For about five years in the early aughts — the first decade of the 21st century — I spent many hours every week roaming the buildings and grounds of Wake Robin, the retirement community in Shelburne.
Dr. Leslie Falk, a regular taxi customer of mine, was a resident of Wake Robin; indeed, he was among the Vermonters who had helped to found the community a few years earlier. When he came into my life, "Les" had long since given up practicing medicine. For most of the time I knew him, he was in assisted living.
Les was an amazing guy whose remarkable professional life is worthy of a biography. But beyond any worldly accomplishment, he was a mentor and father figure to me. Primarily by example, Les taught me a number of critical life lessons that have stayed with me to this day.
Having lost his wife, Les had a girlfriend named Helen; she lived first in Montpelier, where they had met, and later in a different senior community in Northfield. Les was a man of means, and I was hired to transport Helen back and forth to Wake Robin once or twice a week. Because Helen was herself quite frail (which apparently gave rise to issues of legal liability for Wake Robin), I was also paid to remain on the premises during these visits in case she needed assistance or immediate transport back to Northfield.
All of this explains — granted, via the "long way around the barn," as Vermonters say — my intimate connection with Wake Robin. In good weather, I'd wander the extensive grounds, but mostly I'd spend my time in the gigantic community building. (All the security personnel knew me, so I had free rein.) There were individual rooms devoted to painting, arts and crafts, even model trains, and I explored them all. Often, I lingered in the Jean Conner Library, named after a resident who had been the top library administrator for New York State and had later in life become a published poet of some renown.
There was a meeting room large enough for full community gatherings, which was also used for classes, lectures and occasional performances. (They once hosted a reading by a certain cabdriver/writer.) The Wake Robin population, though obviously elderly, was far from crotchety fuddy-duddies. The place seemed to attract folks with active lives and minds, including many retired teachers, artists and the like. It was a fun place to hang out.
Outside the meeting room was a wide hallway or anteroom featuring alcoves, comfy seats and an attached bathroom. On one of my walkabouts, I noticed that one of the alcoves had a table with a line of vintage books held upright by two art deco bookends. I pulled over a chair to check 'em out.
I was drawn immediately to a set of about 10 green books; Washington Irving's Complete Works was embossed on each of their spines. I recognized Irving as the author of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" but was unfamiliar with the rest of his oeuvre. Opening one of the volumes to the copyright page, I saw that it was originally published in 1853 and that this edition came out in 1899. The book I held in my hands was titled The Life of George Washington, Vol. 1.
Cool beans, I thought, and skipped randomly to the middle.
As luck would have it, I came upon a description of the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the first unambiguous military victory of the nascent Continental Army at the onset of the Revolutionary War. The surprise attack was carried out jointly by forces commanded by Benedict Arnold (obviously, before he went full Benedict Arnold) and Vermont's own Ethan Allen, leading his Green Mountain Boys.
At the time, I photocopied and kept these pages, so the quotes that follow are verbatim. Irving describes Allen as "well fitted for the enterprise in question, by his experience as a frontier champion, his robustness of mind and body, and his fearless spirit. His style, says one who knew him personally, 'was a singular compound of local barbarisms, scriptural phrases and oriental wildness.'" Then, quoting George Washington: "there was an original something in him, which commanded admiration."
Yup, that's our boy, I thought: an original something. Irving then goes on to describe that moment when Allen, having seized Fort Ticonderoga by surprise in a predawn raid, "thundered" at the door of the English commanding officer, Captain Delaplace, who was "yet in bed."
Irving continues, "The commandant appeared at his door half-dressed, the frightened face of his pretty wife peering over his shoulder. He gazed at Allen in bewildered astonishment.
"'By whose authority do you act?'" exclaimed he.
"'In the name of the great Jehovah, and the Continental Congress!'" replied Allen, with a flourish of his sword, and an oath which we do not care to subjoin."
Oh, by all means, subjoin, I thought, chuckling to myself.
Here's the best part. Having secured the fort, Arnold and Allen — two men of formidable egos — fought over who now was in charge. "Allen claimed command on the authority from the Connecticut Assembly, which had originated the enterprise. Arnold claimed it on the strength of his instructions from the Massachusetts committee of safety."
In a letter pleading his case, Arnold writes, "Colonel Allen is a proper man to head his own wild people, but entirely unacquainted with military service, and as I am the only person who has been legally authorized to take possession of this place, I am determined to insist on my right."
You smug, friggin' traitor-in-waiting, I thought, my ire inflamed two centuries after the fact. Ultimately, the Continental Congress decided to abandon the fort, thereby making moot the two men's rivalry.
Allen ended up spending the rest of the war imprisoned by the British after an ill-advised attempt to seize Montréal. But, speaking as one of Allen's own wild people, circa 2018, I applaud the effort. Montréal would have made a great addition to the Republic of Vermont. Two people, united in their love of hockey and maple syrup.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.