Back to School

As everyone who uses the New York Times as a gefilte fish wrapper knows, Charlottesville is an enchanting Virginia college town graced by the neo-classical architecture of the university’s founder, the great Thomas Jefferson. I flew to Charlottesville recently with two old friends, the talented photographer and heartthrob Jonathan Becker, and Silver Star winner in Vietnam, Special Forces Captain Chuck Pfeifer. The reason was the memorial service of Willy von Raab, commissioner of customs under Ronald Reagan and scourge of drug dealers and illegal immigrants for eight years. Another good friend, P.J. O’Rourke, the humorist and best-selling author, and I were the two speakers at the service, so I arrived sober, something I don’t often do nowadays. Following P.J. at the podium is a bit like cutting in on Fred Astaire on the dance floor—bound to disappoint, but for once I held my own while telling the packed church about one of Willy’s less courageous moments. (P.J. had described von Raab’s unflinching stance under fire during a raid on a rather dangerous drug den.)

Willy von Raab

We were driving back from a party in Willy’s ancient Mercedes heap when it gave a sudden groan and packed up. There we were, both in dinner jackets, both quite tipsy, and an automobile that had seen better days and could count a million miles on its 1949 carcass. It was 3 a.m. and we were somewhere in Virginia. Then a cop car pulled up and a lady cop asked what the trouble was. Willy was not a great talker, so she decided to investigate. She had to remove the steering wheel in order to extricate herself, a near-300-pound African-American policewoman, and then approached us.

While she chatted with Willy and he showed her his badge, I walked over and looked at the back seat of the police car where a lady (of the night) was handcuffed. When the officer came back, I told her that the arrested woman happened to be Countess Esterhazy (one of Hungary’s greatest dynasties) and also that Commissioner von Raab really had the hots for her (the police officer). “You sure about that?” “I’ve never been surer in my life,” said poor little me. “I don’t know about no countess, but I gotta take her in for soliciting, then I’ll be back.” “Please officer, Countess Esterhazy is a Hungarian legend, it will make a whole nation grieve…” or words to that effect. “And the commissioner loves you, it might spoil his mood if the countess ends up in jail.”

It was the closest I’ve ever come to bribing an officer of the law. “Alright, I’ll take her in and write her up and let her go, then I’ll be back and you better be here.” The “countess” smiled at me and off they went. That’s when Willy panicked. Although notoriously lazy where such mundane mechanical matters were concerned, he opened the hood and managed to fix it in seconds. He was trembling with fear. We then drove back to Alexandria where he remained indoors for three days and nights in case the fuzz was looking for him.

The University of Virginia in Charlottesville

Afterwards, we met for lunch and drinks with Willy’s family and friends— mostly people from the south, all ladies and gentlemen, well dressed, full of good will and humor, not a single F-word to be heard. You know the type—a rapidly disappearing species. I then drove with Chuck and Jonathan to the main street in Charlottesville, sat at the same bar I used to sit when I was a student at UVA 60 years ago, and asked the student waitress, a cute little thing, if I needed to show my draft card. She looked confused. I explained that back then we used fake ones to buy alcohol and she laughed. “Why draft cards?” she asked.

We got quite tipsy and then I took the boys around to Fraternity Row, where my old house, St. Elmo’s, is located. It brought back very pleasant memories of great friends, beautiful southern belles, and Karamazovian drinking. Although intolerance is now the norm in the United States, back then the students were—and still are—under the honor system. There were no scams or hoaxes, no phony accusations of rape, no vile language, none of what makes today’s students so exasperatingly limp, woke, and ready to take offense. No one talked about identity or empowerment; only freaks swore or failed to wear a coat and tie.

What I remember distinctly was that our ways were not the only right ones. We did not insist that all others were wrong. We did not seek to impose a single standard, and we did not become extremely upset when others seemed to not even recognize those truths that we held to be self-evident. I suppose that was because of the honor code we so believed in and adhered to. One did not lie about one’s perceived enemies or make up stories.

As nighttime fell, I managed to make a fool of myself when I spotted a very pretty stewardess at the airport. As I chatted her up, Chuck and Jonathan whispered to me that I was talking to a man. It was a disgraceful ending to a perfect day. But no one’s perfect.