Columnist Jim Cahillane recalls his near-encounters with royals

  • Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana, laugh together during their visit to an iron ore mine near Carajas, Brazil, on April 23, 1991.  AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/22/2017 9:03:39 PM

Whether we admit it or not, fate rules our lives. In November 1952 I was sent to England to complete a four-year Air Force hitch. Elizabeth II had acceded to the British throne on the death of her father, George VI. Her coronation was set for June 2, 1953.

That my father was born in Ireland, next door, in my mental map of the British Isles, meant that I might have a chance to visit my Irish relatives.

Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of the Aug. 31 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter–in-law who was divorced from her son, Prince Charles. Unlike my late dad, I’ve not met a British royal, but came close. It will take miles of lawful UK seat-belted driving and 37 years to reveal all.

I find that coincidence often propels what comes next in a story; operating at full speed it can place us in the plot. My father’s still raw childhood memories of cruel Black and Tan constables abusing his neighbors and the Irish countryside were misty history. To this spoiled American, dad’s pains were long ago and far away. To me, the English signified plays by Shakespeare, World War I and World War II movie flyboys and Uncle Sam’s constant ally.

England meant King Arthur, “The Sword in the Stone,” Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, Maid Marian and every swashbuckling film Errol Flynn ever made. Modern knights were soldiers and airmen beating back the Nazis, thus saving a postwar civilization to be enjoyed by up-and-comers like me.

Elizabeth II’s coronation had to be organized in every detail. As an Airman 1st class living on base, I had no great interest in the big event. The English were another story altogether. Excitement grew the nearer they came to the big day. Street parties were organized and flags and banners hung in every town and village. For the first time television would carry every minute of the grand ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Everything was planned to the inch. Cheering crowds gathered to greet her majesty riding in a golden coach.

It was a fairy tale, but then it rained! Boy did it rain!

When the heavens opened, her highness nearly became her dampness. Good luck on a wedding day, they say. Maybe here too. Elizabeth II just passed her great, great, great grandmother, Queen Victoria, as the longest serving monarch in British history.

It took a dozen Saturday night big-band dances, but in four months I had an English girlfriend. Maureen Stone was a recent graduate of Notre Dame High School in Northampton, England. That clinched our Catholic faith coincidence. On coronation day, Maureen and family took a train to her grandmother’s in Bristol to see the event on TV.

I was looking forward to Ireland. That August I met my Aunt Siobhan and Uncle Donal O’Leary in Dublin before taking a train to County Kerry for its famous Puck Fair.

Strangely, against the odds, our blue-collar families have had tangential brushes with British royalty. Maureen’s dad, Eddie, took pride in doing electrical work on his king’s railway carriage.

The 1954 Northampton tercentenary celebrations brought visitors from our English namesake. My being at RAF Fairford prompted a request for me to hand-carry this city’s engraved invitation to their mayor, which I did.

Thanks to his upset 1953 election, dad was mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts. His tercentenary hosting of English VIPs earned him a 1956 invitation to Northampton, England. At his large Chamber of Trade luncheon and reception, dad met and was photographed with Earl Spencer, Lord Lieutenant of Northampton.

That forecast how I almost met English royalty.

The 7th Earl Spencer would become grandfather of Diana Spencer. In 1981, Diana, as the world knows, married Charles, Prince of Wales and the future king of England. Their wedding was the largest royal event in England since the queen’s coronation, and a worldwide television sensation. Its story line was a fairy tale in every sense.

In time, the truth would come out that the couple was ill-matched, starting with the 12-year gap in their ages. Charles was unready to give up his lady friend Camilla, and a virginal Diana unknowingly agreed to an arranged marriage. Diana’s youth was a plus, her beauty blossomed, but her needs were dismissed.

Diana’s family home, Althorp, is near Northampton.

1989 marked the 800th anniversary of the granting of the town’s royal charter by King Richard 1st. We planned to be in England in June. Recalling my dad’s 1956 visit and Maureen’s school years there, I asked Mayor David Musante to write a letter of introduction.

As a result, we were invited to two events. The first was a service in the round Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After clearing security, we were seated among the great and the good. The crowd stood to see Charles and Diana arrive. Diana was dressed in bright pink and Charles buttoned-up in a double-breasted suit. Afterward, she held her umbrella against persistent showers, greeting crowds as cameras clicked.

Later we went to the new Derngate Centre for a town-wide musical evening. In the next day’s Chronicle & Echo, we were magically transformed into “the Mayor and Mayoress of Northampton, Massachusetts, James and Maureen Cahillane.” That’s democratic royalty in my book!

Following Diana’s shocking death, I wrote a freelance article about the friendly welcome we found in her Northampton, saying, “Thank God, most of our days are not sad ones.”

Diana’s Paris bodyguard, who was seat-belted in front, survived the accident. The speeding drunk and drugged driver Henri Paul, Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana died.

A new federal study reports that unbelted rear-seat passengers are three times more likely to be killed in an accident. Unlike chance royal meetings, that’s no coincidence. Voters should support an enforceable seat belt law in Massachusetts.

Jim Cahillane, of Williamsburg, is a writer, poet and seat belt advocate who writes a monthly column.

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