Here’s a little exerpt from The Story of the Great American Flying Broomstick, Book 1: Genesis. Fun reading!
Broomstick history began on a dark and stormy night.
I say “dark” because it was after the sun had set, and “stormy” because it was raining as though the clouds were getting behind on their quota and chose that night to catch up.
To be specific, my wife, Loretta, and I were in London, England. To be even more specific, it was Tuesday, February 15, 2005. And, continuing our pattern of specificity, Loretta and I had just left the British Museum.
We were in town for an IEEE Computer Society Conference. I work for IBM. The conference in question had to do very specifically with my job. I’m an engineer, although purists would say I’m an Information Technology Architect, but my degree is in engineering, so I call myself an engineer because people know what an engineer is, because nobody outside IBM knows what an IT Architect is, and I think quite a few people inside IBM don’t know either. So anyway my customer paid me to accompany a couple of their computer scientists to the conference. The conference itself had to do with complex data structures, which are not at all like complex building structures or complex bridge structures, although they do have the complexity part in common. My wife isn’t an engineer—she’s an artist—and when she heard I was going to London she lobbied hard for some of my United Airlines frequent flyer miles to get her there. It took hard work and lots of phone calls, and we finally settled for two different flights a day apart, but the bottom line is we had the afternoon of Tuesday, February 15, 2005, free, and spent it together in the British Museum.
The British Museum is to the British what the Smithsonian is to the Americans. Vast. Intimidating. World Class. Everything is there. We Americans think our 250-year history is long. The British date London back to the time of the Romans, so I think they have a bit more data on their history than we do (which they are quick to point out—the proper response is to grin sheepishly, smile, and look away). I love history, and there was plenty to intrigue me in the many aisles and pathways in the Museum. I was especially taken by the Rosetta stone. I don’t know why. I just was.
No, the British Museum doesn’t contain Moses’ stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. However, the Museum is in the market, should the tablets show up on e-Bay.
Anyway, to make what’s already turning out to be a long story short, let’s get to the punch line.
Loretta and I left the Museum, hoping to work our way back to the Tottenham Court Road Underground Station (“mind the gap”) so we could take the subway—sorry: “tube”—back to our hotel and dry out. It was High Rush Hour and, as I noted, already dark. We had a couple blocks to go. We thought we were going down Great Russell Street directly toward Tottenham Court Road, but those of you who’ve been to London will recall that no two streets meet quite at a right angle and anyway it was raining and my glasses were covered with spray (think of a busy London night—noise, cabs, people, cars, rain, lights, noise).
It was hard to see, so I think we had every justification to get lost.
Nor did we have a map.
So, here we are, with nothing in sight except cars and rainy streetlights and people rushing everywhere. We walked down a couple blocks hoping something would be familiar, but nothing in London is familiar to Americans.
So, we ducked into a shop to ask directions.
I remember the name of the shop very well. “Chapperwell Gifts.” Yes, the outside of the store was done up in (at least what looked like) that wonderful old wood stained/painted dark brown, and yes, the shop name was done up in gilt lettering that vaguely resembled Bookman Font, and, yes, there were dozens of little ceramic doodads in the window of the kind wives use to decorate the house, run up housekeeping bills, and generally drive their husbands mad because husbands, by and large, are clumsier than wives, so they break these things and are then in trouble, which wives secretly love, because it gives them a chance to shop for more.
I don’t like these kinds of places.
Loretta mentioned she wanted to look around, so I stood there with my furled umbrella while it dripped all over the floor. Finally I stowed it in the omnipresent umbrella holder while trying to remember how to tell it apart from the six or so identical umbrellas already spreading a collective pool on the floor.
I proceeded to look for a place to sit. There was none. So, I forced myself to look around.
Most of the stuff was in glass cabinets, probably because the proprietor had too much experience with husbands breaking things. One cabinet was full of imitation ancient Egyptian tomb art. Another was full of imitation ancient Sumerian tomb art. A third was full of imitation ancient Babylonian tomb art.
I do not see why anyone wants tomb art in their home.
For a moment I studied a small—maybe eleven by fourteen inches—oil portrait of an ancient figure dressed in flowing white robes, with boiling clouds around him and a touch of lightning in the background. I took it to be Moses, since he held stone tablets in his hands and looked very prophetic. The painting was in a heavy gold frame covered in dust, although this feeling of neglect was somewhat undone by a small portrait light casting its yellow glow over Moses’ face. It seemed out of place in a store filled with doodads.
Loretta was looking for something vaguely resembling a Holstein cow. She has this thing about Holsteins, and various ceramic pieces are jammed onto shelves in our dining room, well out of the way of where I swing my arms. I’ve only broken a few, the damage limited by a combination of her putting them where I can’t get at them, plus my learning it’s best for the marriage if I keep them whole. A couple have repairs she doesn’t know about.
She found a cabinet of Jersey cows, but they’re brown, not black and white, so they wouldn’t do.
I stared at a small cabinet, about knee level, holding stuff of a type I’d never seen. The contents were dusty—the kind of dusty that comes from being real, not from neglect. They looked vaguely Runic, though I know nothing of such stuff, so please understand I’m speculating here.
“May I help you?”
Startled out of my reverie, I turned to find myself facing the proprietor, a little man, about five-foot-three, who was every bit of 80, perhaps 85. He had thin hair combed sideways—no, he didn’t appear to be attempting a comb-over—it was simply wispy. I’d call his hair brown, but Loretta, with her artistic eye, claims his hair was burnt umber. It didn’t look at all burnt to me, but I guess I don’t know colors, and anyway it should’ve been gray, so there’s an empty bottle of hair coloring somewhere. He had a dark green knitted tie and a gray shirt with one of those British collars that spreads out quite a bit instead of pointing down. He wore brown trousers and scuffed brown shoes and a brown tweed jacket made of some rough material—brown wool, I suppose.
“We came in for directions to the Tottenham Court Road Underground Station,” I said. “Also, I think my wife wants to look around a bit.”
Disappointed, he looked up into my face. It’s actually nice to have someone look up into my face. I’m five-foot-ten, so I’m not the tallest of people, and my professional comrades from my customer set were each over six feet. Anyway, in a resigned, very rote recitation, he told me we were actually nearest the Holborn Station. He said if we went out of the shop, turned right and crossed the next street, we’d be there.
“You have lots of the British Museum pieces here,” I said, trying to make conversation. “I guess sales could be better if it weren’t raining.”
His eyes lit up. I think I was the first person that day to actually attempt a two-way exchange.
Anyway, we went on for twenty minutes. Loretta stood by us for awhile, but finally gave up, made her purchase via the assistant shopkeeper, found the chair that had eluded me, and perused a book on ancient Chinese tomb art she ended up buying.
Lloyd Chapperwell, as it turns out, had been in this same location for over 50 years, having purchased the establishment from his mentor and predecessor who’d been there for 60 years before. He was pretty sure there’d been a business at this location since at least 1750. He had some great pieces—which he pointed Loretta at—she promptly gasped at the prices—that he’d procured on a visit to India just prior to World War II. He himself had served in the British Expeditionary Forces in France and had been part of the Dunkirk evacuation. We got to talking about politics and found we agreed right down the line, at least that’s what he thought.
He was positively glowing by the time Loretta put her foot down and reminded us it was well past 6:00 p.m. and high time to be finding a restaurant. He gave us several recommendations, including a place around the block.
It’s amazing how people will respond if you just take the time to talk with them and hear them out. Especially if you find a way to agree with their views on politics, education, taxes, the current role of America in Iraq, the Chinese economic juggernaut, the price of oil, the state of today’s youth, and the latest activities in Parliament. Even if you can only agree for the duration of the conversation.
Anyway, like any American, I ended the conversation by extending my hand. “So very nice to meet you, Mr. Chapperwell.”
He responded not only by taking my hand in his, but taking it in both hands. Caught up in the moment, and thinking this was the right thing to do when in England and getting a three-handed handshake, I threw in my left hand just to make it a round four hands.
“Mr. Casler, a real pleasure! More power to you!” he beamed.
And by “ZAP!” I mean “ZAP!” as in all capital letters.
The zap went from my hands, up my arms, bounced off my skull, and ricocheted down to my toes. I lost track of where it went from there. For all I know, it oozed out onto the floor.
I jerked my hands away from Chapperwell’s and stumbled back into the cabinet of imitation ancient Sumerian tomb art, hitting it hard enough to knock over several of the figurines. Fortunately, they did not tumble to the floor, since they were held in place by the glass door, which did not break, being made for clumsy husbands.
“What was that?” I gasped.
“Honey! Are you all right?” Loretta gasped.
“Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no!” Chapperwell gasped. He held his right hand in his left as though I’d just put a bullet through it. “Oh, no! Oh, no!” he continued, utterly ignoring me. He collapsed into the chair Loretta had just vacated and stared at nothing in particular, still holding one hand in another, looking for all the world as though he were having a heart attack.
To me the zap felt like lightning. Hopefully you’ve never been hit by lightning, so you don’t know what it feels like, but try to imagine it. Anyway, I shook my head, straightened myself, checked my hands to ensure I still had two, took a deep breath and decided Chapperwell’s needs were greater than mine, especially since his shop assistant, a teen girl, was standing back in horror, utterly rooted to the spot. I guess she thought she was dreaming, because in dreams you’re always rooted to the spot, but anyway that’s how she behaved.
“Mr. Chapperwell?” I inquired.
“Should we call a doctor? It’s 999, isn’t it?” The British 999 is the equivalent of the American 911. They did it first, and we wanted to do something similar, but AT&T’s equipment was set up entirely different from British Telecom’s, so we couldn’t do 999, so we did 911. Anyway, with the old dial equipment we used to have, it took less time to dial 911, so we thought we had an advantage, but then touch-tone phones became available and the advantage was rendered moot.
I touched Mr. Chapperwell on the shoulder. He looked at me with those puppy dog eyes a five-year-old uses when he’s been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He finally stopped speaking.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Do you need a doctor?” I repeated.
“No, no. I mean…no…oh…no…it’s just….”
I love clarity and this wasn’t it.
I squatted down so I could look him eye-to-eye. I hate what squatting does to my then-53-year-old knees, but the situation seemed to call for it.
“I don’t know what to do!” he went on. “I shouldn’t have. Mustn’t have. Did you feel that?”
“Yes, I felt a giant zap. What was it?”
“Oh, no! Must consult. Look, where are you staying? I have to consult. Then I’ll get back to you.”
“I’m fine. You don’t need to do anything. Look, I think you need some rest. Loretta and I will be on our way.”
He clutched my arm in desperation. “No! I must get in touch with you! Tomorrow! Where are you staying?”
“Novotel London West. Hammersmith. Here’s my card.” I gave him my IBM card, which he took gratefully, though of course it has my Ridgway, Colorado, address. He tried to write my hotel information on the back, but his hand was shaking too much, so I wrote it for him.
“I leave for the States on Thursday morning, so I’ll only be here tomorrow,” I cautioned.
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