January 24, 2019 – Winston Churchill’s death 54 years ago today marks a week of vivid personal memories.
Sir Winston died as I was preparing to leave home for a three-year Air Force posting at RAF Stations Bentwaters and Woodbridge in England’s bucolic Suffolk. I was already homesick when I climbed aboard a Boeing 707 at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport en route to London’s Heathrow.
My orders called for me to check in at Douglas House, a military hostel in the heart of London, where I would receive instructions for travel to the bases. I climbed into a luxurious London cab and gave the driver the directions recorded on my mimeographed orders.
The driver, wearing a wool cap and a frayed tweed jacket with shirt and tie, said, “Right-O, Mate.” He took me past Buckingham Palace, where the Union Jack was lowered in Churchill’s honor but the royal standard was at full staff. The driver was apologetic. “The Queen ain’t no better than you nor me, but she can’t lower her flag for Winnie, he warnt a peer.” Later I was told the royal standard is only lowered for the death of the sovereign.
I made my way to RAF Bentwaters on Saturday, the day of Churchill’s funeral. Ray Williams, the NCO in charge of the chapel where I would work, invited me to his family quarters on Woodbridge base, where we watched the funeral procession on a black-and-white telly. We listened respectfully as the BBC broadcast the voice of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who referred to my “old friend Winston.”
I was 18 and let it all flow over me. As time went on I began to wonder if Ike and Winston were really friends or did they constantly annoy each other by their differing views on the conduct of the war?
But on the day of Churchill’s funeral, my first full day so far away from home, I found comfort in Ike’s homely Kansas resonance.
Fifty-four years ago this week, Harold Wilson’s Labour government gave Sir Winston a funeral worthy of the savior of the nation.
But I wonder if some Brits also looked back upon him with mixed feelings. There is no question Sir Winston’s indomitable courage and soaring eloquence galvanized his people in their finest hour. Still, nothing was said during his funeral about his fierce imperialism and stunningly racist views, or his glorification of violence and war.
Even so, I found it an honor to be present in England as the Commonwealth said farewell to this towering figure Time magazine dubbed the Man of the Half Century.
And today I adapt an old admonition from Britain’s days of war: Keep Calm and marvel that you can remember 54-year-old events as if they are frozen in time.