There’s no such thing as a typical tour group, but if ever there was, the one we had in the United Kingdom would have been it.
There were a couple of families, single guys hoping to meet single girls and single girls pretending they weren’t trying to meet single guys. There were young couples, old couples and a few mixed, like a father and daughter combination.
There was Arthur Battersea, a tall, thin man who looked so old that even his beard had wrinkles. We nicknamed him “The Boomer,” because his booming voice kept his wife in a constant state of embarrassment.
The potential for fun was definitely there, and the biggest and best part of it was Pam, our tour guide.
She wore four-inch heels all the time. “I wear these heels,” she said, “because I’m only 5 feet tall and my center of gravity is so close to the ground that without these heels I look like a duck. In fact,” she added, “without these heels I even walk like a duck.”
She thrust a finger into the air. “However, with the heels I am so tall and sensuous I drive men mad. And I have regal carriage. I walk like a queen. It’s because if I don’t walk like a queen, I’ll fall off these damn things and break my bloody neck.”
“You wear them all the time?” one lady asked.
“Well, yes,” Pam answered. “By and large, I wear them all the time, yes.” Then, after a brief pause, she added: “Well, perhaps not quite all the time. I’ve found they tend to tear up the sheets.” Most of us thought that was pretty funny.
She was obviously pleased she’d gotten a laugh, but it must have been pretty close to true. In the two weeks we were together we never saw her in any other shoes, nor did we ever see her in less than good spirits or stuck for an answer about the places we were visiting. I even started to take notes.
“Are you stealing her jokes?” my wife Joyce whispered.
“Certainly not,” I said. “Just taking a few notes.”
“You’re not the only one,” she said, pointing toward one of our fellow passengers. It was Philip L. Gleason, two rows ahead and across the aisle.
Gleason, a quiet man in his middle 40s, was traveling with his 12-year-old daughter, Beverly. It seemed as if he was taking notes to have something to do while his daughter either read or listened to tapes on her Walkman.
On about the third day, as the bus neared Melrose in the south of Scotland, we passed through several plowed fields. Sea gulls, attracted by the newly unearthed worms, had settled in by the hundreds.
“You will see on your left the many sea-gull farms of the area,” Pam said. “Looks like rather a good crop, doesn’t it?” There was some laughter.
Gleason took a picture of the sea-gull farm, then leaned toward his daughter and spoke for a moment. If he’d been hoping to start a conversation, it didn’t work; the girl just shook her head. The two seemed to be a little afraid of each other, as if they really hadn’t spent much time together.
Pam picked up the mike. “The presence of such a splendid gull crop suggests that the snipe hunting may be ever so good hereabouts.” There was more laughter.
“What’s funny about that?” Gleason whispered to his daughter. For an answer, Beverly just shrugged.
“I haven’t been on a good snipe hunt,” Pam continued, “since I was a Girl Scout back in New Zealand. Of course, we didn’t call them snipe there, but I think that’s what you call them in America. Right?”
Pam then asked if there were any aboard who’d never been on a snipe hunt. Beverly and a few others held up their hands.
Gleason looked around and hesitantly raised his hand, too. “Might I ask what you do with them? Do you eat them?”
“Oh my, no,” Pam said. Beverly seemed noticeably relieved.
“You’ve never been snipe hunting, young lady?” Pam asked.
“I never have,” said Beverly. “How do you do it and not hurt them?”
After a covert wink at Gleason, Pam told the girl how the “catchers” would go to the top of a small hill and stand holding their pillow cases or bags close to the ground while the beaters, starting at the bottom, would make noise and beat the bushes. The snipe would then rush up to the top and, mistaking the open bags for hiding places, jump in. “Then you turn them loose. All very humane and lots of fun.”
“Oh, lots of fun,” somebody echoed, laughing.
We were coming to our lunch stop, so Pam just mentioned in passing that all those wishing to take part in a snipe hunt should meet outside the hotel at 3 in the morning. Most of us laughed. Gleason wrote it down.
At breakfast the next morning, Gleason, looking somewhat wrung out, approached Pam in the hotel restaurant. He spoke with her for a moment before Pam shouted, “Oh, my God,” and started alternately laughing and apologizing.
Turns out Gleason and his daughter had waited from 3 to 4 a.m. with their “equipment"--a pillow case, a metal trash-can lid and a broomstick, wondering why the snipe hunt wasn’t forming up.
“Pretty soon,” Gleason said, “I began to feel like somebody was playing a trick on us. Beverly was going to make noise and I was going to hold the bag.” A light came on in his eyes. He started to get red in the face from the neck up.
Gleason eased himself into a chair and covered his face with his hands. As the story of what had happened started to move around the restaurant, the laughter moved with it. And the more we tried to suppress it, the more it grew.
I had memories of a moonlit night in my Boy Scout days, standing at the top of a small hill, holding a pillow case and wondering why I was feeling dumber and dumber and why those “beaters” were laughing instead of making noise like they should have.
Beverly put her arms around her dad, trying to comfort him. Then The Boomer stood up.
We’d come to believe that Battersea was trying to solve his hearing problem by turning up his own volume. All it did was include the world in most of his private conversations. “Boy,” he bellowed, “don’t you feel bad? What’s your name?”
“Well, Bill, we’ll keep all this just between us. You’re not the first person to make a damned fool of himself because of snipe hunting. Even happened to me when I was a youngster.”
Gleason raised his head. He looked like he felt a little better. “How old were you?”
“Well,” Battersea boomed, “near as I can remember, 41.”
Gleason suddenly laughed, and then so did Beverly and everybody else within reach of old Battersea’s voice, which now included several other tour groups in the hotel restaurant and about half of Scotland.
It was never clear whether it was Battersea’s admission, Beverly’s sudden and unexpected compassion or just Gleason’s feeling that any more stupid mistakes couldn’t surpass the one he’d already made, but he loosened up after that.
He and Beverly started to communicate in words instead of shrugs. They took every option the tour offered, and sometimes just looked at each other and laughed.
Toward the end, when Joyce and I had rotated around to the front seats again, a woman who had spent a little more time with the Gleasons than the rest of us came up to talk with Pam.
She told about how Gleason had never learned about things like sea gull farms and snipe hunts because he’d literally worked all his life.
“I don’t think you could say Phil Gleason ever really had a childhood, you know. At least not until now,” she said.
On the last day, when we were all saying our goodbys and exchanging hugs and handshakes, it seemed as if both Phil and Beverly took a bit longer when they hugged Pam. While Joyce and I were taking our turn and the Gleasons were heading for their luggage, Battersea’s voice boomed out. He was standing at the curb, helping his wife into a cab.
Gleason stopped and turned. “Name’s Phil ! I say my name’s Phil !”
“And I wish you the same,” Battersea shouted. “Been a pleasure knowing you.” He tipped his hat and stepped into the taxi.
“Amen,” said Gleason. He looked at Beverly.
“You coming, Bill?” she asked, and they moved toward their luggage, chatting and laughing.
Joyce blew her nose. “You’re not getting a cold, are you?” I said.
“Naw . . . I just like happy endings.”