HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh died yesterday.
I met him once under the strangest of circumstances.
§ § §
The year 1969 was pivotal for me. So much happened. It seemed the whole world was changing mere inches from my face.
I got my first gig in professional theatre working on a production of ‘Blithe Spirit’; I drove across the country in the dead of winter with my friend Danniel (two ’N’s) to see The Rolling Stones and Santana; I filed court papers for legal emancipation; I started getting paid for my movie reviews; and one warm summer evening an older woman named Candy taught me what all the fuss was about. I was fifteen years old, and I was one of only two people in the world that had the shortest hair on the planet.
In the Spring of that year, those two people were standing at attention, facing each other on either side of a gravel road that ran up to a chain-link fence and a locked gate. It was the service entrance to Wolseley Barracks in London, Ontario (seen above). Benjamin and I were in Army Cadets and covered in regimental dress, from the polished brass badge on a green beret to puttees and shiny black boots. We were in the presence of our Sergeant and his Jeep. None of us were happy to be there. The remainder of the barracks – regular Army, invited guests, and cadets (hundreds of people) – were gathered on the parade grounds out of sight.
HRH The Prince Philip was Colonel-In-Chief of The Royal Canadian Regiment, and he was on the Eastern leg of a Royal military tour of Canada. The RCRs were his, so to speak, and a short stop was planned to see how the lads were getting on. The trip had been in the works for months. A bit of a meet-and-greet (tea and cakes would be served), a review of the troops, a few words on the regiment’s storied battle history, and then the entourage would depart. Royalty. It was a big deal.
This fact was drilled into us – yelled at us, really – again and again by our Sergeant at the back gate. The three of us were going to miss the festivities, not to mention a Royal review by the Duke of Edinburgh. The Sergeant was assigned to keep an eye on us during our duty as sentries. Our ‘duty’ had been decided upon as a form of punishment for some malfeasance or other to which we may have been a party. Or not. Nothing was said of the reason this particular Sergeant had been chosen to be our ‘chaperone.’ Who had he pissed off?
And so there we were: two recalcitrant teenagers ordered to stand to attention until the Royal visitation was complete. The Sergeant was chain-smoking while he paced back and forth, stopping every so often to glare at us, mindful of his misfortune. To make matters worse, it was cold and cloudy, and it was supposed to rain.
We could hear the festivities off in the distance, the odd phrase, laugh, cheer echoing off the barracks buildings. The ceremony seemed short (mercifully for us). Then there erupted a massive cheer and applause – the Prince’s words ended, apparently. The echoes ceased.
The Sergeant’s Jeep radio crackled to life and he ran to the vehicle. We all expected to be told to stand down and return to the parade square. Instead, the questioning look on his face turned to shock. As short as it was, the ceremony had run a bit long, and the Prince and his entourage were bidding a hasty retreat to the airport… through the back gate!
The Sergeant ran to the gate, fumbled for a set of keys, unlocked the gate and threw it open.
“You two!” he said wagging a disgruntled finger at us, “Don’t move an inch! That’s an order!”
My fellow miscreant and I had been following that protocol for the better part of thirty minutes.
“And when His Royal Highness drives by, by God, you better fucking salute!”
What?! Is the Prince coming this way? I stifled a smile. Ben raised his eyebrows.
Looking straight ahead, I could not see the vehicles approaching, but I could hear them: Royal rubber on common gravel. The first of the three black limos passed and then slowed to a stop just inside the opened gate. The second and third stopped at equal distances adhering to Royal transportation protocol. We saluted. A door opened. I could just make out a figure in battle dress emerge from the second car’s back seat. He ran around to the driver’s side and opened the back door. Out stepped a very tall, lanky gentleman with thinning greyish hair. He looked around and then spoke to his adjutant. “A moment…” he said. “Sir!” the adjutant said. It began to drizzle.
The tall, lanky gentleman strode over to where I was standing, his hands behind his back, fingers intertwined. He leaned in slightly. “At ease,” Prince Philip said.
I hesitated. I didn’t know how to respond. I did as requested, and then: “Sir – thank you, Sir.”
Sir?! Is that correct Royal protocol? SIR?! Should I have said, Your Highness? My Liege? I haven’t been prepped for this!
“Do you like the Cadet Corps?”
“Yes, Sir. Very much, Sir.” I stayed with Sir. I could feel heat emanating from the direction of the Sergeant.
“Are you interested in continuing? A career in the Army, perhaps?”
“Yes, Sir. Signals Corps, Sir.”
“Ah, yes. Radios, cyphers, that sort of thing. Very good.” He paused. “How are your grades? In maths, for instance?”
“Very good, Sir,” I lied.
“Excellent.” He paused again and looked around. “I wish you well,” Prince Philip said and returned to his limo. I once again snapped to attention. Benjamin’s eyebrows were once again raised.
As the entourage resumed their movement through the back gate, the Sergeant, Benjamin, and I once again saluted.
What was left of that day at the barracks was a blur. Benjamin and I were glad it was over, and the Sergeant was equally happy to see the back of us.
I took a detour on my way home. I went to visit my grandmother.
She had been born in British coal country when Victoria was still on the throne, raised two young daughters as a single mother in Dorset during World War Two, and had remained a monarchist her whole life. She had a dresser drawer filled with scrapbooks, each crammed with newspaper clippings dating back to the 1920s. She was beyond thrilled when I told her about my ‘chat’ with the Queen’s husband. I half expected her to burst into ‘Rule, Britannia’.
Nana disappeared into the kitchen. After a short disturbance of clinking glass, she emerged with a silver tray, a sherry bottle (half empty, I noticed!), and two small sherry glasses.
We spent the remains of the day sipping and turning the pages of her Royal manifesto.