The Storyteller: Nixon’s resignation

I distinctly remember when President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974. I was 9 years old, and I was playing over at the house of my friends, Matt and Grant Robbins, whose parents had recently purchased and moved into what is now called St. Clement Vineyards on Highway 29.

“What do you want to do now?” asked Matt.

“I’m fine just hanging out,” I said.

I was looking out the window of the attic playroom, amazed by how far I could see over the Napa Valley.

We’d spent most of the day out in the woods behind the house searching for a cave that was reportedly hidden somewhere near the old cistern, which we never found. After hours of searching through poison oak-covered hillsides, we’d headed back.

The house was spectacular: a grand mansion situated on the side of a hill with vineyard terraces stepping down toward the road and thickly treed slopes behind. Inside the house a sweeping staircase lifted through multiple floors, each one with long beadboard-lined halls and thick oak doors that opened to small, brightly lit, ornately decorated rooms, most of them in light blues and whites.

A narrow, twisting stairway led to the attic, where a playroom had been constructed with an M.C. Escher-like ceiling with wonderfully interesting angles making it feel like the room was the center of some crystalline geode. The room, a kid’s dream, was full of games such as “Twister,” “Mouse Trap” and “Monopoly.” An addictive pachinko machine covered in Japanese symbols and lettering was in the far corner near where I stood at an octagonal window.

“Boys,” a deep voice boomed from below. It was Matt’s father, whom I’d rarely heard speak before. His voice and demeanor were as stern as a ship’s captain’s.

“I’d like you to come downstairs to witness this,” he called.

I’d never been asked to witness anything, so the word caught me off-guard and made me a little nervous. I looked at Matt and he shrugged.

“We’ll be down in a minute,” Matt yelled back.

“Can I just stay up here?” I asked.

“Better come down,” Matt said, as he put the finishing touches on a Lincoln Log cabin he’d been building.

I reluctantly pulled myself from the view and we headed down the staircase. Matt slid down the handrail, the sound of the TV increasing as we descended.

In a small room lined with bookshelves Mr. Robbins sat in a leather-bound high-backed chair, his face even more stern than normal. He made no indication he’d noticed our arrival but instead looked angrily toward the TV set in the corner of the room. On the floor my brother, Scott, and Matt’s brother, Grant, sat cross-legged on the floor while Mrs. Robbins stood to the side holding a blue and white dishtowel that she twisted distractedly.

Matt sat on the floor and indicated that I should do the same. But I couldn’t, unnerved as I was by the somberness of the scene.

At home I’d heard whisperings of something bad happening in our country, and I imagined that this was something related. I knew a war had recently ended, but I’d heard that many kids had been killed in the war, and I worried that another war might be starting. At school we often practiced air-raid drills when an alarm would sound and the teacher would yell for us to get under our desks. From under the desk I watched most other children treat this drill as a game, but I was planning how I might escape after a bomb dropped, crouched looking out, seeing my teacher under her desk, above her the American flag flanked by the picture of our president.

Matt repeated his encouragement for me to sit down on the floor, but I shook my head and instead stepped back to stand near the doorway, finding comfort in the afternoon light streaming through the colored glass of the front door down the hall only a few yards away.

“I have never been a quitter,” he was saying. “To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body.”

Mr. Robbins’ body grew stiff and his jaw clinched. Mrs. Robbins ceased twisting her towel, and her hands now hung limply at her sides.

The president continued, but I wasn’t listening. Instead I watched Mrs. Robbins as she repeatedly lifted the towel to one eye and then another. Her shoulders shuddered slightly as Mr. Robbins cleared his throat.

The speech continued, ending with these words:

“To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God’s grace be with you in all the days ahead.”

When I looked back to the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Robbins their expressions had changed. Instead of fear and anger they now seemed to show something different, a sense of resolve and determination, as if they knew they were strong and resilient and we would survive, whatever was ahead. Their expressions seemed to say that there would be tough days ahead, but with vigilance and integrity we’d make it through this, like we’ve made it through other tough patches in the past. There would be epic challenges in the days ahead, but those are other stories.

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Originally published in the St. Helena Star, January 2017