I once was, of sorts, for a day. And on that day I learned a great lesson.
Back in 1983, when I was in Army ROTC at the University of Washington, Reagan had invited Queen Elizabeth II to visit the Pacific Northwest. I suspect everyone was stunned when Her Majesty took the President up on his offer. One stop on the Royal tour was a visit to UW. She would do whatever else she did, put in an appearance and give a speech at Hec Ed (the basketball arena), then move on.
The word went out at the Husky Battalion in Clark Hall: no more than twenty volunteers were needed, with the duty of assisting the Secret Service and UWPD (or ‘U-Pud,’ as it was most often called) with security. A similar number were accepted from the AFROTC squadron and NROTC battalion, both of which also headquartered in Clark Hall: I think the Air Force was on the third floor, Navy on the second, and we were downstairs. A lot of us knew each other, especially through our Ranger FTXes (‘futtockses,’ or Field Training Exercises). The Marine Option NROTC midshipmen were most interested in joining us for fun-filled weekends getting soaked and freezing our asses off at Ft. Lewis, but a few Air Force cadets also participated.
The volunteer list filled up in record time, and I was fortunate enough to secure a spot. When the day arrived, we were to show up at some side entrance at Hec Ed, very early, in dress uniforms with white pistol belts. We would not be armed. One of our cadre officers, a captain in Special Forces, wore a pistol in a skeleton holster under the back of his dress jacket. If I recall correctly, a Secret Service officer at least perfunctorily searched us, or at least ritually asked us if we were carrying any weapons. We gathered around for a briefing from a Secret Service officer.
Each of us would be stationed at some specified point, shown on a chart with sections described by who would inhabit them. Mine was the Queen’s Tea Party, from whom no threat was expected, just in case you got the impression that I was about to have to do anything brave. The SS explained the pins worn by the various security contingents; a small enameled sheriff’s star pin would denote Secret Service personnel. A similar pin with the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) emblem marked those. Cheaper pins with one letter each would signal armed personnel, whom I presume mostly came from UWPD and were not in uniform, and others with varying duties.
In those days I was bursting with nationalism and patriotism, vastly honored to be representing my nation before an allied head of state, and even though the former have been beaten out of me by life, the latter honor hasn’t faded for me. It was the rarest of privileges. While the SS didn’t expect trouble, it had already been made clear to us (by the cadre) that in the gravest unforeseen extreme, we were to act toward a threat by sacrificing our lives if necessary. Not that I’d get much chance to, in such a case, since I would be facing away from the bleachers, but the point was made.
So we served at first as ushers, helping people to their seats, and that’s where the lesson came to me–but I’ll finish with it. Then we took our assigned posts, stood at parade rest, and stayed there while the royal entourage entered from my far right; I was too far from the center aisle to see anything without moving my eyes, which one may not do at parade rest. We came to attention as the PA played God Save the Queen. There were speeches; the Queen has a rather powerful speaking voice, and some University dignitaries said or did something or other. As you can tell, beloved alma mater’s administration left lasting impressions on me.
No disturbances occurred of any kind, except for the media overstepping the bounds of their designated kennel. The SS had put the NROTC Marine Option midshipmen over there for a reason. Meanwhile, at various times, SS and EOD team members would pass by. One guy had an attaché case; another’s arm was in a sling. One didn’t have to be a mental giant to figure out what that was about.
Then the entourage came back down the center aisle, and exited to my left–thus passing directly before me. There must have been twenty people, more women than men. The Queen herself wore a blue suit and a matching dog dish hat; she is shorter than I had realized. I am pretty sure I recognized a RAF officer’s uniform. Prince Philip stopped to speak to one of our cadets, who promptly promoted him to King by addressing him as ‘Your Majesty.’ I cringed inwardly. A tall officer whose uniform and bearing shouted ‘Colonel of Royal Marines’ came to a sudden, very military halt in front of me. He did a precise left face immediately, looking me directly in the eyes. I did not return his gaze, because I didn’t move, and he was taller than me, so I believe I stared directly through his nose.
One wonders why he did that. A little test of the military discipline of future officers of his nation’s most powerful ally? Simple puckishness? Did he see my last name, and think to himself–with the IRA supporters demonstrating outside–that he might have in (extremely remote and unlikely) theory had to trust his monarch’s life to this uniformed, unarmed teenager with a quintessentially Irish surname? I will never know. The entourage continued out, and the event closed. Consensus was that UW represented itself well, with those of us representing the armed forces doing our part.
But as we were ushering, and before we took up our posts, something interesting happened. An ancient lady, a bit heavyset and apparently about ninety years of age, was struggling up into the lower bleachers. I and a Navy midshipman were close to hand. We each took a side and half helped, half hoisted her into her assigned bleacher seat. As she was settled, she looked at each of us in turn. I don’t remember her face, but I won’t ever forget those clear, alert, intelligent eyes. She said, “Thank you, you young gentlemen. Someday someone will do this for you.”
It may have affected my nautical colleague as profoundly as it still does me, what must be at least two decades after she has almost surely passed on.