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Lost Opportunity

May 2024
1min read

The old man smoking a cigar looked like Winston Churchill

In the 1950s and ’60s I had the good fortune to live in New York City, right across from Riverside Park. Our 325-acre back yard offered sledding in winter, and for the rest of the year I could race my Schwinn throughout the park. I was allowed to roam freely as long as I promised never to talk to strangers. If you obey no other rule, my mother used to say, obey this one. (I thought that was a good deal and obeyed no other rules.)

At West Seventy-ninth Street there was a marina, or “boat basin” as it was called. Not only were there beautiful yachts to look at, but a Good Humor wagon parked nearby. This was where my friends and I gathered to hatch plots and firm up daily itineraries.

In 1961, on an overcast day in early April, our gang met at the marina. A tall uniformed gentleman approached us. He had gold spaghetti on his cap, suggesting he was someone of importance, and he spoke with an accent. He asked if we would like to accompany him out to a large yacht anchored offshore. He’d be happy to give us a tour.

“Yes,” my friends cried in unison, and off they went. I, on the other hand, had a rule to obey, and stayed behind.

Later I met the gang returning from their venture. They happily described one of the ship’s passengers, an old man smoking a cigar who had spoken to them a good while about his youth in England.

When I went home that night, I told my mother that I had obeyed the rule. Rather than praising me, however, she looked disappointed, because I had missed a chance to meet Winston Churchill.

—Philip Fennell lives in Pawling, New York.

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