was one dark night as her train flew through the Oxford railroad station where I was working as a heavy freight porter. In those days before security prevailed as a primary concern, we would be warned of her trips from London to Balmoral Castle, the royal family’s vacation hang out in Scotland, so that we would not be caught pulling a heavy load of stuff across the tracks — shortly after my last stint there two of my mates were caught by a rushing train trying to get their wagon across and sadly killed. Oxford was a major transfer point, so that we were kept busy moving stuff from one train to another.
Blue collar work in Britain in those days was very different than in the States in that it was totally class bound. The British gave all kids then what was called an 11 plus exam which at that early age divided them into 3 categories — a very small percentage not benefited by private school tuition — would be directed into public “grammar” schools to prepare for the few universities (a smaller percentage made it among the Brits than African Americans prior to the civil rights reforms). A second general category was assigned to comprehensive schools that might prepare them for low level business or whatever more or less on the level of our own two-year colleges. The great bulk were to end off their formal educations at age 14 and go into jobs — factory to shop girl — as apprentices or whatever. And these class lines were tightly maintained. The Beatles came as a great shock to the system.

My railroad work was interesting — 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week between trimesters to earn some money for our travel and such — my marvelous college principal had given me estimates of costs based on his own undergraduate days. I actually had a choice — committing to write for Time Inc. for a year which would have messed up my graduate school plans or taking what the local government employment agency had to offer — not much for us foreigners, e.g. male model for the Art School (very strenuous as one had to remain motionless in odd positions for long periods of time — try it and you will know how those being tortured at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib felt) or the station. I really enjoyed the work. It was mentally relaxing and we were an interesting group of odds and ends from here and there — Hans, a former war prisoner from Germany who had decided to remain in Britain, a young Irishman who loved operas (which were fortunately available in Oxford at low prices, thanks to the governmental subsidies).

Some differences there were. My mates were startled to have an Oxford student among them. The Brits did not share cigarettes when lighting up as we Americans did and so I set a new pattern in motion which nearly drowned me with cups of tea from the station tea room.

Dangers there were as noted above. I managed to injure myself twice — gashing my forehead when a bag slipped as I was trying to put it in a rack which led to some free and excellent stitching by the local medical services free to all. I also bunged up a thumb caught in a fire hose when I was washing down the fish car from London, getting ready to unload it before dawn one day. Thumb still bends both ways. Was again patched up by kindly local doctors — free — a small part of my wages went to medical.

Back to the Queen — one felt for her being thrust into that demanding lifetime role when her father, King George, died relatively young at 56 in his sleep in 1952. I was also there that year as a “public” school (private in the British lingo) and recall the town crier in Uppingham sounding the traditional announcement through the town — “the king is dead, long live the queen.”

Imagine having your youth and relative personal freedom suddenly cut short for the rough life that she has had to live, constantly on display with what looks to be a bit of a klutz as husband and ditto for a son. Diana must have been a breath of fresh air for her, as must also be William and Harry. Judging from the Queen mother, she may be good for a couple of more decades before the kids begin to bear the heavy burdens of the crown.

“Carry your bags, sir?” I startled my college principal with that one on evening.

“Is that you, Kent?” He could scarcely believe.

Also in those days no persons of the opposite gender were allowed in the colleges — which really bugged my wife — no nice lunches there. But my college was the first to bring on board married students and now has a woman principal. Such gender separation probably explains the disposition towards the gay relationships at the university level of those days. Shortly before dons were not allowed to marry and so sought out the sweetest of the young nubile arrivals — as also happened among the students in the public schools as well. “Fag” was the term for student servants to upper class men. The typical university Brit often married the first member of the opposite sex he/she encountered post university.

And so it was when Elizabeth II became queen.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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