The customary (if slightly premature) Birthnight Ball honoring the memory of George Washington was tendered in good order Saturday by the Mount Vernon Citizen's Association in Alexandria.
Gov. and Mrs. John N. Dalton were up from Richmond and celebrated their own 22nd wedding anniversary with the first dance of the evening, following a collation of 18th-century dishes.
The governor said he wanted to "share with you" the mounting crisis of the coal strike, and said everyone should go home and turn down the thermostat and save on power by turning off some lights. Some of the power companies in Virginia operate almost entirely on coal and have only 22 days' supply left, he said, but althoug he has been to the White House where some other governors and President Carter all presumably shared their alarm. Dalton had no words of comfort about how to settle the strike.
He did remind the whole company that he is freeing state money for the new subway system here, so gloom did not settle too heavily over the feast at the Belle Haven Country Club.
"Two centuries ago tonight," muttered a substantial gentleman in black tie who had worked his way through the stuffed veal and artichoke hearts, "there were guys barefoot at Valley Forge."
A a matter of fact, this was in the minds of virtually the entire company of 300, though cynics say Americans now have trouble remembering anything before Barbara Walters or "Jaws."
"Barefoot and bleeding," the man said. "And here we asked to sacrifice by turning down our thermostats."
It did occur to many, do doubt, that 200 years to the day Washington was at the nadir of his fortunes, his army narrowly escaping total destruction, and the British bold as brass marching right into Philadelphia itself, while an ineffectual Congress nattered at the conduct of the war.
At the Birthnight Ball, there were no reminders of those grim and terrible days - unless you reckon the scuppernong wine and peanut soup as afflictions from the past.
Instead the room was lit by candles. except for some dimly watted gleams up in the vast old brass chandelier.
Youngsters played Haydn and Mozart on strings (Richard Woehrle, Bruce Davidson, Mario deLeon, Elisabeth Buchal) and everyone's martial fire was stirred by the fife and drum maneuvers of the Mount Vernon Guard, the fifes sounding much like titmice in a field of sunflowers.
Thanks to narrows passages between tables, some of the boys had trouble making their 180-degree turns and old Baron von Steuben would have been livid. (Steuben was Washington's inspector, who spoke no English but devised all manner of fancy drill exercises for the troops, and these were some of Steuben's inventions, it was announced. When things were not done flawlessly at Valley Forge, Steuben used to roar to his assistant to "curse them in English," since he himself lacked the art.)
But to the Birthnight crowd, the music and maneuvers were as flawless as necessary, and few really desired a set of Prussian metronomes, and considered the tribute to Washington none the worse for a few collisions.
Of course it is different when you are fully grown and called on to execute a minuet or a reel.
The couples, all in 18th-century costumes, had rehearsed "endless hours" so there would be no mishaps, and their performance was memorable.
"What's happened to the line?" demanded a fellow going through the receiving line early in the evening, only to see it falling away here and there before his eyes.
"Oh," said Mrs. John F. McMahon Jr., cochairman of the ball, "I'm sure they'll be back, they're just ducking out to rehearse their minuet."
Brig. Gen. A. W. Lyon (USA, Ret.) and his wife took the part of George and Martha Washington; Mr. and Mrs. Bushrod C. Washington Jr. (descended) from George Washington's brother) took the part of the George Masons of Gunston Hall, and other modern Virginians were costumed to represent other 18th-century notables.
In the candlelight one could see (two tables over) a stunning young woman obviously a Spanish princess waiting for Goya. But most of the room suggested Jane Austen more than a Spanish court. Matrons beamed satisfaction at having got to their hairdressers despite the weathr, and kept and eye on their daughters.
Sober gentlemen - with iron stomachs - methodically drank any extra glasses of the scuppernong wine sitting about, one man managing four - and Mrs. Robert G. Culberston in black with a waterfall of diamonds down her throat barely ate, in preparation for the time when she would lead the entire room in singing "God Bless America."
Judge William Archer Royall, master of ceremonies in white tie, took the liberty of introducing his sons, which was not strictly necessary since they were not on the program and had not come from any remote place like Baltimore, but everybody craned around to see them and clapped.
Judge Royall, an administrative law judge for the Interstate Commerce Commission, who had a good bit to do reading his notes and introducing the governor and announcing the drums and fifes, and who does not have the eyes of a mere youth, said he hoped everybody appreciated his trying to do the job by candlelight instead of turning of a few floods. The governor, still anxious about power shortages, nodded approval.
Col. Jackson Miles Abbott told a woman at his table that the amazing and incredible bird she had spotted in her garden was simply a grossbeak eating hawthorn berries. Someone who knew the colonel is a paramount authority on the bald eagle asked how they were doing, and he said there are 90 nesting pairs in the Chesapeake region.
(In 1940 there were 200 pairs, and in colonial times 300 pairs, he said. The nearest ones to Washington are at Mason's Neck, 20 miles south of town. Both DDT and Kepone did in the eagles, he said, but they are building up again, refurbishing old abandoned nests, some of them 8 feet wide and 100 years old.)
Young Medora Abbott asked her father if he'd like a drink but he said no, adding the bald eagle situation could of course be much worse. The governor led his wife to the dance floor, and some of the old folk speculated the republic had not gone completely to hell - however nearly - and some of the young people got that twitchy look preparatory to falling apart in the dance, in the modern way.
George Mason Meadows and his wife had come up from Conroe, Tex., for the occasion, which gave an international flavor to the ball, and word passed steadily through the evening about which young couples were expecting children within the next year, and if the heat of the dance floor became oppressive, people foved a fun feet off it - sometimes even into the next room where there were chairs. But in general the excitement was manageable and the evening went well and the citizens showed that pacific temper of mind to which Washington, in his day, exhorted us all.