March 12, 1974: Sue (at right) and I sharing our picnic lunch with London pigeons. Minutes later we were invited inside Buckingham Palace.
Season 4 of The Crown is a great diversion for chilly November evenings. Netflix debuted the newest episodes last Sunday focusing on the 1980s and 1990s. Those cover history most viewers know: Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles.
I can’t watch any portrayal of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace without harkening back to my own brush with royal stardust. The year was 1974; Season 3, if you will. I was a foreign student in the seaside town of Brighton, an hour’s train ride from London.
That year Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to open Parliament on March 12. This would involve much pomp and circumstance. With any luck, onlookers would see the Queen in person, something to tell our friends and family.
So it was decided—four of us American students would play hooky that Tuesday. We would pack a lunch to eat in one of the London parks.
Did I mention that 1974 involved the OPEC oil embargo?
The energy crisis that ensued did a major number on the West, including Great Britain. I remember spending my first week in an unheated hotel (I could actually see my breath while taking a bath). At night I slept in my coat, hat and gloves and still shivered.
We American students arrived in London Jan. 1, and until classes began several days later, we spent a lot of time riding public transportation and touring museums just to stay warm. People could be fined for leaving a light on in an empty room, a solemn reminder of what life had been during the Blitz 35 years earlier. Back then citizens could be fined for allowing even a sliver of light to show German bombers where to drop their payloads.
Needless to say, life was austere in the UK in 1974. As for our foray to see the Queen, we were oblivious to the fact that the usual fanfare would be curtailed. Her trip from Buckingham Palace to Parliament was by automobile, not coach. It was the most dressed-down opening of Parliament since the war.
By the time we arrived at the palace gates, the dreary weather matched the mood of the place. We were late for a party that never happened.
After eating our box lunches on park benches, the four of us lingered around the palace perimeter, gazing at the immense sand-colored building while a few members of the queen’s household staff strolled along the tall iron fence, occasionally chatting with visitors.
At some point, two of my friends had wandered on past the palace gate. Sue, another student from Illinois State University, and I remained at the fence, when one of the palace insiders, a stout older gentleman in a long gray coat struck up a conversation.
When I asked what it would be like to see inside the palace, he paused. “Would you like to do that, Luv?”
I assumed he was joking until he proceeded to the gate and motion for Sue and I to step inside. Stunned, we followed him across the parade grounds to an entrance where we’d seen official visitors come and go from chauffeured vehicles.
I don’t remember what Sue said to me or exactly what the guard said to either of us, except to be quick about it. Obviously he was bending the rules.
We were ushered inside the palace to an ornate side table in a vestibule. I peered down a long hallway with chandeliers, gilt mirrors and red walls, and, of course, the proverbial red carpet for guests visiting the Queen’s residence.
“Sign here,” he said, pointing to lines below other visitors’ names.
I don’t recall if we used a plumed pen or a simple gold one. All I know for sure is that Sue Barkley from Yorkville, IL and Tammy McElroy from Shelbyville signed the guest registry at Buckingham Palace.
In the years since, I’ve pondered why the two of us were singled out among the random people milling around the palace fence that day. I know that we were not invited until we shed our companions. That freed the official to invite two of us—a permissible number, apparently.
But why did he choose us?
Maybe it’s because we were friendly and nonthreatening. Maybe we reminded him of someone he knew. Or maybe he assumed that we were daughters of American GIs who had done the British people a huge favor during World War II.
Sometimes bad luck can turn on a dime, or even a six-pence, when you least expect it.