I always looked forward to hurricanes that were headed our way.
Usually my best girlfriend Louise would come over to spend the night. Her parents thought our house was better built than theirs, and they wanted their little girl to be in the safest place possible. On the other hand, they always stayed at their house because if a hurricane did hit they wanted to be there to protect their personal property.
We spent the whole night in front of the television set watching the weather updates. I sat on Daddy’s lap as the weatherman told us that the storm had made landfall south of Miami and was turning northwest, right toward our town.
A few times I got scared, but Daddy just put his arms around me and told me everything was going to be all right. “And if it does hit our house, all that means is that we’ll have to move to another house, and we’ve done that many times. You’re used to that. And if we do get killed in the hurricane, well, we won’t have to be worried about them anymore, will we?”
By the time the hurricane reached out town it was a tropical storm, and just rained a lot, which made Louise and me very sleepy and we went on to bed. When we thought Daddy and Mommy were good and asleep we’d sneak out of my bedroom and get the ice cream out of the freezer, grab two spoons and go back to bed, eating ice cream. In the morning Louise’s mom picked her up. We could tell she had been crying all night, worrying that she would never see her little girl again. She was certain they would lose everything they owned and they’d never have anything ever again for the rest of their lives.
For a moment, I thought I should tell Louise’s mom what Daddy told me, but decided she didn’t really want any advice from an eleven-year-old girl. I never told my parents how I felt about hurricanes, but I suspected they knew, the same way they knew we had raided the freezer and ate ice cream.
One day when I was planning the next adventure for Louise and me, Daddy said in a casual way, “You know, I had a best friend when I was your age. He was about two years older than me, just like Louise is two years older than you. So he became a teen-ager before I did and things changed. It’s not like we weren’t friends any more, but we were becoming different people.”
Sure enough, in a couple of years Louise became a teen-ager and our friendship was never the same as it was when she would come over and watch the hurricane news on television.
We’re both grown-up now, and I miss the late night weather watches. Not so much about Louise but—I miss sitting on Daddy’s lap, having his arms around me, hearing him whispering in my ear, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.”
I love to tell stories and I never let the truth get in the way of a good one. But if you want the truth, just ask a veteran for a story. My friend Ken Leach of Gainesville, Texas, has a doozy about a German prisoner of war (POW), the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Lake Texoma.
Ken was in the Navy in 1964 and happened to be stationed in Japan at the time of the Olympic Games. He was enjoying his view from the stands when someone tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around he saw a middle-aged man grinning at him.
“So you are from America?” the man asked in a German accent.
When Ken replied that he was, the German then asked where. After Ken told him Texas, he beamed even bigger and said, “I was a prisoner of war in Texas!”
Ken offered his new acquaintance the location of his home, Gainesville, the gentleman exclaimed, “That’s where my camp was!”
Many small towns around the United States had military installations during World War II. The town where I’m living now, Brooksville, FL, had an Army air field where B-17 bomber pilots were trained. Gainesville’s Camp Howze had training facilities and a POW camp. When I was a child my mother would drive me out to the site of Camp Howze. By then there was nothing left except concrete block foundations and an occasional set of steps leading to nowhere.
My father operated an ice cream truck at Camp Howze. As a boy on the farm my dad caught a splinter in the eye because he was too close to his brother who was chopping wood. Dad didn’t pass the physical for the Army because he was blind in one eye. Not being able to serve his country in time of war bothered Dad the rest of his life, so he always bought a red plastic poppy on Memorial Day. Now you may think that wasn’t much but my father was tight with his money. One year he asked me what was the least amount of money he could give me to make me happy for Christmas. So for Dad to go out of his way and voluntarily donate to veterans was a big deal.
Every camp had work details to keep the prisoners busy during their stay here in the United States. At Camp Howze, the POWs were trucked every morning to the construction site of Lake Texoma on the Red River. Truth be told it didn’t look as pretty as it did in the John Wayne movie of the 1940s, so I think a California river played the title role. The POWs cut underbrush and hauled out debris so that after the dam was completed and the lake filled up, anyone who fell off their water skis would not be poked by an errant tree branch. When Lake Texoma was officially open, it was the fifth largest man-made reservoir in the country for about two and a half minutes. Another reservoir was built somewhere out west and passed it by.
The camp had a regular routine for their guests from Germany. First thing in the morning they were fed a large warm breakfast. Around noon, they were given a sack lunch and after the closing whistle in the afternoon, they were trucked back to camp where a large hot meal awaited them. This was a better schedule than they followed when they were taking orders from that crazy SOB Hitler.
One afternoon, however, Ken’s affable acquaintance from the Tokyo Olympics did not hear the whistle which told them to run for the truck. After chopping away at the brush a little while longer, he began to wonder when they were going to blow that whistle. When he walked to the usual loading area, he realized no one was there. He was stuck there on the banks of the Red River without a way to get back to camp and his dinner. His only alternative was to hike down to the country road which would lead back to Camp Howze. Who knew when he would be fed because the camp was more than thirty miles away. His heart raced when he heard a truck engine behind him as he trudged down the narrow highway.
Looking behind him, the POW saw an old pickup truck coming towards him driven by an old Texas farmer. Two things made the upcoming encounter a bit chancy—the German wore the striped uniform which easily identified him as a POW and this was a farmer in his pickup and he probably had a shotgun on a rack on the back of the cab. One more thing—the POW spoke very little English and you know darned well that a Texas farmer in the 1940s didn’t speak German.
Luckily, he was able to communicate to the farmer his situation and the Texan said—I’m paraphrasing here—“Why shore, hop on in, boy. I’m goin’ that way.”
The German completed his story to my friend Ken in the Tokyo Olympic stadium and grinned. “I like Gainesville, Texas.”
Like any good story, this has a moral to it, in addition to a lot more truth than I’m used to telling. We all know the United States joined together in military strength to defeat our foes in World War II. But when it came to how we treated the German prisoners of war, we joined together in heart and soul to make them friends.
Right before choir class began, the school bully came in and sat next to me. It wasn’t his usual seat. He put his arm around my shoulders.
In 1965 Texas that meant I was a homosexual, and he was my—well I don’t know what to call him since he was implying he wasn’t a homosexual, just me. When he had pulled that stunt on other guys, smaller than he, the victim was supposed to jerk away and glare at him, and he would laugh maniacally.
I didn’t do that. I just stared straight ahead, not moving a muscle. After a long moment, he patted my arm and pulled away. That wasn’t the first time he had done something. He liked to make fun of what I wore, threaten to beat me up after school and sing loud in my ear during a choir concert to throw me off key. The usual bully crap. Later one of my friends lectured me for not following the accepted custom of pulling away and glaring at him.
“Don’t you know what that means?”
Yes, I did, and I didn’t care. At that time I had a life-threatening crush on a girl half a year older than me so I knew I wasn’t a homosexual and I was convinced that if the girl didn’t like me as much as I liked her my life would be over.
By the end of the school year, the bully and I came up to the water fountain at the same time.
“You don’t like me, do you?” He looked rather pitiful at that moment.
“No, you’re okay.” I was still too infatuated with the older girl to wax righteous about whether or not he was likeable.
By the end of the next school year my worst fear came true. The older girl did not like me in the same way I liked her. I went to college, and the girl and the bully went on to their own lives. I heard later he became an evangelist.
However, throughout my adult life I have found whenever another man puts his arm around my shoulders, a traditional sign of brotherly affection, I stiffen and slightly pull away, which has short-circuited some friendships. By and large, the incident did not keep me from marrying the right woman, having two wonderful children and enjoying a host of good friends in my older years.
This memory re-emerges briefly when I read in the newspaper another child who kills himself because he was bullied, or he himself becomes the killer. I see bullying become a legitimate campaign tactic. I hear people comment on the Millennial activism, “Those kids have to be given hot chocolate just because an election didn’t go their way.” That statement in itself is a form of bullying. I wonder about official school policies that state a person has to have more than one incident by the same person in order to be considered a bullying victim. Sometimes television situation comedies will show the best way to handle a bully is to be a bully right back at him.
I think about how much one minor incident affected my life and how long-term, vicious harassment can be devastating for anyone who is too skinny, too heavy, too awkward, too different. Don’t feel sorry for us. Don’t put your arm around us. Teach your children to respect everyone. Practice compassion yourself.
Sometimes I catch myself trying to remember the way to the old neighborhood store to buy candy or a popsicle. First off, the street was paved, but not really. It was really just patches on top of patches surrounded by hot Texas summer dirt.
By July, the bottoms of my feet had toughed up so the hot asphalt didn’t bother me. I turned right, which was generally north—all of the streets made a lot of slight turns so nothing was due north, south, east or west. Our next door neighbor was a nice old man, Mr. McDaniel who always had some relative living with him. Across the street was a young couple with two little kids who lived in a renovated Army barracks left over from World War II. Eventually they moved out to a nicer house in a nicer neighborhood. They didn’t talk to us much after that. The wife’s mother lived next to them in a regular house. I was kinda scared of her. I don’t know why.
Next to Mr. McDaniels were two houses, and I don’t think I ever met anyone who lived there. At the end of the block was a rambling old farm house with a wrap-around front porch and it needed a coat of paint. The woman who lived there ran the washateria where we took our clothes after my mother died.
Down the intersecting dirt road were a bunch of ramshackle old houses. My parents strictly forbade me to walk down that road because that’s where the black people. Except they didn’t say black people. They didn’t even use the word colored. They said a word I won’t use here. I know what it was. You know what it was. We all know what it was. No need to repeat it here.
We could see the shacks on that road from our backdoor. One morning I watched a black hearse parked out front of one of the houses. A group of men in black suits carried a coffin down the stairs. The people in the yard cried. It struck me that if black people cried in sorrow the same way we did when someone died, why did we have to be afraid of them? And if we weren’t afraid of them, why could I not walk down the street where they lived?
But I was trying to remember the way to the store, where the people on the dirt road could not shop. Beyond the intersection was a big vacant spot with lots of trees. Sometimes there was a tall pile of sand there, but I wasn’t allowed to play in it.
At the next intersection was another patched-over paved road leading to the bridge over Pecan Creek. We went that way when we were going to church or visit my mother’s relatives. If we kept going up the street my house was on, we got to the high school and downtown. On the other side of that intersection was the store. I hardly remember ever going in the older building. It was like all the country stores you’ve ever seen pictures of. I don’t know if it had a cracker barrel or not.
The owner became sick, and his wife panicked, marking up all the prices to pay for the doctor bills. All that did was make the neighbors get in their cars and drive north into town to shop at the fancy new supermarkets. They went out of business even faster. Eventually, he died and the widow moved away.
Someone then bought the land, rented the old building to an upholsterer and build a long, wide building which had a laundromat (I don’t know why this one was called a laundromat and the other one in town was called a washateria). On the other end of the building was a grocery with gas pumps outside. We’d call it a convenience store today.
I remember the owner had a huge selection of plastic flowers for sale in the back. It also had the best selection of candy and ice cream I’d ever seen. Of course, I was just a little barefoot boy in a small Texas town so what did I know?
They also had a bunch of knickknacks which I bought from time to time as birthday and Christmas presents for my parents. In particular I remember saving my nickels and dimes to buy a ceramic vase for my mother’s birthday. She often commented on how cute she thought it was when she came in the store. The surprise was ruined when my mother confronted me because the change in my pocket didn’t match what it should be since it was left over from my lunch allowance. So I had to tell her I was holding back some to buy her a gift. She felt bad, but she pulled the same thing when my brother put aside money from his part-time job to buy her a nice coat from a local woman’s clothing store.
I liked going to the store because there was always time to chat and tell jokes. The ladies working there were like aunts, except they were nicer than my real aunts. By the time I became a teen-ager, they had closed the store and moved to a new convenience store across the Pecan Creek bridge. They didn’t treat me as nice then, but I suppose it’s easier to like little kids than teen-agers.
So, yes. I do remember the way to the store. All the old neighbors are gone. All the stores are empty or torn down. I don’t think I’d like to walk down that street now that I’m old. I’d rather remember the days when I scampered barefoot without a care but with a coin to buy candy.
I am the worst person in the world about getting shots. My son is almost as bad as I am. We’d make terrible heroin addicts.
My wife and daughter are better. Why is it women are braver patients than men? Most women can give birth in the morning and plow the back forty in the afternoon. One woman in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood had a caesarean section by Saracen sword one day and stormed the castle the next. Of course, that was a movie.
My wife said she wasn’t good about getting shots when she was a child. One time the doctor came by the house to give her an injection, and she jumped around the bed to avoid the needle. He caught her mid-bounce in the buttocks. After that she calmed down. When my daughter got her first inoculation she looked at her arm and said, “Hmph, that hurt.”
My son, on the other hand, shuddered with tears welling in his eyes, pleading with the doctor not to stick him. And that was last week. He’s thirty-eight years old and a prison guard. Just kidding. He shuddered when he was eight. He takes it like a man now. He shudders on the inside, just like me.
Back in the 1950s, the schools gave polio shots regularly to elementary school students. You had no warning. There you were, sitting in the classroom just about ready to doze off, when the next thing you knew the teacher was herding you down the hall to your doom. The needles back then were huge and dull. I could swear that they had been using the same needles that they had used on soldiers in World War II, just to save money.
Of course, getting an inoculation is nothing like having blood drawn. From the time I first discovered the fact that doctors, on a regular basis, stuck dull needles in your veins to extract copious amount of blood, I lived in fear that one day I would have to undergo such torture. When it eventually happened, I had to be placed on a gurney and my mother hovered over my face as the nurse drew the blood. And I’ll never forget her kind words.
“You’re being a big baby over this and embarrassing me to death.”
Over the years I have not gotten much better. At least my wife never told me I was a big baby nor acted like she was embarrassed when I almost passed out on the clinic floor. By the way, women faint and men pass out; at least that’s what my brother told me. He was a Marine so he should know.
Doctors actually have a name for the condition, and it is not cowardice. It’s Latin so I can’t remember it. When your nervous system thinks it’s losing volumes of its life-giving fluid, your blood pressure drops dramatically so the blood won’t flow out so fast. Not surprisingly, mostly men have it.
A few years at the hospital a male nurse couldn’t find the vein. In another aside, I think women draw blood better than men. Call me a sexist. Anyway, by the time he had thumped both arms several times and finally stuck in the needle, I was light headed. They rushed me over to the emergency room because they thought I had a seizure. Nope. It was just manly nervous Nellie disease.
I have discovered if I keep babbling on about something inconsequential the attendant can draw the blood and get me out of the building before my blood pressure drops. Once I quoted “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
I’m memorizing the Gettysburg Address for next time.
Here I’ve reached the age of 70, and I don’t know what existentialism is.
Teachers talked about it. Those French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about it. Even movies are made about existentialism. “Taxi Driver” and “Annie Hall” were about it but you couldn’t prove it by me. One was very violent, and the other was very funny.
I like to write stuff. Some of it is violent and some funny. What if I were an existentialist and didn’t even know it?
I have looked the word up in the dictionary, and what was there didn’t explain it to me. I even went to other dictionaries and they didn’t help either. You’d think that someplace on the internet someone could come up with clear definition, but no.
For a long time, like forty years, I have faked being smart. I call it the old smile and nod. No matter what the conversation is about. This is particularly helpful when the topic is religion or politics. No one can get mad at you if you give them the old smile and nod. I’m also a little deaf in both ears. In the case of not understanding what was being said, I add in the knowing chuckle with the smile and nod. I don’t know if I actually fooled anyone. Most of them had the decency not to expose my ignorance.
Once I got up the courage to ask my wife what existentialism meant. She had a master’s degree in criminal justice and spent a career observing people and writing reports to judges about whether to send someone to prison or not. That’s a very serious job so I figured she must understand existentialism.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she replied and went back to one of her books about biblical archeology or the theory of the black Athena.
When you reach the age of 70 you realize that you don’t have to fake anything anymore because most of the people you were afraid of disappointing with your ignorance have probably already passed on. And who cares what the people younger than you think. They don’t write my paycheck. That’s mostly because I don’t get a paycheck anymore.
One time I asked three people who went to great effort to appear intelligent about existentialism. All of them had highly cogent observations on the condition of mankind, but none of them knew what existentialism was. It was such a relief.
Perhaps it is enough that I have made it through most of my life without inflicting major discomfort on anyone within reasonable distance of my space. If I have not made a fortune, at least I have never taken food or shelter away from anyone else. If I have not done anything to save the world, at least I have given people a smile along the way.
I don’t know what existentialism is.
It is what it is.
I am what I am.
That is enough.
My father’s idea of being cultured was to lift his leg downwind of company when he needed to pass gas.
My mother thought anyone who liked opera, ballet or Shakespeare was a pretentious snob.
So why I consider myself an esthete is really a mystery. An esthete, by the way, is a person who derives great pleasure from exposure to beautiful things, like art, music, theater, dance, literature and the list goes on. It doesn’t mean I’m a snob. It just mean that I get the same stress relief from artistic stuff that many people get from watching sports or participating in sports.
I once heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say he got more pleasure out of lifting weight than from making love. And he was elected governor of California. Go figure.
All I got out of exercise was a lot of sweat, panting and an excruciating pain in my side. And I never did see any amazing results in my body either.
Now I always did get excited when Shakespeare was going to be performed on television. I remember a production of MacBeth with Maurice Evans (he was the condescending ape in Planet of the Apes) and Judith Anderson (she played the queen of the Vulcans in a Star Trek movie). It was filmed in Scotland. I didn’t understand half of what being said but I still liked it. Then there was Hamlet with Lawrence Harvey (he was the brainwashed guy in Manchurian Candidate). I understood a little more of the dialogue and liked it even better.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember why I even was allowed to watch those plays. If there had been a western on at the same time my father would have insisted on watching that instead. Maybe he had to work late or went to bed early. Anyway, I did get to see them and felt like windows had been opened to my soul. Come to think of it, my mother did refer to me as a little snob from time to time.
Opera eluded me for years, but I always liked ballet. A touring group came to our high school for an assembly program. Afterwards a football player said, “Hey, look at me, I’m a ballerina!” He took a few goofy-looking leaps but stopped and panted. “Hey,” he said in a moment of self-revelation. “That’s kinda hard.”
My mother-in-law didn’t approve of ballet because certain features of the male anatomy were too obviously on display. I always wondered how come she could ignore the beautiful music, the costumes, the sets and the graceful movements and just concentrate on that one thing. Dirty old broad.
As I said, opera took the longest for me to appreciate. I think part of it was that the singers belt out the songs like they have to be heard in the next county. When arias are lightly tossed out to waft on the breeze they become inspiring and lift the burdens of everyday life.
The same is true for symphonic music or chorale. I’m not that great of a singer but I have been lucky enough to sing a few times in large groups performing Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. To be completely surrounded by such music takes me to another, better place.
I appreciate all forms of art, from the Old Masters to Jackson Pollack. Once I picked up my daughter from a birthday party at the home of a very successful lawyer. He was so successful he had a helicopter pad in the front yard in case he was needed in Miami or Nashville real fast. We were talking in the living room with my daughter’s friend, the birthday girl, when my eyes strayed to a wall where was hanging a small dark oil painting of something Polynesian. I squinted and thought I saw a very famous signature. I walked over and, sure enough, it was signed “Gaugin.” I turned to the girl, 13 or 14, and said respectfully, “May I touch it?”
She shrugged and replied, “Sure, why not?”
My daughter was, as usual, was mortified. My fingertips lightly ran across the surface, feeling the brushstrokes.
“Do you know what this is?” I said, continuing to act like a groupie backstage at a rock concert.
“I don’t know. Just something daddy picked up somewhere.”
“This is a Gaugin,” I said and proceeded to give a brief history of the French artist who palled around with Van Gogh and painted naked women in Tahiti. If anyone asked to touch a Gaugin in an art museum he would be escorted from the building and kicked down the stairs.
By this time my daughter realized her daddy wasn’t just being his usual goofy self and asked if she could touch it too. The girl thought we were nuts but let us stroke the little painting all we wanted.
So that’s why I’m an esthete. You don’t have to own the art. You don’t have to be able to create art. All you have to do is appreciate it and let it wash over you like the invigorating cold tide on a Florida beach.
I think I’ve got this Father’s Day deal figured out.
This last weekend I got a dinner and a movie from my son who has to work next weekend, the actual Father’s Day. He’s a corrections officer at a state facility with a schedule so wacky only a politician could have come up with it. Twelve hour days. Two days on, three days off, three days on, two days off. Basically, if I see him he has the day off. If I don’t he’s working.
He took me to see the movie about how Han Solo met Chewbaca and won the Millennium Falcon in a card game. I know it’s supposed to be a stand-alone, but I think it needs at least one sequel to tie up all the loose ends. Basically I liked it. At least it didn’t end with half the people in the universe disintegrating with a snap of the fingers.
That was on Saturday night. On Sunday night he took me out to dinner at nice family-type restaurant that served roast beef, corn and potatoes wrapped up in tin foil. A little messy but it tasted good. Sometimes my son zones out or says something inappropriate; but hey, like father like son.
Now this is where it gets interesting. My daughter, who lives a thousand miles away with her family, called to say her present might be a little late coming in the mail. Better late than never. She always picks out something delicious to send me. On top of that I might even get a phone from my lovely little granddaughter.
Someone might point out I’m not getting anything more than any other father with two grown children might get, but I see it as making the fun stretch out as long as possible. Being greedy is not a good thing. Being grateful feels much better. Feeling grateful for an extended period of time is wonderful.
I don’t know if there’s a moral in any of this. I’m too busy looking for the mail to arrive. Ever since I was a little boy I’ve always loved looking for the mail to arrive.
Nope, these pictures weren’t taken at the royal wedding. About a month and a half earlier. As it happens sometimes on group tours, choices are offered. You can either go to Windsor Castle or you can go to the Tower of London, but not both. Josh got the castle; I got the tower. Since I wasn’t there, Josh will supply the news about Windsor:
After the London tour, we split up into our respective groups: Dad went to the Tower (no pun intended) and I joined our lovely and talented long-term guide Fiona for our trip to Windsor Castle. The drive was an hour or so and once there we were led on a brief mini-tour of the outer courtyard. Like all castles in Ireland, Wales and England, the original purpose of the castle was as a military installation and position. However, both me and my kneecaps were grateful for the evenly cut stone steps. The guide mentioned that the moat area, as was with all medieval castles, were often filled with tar, sewage and god-knows-what other disgusting substances to impede the progress of an invading army. I can’t remember if it was Stuart or the temporary guide we had at Windsor, but it was mentioned that Windsor Castle in particular held a fond place in the Queen’s heart due to her growing up there. The guide mentioned that the Queen usually spent the work week at Buckingham Palace in London and came to Windsor to rest and recover. I couldn’t fault her choice in residence: the area around Windsor is absolutely stunning. Probably one of the most stunning facts was that the Queen was the only person in Windsor and England as a whole who did not have to drive with a driver’s license. The Windsor guide mentioned that this was because all driver’s license in the country were issued in the Queen’s name and authority. On one hand, it made sense not to issue a license to the one person whose name and authority were used for issuing purposes. On the other hand, I made a mental note to look out for elderly women in the driver’s seat whenever I was in England.
After the outside tour, my group, which consisted of several high school students, got in line for the main tour of the interior. All of the attendants dressed in the blue and red uniforms of House Windsor (for a heartbeat, I confused them with the local police) were walking up and down the line making sure no one took pictures. For the record, I did manage to take one picture of the interior but later deleted it from my cell phone. Let it never be said that a son of the Cowling family disrespected the house rules of royalty. Like the outside of the castle, the stairs were evenly cut and spaced. One of the first rooms we visited was the one where that horrible fire in the ‘90s started. I’m glad that the English really take care of their national treasures and monuments. While passing through, I couldn’t help but wonder how the heck was a thief going to fence all of the priceless art, tapestries, and fine china without causing a stock market crash, let alone get out of the castle alive with the goods. The tour took roughly an hour and when we exited we were right at the souvenir shop. Dad was writing a novel so I took the liberty of buying two or three books regarding the Royal Family and Windsor Castle. While waiting outside for the rest of the group, I was sitting with two or three teenage girls from are group and I saw a water-bottle machine that took 2 1-pound coins. I scrounged my pockets but only had one, so I asked my traveling companions if they had a spare coin. They started rummaging through their purses and I think it was the only blonde in the group who had a coin. I thanked her profusely and got up to get something to drink. When I got back, we started talking about the tour and trip in general when I realized how much the redheaded girl in our group looked like Sophie Turner AKA Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones. I asked her if she had been watching the series and she said only up to season three. I then asked if any one told her that she looked just like Sansa Stark because she certainly did. She thanked me generously and said no one had mentioned it before. I would have loved to go walking around the rest of the town but we finally had to depart for our final night in London itself. That was probably my favorite day of the trip because I was not only one of the group chaperones but also a surrogate older brother to the young ladies of the group. Heather, please sit up and take notes: THIS is how brothers and sisters should get along. Anyway, Back to you, Dad.
I went on the tour of the Tower of London with our teacher guide and her sister. As soon as we entered both of them said they felt like they had been there before. But not in the same way they said they felt like they had come home when we were in Ireland. As we walked around the grounds we found a water fountain memorial to everyone who had been beheaded on that spot. In the center was a lovely pillow carved from a clear quartz. It reminded me of the pillow used in fairy tales to hold a crown or a princess’s slipper. Then I remembered what landed on the pillow: a head. As the sisters went around the fountain both of them felt a bit queasy. They realized why the place seemed familiar, in a very uncomfortable way.
Inside we went through the line of historical exhibits on our way to see the crown jewels. The nice feature was the moving sidewalk on each side of the cases of crowns and scepters. Everyone got a nice close-up view without having to wait for someone to gaze upon the artifacts as though they were the only ones in the building. (We’ve all run into those types at museums before.)
Anyhow, here it is a month and a half later and my seventy-year-old body is still recovering. But I wouldn’t have missed this trip for anything
On our last morning to roam London, we got the best tour guide ever to give running commentary on the sights passing by the bus windows. If my memory serves me correctly—which it rarely does anymore–his name was Stuart. He matched from head to toe in shades of green, blue and gray. Even his shoes. I was hoping he would break into song and tap dance down the center aisle of the bus. But he was a proper gentlemen, and they don’t exhibit their choreography on public transport.
At one of our first stops he let us hop off the bus to examine the massive statue of Prince Albert. It was in a beautifully manicured park across the street from Royal Albert Hall. Unlike most people preserved for posterity in the many parks, squares and circles about London, Albert received full Olympus treatment. U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower was honored with a life-sized replica; others were remembered with a head and shoulders bust, and most were in bas relief plaques explaining who they were and why they were honored. But Albert, the royal consort to Queen Victoria and father to so many children I cannot begin to remember all their names, sits high, broad and proud. I do not know if the statue is gold or bronze, but it shone for all to see. This is magnificent memorial of a woman’s love for her husband.
Back on the bus, our elegant guide directed the bus driver past the monument to Lord Wellington. “Does anyone know what Wellington did?”
Josh piped up, “He beat the crap out of Napoleon.”
Stuart appraised my son a moment looked at our long-term guide and said, “I think I like him.”
A little while later we drove by a monument to King Henry VIII, who, Stuart pointed out, “had six wives. Do you know what else he had?”
“Syphilis,” I replied. Now I honestly was not trying to be a smart-ass and ruin the man’s monologue which was filled with wit and wisdom. But Henry did have syphilis and that was why the last years of his reign were so unfortunate for his subjects.
This time Stuart did not miss a beat and went on to explain that King Henry had a difficulty with forming long and loyal relationships. But surely in his mind Stuart must have thought that we two clowns were related. Yes, we are connected genetically and were born without proper filters.
Coming up on the right, he told us, was one of the many lion statues on the banks of the Thames River erected during the reign of Queen Victoria. Upon inspecting it, Victoria realized this lion was quite obviously a male, so she ordered its gender identifying appendage removed for propriety’s sake. When one looked at the face of the lion in question, one could surmise he did not agree with Her Majesty. His eyeballs are perpetually bulging in surprise and discomfort.
At one point we left the tour bus and followed our elegantly dressed Stuart on a saunter through Green Park, a serene space stretching out in front of Buckingham Palace. Ducks and geese glided across the serene surface of its lake. Locals jogged along its backs and lay on the grass, soaking up blessedly warm rays from a late-March sun.
Stuart had our stroll perfectly timed to end at the entrance of Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard. As a mere former colonist, I thought the changing of the guard consisted of a hand full of soldiers in their bright red jackets and giant black fur helmets; but no, it was a full-fledged parade with horses, drums and rifles.
Stuart was careful to point out these were not just young men and women who were chosen for their proficiency for formal procedures. These were soldiers who had served their country in Afghanistan and where they might serve again in the near future.
When the last soldier had moved on, we broke up into separate groups to explore more bits of English historic lore. This was when had to wave a fond adieu to Stuart. I wish he could have stayed with us, but I am sure he had to address another bus filled with impertinent American tourists.
I really wanted to know who his tailor was, although I was quite sure I could not afford his wardrobe.