World famous surfer Corky Carroll once said while poking fun at himself in a TV commercial that, "It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it." My family and I can make a similar observation, having recently returned as guests from a weeklong trip to the Sussex countryside in southern England.
My attitude beforehand was sour and petulant. Do I really have to do this? There's no time. Surely Her Majesty will excuse my absence. I'm just too busy.
If my arm's going to be twisted, though, I suppose there's a way to clear my schedule. But now I've got to worry about packing, getting the dog to the kennel, stopping the newspaper subscription for a week, telling friends and the alarm company that we're out of town and innumerable other inconveniences. Oh, the burdens of international travel!
With a self-imposed, abrupt slap across my own face (with a white glove, of course) and admonitions to assume the stiff upper lip, my angst further lifted once the flight attendant offered me a comforting glass of wine before departing the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
Having arrived at Gatwick at about 7:15 a.m. the following day, it's true that we were jet lagged, but duly prepared to tackle the "job" of touring southern England that lay ahead.
Rather than loll around the hospitable environs of the country house and gardens that had been secured for the week, which was tempting enough, we determined to forge ahead, stay up, avoid naps and get through the day as best we could while adjusting to the new time schedule.
Although not really part of the itinerary, one of the things the children really wanted to see was Stonehenge, the prehistoric, 5,000-year-old monument in the county of Wiltshire, about two hours from where we were staying. Every school-age child has at least heard of it and, for whatever reason, ours were quite knowledgeable of the structure and found it fascinating.
Enter, therefore, Eric, our matter-of-fact tour guide who would give us much to converse and eat over during our stay. In his late-50s, he has thinning, yet spiked gray hair and steely blue eyes, which squint ever so slightly while he's making a point. Ramrod straight, he stands about 6 feet, wears metal-rimmed glasses, is perfectly groomed, clean-shaven, nattily attired and speaks with a clipped, crunchy baritone loaded with information. Whether he's always right or not, Eric says his information is correct. No discussion there.
In fact, if you question him too much, you kind of get the feeling that he might let his jacket lapel fall away ever so slightly and reveal the edge of a holster.
He's an intriguing fellow and has a way of standing out, almost like a casually disguised operative on a secret mission of some sort. In fact, he will tell you that he has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doing what isn't exactly clear.
A seasoned professional who takes his job very seriously, Eric is not without humor and on several occasions broke into song. It was with this most interesting character that we would spend the better part of our week.
Once at Stonehenge (which was built by Neolithic peoples and not the Druids, as Eric emphatically pointed out), we experienced the four seasons within a matter of an hour. At one point, the wind was howling and there was a light, yet piercing rain. This only enhanced the atmosphere and made one further wonder how early man could have possibly transported some of the enormous stones to their present location. What was the religious significance of Stonehenge, and how did it relate to various astronomic phenomena?
Eric's overview was comprehensive and scholarly. At one point, a couple of the ladies felt the need to retreat due to inclement weather and wondered if Eric wouldn't repeat his analysis back on the bus.
"Well, of course, Mesdames. But it's taken us two hours to get here, will take us two hours to get back, and it seems to me that you're wasting your money not hearing an on-site interpretation. Otherwise, you might have done just as well with a chauffeur or watched a documentary!
"But it is getting rather uncomfortable -- in more ways than one," spoke out a gentleman in our party.
"And," said Eric, ignoring the gentleman, "I am not a chauffeur!"
Suddenly, Eric's borderline sinister edge evaporated and his persona was more that of the prissified dandy. For some inexplicable reason, the image of Dr. Zachary Smith having one of his patented histrionic outbursts from the old TV show "Lost in Space" popped into my head. And I knew that we would be amusingly entertained by Eric for the rest of the week. Which we were -- believe me. More on that anon.
Later, we enjoyed air purified by a plethora of English flora, a fireside Pimms cup, an appetizer of skate wing, Channel sole entree, and pudding for dessert.
It was tough enjoying such finery, but someone had to do it!
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at email@example.com.