Londoner John White has played many roles as Pan Am's man-on-the-spot at Heathrow Airport, aiding Sultans and chief executives and tracking the odd royal pet. They say his knack for problem solving is so keen that he once was offered a coin as a tip by a grateful Armand Hammer.
I started a conversation with White as we stood side by side, waiting for the luggage carrousel to move. He politely inquired if I would be long in London. I said that I was sailing down the River Thames the next afternoon on my way to cruise the Norwegian coast.
"Ah, on the Seabourn Pride," he said, identifying my ship. "A magnificent sight. She's the only one small enough to sail up the Thames. And the Tower Bridge opens for her."
His face was awash with nostalgia.
"May I tell you a memory?" he asked. "When we were boys, my friends and I would ride seven or eight miles on our bikes to see the Tower Bridge open. It was always a thrill."
Breeze From River
With just 24 hours in London, I had decided to stay in the neighborhood where the ship would be docked. I checked into the Tower Hotel, across the moat from the Tower of London and in the shadow of its Gothic namesake bridge. My room was efficient and convenient, with a small view of history and the river.
After a hot bath, I walked to the Tower complex. The breeze from the river was an eye-opener, as were the sun-splashed turrets. Hawkers were selling souvenirs of the 800th anniversary of the city of London.
Children were climbing on cannons that pointed toward the Thames. These guns are fired on special occasions: 62 times for the queen's birthday, 41 times for the birth of a royal infant.
But now they were silent and I was glad. My ship would be tying up out in the Thames, a state-of-the-art beauty next to the basic gray H. M. S. Belfast, a hero of World War II.
At the visitors' gate to the Tower--around the corner and uphill from the infamous Traitor's Gate--I watched two ebullient Yeoman Warders in their blue Tudor uniforms, emblazoned with the queen's scarlet letters: E II R.
One beefeater had a curly black beard and ruddy cheeks. The other had a handlebar mustache of the red that the British call ginger. They took turns giving directions and posing for photographs.
They helped a Japanese teen-ager who could not get the film to advance in her instant camera. They returned the salutes of schoolchildren. I remembered that I had a question, so I joined the line.
According to legend--one of my favorite sources--the ancient Tower of London will fall if its ravens die out.
"Pardon me," I said to the guard with the ginger mustache, "but how many ravens live here now?"
"Nine," he replied, as he ticked them off on his glove. "Six official residents, two visitors at the moment and a wee one--just hatched last month. Not to worry, my dear. The Tower will hold."
As he stood there, resplendent in Her Majesty's gilt, I felt wonderfully secure. My home was just across the street. These guards were my neighborhood watch.
If they could be entrusted with locking up the Tower and its bounty of Crown Jewels--including the world's largest diamond, set in the royal scepter--they could certainly protect my neck and purse.
I left them surrounded by a family of Swiss and hiked uphill to the stone church called All Hallows. A church has stood on this site for 1,300 years. In addition to Roman pavement, it boasts of American links: William Penn was baptized here; John Quincy Adams was married within its walls.
This day it was busy with youngsters pressing wax on paper in the brass rubbing center. A gritty-voiced matron was describing the tunnelers font, a granite memorial to the miners who excavated chambers in the Rock of Gibralter as a defense in World War II.
The hour was getting thirsty. I repaired to a neighborhood pub--the cozy Dickens Inn on a cobbled courtyard by a lightship relic--and then back to my hotel.
At dawn I slipped into the corridor to peek from a Thames-side window and see if my ship had come in. She was there, all right, nestled like a young white dove beside its plump, gray, war-weary mother.
After last-minute shopping (a taxi pause for "vintage character" Delaforce port at the Peter Dominic wine merchant), I made for the dock.
Excitement hung in the air like confetti. Cameras veered from the gleaming White Tower to the Gothic drawbridge ahead. Cheers erupted as the mighty span split and began to rise into parentheses of iron.
The sleek prow of the Seabourn Pride slid through the gap. I thought of John White out at Heathrow, and knew why he and his boyhood pals had pedaled so hard.