December 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

7. Travel to Spain: Jolly Good!

By |2023-03-13T02:46:12+01:00March 12th, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
A Qantas airplane, a very different kind of ship.

hen my father first announced we would be going to live in Spain, he also explained that we would be traveling via London on Qantas. My mother would go by ocean liner, since she disliked planes.

I didn’t, but I also didn’t know what a Qantas was. A plane, no doubt, but what plane began with the letter “Q”? My father told me this was the Australian airline. So perhaps the people who lived in Australia had invented some sort of space ship that linked Washington, D.C. to London?

When I asked about Qantas, hoping to know more about this magic plane, my father dodged the question and instead told me that he had chosen Qantas for reasons of expediency and eclecticism, neither of which I understood but later gathered it had to do with timetables and speed, so this must be quite a plane. I was thrilled.

But it wasn’t quite a plane, just an average plane with average seats. What was special, it turned out, were the people who ran the plane, especially the co-pilot, who led me to the cockpit, let me see forward into the clouds, in his seat, and placed my hand on the locked-in throttle.

Exceptional people, these Australians, who spoke a strangely musical kind of English I didn’t always understand. The co-pilot told me we had a tailwind of nearly 80 miles per hour, “that’s fast, little matey!” I imagined the winds occasionally selected planes for special speed treatment and this was why we had chosen the Australians, who got us to London in slightly less than five-and-a-half hours, a time I would never again see, not even in adulthood. If anything, the winds have seemed to slow over time.

On the flight were ladies in special suits who smiled at me and called me “the little gentleman,” even though I looked away. I didn’t like the word little, especially not while on a special wind-beloved jet I preferred to look on as my private steed.

I presumed these drivers drove on the left to vex those who believed they had not been in the right.

Still, they all waved good-bye as I dismounted and Ken, the co-pilot, told me to “watch out” for the English, which I also did not understand but began doing as soon as we arrived in our hotel, not far from some amusement park (or so it sounded) called Piccadilly. I remember many cars, all of which ran on the wrong side of the road. I remember my father’s explanation, which again contained a word, or an event in history, that left me baffled. I presumed these drivers drove on the left because they had once owned many countries, and now that they did not, they wanted at least to vex all those who believed they had not been in the right. My quaint version of imperialism would last only a few months, as the history of history began dawning on me, expediently of course.

In Washington, I had become a fan of a game I knew little about but my father loathed sports, so I adopted baseball as mine, my antidote to words I did not know.

But we arrived in London as the country’s national football team was playing in the World Cup, which was all about kicking a ball, and Wimbledon, which was all about hitting one with a strange meshed mallet.

I badly wanted to know the American baseball scores but London radio said nothing, and TV was worse, with World Cup analysts complaining that while England was an above average team (it would defeat Argentina but lose to eventual champion Brazil in the tournament quarterfinals), grown men should really make an effort to refrain from displaying excessive  emotion—so much unseemly hugging—after a goal was scored. This, they said, was disrespectful, unmanly, with one commentator insisting it brought shame on England itself. True, the Cup was being played in Chile, but Englishmen should resist what was a show, if not a plague—since the “typically passionate” Magyars, known to non-Londoners as Hungarians, were just as guilty—of “dismayingly gregarious Latin behavior.”

I knew nothing of sex, let alone homosexuality, nor criminal illegality. These were not included among my father’s eclectic topics.

I moaned about baseball scores so much that my father actually took me to a kiosk where he asked if any paper printed them. The vendor replied “jolly good!” (an odd name for a newspaper) and from his array of dailies plucked out one. The baseball question was clearly not new to him. His kiosk on the fringes of the amusement park I still knew as Piccadilly, a tourist hub, had a substantial American clientele.

My father took his offering, calling it “a rag” (what did rags have to do with newspapers). With a scowl on his face he nonetheless bought me “The Daily Mail,” taking pains to warn me against “tabloid news,” which I thought might be a variety of English news, and Ken had, after all, told me to watch out for the English, these people who, to be right drove on the left, and produced all sorts of novel-looking rags.

Of Washington, it was often said, “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

I combed through the sports section, chock-full with pieces on soccer and tennis, but finally buried my head in a page that contained only statistics, and at the very bottom of that page, was the small title: U.S. BASEBALL. Heaven! The scores were in fact a day late and read in a strange way, Senators-Tiger 1-12, an arrangement that made no sense until my superlative Qantas speed brain deduced that the Washington Senators had played at home, and was thus listed first, and played the Detroit Tigers. The 1-12 was easier to understand since Washington never won, so 1-12 could only mean they’d lost 12-to-1 at home. Of Washington, it was often said, “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

Though we visited the British Museum to see the Elgin Marbles, which the “right” English had wrongly stolen from the Greeks (sayeth my father) and walked through many streets with a plethora of skinny girls with short haircuts, my mind focused on one mission and one only, to get “The Mirror” in the afternoon.

Never mind this Wimbledon, and all its friends of Ken from Australia, including a strange-looking red-haired man named Laver, and another one called Emerson, and never mind England’s World Cup campaign, I knew what I wanted.

One evening we sat in the hotel dining room and I carried with me a rare smile—I was a self-taught master scowler. Why this mirth? asked my father.

I chose not to reply, “What’s a mirth?”

Instead, I said California-Washington 3-10.

My father was bewildered enough to keep eating as I imagined my players in California, doing the rare right (in England left) thing, winning.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.