This article first appeared in the October 1978 issue of Reader’s Digest.
It is a terrible thing to be 16 and never have shaved. At Christmas, I received a mug with scented soap, a bone-handled brush and the most modern razor on the market. “You’ll be needing them soon,” my father said, with a confident wink. Every morning I searched the mirror, but the new year, 1949, began without the slightest shadow on my face.
In February, I made the dreadful mistake of bringing my mug, brush and razor to school and hiding them in my locker, in the hope that my masculinity would suddenly sprout between, say, social studies and Latin. The implements were discovered and displayed – with hilarious commentary – by two hairy older boys.
After that, the elusive first shave became an obsession. I daydreamed, imagining the rites of the ritual: how I would coax the warm, rich lather from my mug, how I would spread it, slowly and luxuriously, over the skin and then make the masterful, sweeping razor strokes that would initiate my manhood. But no matter how often I looked, the mirror still proclaimed that I was beardless.
Then my father announced that Mother and he were planning a brief visit to England. If I wished, he said casually, I could come too.
I packed my unused mug, brush and razor and, on April 2, I walked up the gangway and into the sumptuous comfort of the Queen Mary.
The hour before departure was frenzied. My parents had a cabin on A Deck, and it was immediately filled with well-wishers. (This was the week that my father’s book The Greatest Story Ever Told reached the top of the bestseller list.) My cabin was on the deck above, and I had barely reached it with a group of school friends when a great blast from the ship’s horn announced that all guests must leave. One of my friends had been reading the passenger list. “Look!” he shouted, pointing to a name. I read it aloud, in disbelief: “Winston Churchill.” Churchill! At 16, I thought of him as a kind of god.
The ship’s horn sounded again and, after we said goodbye, I raced to my father’s cabin. “Do you know who is on this ship?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said and handed me a note. “My dear Mr Oursler, how fortunate we share the same voyage! Could you, Mrs Oursler and your son have tea with us on Tuesday?” It was signed by Churchill.