December 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 8
Any magazine editor can tell you about the mysterious way certain issues seem to take on a life of their own, overrule your decisions, turn stubborn and idiosyncratic. I’d thought right along I had a pretty good handle on this one, and I was startled when, with press time looming, a colleague congratulated me on a festive holiday number that managed to include a disquisition on the perils of smoking, a look at social disease in the military, and a lot of warfare. Even as I rather lamely protested, “There’s taxicabs,” I took the point. But even so, looking the issue over, I find that a good deal of its contents seems somehow to chime properly with the season.
There’s Gene Smith’s atmospheric essay on the old Regular Army, for instance, that little group of professionals who soldiered along through the pinched days between the two world wars, ignored or disdained as a costly anachronism. The holidays are a time for tales of far and fantastic places—Oz, the North Pole, wherever it was the wooden soldiers marched from—and nothing could seem farther away or more fantastic than that army. For all the necessary gritty detail about soldiers’ lives, there is something magical about it—the feudal rift between officers and enlisted men, the never-never land of teas and white gloves and boxing teams and the China Station, a society that knew only itself; it’s more remote from our world, in a way, than the Army of the Potomac.
Edward Sorel’s history of the taxicab comes to us trailing a story that has a holiday-appropriate happy ending. A few years back the great investment house of Dreyfus reluctantly decided to move its offices out of Manhattan. Both city and state greeted this with such urgent dismay—and such persuasive alternatives—that Howard Stein, the Dreyfus CEO, changed his mind. Mr. Stein ratified this commitment to his hometown by assembling a fine collection of paintings of New York City from Dutch times to the present. He credits his employees with the idea, but he adopted it enthusiastically enough to go beyond collecting to commissioning. The taxi epic is one result, and the series has already joined its predecessors in the Dreyfus offices.
As far as the nostalgia inherent in the season goes, I defy any ex-smoker to look, in the cigarette story, at the 1936 ad outlining how Camels should be deployed during a holiday dinner without feeling profoundly wistful for the time when a smoke was considered no more toxic than a plate of iceberg lettuce.
And then there’s the Revolution. It was fought through blazing summers, and the Yorktown victory chronicled—and wonderfully illustrated—by Private Flohr in this issue was won in the golden weather that in autumn makes the York peninsula a plausible substitute for heaven. But we tend to imagine it as a winter war. Part of this may be the white misery of Valley Forge, but mostly it’s the attack on Trenton, when the dregs of a beaten army crossed the Delaware on December 25 and made their night-long march through a snowstorm to save a cause that, as Gordon Wood reminds us in his interview, was perhaps the most important people ever fought for.
May your holiday be as satisfactory as (and less arduous than) the one spent by that handful of Continentals who worked a Christmas miracle of their own, deep in the winter of 1776.