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Witness to history recalls White House visits

Bruce Chapin Duncan recalls dropping his parents off at the house on the 1600 block for Saturday afternoon tea.

"My father told me to come back in an hour and a half to pick them up," he says. "I was driving our 1938 Packard. I just drove right in and let them out. The gate was open.

"Can you imagine anyone doing that today?" he asks.

Not even in your dreams.

After all, we're talking about THE White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Duncan, 86, of Ashland, is talking about another place in time.

This was just prior to World War II when his father, Claude E. Duncan, an Air Force pilot who would retire as a brigadier general, was stationed in Washington, D.C.

"My father and mother (Genevive) would get invitations for afternoon teas at the White House," Bruce Chapin Duncan says. "I remember that happened at least three times. My mother played bridge with Eleanor Roosevelt. My mother was one of her bridge partners."

He doesn't recall who won.

"My mother's mother — my grandmother — remembered on New Year's Day when the White House was open to everybody," he says. "She used to go in each year. She remembered meeting Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, in the White House."

Like most Americans, he is thinking about the White House of late, what with President-elect Barack Obama's upcoming inaugural.

Unlike the majority of Americans, he was not among those who voted for Obama.

"I've always admired Jimmy Carter," he says of his favorite president. "My father's favorite president was Harry Truman. He felt Truman was a straight talker who thought before he spoke and didn't beat around the bush."

Duncan is a soft-spoken fellow who also demonstrates that rare trait of thinking before he speaks. He served as an enlisted man in the Navy during World War II, beginning in 1942.

He would retire from management in a medical corporation specializing in training programs.

"I was a military brat," he says of his childhood. "Times were more open, more free. People could do a lot of things they can't do now."

Such as driving the family's Packard up to the White House.

That was the second time Duncan had been to the White House. The first was on Jan. 20, 1941, the day of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third inaugural ceremony.

"My dad was given a pass to be in the grandstand — he gave the ticket to me," Duncan explains. "He may have had to be away on a flight during the inaugural. General Arnold required that all pilots keep up on their flying."

He was referring to his father's boss — Brig. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, a pioneering military pilot and chief of staff of the Air Corps. The young Duncan accompanied Eleanor Pool Arnold and David Arnold, the commanding officer's wife and son respectively, to the reviewing stand in front of the White House, where they watched military bands and VIPs parade past.

"To us there has come a time, in the midst of swift happenings, to pause for a moment and take stock — to recall what our place in history has been, and to rediscover what we are and what we may be," FDR said in part during his speech that day at the capital.

After delivering his inaugural address, FDR was driven to the White House, where Duncan and the Arnolds had just left the reviewing stand.

"We were walking back to where our cars were parked on Constitution Avenue," Duncan says. "As we were walking along the fence right there by the White House, the president and his dog, Fala, were driven right by us. They were very close, four or five feet.

"Like an idiot, I didn't have a camera," he continues. "I could have gotten a beautiful picture. The car was going very slowly."

The president had on his trademark sparkling smile while the first pooch had his Scottish Terrier paws parked on the edge of the car window.

"There was no big security," Duncan reiterates. "It was just the driver, FDR and the dog. There were no Secret Service guards on the running boards or anything like that. It was a different time for our nation."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.