Today, March 24, 2015, is the 25th wedding anniversary of Jim and Helena Barahal of Hawaii. Jim is the president of the Honolulu Marathon Association, and one of my oldest friends in the sport. We met in 1980 broadcasting the 8th Honolulu Marathon for radio station KKUA. The following is a play-by-play of Jim & Helena’s magical wedding week in England in 1990, to this day the best wedding I have ever attended (other than my own).
As we descended from 37,000 feet over the Atlantic, the new day rose purple and swollen like a bruise along the edge of the horizon. Inside the Boeing 747 the cabin resembled a 14 year-old boy’s bedroom, strewn, fore to aft, with the detritus of an overnight’s crossing. Cleanliness may yet be next to godliness, but evidently less so above cloud cover. At least pulled down window shades blocked an intruding morning light, leaving the disarray largely in the gloaming as the big bird whined to a halt at Heathrow’s gate 23.
Sight might have been reduced, but certainly the other senses were taxed like a middle-class parent of two; the air hung redolent of stale breath and elderly feet. Anyway, as I steered fuzzily forward, my fellow passengers deplaned woodenly like extras in a George Romero zombie re-make. Then, after baggage collection and the weary walk to customs I found myself in the queue awaiting passport inspection. Mind you, this was the short Yankee-on-holiday line, not the serpentine back-to-the-coal-mines return of the native queue alongside.
“Are you here on business or pleasure?” began the clerk behind the Formica-topped counter as he massaged his brow fitfully.
“Pleasure,” I ventured, handing over my documents into his outstretched palm. “Friend of mine is getting married.”
“Married? ” He looked up now somehow engaged. “Oh, who?”
(Oh, who? What, you think we might have friends in common?)
“Uh, actually it’s a pal of mine from Hawaii.”
“Someone from Hawaii getting married in England?” he queried, bushy eyebrows arching, loosening a number of crusted white flakes onto my passport photo.
(Whataya got, a This Week in British Weddings guidebook back there? I’m just answering the questions, not saying whether they make any sense or not. And, hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the Socratic Method is by-the-numbers, but you have to know when to bail out. And based on what my next answer is going to be you’re about one question late in that regard.)
“Well, his fiance is Swedish, you see.” And with that I shifted weight from one foot to the next while glancing over at the other lines to my left and crossing my arms casually as if that answer ought to clear the whole thing up.
(Heavy sigh.) My last answer had screwed his face into the kind of mask Ronnie Reagan used to slip into when asked to recall the shape of the Oval Office, but I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave him like that, so…
“It’s not as strange as it sounds, really,” I continued uncrossing my arms and clasping my hands together in a gentle form of supplication. “With the social democrats in power for the better part of the last half-century back in Olaf-land and that crowd’s predilection toward a tax rate even your Labor Party would consider imprisonable, here the family moved, and here their daughter will marry. See?”
(I mean, that was pretty much it. There wasn’t a tinier nutshell I could squeeze it into. But I think it was the concept of England as a tax haven for ANYBODY which had him glazed over, especially since he could still recall nights chucking stink bombs at 10 Downing Street in response to Lady Thatcher’s nastily regressive poll tax. So I had to shift gears back into an arena he could understand.)
“Alright, how about this,” I chanced. “Notwithstanding that both the bride and the groom are very attractive people, they, at the same time, were looking for as much pure physical reinforcement as possible on the occasion of their wedding. That’s the premise. We up to speed so far? Great. Then they realized, hey, what better place than England to stage the nuptials since tint of teeth and strength of chin are found in inverse proportion to size of ears. It’s perfect.”
This (only because it assumed a certain syllogistic formulation) loosened the logjam. His face unhinged, he stamped my entry, and sent me off flashing a mossy-mouthed, bryozoan smile in farewell. I proceeded to the men’s lav where I flossed till bleeding.
It was your standard pull-up-the-collar-on-the-Burberry day in March: a biting chill in the air with showers threatening, a gray quilt of clouds pulled low over the city with the wind constant from the northeast. I’d decided against a taxi, choosing instead to take the tube in from the airport. Sort of an attempt to rub elbows with the local tribes of London.
I had managed to arrive at exactly morning rush hour, and my train car, clean though the seats and walls may have been, instead presented its graffiti and grime upon its passengers. I shared a car reserved (I’m quite sure) for coal mine commuters or all-night convenience store thieves heading home. This was not the Thatcher crowd. Then, my particular stop’s escalator was out of order, and since the London tube is truly underground, I was forced to climb the equivalent of the Empire State Building to get out. Mental note: take the taxi next time.
Upon reaching Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair I made my way to the sack in search of last night’s sleep. When I awoke with a newly stabilized body clock I met Jim and our small party of Yanks downstairs, and we decided to go for an afternoon run.
The first thing to know about Brown’s Hotel is that its signature presentation is its 4 p.m. high tea. Tea time in England is suffused in tradition (such as pallid skin, crust-less bread, and tedious drivel). Though not as elaborately anal as the Japanese tea ceremony, here at Brown’s there are the complex rituals and formalities signifying a civilized residence. It’s not the return of the Empire, mind you, but at least it reminds the natives that they aren’t French.
The confluence, however, of our run with their high tea precipitated a pile up of cultural norms in Brown’s lobby. The sight of six Americans heading toward the door wearing bulge enhancing colored running tights on the way to exercise their cardiovascular systems at exactly tea time allowed the British their daily workout in social hauteur.
This drill featured the blustered harrumph, which conveniently cleared the moustache of gathered food product, and was closely followed by the head waggle with eyes cast skyward, combining, when properly coordinated, to affect an air of societal superiority. Which made the man serving the tea a bit incongruous, because he had so much hair growing from his ears that it would require a tonsorialist to decipher whether they were sideburns or not (cause we sure as hell couldn’t tell!)
We jogged out into a London which was – how did it seem? – well, a burlier version of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. All around we saw grown-ups truly in a London fog intermingling with spike-haired youths whose insolence was a constant reminder of Jolly Olde’s de facto sub-power world status and probable continuation of it. We did a quick tour at pace of Hyde Park with its wide bridle paths and open green fields before hitting the showers back at Brown’s. Next we ventured out for a neighborhood look-see and to enjoy our first meal in country. It was only after the repast that the word `enjoy’ seemed to be a bit of a stretch.
We passed a number of places, took a peak at the fare offered, decided “Maybe we can do better than this” before realizing “better than this” necessitated a plane ticket.
“Just make it coffee for me, thanks,” I told the cashier at the cafeteria we finally chose two blocks down from the hotel. The place was mostly a carry-out establishment, but we found two wrought iron tables in the back which could accommodate our party.
I tried my darndest, but just couldn’t force myself into the “Greying Road Kill with clotted cream” that they were passing off as the luncheon special. Unfortunately, not everyone else in our party was so judicious. During the meal the groom’s dad bit down too hard on what he thought was all mush when we heard a painful snap emanate from his mouth. His hand whipped up and out came one of his front teeth. God only knows what he’d bitten into. Never did find the offending morsel.
At first he didn’t seem that upset, saying something about “bad eeth (sic) being held in high regard around here”. Point well taken, we agreed. But even though you’re in England, don’t forget, the bride’s parents, your hosts, are Swedish.
“Oh voy, aat’s ight (sic),” he remembered tenderly, but unfortunately out loud, an utterance that catapulted a waxy phlegm node into my coffee cup through the newly opened gap in his uppers. Taking his situation into consideration I decided to let the faux pas ride while the decision was made to whisk him to a local dentist, even though the best man was a dentist himself. So with his physician/son and dentist/best man in tow the groom headed out as I called for the waiter’s assistance in search of a proper phlegm strainer.
Now if you were in search of an award winning Commonwealth oxymoron `Kenyan Tanning Salon Operator’ might be the gold medalist, but God knows `British Dentist’ wouldn’t be that far off pace. Notwithstanding, the father of the groom had his tooth restored temporarily and our dentist/best man even spoke highly of the “fine local man”. Unfortunately, it would later become obvious that this was the same “Fine” who we’d once watched on afternoon TV played by Mo, Larry, and Curly as Dr. Howard! Dr. Fine! Dr. Howard! as the Three Stooges. You see, “temporary” in this case meant about a day and a half. Yes, the morning of the wedding.
The sun began to appear fitfully throughout the week, but never with more than an intimation of warmth. The groom was completing his morning ablutions after our morning run on Saturday when another friend who worked as the TV weather man at a station in Honolulu (talk about a taxing job) called from the next room saying “go have a look at your dad. His entire tooth just fell out below the gum line”.
Before periodontal panic set in (and now better aware of local oral operator competence) our own best man/dentist took matters into his own hands. Off he scampered to the local chemist for some Krazy Glue and Q-Tips. So as the task of gluing the groom’s father’s tooth back in place commenced within the hotel , the rest of us huddled across Albermarle Street from Brown’s at the Bon Appetit Restaurant for a small repast.
An intermittent rain had begun falling again, directing fresh customers into the Bon Appetit at a jog, shaking water from their coats once inside. Our table took up a conversation with a British couple nearby who attended to their very cute newborn son who sat between our tables in his pram.
Not more than a half hour and two cups of coffee later we looked up to see our dentist and father of the groom patient bounding into the restaurant grinning from ear to ear shaking the steady morning rain off their raincoats. At first we assumed their felicity to be a manifestation of the tooth replacement procedure’s success. However, on closer inspection it became clear that these two were riding the crest of an epoxy-induced catalepsy, which while making them wonderful company for a game of Twister was, at the same time, a tad inappropriate for a Scandinavian wedding being held later that afternoon in a centuries old country church. The patient, especially, came away limited in decision making and physical coordination on the order of a Monogram Model B-52 Flying Fortress which required about the same amount of glue to assemble as had his tooth.
With the wedding bearing down on us and no recovery room snap-out-of-it drugs handy, we attempted to dissipate their vapors with whatever we could find locally. The man behind the checkout counter suggested we try “Hurricane Mints”, whose advertisements indicated that these babies “would revive even the most flagging mouth”. Seemed like the right mint for the right job. Except we colonials, though correctly perceiving epoxy miasmas to be a mental deforestation device to all in close proximity, weren’t accustomed to mints with this great a payload. And the second those pellets hit saliva they began boring holes into our boys’ nasal passages and then went about the task of eroding their optic nerves. Thus, we now had the father of groom and best man both temporarily blinded by peppermint candy. The lesson here: the proper amount of Krazy Glue for the bonding of a groom’s father’s front tooth the morning of the wedding while on foreign soil is always somewhere between “maybe we shouldn’t” and none.
The bride’s father had arranged to have us picked up outside our hotel at 1 p.m. for the drive to Clivedon some thirty miles out into the countryside where the wedding was to take place. But having gotten lost on our morning run around Hyde Park, going through that dodgy tooth re-implantation, and watching the skies open through a classic British rain, the groom in his first show of nerves hired a trio of taxis to shepherd us instead. One taxi did no more than transport our luggage.
The Clivedon estate, sight of the wedding party, was built in the 17th century in Taplow-on-Thames. One of the classic British country estates in Buckinghamshire, the place reeked of history (though that could have also been my running shoes.) For over 300 years Clivedon had had a series of influential and colorful owners including Frederick Prince of Wales (1739-1751). As a result, it has stood at the center of political and social life in Britain.
The Astor family estate from 1893 to 1966, Clivedon was viewed in the pre-WWII period as home to an upper class, anti-semetic, Hitler-apolgist crowd led by the Lady Nancy Astor. One verbal joust at dinner with a visiting Winston Churchill featured the famous, “Sir, if you were my husband I would place poison in your cup,” by Lady Astor. To which Churchill rejoined, “Madam, if I were your husband I would gladly drink it.” Clivedon also provided the initial setting for the infamous Profumo sex scandal which toppled the British government in the mid-1960’s. In other words, for the better part of three centuries Clivedon served as ground zero for elitist wife swaps and class-system maintenance seminars.
With hardly an hour and a half left to the ceremony I settled into the Duke of Sutherland Room in the west wing, named after the 2nd Duke of Sutherland another of the former owners (1849-1869). But there wasn’t much time for initial gawking at the surroundings, much less walking the grounds — which with but a few mowing changes could well be made into a fine public links course — it was a sizable par 5 from the front gate to the main house alone. The ceremony loomed, to begin sharply at 5 p.m. And since the invitation requested white tie and tails for all men in attendance, it might take more than a couple of minutes to suit up.
In spite of all this, the groom’s Dad and older brother wanted to go for a quick jog (at their particular speed they might just as well have saddled up one of the chargers over in the stables and gone out chasing damp weasels or some such indigenous prey). Tea time already heralded 4 p.m. in the Great Hall. Some of the more punctilious guests had already garbed up, and yet the father of the groom (who could be excused due to his epoxy dosage) and his eldest son exited in pastel sweats full in the face of our recommendation that they hold off till the morrow.
Despite their late arrival, the ceremony inside Holy Trinity Church blossomed anyway. The young bride looked radiant, beamed beatific by rays filtered through ancient stained glass. For his part, the groom tried harder than ever to stand perfectly erect. Once the ceremony was completed, we reloaded our tour bus, and headed back to Clivedon to congratulate the newlyweds and celebrate their nuptials.
The Great Hall at Clivedon was festooned with ancient tapestries and paintings, and featured fairy tale architecture and lavish interiors lined with suits of armor from the middle ages. Elegant swells and swell-ettes boogied to the get-down beat of the four man band and female singer until each male guest was handed a card bearing the name of his female companion for the evening’s formal dinner. I escorted to table B a lovely Swedish matron, be-gowned, be-jeweled, and (at first) beyond me.
Conversation at our table centered on the care and feeding of au pair girls, those Swedish teens brought in to mind one’s children for several years while getting to work on their English language and husband seeking skills in return. The table seemed to accept my American presence at face value smiling tolerantly at one another whenever I chose an inappropriate fork or spoon. Although for the remainder of the meal there was an ongoing attempt to trade me to table G for the Czech chauffeur and a buttered scone to be named later.
Throughout the elaborate meal, as per Swedish custom, there were numerous speeches given. Not toasts, mind you, but well-crafted addresses announced by a master of ceremonies. The first such speech came from the bride’s father. Next followed both of her brothers and fourteen others from the bride’s list. The best man led off for our side, crafting both a sincere and touching remembrance of the day the bride and groom met at another friends’ wedding in Honolulu.
The impressively breasted maid of honor came through with a forgettable word or two, at which time I could see the groom walking over toward our table. He had that “Number-two-seed-down-by-15- four-minutes-into-the-second-half-of-the-NCAA-men’s-basketball tournament” coach’s look on his face.
“We need you to say something,” he began upon reaching my side. “We’re getting blown out by home team here.”
I knew the best man had to say something, that was part of his job description, but I didn’t have anything prepared.
“Boy, I’m coming up empty here,” I stuttered with the blood draining from my face. “Don’t put me on the spot.”
But after much prodding — and my dinner companion pointing out that this was tantamount to a command performance — I sweated through a search of some incident around which to build this little mouthful as a number of other speeches were delivered. Finally realizing there was no way out, I downed my drink and sent word to the emcee that I wished recognition so that I might address the gathering.
I had lit upon the only appropriate topic possible for the moment, the lovely bride, herself. Her wholesome, healthful, and generally un-American presence had brought to our previously male-only existence in Honolulu last December a delightful, if unexpected change.
“I met the groom eight years ago,” I began, raising my voice to carry through the large dining hall which once hosted so many of histories most noted after-dinner speakers. I explained how we had met while broadcasting the Honolulu Marathon back in 1980, and quickly recognized in one another a kindred spirit.
“Through each December hence we would run, play golf, eat poorly and generally enjoy one another’s company during my stay on the islands,” I informed the gathering. “Politics, philosophy, sports, how to take over and change the direction of the Honolulu Marathon, we seemed to engage one another on just about any level. Oft times I would think, `If only I could find a woman who encompassed the qualities found in the groom: intelligence, humor, the ability to get up and down out of a bunker in two, well then I’d find the woman for me’. Well, all those qualities with perhaps just a tad less back hair. But I digress.
“Notwithstanding,” I continued, “into this idyllic bachelor’s existence had come this deft Swedish charmer, and my friend was undeniably smitten. My only question was whether or not the introduction of a female element, as has happened oft’ times before, would drive a wedge between the boys. I needn’t have worried. Before we knew it we went from eating delivery pizzas in front of the TV dressed in our running togs, to fully clothed suppers of non-boxed grub seated at a table specifically designated for dining – not to even mention the silverware. This alteration in lifestyle created in my friend an obvious, lifetime love, and in me a child-like dependence.”
I went on to remind the audience that “marriage tends to lead to children. And I don’t want to shock anyone, but these two already have their first child. Unfortunately that child is me. While one may question the advisability of a couple’s first child being OLDER than either parent, nevertheless the bond was sealed and now I can’t wait for some siblings. One piece of advice though. Earlier the best man spoke of his desire to babysit the children. Now I’m thinking after all this in-depth au pair conversation I had here at table B tonight we should head to Stockholm and pick us up, say, a nineteen or twenty year au pair ourselves. And Dad, I’d like to help. Thank you for your attention. And may the God of us all bless this union.”
And down I sat to a not inconsiderable applause. Following the meal, and amidst the numerous hours of dancing and drinking that followed I was often sought out and roundly congratulated by all the Euros in attendance on the wit and charm of my presentation. The consensus being they never expected anything like irony in any speech by an American. (I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was half Euro myself.)
We fandangoed onward past two in the morning when the band finally fled after the entire party linked arms, and swaying side to side (was it the rhythm or indigestion?) serenaded one another with both Auld Lang Syne and the Swedish National anthem. The maid of honor and I exchanged addresses – unfortunately not bodily fluids – and the evening came to a close. I fear this will be the final wedding I’ll ever be able to attend, as no future such gathering could hope to match it.
Happy 25th, Jim and Helena. May the next 25 be as golden as the first.