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Winnie, Whiskers and a Word of Wisdom

A boy on the cusp of manhood is inspired by meeting Winston Churchill.

In the next days, I saw the great man twice. First at dinner, two tables away from us. The round, pink face shone above a dark pinstripe suit. He smiled at everyone, until the main course was served. Then he frowned at the plate, and his face turned from pink to red. The chef was summoned, and with much animation Churchill pointed to the food and waved his hands in the air. It was clear that he was demonstrating how the meal should have been prepared.

Late one night, I saw him again. Two men were helping him as he moved unsteadily towards his cabin. It seemed to me that Churchill actually wanted to go in the opposite direction, but the men, with determined gentleness, guided him firmly to his door.
Both incidents disturbed me. This was not the way I had expected a god to act. At breakfast on the morning before the tea, I told my father what I felt. Churchill was rude; he was intemperate.

“And you are judging him?” My father took a deep breath. “More than 50 years ago, this man rode in the last great cavalry charge in history. He escaped from imprisonment in the Boer War and, although there was a price on his head, made it back to England. In World War I, he devised a great plan to bring the war to a swift conclusion. The plan failed and for years he lost his political power. Then he warned the world about Hitler, but no one listened. Finally, when all his predictions came true, when it was almost too late and when America still remained neutral, he inspired his country to fight the Nazis alone. He is one of the greatest orators in history and has written some of the greatest English since Shakespeare. And you are troubled because he is publicly fastidious about his food and you think he drinks too much. Do you know what Lincoln said when people complained that Grant was a drunk?”

“No.”

“He said, ‘I’ll send him a case of whisky if it will help him win the war.’ Do you know what Cromwell said when he sat for a portrait?”

“No.”

“The painter wanted to flatter him, but Cromwell said, ‘Paint me, warts and all.’”

My father was silent for a moment. Then he said quietly, “You are becoming a man. You should know that no one is perfect. Certainly not heroes. You must develop a sense of … proportion.”

That afternoon as I dressed for tea, I was not only chastened, I began to tremble with a kind of stage fright. I had taken a fool’s measure of, not a god, but a very great man. Now I was to meet him. Suppose he were to take my measure? (“Tell me, young man, what are your thoughts on the Boer War?”)

I can remember how cold my hands were as I walked with my parents to Churchill’s suite. “Who were the ­Boers?” I asked suddenly.

My father turned to me. “I’ll tell you later,” he said. “Now remember no one is perfect. You, for example, have a tendency to talk too much. This afternoon I expect you to listen!”

In the first giddy moments after we had entered, I saw with relief that Churchill was not in the suite. ­­

Mrs Churchill had begun making introductions when the room fell silent. I turned and there – like ­Mephistopheles emerging from a cloud of smoke – stood Churchill himself, puffing on an enormous cigar.

He was dressed in the strangest suit I’ve ever seen. It was grey and one-piece, made of canvas-like material, with a zipper in the front. Later I learned that this was his battle dress during World War II.

 



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