicals, in part because every night the Lodge shows a movie in a large screening room downstairs, and that night, after Thanksgiving dinner, it was, of course, The Sound of Music.

I know there are people who don’t like musicals, but for the life of me I don’t understand why. One friend from college argued, “Because in real life, people don’t just stop and break out into song,” to which I said, “In real life, people don’t speak in iambic pentameter, but you still watch Shakespeare plays.” I find the musical to be a fantastic genre, smart and sophisticated and often full of masterful wit. My hunch has long been that, as with Celine Deon and Dr. Pepper, many more people like musicals than are willing to admit, but during the current reign of hipster irony, liking musicals is probably just not cool enough. Or smart enough, but there are truly few things smarter than a Stephen Sondheim show. Or more artful. Ditto Jesus Christ Superstar, My Fair Lady, Kiss Me Kate, Hamilton, etc. And The Sound of Music.

I’ve seen it simply way too many times to count, but this past Thanksgiving was the first time in many years, and it was as fresh as if I’d never seen it before. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a number of incredible shows, and certainly they changed musical history with Oklahoma, but Sound of Music, their last, must certainly be their masterpiece. They lyrics are Hammerstein at his brilliant and therefore seemingly effortless best, to wit:

I am sixteen going on seventeen
I know that I’m naïve
Fellows I meet may tell me I’m sweet
And willingly I believe
I am sixteen going on seventeen
Innocent as a rose
Bachelor dandies, drinkers of brandies
What do I know of those?

In addition, did Rodgers write a melody that surpassed “My Favorite Things,” or “Sixteen Going on Seventeen?” Certainly they’re equal by, say, “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and, going back to the Lorenz Hart Years, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” but bettered? Nein. And is there a more incredibly clever, smart, witty, melodic, catchy and simply sublime ensemble production number than “Do-Re-Mi?”

But is it all simply too hokey? I read somewhere that when Julie Andrews was first cast, she said to the director, the inestimable Robert Wise, that she hoped he was going to make it not so sickly sweet. For years I just assumed that the genius of the music overwhelmed the hokeyness, and for years I also suspected that it walked a fine line, a musical with Nazism in the background, but what are you going to do? The Von Trapps did escape Hitler, and they were a singing family, and the genre is hardly going to withstand a number from Auschwitz or a soft shoe routine depicting the horrors of the Anschluss. But to crib from the line that started this essay: it is a strange thing indeed to watch the Sound of Music at the Von Trapp Lodge while the world seemingly careens towards a conflagration not unlike the one that sent the Von Trapps packing in the first place, giving us the story of that musical.

Austria, which never has reckoned with its Nazi past, has effectively elected Nazis again, though this time with a Russian flavor. Hungary is run by an anti-Semitic dictator. Ditto Poland. Italy is a political train wreck but then that’s nothing new. Britain is riven by Brexit—a lie wrapped in a con and surrounded by an utterly dishonest campaign that has no ability to deliver anything it promised. We have religious leaders in Russia and America allying with Putin. Yes, we may all be sinners, but some are more adept at it than others and do their sins on an industrial scale. Sin may be sin but I do not equate the local pickpocket with Charlie Manson.

Then there’s our own orange Caligula here in the States. And in light of all of this, the movie seemed far less hokey. Captain Von Trapp talking about a world that’s disappearing or scolding Max harshly for saying he had no political convictions and can’t help it if others do. “Oh yes you can help it,” he barked at Max. “You must help it.” Or the look Maria and the Captain exchange when they learn the Captain has been offered a commission by the Nazis that he dare not turn down. Or the emotion when all sing “Edelweiss” at the end. Yes, they are just glimpses, but again, glimpses are all the genre can bear. And upon this viewing, I found those glimpses to weigh heavily.

I’m trying to have hope that we’re not headed toward a major global cataclysm, or at least a national one. Does anyone honestly think Caligula won’t burn down the house as he’s forced to leave, an ending that was inevitable the moment he was elected? Nixon at least was patriot enough to care a wee bit more about the country than himself. But taking a cue from the Mother Abbess, despite that her “Climb Every Mountain” is the most boring part of the movie, I am trying to find some faith in my doubts. And yet, while beauty won’t change the world or prevent doom, there is still a hope that comes from beauty, such as a Vermont snowscape or a perfectly made song. Maria Von Trapp may have been a tough old coot, but she knew firsthand how brutal the world could be, and she knew the power of the transcendent joy that comes from the sound of music.

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