April 2, 2007
Harvard Square Observer

The Last Day of Skiing

Ernest Cassara

Editorial Note: It was understood that Ye Olde Observer would be dealing with the Bush administration and the nefarious Guantánamo prison camp this week.  But, instead, we find him reminiscing about a long lost day in his life.  The only explanation we have been able to come up with is that he has been spending each morning listening to the various versions of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler: Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, Benjamin Zander and the Philharmonia of London, Michael Gielen and the Sudwest Deutsche Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg, Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic, if we haven’t missed any.   Is it any wonder that, hearing how each of these masterful conductors brings out what Cassara refers to as the “inner voices of the orchestra,” he is in no mood to think of Mr. Bush and his misdeeds.  He was heard to grumble, “Compared to Gustav Mahler, Dubya is a cockroach on the wall.”

Ah, I write at the end of March.  Soon all skiers will pack up their gear until next winter.  This has been a strange year.  Snow came much later than usual.  Then, again, what can one say is “usual” about New England weather?

It is at this time of year that my mind tends to recreate in memory my year as interim Director of Albert Schweitzer College.  In 1963, we were concluding a sabbatical year in Cambridge, England, when my wife arrived home from the green grocer, as the English call him, in late afternoon.  She told me that she had seen the Reverend Stuart Carter, who parked his car in a garage down De Freville Avenue from our house.  He had told her that Ted Ritter, the director at Albert Schweitzer College in Churwalden, Graubünden (that is, the Grisons), Switzerland, had died unexpectedly and that the college had contacted him and other former members of the board, to suggest possible candidates to fill in for a year, until a permanent director could be installed.  Stuart had suggested that I consider doing it.  My wife and I laughed, when she reported the conversation, but, at supper, we began to speculate as to whether it would be possible.  We visited Stuart and his wife Norah.  Stuart offered us some whisky, which, he bragged, was “imported.”  Now, I would have preferred a whisky from north of the border, in dear Scotland, but we had to make do with Canadian!

The upshot of our discussion was that I would write Len Mead, the Provost of Tufts University, and ask whether, if things worked out in Switzerland, I could request another year’s leave of absence.  Since we had been planning to spend the summer on the continent before returning to the U.S., it was the easiest thing to swing up into Switzerland and meet with the board of the Albert Schweitzer College.  Len responded “Yes,” as long as I let Tufts know by the following April whether I planned to return.

There were, as I recall, two distinctive things about the village of Churwalden: The Post Hotel, and, at the other end of the main street, a huge pile of manure.  When, years later, we visited Churwalden and I saw that the pile was no longer there, I knew the town, regretfully, had changed.  Sure enough, I looked up to the surrounding slopes and saw many ski chalets.  (I preferred the manure!)

The college board inviting me to take over for a year, we continued our tour of the continent and then settled in an apartment in the college building.  Among other formalities to be settled was the placing of our children in the village school.  The school board of the town came to visit us.  They decided that our two daughters were old enough to attend school, but, not our son, although he had attended school in England.  When we returned to the U.S., our son told his friends that the first year abroad he had attended “infant school” - as the Brits call it - and the second year he had attended college in Switzerland!

So it was that we became Swiss for a year.  I’m not sure that the town fathers particularly appreciated my presence.  They informed Erika Weibel that I must pay a fee, since I would not be serving on the volunteer fire department.  I asked Erika to inform them that I wanted to serve.  They told her that I would not understand the commands.  I refused to pay the fee.  But, that was just one of several misunderstandings I had with the powers that be in the Gemeinde - that is, community.  All of them mediated by trustworthy Erika.

Now, I am tempted to report on activities at the college during the whole year, but, I must resist.  Although, at some point, I should tell you what happened when we received the news that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated!

It was in late March 1964 that I expressed doubt to Jacques Casparis that it was wise for him to lead  members of the student body of college up the road from Churwalden to the ski lift at Lenzerheide, pointing out that the snow had melted in the early spring sun and had hardened into ice.  But, he assured me that he would make sure that Herr Direktor Professor Doktor Cassara and the students who chose to come along would be safe in his hands.

My suspicions were correct.  When I reached the top of the mountain, it was clear that there was much ice to contend with.  What to do?  Walk down the mountain, or attempt to ski down cautiously?  Now, an experienced skier may have made it down without incident. But, I was not that experienced skier.  I headed down, as carefully as I knew how.  But, soon, I tumbled over.  I picked myself up and walked the rest of the way down.

At the bottom, my right ankle felt strange.  Looking down, I discovered a bulge the size of a small onion.  Back in Churwalden, I visited the town doctor, who, also, served as the college medico. “Oh! Herr Direktor, I fear it is broken!”

The good doctor arranged for me to visit a surgeon down the mountain seven miles at Chur, the capital of the Canton.  Erika Weible accompanied me, referring to me as “Doktor Cassara” to all and sundry.

When, I entered the surgeon’s office, who, by the way, was referred to as “Professor,” for, with all of the experience of the Swiss in ski country setting of bones, he taught, as well as practiced medicine.  He picked up the X-Ray and invited me to join him at the window.  Pointing to the fracture,  he said, as I was aware, that if we set it in a cast, the ankle might give way from time to time.  If he operated and inserted a “nagel” (a piece of metal to hold the pieces of bone together), it would heal perfectly.

He turned to me, “What do you think, Doktor?” 

I responded, “Whatever you think, Professor Doktor.”

He looked at me, puzzled.  “Are you not a Doktor?”

“Oh, yes!  A Ph.D.!”

“Oh, well, if that is the case, we operate!”


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