Dateline: Birmingham, Alabama, 1975. The all-girl production of Oliver closed as scheduled after a half-dozen sold-out performances. I had understudied Nancy and played the Strawberry Seller and Noah Claypole nightly while standing at the ready in case the star couldn’t go on. With just six performances, I knew the opportunity was scant, and I really didn’t care. I was in love with my life. Junior year was ending with huge opportunities looming for seniorhood — editor of this and performer of that — but first, one last summer at a sailing camp where I’d been summering since I was twelve. This year I’d be a counselor, a privilege I would happily have met for free, but which nonetheless paid $135 gross for the twelve weeks I would spend away from home — more than enough to cover the round trip in my 1966 Mercedes 200D at 36 cents a gallon.
After three months at camp, I was sporting the best “suntan” my hopelessly blonde self had ever had when my senior year at Mountain Brook High School began the day after Labor Day. I was busy, happy, and as popular as I wanted to be with one foot in each clique. My grades were solid, my teachers mostly loved me, and except for that darned ubiquitous bicentennial that was the de facto theme for the Class of ’76 nationwide, my life for the next nine months was on a course of my own making.
We ate around a formal dining table every night in my home back then. As the daughter, I set the table, laying out the sterling silverware à la Emily Post and rolling the linen napkins in each of our personalized silver rings. I helped my mother prepare and serve, and got up from my meal to fetch a glass of milk or extra rolls for my little brothers when they wanted it. There was no answering the phone during dinner, no disruption of family time. We talked of politics, little league, book reports, and family drama. My stepfather, Chase, provided discipline by stern glance and reprimand (“Don’t interrupt your mother,” “Eat your chicken,” “It’s ‘gerl,’ not ‘gull’.”), and told a few jokes, most of which I later learned were entirely inappropriate.
“I’ve got some great news,” he opened over beef stroganoff one night that September. I saw his eyes dart to my mother, who nodded almost imperceptibly as if to say, “Go on.”
“My flying friend Miller just got back from a bow hunt in North Carolina. He met a great new friend there named the Baron Ian Robinson who lives at Inverness on the North Sea. Do you know where that is?”
“Scotland,” I answered.
“May I please have some more milk?” my 9-year old brother Charles whispered so as not to interrupt, looking at me. I got up to get him some. “Keep talking, I can hear you,” I said.
“Well, Miller and the Baron really hit it off, and when it came time to go home to Scotland, the Baron told Miller that he really hated to leave because he thought Miller was really fantastic and he was enjoying his company so much, but he had to catch a flight if he wanted to make his connection in New York City. Miller said, ‘Well, I’ve got my plane here. Stay a few more hours, then I can fly you to New York and we’ll have more time together.’ The Baron thought that was a great idea, so they partied some more, Miller flew him to New York, and he made his connection. As he was saying goodbye, he told Miller that he was hosting a Royal Bow Hunt at his home at Inverness on the North Sea in November, that Queen Elizabeth and young Prince Charles would be there, and that he wanted Miller to come and bring his friends.”
Charles was playing footsie with our poodle, Bruce, under the table by this time, and 14-year old Gano was absorbed in the vanilla ice cream melting over his warm pecan pie, but I was listening. And I heard a threat coming.
“He has invited us to go. We’re the friends.”
“Whoa! Wait up! No-no-no-no-no! Absolutely not! Not under any circumstances! I am a SENIOR! I rule the school! No way am I leaving for any amount of time at all! Not this year! I’ve worked too hard to get where I am! Sorry, no. No, no, no. Uh-uh. Nope.” My voice trailed off as I made my point.
“Prince Charles will be there,” my mother gently reminded me, a hint of pleading in her voice.
Now, I want to interrupt the telling of this story for just a moment to discuss with you what happened next. A gay, albeit entirely closeted and not yet self-accepting, teenaged girl is talked out of her convictions with just one word: Prince. What kind of weak-willed, Barbie Doll indoctrination is that? Think about it….
“Okay, I’ll go,” I demurred.
Once my parents had negotiated my agreement, we flew into a whirlwind of planning and activity (all, I remind you, without benefit of the internet). We made international travel plans, got our passports, shopped for gowns in which to meet the Queen, practiced our to-the-floor curtsies, ordered custom kilts in our family tartans, and did interviews for the society column. And I did three term papers a month in advance of when they were due so that I would be free to go. Three!
Let me be clear: The whole world as we knew it knew that we were leaving Birmingham, Alabama, to spend a week bow hunting with the Queen of England and her eligible 27-year old son, the Prince, as guests of The Baron Ian Robinson of Inverness on the North Sea. The whole world was on pins and needles as our fairy tale unfolded.
On departure day, Mother wrote me a note allowing me to leave school at 10:00 in the morning so I could go home to meet her and Chase and we could make our noon flight. I came in through the kitchen and found her on the living room sofa — unsmiling — cigarette, as usual, in the left hand teetering over the Steuben ashtray, Jack Daniels in the right hand, on the rocks. A little early in the day, even for a lady from New Orleans.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, standing in the kitchen door, my school bag still over my shoulder.
She took a long drag of her unfiltered Camel. “We can’t find Miller,” she sang, looking me in the eye like she was the deer and I was the headlights. “Nobody’s seen him in weeks. And it’s not like we can just show up and knock on the castle door. ‘Hi, we’re friends of Miller. He couldn’t make it, but we thought we’d just show up anyway!’” She swigged her Jack. She made it look like a sip, because that’s what ladies do, but it was a swig.
“Okay, just sit there. Give me a minute. I’ll be right back.” I dropped my book bag, made myself a screwdriver (hell, I was on vacation at that point), pulled the Atlas off the bookshelf, and dropped down cross-legged on the floor across the coffee table from my sad little mother.
I sipped my drink. “Where do you want to go? Paris? Australia? Japan? Listen, the whole world knows about this trip. We’ve got the clothes, the passports, the plane tickets. I did three term papers in advance! We’re going somewhere!”
I put the map of the world in front of my mother.
“Want to throw darts at it or do you have a preference?”
For the next two hours, my mother and I laughed and drank and schemed about our trip. Finally we agreed on one thing: Chase, who was still out looking for Miller, would not leave the country if he wasn’t going to Scotland. He would be hornet-swatting mad when he got home, and it would be all we could do to get him to leave the house. We settled on New York City, and the idea of a week of Broadway made my heart sing WAY higher than any eligible prince. (That’s called foreshadowing.)
Chase came home predictably mad, we talked him into going to New York, it rained, he bitched, and finally after two exceptionally long days, he left us there to have a girls’ week of theatre and food. It was bliss.
When we got home, I had to face the high school throngs waiting to hear all about my upcoming royal nuptials. Mother and I had brainstormed that one over many an after-show cocktail at Sardi’s that week. Lucky for me, I was editor of the school paper, so I got to write the story. It read like O’Henry — okay, a high school version of O’Henry — set to a backdrop of Pippin, Equus, Grease, and They’re Playing Our Song. The Birmingham News society column did not run a follow up.
Miller was AWOL for about six months after that. One afternoon near his favorite fishing haunt, Chase caught sight of him in a local tavern.
“Where you been?” he asked calmly.
“Around,” said Miller.
“Okay,” concluded Chase.
And that was all she wrote.