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.
The movie fan in me had a great time in London. It was like being on the set of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Josh and I saw Royal Albert Hall, which like Big Ben, had scaffolding over half of it. Of course that means London is taking care of its architectural wonders so they’ll be around for years to come for American tourists to photograph. Royal Albert Hall was one of the big stars in the Hitchcock 1950s movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. The man in question was James Stewart, and he didn’t know too much. The bad guys just thought he knew too much. The big climactic scene was in the performance hall. When the man clashed his cymbals, a prime minister was to be shot and killed. I don’t want to give away too much in case anyone hasn’t seen the suspense classic, but Doris Day foils the bad guys when she doesn’t keep her mouth shut.
The next landmark featured in a Hitchcock movie was a tall church with an unusual red and white brick pattern to it. I instinctively recognized it but could not remember where. Josh, who was our official photographer of record, quickly took the picture but then went on to his next subject without helping me think of the movie title. It was only after we came home and were watching Foreign Correspondent one night did we make the connection. The foreign correspondent played by Joel McCrea was about to break a big story about German spies in a pre-World War II peace group when an assassin tried to push him off the church tower. The assassin went on to play Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. Now that’s what I call avoiding being type cast.
The third landmark from a movie actually goes back to a famous stage play. I rested in Covent Garden in the shadow of the portico with massive pillars featured in the opening scene of My Fair Lady. If my theatrical trivia serves me right, the same façade is used in the stage versions of My Fair Lady and the George Bernard Shaw play on which the musicals were based, Pygmalion. In the movie and the plays, the building was supposed to be a concert hall, but in actuality it is part of the front of a church.
Now it is the scene of street performers. The entertainer I saw was very talented but he needed some lessons of audience appreciation. First he laid out a red rope at the perimeter of his performance area on the church steps and the cobblestone street in front of it. Woe be unto anyone who walked across the rope once the act began. One woman walked across it three times, and each time the acrobat with the wooden pins and sharp knives became more vituperative (it’s a British word; look it up) when she broke the rules.
“She’s so rude,” he announced to us, “that she doesn’t even know she’s rude.”
And I don’t think she did either. I know I was so scared by this point I didn’t dare scratch my nose. After his big finale I thought we spectators were safe from his acid tongue but I was wrong.
“I’m forty-eight years old and got a family to support here, so you can let go of some change,” he yelled. “Hey you! You mean you’re going to watch my show and walk away? You didn’t even applaud! The least you can do is toss a few coins in my hat!”
I took a fist of coins –I don’t know how much they were worth—put them in his hat and quickly exited stage right.
If Eliza Doolittle had been that aggressive in selling her flowers she wouldn’t have had to take those elocution lessons.
If you are going to one of the most exciting, eclectic cities in the world, go ahead and jump out of the bus into the heart of crazy London town and go for it.
The tour bus dropped us in Piccadilly Circus, and the guides told us to try to keep up. I knew immediately this was going to be difficult because how can you follow two typical English people in a crowd of a hundred thousand typical English people.
For the first thing, I was distracted by this building that had four gorgeous bronze statues of young nubile naked women diving into the center of Piccadilly Circus. Perpetually with their arms extended, up on their tippy toes, backs straight, tummies tucked in and chests proudly puffed out. I may be 70 years old but I’m not dead. By the time I realized I was supposed to be following the group, they were already across the street.
This presented me with my second problem. By nature I am always the one to step back with a smile and allow the cross pedestrian traffic to proceed. I have been known to hold open a door so long, people thought I worked for the store. If I did that in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, I would lose sight of my group and never see the Spanish moss draped live oak trees in downtown Brooksville, Florida, again. Then I remembered the grumpy old Irish woman with her walker in Dublin. I put a scowl on my face, hunched my shoulders and bulled my way forward. Before I knew it I was back with my group and I don’t think they had realized I had gone away.
This was very important to me. I’m old enough to be the grandfather of the young people on this student tour. The last thing I wanted was to have them interrupt their good time to see if the old man was lost, gasping for air, or fallen over with a heart attack. I didn’t want anyone to say, “Somebody call 9-1-1 and get the old geezer off our backs.” (Okay, they were all nice polite young American citizens and they would have never said that—thought it maybe. It’s a joke.)
Speaking of jokes, on the other side of Piccadilly was a street performer who looked just like Mr. Bean and for a modest price you could have your picture taken with him, hug him or pinch his bum. Twenty years and fifty pounds ago I was told I looked Mr. Bean. If I had moved to Piccadilly back then, think of the money and I could have made, and the bruises. Never mind.
Finally we arrived on Carnaby Street where the tour guides told group members to be back in two hours to eat at an authentic English restaurant featuring Indian cuisine. First Josh and I walked down the street to the largest toy store in London. The entire basement was filled with Star Wars stuff. My son Josh, by the way, goes to Star Wars convention everywhere, so he was in hog heaven (an old Texas expression). I, on the other hand, had reached the end of my tether and decided to go back to Carnaby Street while he explored the other three floors of toy heaven.
For the first time that day I felt entirely in my element. I ordered a nice lemonade, sat on the café patio and watched beautiful people go by as though they were on a runway. Unattractive people were beautiful in their high fashion clothes and perfect hairstyles. Even the boys. I wanted to see Twiggy walk by. Beatle tunes lingered in my brain. Everything was the same as when I was a teen-ager in Texas, except nothing was the same. I was old. And all the fashionable folk had smart phones stuck in their ears.
After dinner, the tour guides took us on one last marathon hike through Wellington Circle, past the National Museum and an establishment called Sherlock Holmes Pub. The tour guide said he used to work there. Finally we arrived at the Millennium footbridge over the Thames River where you could see the Eye (big Ferris wheel whose lights were down for the night) and Big Ben (which was covered in scaffolding and couldn’t be seen even if the lights were on.)
Don’t get me wrong. I had a great time. Who gets to walk the streets of glamorous London at night and not get lost? I didn’t have a heart attack. For someone my age that’s a great confidence booster.
I always like me some literary insight while I’m having fun.
Our tour bus stopped at Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford. We had to wait in line because we arrived a little before they unlocked the door. We could have been distracted by beautiful blooms in the garden but the plants hadn’t budded yet.
I think everyone has seen a picture of the Hathaway house but we took one anyway. Yes, it has a thatched roof. Yes, it is a long two-story house. Yes, it is bigger than you thought, but not that big. For the sixteenth century it has a lot of nice things, including beds.
Speaking of beds, the guide explained the whole thing about how William Shakespeare left his wife his second best bed in his will. Admit it, we all thought Will was a cad for leaving his wife the second best bed. Just like most sound-bites in history, there’s much more to the story.
Back in those days, there weren’t very many inns in the countryside, and many people in the country, whether they liked it or not, had to take the trip to London once in a while and had to stay somewhere along the way. To make a little money, most people rented out a bed to weary travelers. And which bed would you want a stranger with money to have? The best bed in the house, of course, so it had to be empty and clean at all times just in case someone knocked at the door.
So the head of the family used the second best bed, which probably was the marriage bed. A romantic gesture to leave to your wife, when you think about it. Also a financially sound one too. The best bed was still available to rent out to travelers, which continued to be a source of income for the widow.
We also thought Will was some illiterate ragamuffin who spied the girl in the big house down the road and decided to marry her. Then we saw his birthplace house. It wasn’t all that small. His father was a successful tradesman, so the ragamuffin theory went out the window. We did see the bed where Will was born and it was as nice as any bed in the Hathaway house. Both houses had lovely gardens.
Josh and I walked a few blocks away to the site of the house that Will built for Anne. It had burned down and the lot is now a playground with a nice marker in it. Will always said, “The play’s the thing….”
This is when I realized why Will left his family in Stratford when he went off to work in theater in London. If you had a choice of living in a pretty country town with a nice house and garden or in rat-infested, plague-ridden London with all sorts of unnamable waste in the street, wouldn’t you want to be in Stratford too?
So instead of being this lowlife scum who abandoned his poor family for a glamorous show biz life in the big city, he left them safe and happy among friends and family to try to make a living from the only talents he had, writing and acting. And he could only do that in London.
After I got mired down into university course Shakespearean Tragedies 303, I saw a statue of a court jester in the middle of the street. Will had a buddy in his acting troupe who was really funny so he wrote a role for him in every play, whether it made any sense or not.
To get into the spirit, I had Josh take a picture of me trying to imitate the pose of the jester who had both hands in the air and one leg up. But I lifted the wrong leg so it didn’t make any sense at all.
(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school and his brother Tad was nicer. But mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives.)
Late one afternoon in the loft Herman was having a nice long talk with the two bears when he heard the front door open. “Uh oh. Tad’s brought Leonard and Stevie home with him again.”
“Don’t get upset before they even say anything,” Burly Senior told him.
“Who knows?” Burly added. “They might even be nice to you today.”
By that time the three teen-aged boys were climbing the ladder, giggling poking at each other. They stopped short when they saw Herman.
“You here?” Stevie growled.
Leonard walked over and poked Herman in the shoulder. “Don’t you know? He’s always here because he’s too weird for the other kids to play with.”
Stevie glared at Herman, his hands stuck in his pockets. “Doesn’t he have chores?”
“I did my chores,” Herman replied, looking out the window.
“Then go find papa and ask him to give you something to do,” Tad ordered. “Get out of here. We want to talk.”
Leonard picked up Burly’s red wooden car and examined it. “What’s this?”
Tad glanced at Herman. “Just one of the kid’s toys.”
Laughing, Leonard ran its wheels on the floor. “Hey look! A smash up!” Then he ran the car into the side of the wall, causing it to splinter into small pieces.
Herman twitched but said nothing.
“Leonard, you’re such a jerk,” Tad spat.
His friend shrugged. “Big deal.”
Herman jumped off the bed and headed toward the ladder with Burly under his arm.
“Boy, you don’t go nowhere without that bear stuck under your arm, do you?” Leonard sneered.
“How old is he?” Stevie asked Tad.
Tad shifted uneasily on his bed. “Heck, I don’t know.”
Leonard leaned down into Herman’s face and smiled a stupid grin. “Just how old is the eety-bitty boy?”
Herman felt his neck turn red hot. “Eleven.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little old for you to be carrying around a doll?” Stevie asked.
“Burly’s not a doll,” Herman corrected him. “He’s a bear.”
“Ooh, that’s a big difference,” Leonard said with a snort. “No wonder no decent kid will play with you. You’re still a baby with his dollie.”
“Stop it, Leonard,” Tad ordered.
Leonard looked around at Tad who was glaring at him. After a while Leonard walked over to the bed and picked up Burly Senior. “You might as will take your other dollie, too.”
Without thinking, Herman blurted out, “Oh no, that’s Tad’s.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth Herman knew he had made a mistake. He looked quickly at Tad who turned a bright shade of red.
Leonard smiled and his eyes twinkled, as though he had found fresh meat to bleed. “You mean little Taddie Waddie sleeps with a dollie?”
Stevie grinned but didn’t say anything, only snorted. Before anyone could say more Herman scurried down the ladder and out the front door. Herman ran to the barn and hid in the farthest, most dimly lit corner. “Oh, why was I so stupid?” he berated himself.
“You weren’t being stupid,” Burly corrected. “You were being honest. That’s what you are.”
“But I shouldn’t have said that in front of Tad’s friends,” Herman continued. “Did you see how red he was? Those boys are really going to make fun of him. And then he’s going to let me have it.”
“Yes, Tad did look embarrassed,” Burly agreed. “And his friends will probably tease him. And there’s a good chance he will fuss at you. But you know what? After it’s all over, you’ll still be Herman and Tad will be Tad. You’ll go on letting the truth tumble out of your mouth. And Tad will get mad too easily. But you will keep on living.”
Herman looked down at the dirt. “I guess so.”
In a few minutes Herman heard the three boys leave the house and run down the road. Then he remembered it was his turn to cook supper that night. Herman scurried into the house, put Burly up in the loft and rushed around the kitchen getting the food ready. At supper Herman watched Tad out of the corner of his eye. He half-way expected Tad to get even by complaining about the food, but he didn’t.
“Good vittles, son,” papa mumbled.
“Yeah, not bad,” Tad added.
Again Herman tried to tell by Tad’s voice if he were angry. He didn’t sound angry, but his voice didn’t sound normal either. Herman couldn’t figure it out. After they ate, Tad helped wash and dry the dishes. He was strangely polite but seemed to be somewhere else, somewhere very sad. “Thank you for helping with the dishes,” Herman said.
Tad walked away without looking at him. “Think nothing of it, kid.”
That night, when all was quiet, Herman roused Burly. “I don’t understand what’s the matter with Tad. I thought he was going to be mad at me.”
Burly stifled a yawn. “That surprised me too. Maybe papa can help us figure it out. I think he knows more about Tad than either of us.” He waited a moment, then whispered, “Papa?”
There was no reply.
“Papa?” Burly repeated.
Only silence answered him.
“That’s strange,” Burly said. “Papa always joins in on talks.”
“Let me see if he’s over there.” Herman tiptoed over to Tad’s bed. As well as he could see in the dark, Herman couldn’t find Burly Senior. Usually he was tight within Tad’s arms close to his chest, but not tonight. Herman got returned to Burly. “He’s not there.”
The two of them decided to look for him the next day after helping papa in the fields. In the morning Herman left Burly in the loft as he always did and went to the cotton field with papa and Tad. The hours went by slowly as he hoed the weeds away. Later that afternoon papa walked by.
“That’s all for today,” he said and kept on walking.
Herman scampered back to the house and got Burly. First they looked under Tad’s bed, thinking Burly Senior might have slipped under there. Then they looked in the big old trunk at the end of the room where mama and papa kept special things, like stacks of old letters tied with pink string, the dress mama was married in and yellowed photographs of stern, erect people Herman didn’t know. Burly Senior wasn’t there either. “There’s only one thing left to do,” Herman said with a sigh. “That’s to ask Tad.”
“You’re very brave to do that,” Burly replied. “Will you ask him after supper tonight?”
“No,” Herman answered as he carried Burly down the ladder. “I’m going to ask him now.”
They went down the dirt road toward the field but stopped abruptly when Burly gasped, “Oh no!”
Down on the ground, in a trench was a mass of torn burlap. Down feathers, wadded up for stuffing was strewn everywhere. And a burlap ball, with buttons sewn on it, was smashed flat.
“Papa,” Burly whispered.
Herman kneeled down by the remains of Burly Senior. He picked up the different pieces, a torn patch that was his chest, little puffs that were his arms and legs, and the flattened ball that was his head. He whispered to them, cried over them, but they were just pieces of burlap now. The life was out of them, stomped out.
“Did Tad do this to my papa?” Burly asked.
“Yes. Or he stood by and watched Leonard and Stevie do it,” Herman said, trying to hold back the tears. He looked down the road at the field. “I’m going to let him have it for this.”
“No,” Burly ordered. “You can’t say anything.”
“Because papa belonged to Tad,” Burly explained with difficulty. “Even though he was my papa and he was your friend, he belonged to Tad. And Tad could do anything he wanted with him.”
Herman glared down the road a moment and sighed. “I suppose you’re right.” Then they walked home without a sound. No words were spoken during supper either. Herman could tell Tad was avoiding looking at him. Now he knew why Tad was strangely polite and quietly sad. Tad knew what he had done, and he couldn’t face Herman. That night Herman couldn’t sleep. He kept seeing Burly Senior smashed on the side of the road, never to speak to him again or give him wonderful advice.
“Oh Burly,” Herman asked. “Why did Tad do it?”
“Tad’s growing up. Maybe he thought papa was holding him back in childhood. Maybe he decided grown up boys don’t hug a bear at night.”
“That’s stupid,” Herman said, spitting the words out.
“No,” Burly corrected him. “That’s human.” He paused and snuggled close to Herman. “When it comes time for you to grow up, you won’t do that to me, will you?”
Herman sat up. “No sir, Burly. You’ll always be with me. If doing without you means growing up, then I won’t grow up!”
“Oh no, you’ve got to grow up,” Burly said. “I want you to grow up. It’s just that I’m scared about what’s going to happen to me.”
Herman hugged Burly tightly. “Don’t worry. You’ll always be with me.”
But Burly wondered, as Herman fell into a deep sleep, if his friend would be able to keep his promise.
I always thought the best way to know a city is to get lost in it. Well, I must know Dublin like the back of my hand.
A nice lady led a tour bus excursion through Dublin for us. She pointed out the parliament building where people talk a lot but don’t get anything done. Sounds like back home. She took us through the large Dublin public park which had a huge obelisk, the equivalent of our White House and a giant cross where Pope John Paul II held mass several years ago. This piqued my imagination so Josh and I got out of the bus to walk up to the platform in front of a giant meadow. I think I could imagine a million people there. Pope Francis is scheduled for a visit next year so I suppose he will draw a million parishioners too. After that, the bus drove downtown where the Irish Rebellion began in the early 1900s at the post office. You can still see bullet holes in buildings and statues everywhere.
The bus then took us to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where all the famous authors are interred. The church had an astounding collection of wood carved saints along the walls. Flags hung everywhere. Famous stones were on the floor everywhere. We heard contradictory stories about who the woman buried next to Jonathan Swift was. One source said she was a close relative who was a companion but nothing more. Another source said she was a close relative who was his wife but not legally; no one ever said anything about it to him personally because, after all, he was Jonathan Swift.
The bus next let us out at the juncture of five streets and told to be back in a couple of hours. Trinity College was nearby so our group went to the library where the Book of Kells was housed. The Book of Kells is the earliest known transcription of the four gospels of the Bible. We had to stand in line outside in the cold for a while before we were admitted. There were several joggers going by in their t shirts and shorts. Other students were sitting outside eating lunch. Others played table tennis on the green. That’s what I call being acclimated to the weather. I saw one young man have his a thick stack of papers blown from his hands across the campus. I hope that wasn’t his doctoral thesis. Once inside the library I was impressed by the high rows and rows of every book ever published in Ireland. The light streaming through the windows made them look golden. By the time I made my way to the room to the Book of Kells, I was informed access was closed because of a security system failure. I hadn’t been outside but a few minutes when word filtered out the glitch had been corrected and the room was now open. By this time I would have had to go to be back of the line again to enter the building. So I sat on the steps in the cold waiting for the rest of my group to come out, after they had observed the historic book. At least I didn’t have to witness another thesis blown to kingdom come.
We walked several blocks to the Natural History Museum. This place had the longest dugout canoe I have ever seen. I thought the ones in Cherokee, N.C., were long but this one had them beat. The museum also had the remains of a man mired in a bog for several centuries so he was very well preserved. I imagine that was what I looked like when I curled up in bed that night. I would definitely recommend this museum to anyone who only had a couple of days in Dublin and was interested in stuff bogged down in history. Next we went to the National Museum of Ireland. We had passed both of these places on the bus and I thought it was right next door. Next to the back book. On another street. This gallery is where we were all separated. Exhibits didn’t exactly flow smoothly from one to another. It was more like enter a long white hall and try to guess which door to take to the next collection. All the art was breathtaking, but it wasn’t easy to get to.
Our group then split up for some shopping. Josh and I were told about one place that was like an American convenience store but with healthier snacks. We walked back to the juncture of the five streets and looked up each one but couldn’t find it. After we placed a call to my teacher friend she directed us right to it. We had passed it several times. Josh and I felt sure we could make it back to the meeting point at the five streets. Josh found them. I walked right on past. I thought we were meeting another of the five corners. When I finally met up with everyone I spied an authentic old Irish drunk staggering by. To end the day we hiked to a restaurant for dinner. As we waited outside, I looked behind me I saw an old Irish woman with her three-wheeled walker wordlessly bumping into everyone’s legs to get through. The intimidating look on her face told us to gang way.
I wonder if she were married to the old drunk? Maybe she was the reason he drank too much.
(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school and his brother Tad was nicer. But mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. She came home for a happy Christmas.)
The bittersweet Christmas soon faded in Herman’s mind as the months lengthened into years. Visits from Callie would become less frequent because Uncle Calvin had gotten a new job in Houston and about to move the family from Texarkana. When Uncle Calvin, Aunt Joyce and Callie came for their last visit before the move, Callie and Herman exchanged easy lies about how Houston wasn’t that far away and they would see each other often. The truth was too painful. At least Tad didn’t wait for Callie to hug him this time, which made Herman feel a little bit better. But Tad was almost seventeen and far too old to act silly and stubborn around a sister he might never see again. Even papa broke away from his long, sorrowful stares across the prairie to give Callie a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. He even shook Uncle Calvin’s hand and gave Aunt Joyce a shy hug.
“I’m sorry to take your girl away like this,” Uncle Calvin explained in a sad sort of way. “But they’re building like crazy down there and construction’s the ground floor job, if you know what I mean.”
“Sure, Calvin,” papa said as friendly as his continuing grief would allow him.
“It’s a risk, I know,” Aunt Joyce added, “but if Calvin can hit it big that’ll mean a better education for Callie and the boys.”
“Yes,” Uncle Calvin emphasized. “We’re not just looking after the girl but all the children. If I can help them get on better, I want to.”
Papa stiffened. “The boys will do all right.”
“Sure, I know they will,” Uncle Calvin said as an apology.
Then they were gone. Tad grumbled about how Uncle Calvin was acting uppity and that they didn’t need any help.
“Calvin’s a good man,” papa rasped. “He means good by us all.”
“Yes, papa,” Tad whispered.
Herman was confused and excited by what Uncle Calvin said. Up until now he had not given much thought about what was going to happen when he grew up. But he was eleven years old and such thoughts were creeping into his mind and scaring him.
“What will happen to me?” Herman asked Burly late that night.
“You’re going to grow up,” Burly said.
“But what will I be when I grow up?” Herman persisted.
“A man,” Burly replied.
“Whatever you become,” Burly interrupted him, “you will always be Herman. And being Herman is a wonderful thing.”
Herman hugged him. “Thank you, Burly.” He paused and noticed his bear’s little burlap face was turned down. “Are you sad, Burly?”
“I’ll never see my mother again,” Burly said.
“And I’ll never see my wife again,” Burly Senior whispered from across the room.
“Oh,” Herman replied as though suddenly realizing something. “You have lost your mother today and that makes you very sad. I didn’t think of that. All I could think have was my own problems. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right,” Burly assured him. “Most people are like that. They never stop to look at things from the way other people look at them.”
“But you’re better than most,” Burly Senior added. “In fact, you’re doing a pretty good job at seeing the world as your father and your brother see it.”
Herman sighed. “Sometimes I wonder if I do. I don’t really know how Tad feels most of the time.”
“Take it from me,” Burly Senior offered. “He’s very sad. A very lonely, scared little boy he is.”
“How can you tell?” Herman asked.
“By the way he is squeezing me right now.”
When spring came and the wildflowers were coloring the hills everywhere, Herman noticed Tad seemed happier and spent less time home after all his chores were done. He was beginning to have friends. Herman was happy for him, for he still didn’t have many children from his class who were his friends so he knew how Tad felt.
“Don’t worry,” Burly said one afternoon after Tad had run off to play with his new buddies. “Someday you will have boys your age to be your friends.”
“But why don’t they like me now?” Herman asked.
“I like you now,” Burly replied.
Herman smiled and hugged his little burlap friend. “I know you do, but what can I do to make the boys at school like me?”
“If you have to do anything to make them like you then they aren’t really going to be your friends anyway.”
Sighing, Herman gave Burly another hug. After school was out for the summer, Herman changed his mind about Tad’s friends because they began to spend more time at the farm and Herman saw what they were really like. One of them, a tall, stringy-looking boy with lots of freckles and straw-like hair, liked to tease Herman for being too short and not being able to run very fast or play baseball very well. He made Herman feel like he was dumb sometimes when he would pull a mean trick on him. His name was Leonard. The other boy, Stevie, was shorter than Tad but bigger and broader. He sulked about all the time and didn’t say much, except an occasional threatening grunt. Steve always looked at Herman as though he would like to beat him up. Of course, both boys would straighten and be polite when papa walked by. Papa may have been skinny but he was strong and he acted like he might explode into a violent temper tantrum at any moment.
People who know me think my kissing the Blarney Stone is like carrying coals to Newcastle. I’m filled with enough Blarney as it is. (Or is that baloney?)
Like most good tourist attractions Blarney Castle cannot be seen from the road or even before you pay for your ticket to enter. You have to turn a certain corner, and there it is. Like many things on our tour, it was half covered with scaffolding which did not detract from its mythological majesty. Josh and I decided to get in line early before I dawdled too much and started wearing down. He took a quick picture of me when I still felt like smiling. The initial path up to the castle gate was not so bad. We had a great view of the half-demolished castle keep. Then the ascent began. As the docent explained at Bunratty Castle, the stairs were strategically built steep and uneven to slow down the assault of attacking troops. Sometimes they switched from turning right to turning left as they ever went higher. Along the way, the staircase opened to reveal side rooms. I stepped into a couple of them just for the chance to take a breath. That put me behind Josh, but I didn’t mind. How could I get lost? There was only one way up and one way down. Once we were at the top, we waited in line to kiss the stone. In front of me my friend the teacher called across way to my son who had already kissed the stone.
“Where’s your father? He didn’t come up here, did he?”
“Yes, I did,” I called out from behind her.
When I got to the stone I realized this area was the target of all the scaffolding. Before the renovations, there had been steel bars below the stone. It would really ruin someone’s vacation to slip from the grasp of the guide and fall into the moat below. In the middle of the renovation a thick plywood board replaced the bars, which took all the fun of leaning over backwards. I didn’t asked but I assumed—and hoped—eventually a nice thick slab of plexiglass would be installed so that you could still see the view upside down but have absolutely no chance of falling to the ground. As an aging male, I wanted all the strangers standing around me to know for certain that I was not afraid. I scooted my old hiney as far off the castle wall as I could before I leaned back. Unfortunately my hiney went so far off the edge I had trouble getting my head down to the legendary stone. Eventually I wriggled my face down and kissed it twice—once for myself and once for my wife Janet who died two years ago of cancer. I loved her but frankly she could have used a bit more blarney. My mission accomplished, I began to sit up and remembered how far out I stuck and I was indeed stuck. I couldn’t move. Luckily the castle guide has seen every combination of discomfort so he had me unstuck and on my way quickly.
The descent was easier, except when I had to put weight on my left knee which was beginning to scream that it wasn’t having any fun. One of the major tenets of the aging male is that you’re not supposed to slow down, grimace, or otherwise show you are in pain. I continued to hop down the stairs like nothing was wrong. Luckily about three quarters of the way I caught up with Josh at the photo stand to see which pictures of me upside I wanted to buy for posterity. Actually this was a perfect opportunity to catch my breath and to let my whiney knee calm down. I decided to buy both. One showed me actually kissing the stone but my face wasn’t showing. The second was slightly pre-kiss and showed that it was, indeed, me smooching the stone.
At the bottom, Josh photographed me leaning against an anonymous wall. My smile was not up to its usual standards. Behind me were a myriad of gardens with waterfalls and a garden of poisoned plants. This was necessary when you had a dinner party and wanted the guest of honor to be dead by midnight. I think I disappointed Josh because instead of strolling through the gardens I wanted to get to the nearest pub for liquid refreshment and food.
Here’s a great tourist tip: Anytime you’re thirsty and hungry in Ireland, find the nearest pub. You can’t go wrong.
When we finished our tour of the Ring of Kerry, our group decided to jaunt our way through the national park at Killarney. Not jogging. Jogging would have killed me. No, we rode a jaunting carriage pulled by a very hairy horse.
My friend the school teacher who arranged for my son Josh and I to be part of the tour said she hoped this went better than the gondola ride around Venice on one of her student tours a few years ago. The gondolier didn’t sing, didn’t talk about the sights they were passing and didn’t flirt with the women on the boat. What kind of an Italian was he? Our Irish carriage driver invited my friend to sit up front with him and included her in all his comments about the foliage, mountains, lakes and history of old Killarney. I think she came away liking Irish jaunting drivers better than Italian gondoliers.
The jaunting carriage tour began in downtown Killarney, turned a corner and entered the national park. In my first photo, you can see a touring carriage with Killarney cathedral in the background. I know the jaunting driver looks like me, but I couldn’t be taking pictures of one carriage if I were in another one. What this picture does prove is that I have a lot of Irish relatives in my past. By the way, the cathedral was very impressive. We could see it many miles away before our tour bus even got to the city limits. Many residents of Killarney don’t share the tourists’ appreciation, though. The Roman Catholic Church built the cathedral in the early part of the nineteenth century when Ireland was going through the Potato Famine. The church thought the big cathedral would give the residents inspiration. As I was told by more than one local, they would have preferred a good meal instead.
Our gregarious driver told us they had just had a late snow a few days before we arrived. In the distance we could see the mountaintops still covered in snow. He pointed out the little flower bulb sprouts were peeking through the ground and in a few weeks the entire park would be resplendent in color. Several trees had gone down during the storm and they were laying around wondering if they would be eventually cut and carried out or be left to rot and become wonderful mulch. It was still cold when our carriage horse tried its best to avoid the washed-out portions of the road. The sun shone and the wind had disappeared with the snow, so the weather was really quite pleasant, as long as you were dressed in at least three layers of clothes, wore a woolen cap and gloves. Ducks waddling alongside the road didn’t seem mind the crisp air. Neither did the Killarney natives who jogged past us. The second picture shows my elbow which was properly attired in a heavy coat.
At several points we saw crumbled stone ruins hiding among the trees and when we turned a bend in the road we saw an old castle glistening in the sun’s rays as it sat on an island of a long, wide lake.
“I’m sure you’re all wondering what happened to all these homes and castles,” our driver asked in his delightful accent. “Have you ever heard of a man by the name of Oliver Cromwell? He was the Englishman who was responsible for the beheading of Charles the First. He decided the English should come live in Ireland. The only problem with that was the land was already occupied by the Irish. His solution was to kill every Irishman in the country. His army rampaged throughout the island, killing the residents and burning and tearing down their homes. The Irish lords who lived in the castle on the island held out as long as they could but they eventually succumbed. Fortunately the English hated Cromwell as much as the Irish so he was beheaded, and Charles the Second was asked to take the throne.”
I knew the tour was coming to an end because in the distance I saw modern condominium communities on the outskirts of Killarney. You can’t get away from the modern world no matter where you go. That is not an entirely bad thing, however. When we returned to the tour station, we embarked, handed our entertaining guide a tip and found only a few steps away a toilet facility. We climbed onto our bus and on our way to our quaint Irish hotel we passed several outlet malls featuring the latest of everything at the lowest prices. The hotel itself was lovely but challenging. It was several years old, and the owners had added rooms and extra floors wherever it was convenient. My son Josh and I felt we needed a map to get to our beds.
But at least we didn’t have to sleep in a desolate castle destroyed by Oliver Cromwell.