Monday, November 16, 2009

* A Boy's Adventure in New York

The Sutherland portrait of Churchill presentedto him on his 80th birthday by Parliament. He called it  "a remarkable example of modern art" and hated it  immediately.  He made his his wife, Lady Clementine Churchill,  promise to destroy it after his death which she did, prompting the artist to call that "an act of vandalism."


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The note from Churchill (above) was given to me by his nurse in 1961.  

The "1963 or '2" handwritten notation above refers to the two news articles about  Hamden High School's student council presenting Sir Winston with a scroll congratulating him on his Honorary U.S. Citizenship. I just lumped them together here in order to scan them.

TEXT of HAMDEN HIGH SCHOOL SCROLL presented to Sir Winston Churchill by the U.S. Ambassador to Britain.

In sincere recognition: This, Mr. Churchill, is a manifestation of the sentiment of a representative segment of the youth of America. This document, in recognition of your American citizenship, should not grant to us the opportunity to beam with foresight, but rather to capture for ourselves the spirit of freedom which you have indeed perpetuated with such valor and dignity. Accept, fellow citizen, our congratulations. Prosper then, with the ideals you have sustained and vitalized.

NOTE: Scroll on parchment rendered in script by Crimilda Pontes, scribe for Yale University Press.  Text of scroll composed by student Raul Ponce de Leon, Class of 1963, Hamden High School.

A Boy's 

New York

Can nearly half a century have gone by since this naive 16-year old dared to tackle New York City on his own? ( I should mention that I was 6'2" tall and wore a black suit on this three day adventure, so I looked older and more poised than I was.)

I could clean up the prose of the following description  which I wrote at my father's request immediately after the event at age 16, but I won't.

Here it is (after being filed away for 48 years) : naivete , superlatives , fragments , run-ons , missing apostrophes , hyperbole , stuffy prose , gushing earnestness , incorrect spellings and all

I cringe.

* I will not indulge in using "[sic]" to let you know that I know better. I didn't know better then, and that's that.

NB: My parents must have been crazy (thank heavens) to let a 16-year-old country boy go to New York alone. (Especially when you consider another of my blogs "Sam Todd:Fugitive from God, Country and Yale?" about the disappearance of a Yale Divinity student in New York  on New Year's eve 1983/4, twenty-three years after my New York adventure!)

Churchill being assisted to his seat 
on the Christina 

Muriel Thompson, nurse, and Sir. Winston 

The Christina steams up the Hudson

Maria Callas and Onassis debark

Churchill and Onassis depart in limousine

Churchill and Bernard Baruch in Manhattan


(For my friend, Jane Ridgway Littlemoon, who requested it.)

(And for my friend Michele McCarthy and her late father, Mac, who told this story to his friends  for years)

About seventeen weeks ago I started to watch the Winston Churchill series [The Valiant Years, narrated by Richard Burton] on television. I was impressed with this man; his brilliance, wit, and agility. So, naturally, when we were assigned a term paper in Hamden High history class on a man of the last century I chose Churchill.

Two weeks ago when I heard the 'old man' was in Florida I devised a plan to get down there to see him. I called the press to find out where he was, how long he’d be there, and how I could get there. I looked in the personal ads for someone who wanted to share expenses on a journey to Fla. I was then pleasantly surprised by the Associated press who informed me that Churchill would come from Fla. and dock in New York Wednesday the 12th and fly to England the same day.

The weekend of the 8th I worked avidly around the neighborhood to earn train fare and expenses to New York.

At 6:50 Wednesday morning my mother dropped me at the New Haven Train Station. I was late and missed the 6:50 train to Grand Central Station. This turned out to be an advantage as a 7:05 train to Penn Station would get there half an hour earlier and would be closer to my destination.

At 8:30 I arrived in New York. I called radio station W.M.G.M. and asked for Dick Defrietas. He told me where Churchill’s boat would dock. I was told to go to the 79 th street Boat Basin. I hopped a cab with a Portuguese driver who had been driving for ten years. He said he didn’t know where the Boat Basin was so he shut his meter off for a couple of blocks until I found out from another cabby that the Basin was by Riverside Drive. I asked my cabby how much the fare would be and he said “. . . it’s forty blocks so it won’t be more than a buck.”. We drove for 30 blocks, no 28, and the meter hit $1.00. Quietly, the meter was shut off by my overly generous and kind cabby. I’ll never forget this. It was exceptionally kind of him and I gave him a 50[cent] tip.

From 79th street I walked across Riverside Drive to a wall. To the right of the wall, which overlooked the pier, I saw two men putting up a street sign. It read ‘Winston Churchill Drive’. I walked down the long curved steps and sat down on a bench facing the pier with a 125 ft. yacht, the Eda, tied up along side it. I asked two ladies sitting along side of me if Churchill had come ashore yet. The reply was no. When I told them I had come from New Haven to see Churchill, they were quite impressed. (to my surprise) One a widow in her fifties gave me a tangerine. Lucille the other widow of the same age gave me handful of candy.

For two hours we talked and became quite friendly. Twice I saw a heavy set bald man appear at the helm of the Eda. The second time I remarked to my new acquaintances that it looked like Churchill. Lucille laughed and agreed. So then astonished me by telling me that this wasn’t Aristotle Onassis yacht and consequently Churchill couldn’t be aboard it. I nearly fell over. Kitty then told me that Mr. “O’s” yacht the ‘Christina’ would steam up the Hudson.

In 45 minutes the police began to congregate around the pier. After I had bid farewell to my lady friends I stationed my self at the entrance to the pier at the street side. Only cameramen, reporters, and officials could venture to the end of the pier. Soon a fireboat came up the Hudson with a huge spray going. The 325 ft. yacht of shipping magnet Aristotle Onassis, the Christina, followed 10,000 yards behind.

Unfortunately Churchill was asleep below and missed the official New York City welcome. Police launches took the reporters out to the middle of the Hudson where the Christina was anchored. They were not allowed aboard but just circled the ship to take pictures. Churchill, aided by nurses, came on board the deck and was seated. He posed for pictures with his famous V for Victory sign and then went below.

As I waited on pier, a lady came up to me with a 22 year old daughter and whispered “I don’t want to say anything but I have the official word that he’s coming ashore at this spot.” I asked the cop to corroborate her story but he said that Sir Winston would not come ashore until tomorrow (Thursday) morning. My heart sank. I had only enough money to, I thought, stay one day. I had already bought my round trip ticket. At that moment my mind began to form a counter plan.

Later another lady came up to the dock. She was a 70 year old spinster with plenty of time on her hands. She talked to everyone. As an important name came up she ‘knew him, had met him, was a friend of him, was related to him.’ Although I’m not an expert on these things it seems to me that 70 years wouldn’t have been long enough for her to meet all the people she said she had met.

We talked and she said she was a native of New Haven. I told her I was from there and she was astonished and delighted. She thought it was a shame I had come all this way to be disappointed. I mentioned to her that my late Uncle, Harold G. Stagg, Editor of the Army, Navy Airforce Times, was a friend of [U.N. Ambassador Adlai E.] Stevenson. She suggested that I call his office and mention my relation and predicament and see if he couldn’t do anything toward getting me aboard to see Churchill. I tried this and while I was on the phone Stevenson came on board the ship. The lady had kindly mentioned my Uncle and my situation but before Stevenson could reply he was engulfed in a circle of reporters.

I came back to the pier and it was 1 p.m. I waited for three hours. Stevenson came ashore, recorded for the reporters and came toward me. I shook hands with him, mentioned my Uncles name, and my situation. He spoke hurriedly to me and nothing concrete resulted. We parted.

U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson returning from visit with Churchill on the Christina, before the gale blew in.

I went over to the mobile unit and listened to the interview Stevenson had given.

Speaking to my eccentric lady friend, after that, I told her of my plan to stand by the pier all night, with the intent of seeing Churchill the next day as he debarked. She told me it was supposed to pour all that night and that I’d die of pneumonia. Later I called my mother and told her there was a boat house by the pier that I’d sleep in all night. (That was abit of a white lie) She very hesitantly agreed and before she could retract her decision I bid her farewell.

I went up Broadway, had dinner, bought a two dollar rain coat, and went back to the pier. I waited by the pier and became acquainted with Onassis American representative [ J. Peter Grace] who sympathized with my cause.

About eight o’clock Bernard Baruch came on board the ship. I was immensely impressed with his stature. At 90 he was standing straight as a board, was sure footed, and patient with reporters.

At 9 oclock one of Sir Winstons nurses came ashore. I rescued her from a reporter who was nagging her about an autographed picture of Sir Winston.

I told her of my own situation and she sympathized. She went on board one of the crisscraft and in 5 minutes came ashore. She gave me a special Churchill cigar, a note Sir Winston had written [on House of Commons stationery], and some matches from the ship Christina. I will never forget her generosity. She said she hoped this would make up for some of the time I had spent. She then went back on the Christina. [She also gave me a fresh linen handkerchief with his laundry number "20" on it.]

[ Forty years later I read that Churchill prepared and carried such notes with him precisely for such instances, because as a child his own father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had refused to sign autographs for Churchill’s own school chums. The note in his handwriting read: "Thank you so much for your kind message. It gave me much pleasure. Winston S. Churchill" Artfully ambiguous for all occasions!]

It was pouring now. I got to talking with the Greek pilot of the ship who could speak English. He invited me aboard the crisscraft while it rained. At 945 he and I went up on the pier. A telegraph messenger handed me a telegram from the President of the United States to Sir Winston. I gave it to Johnny who signed for it. It was then taken to the ship.

At 11 oclock Baruch came ashore. I shook his hand and we talked cordially. I asked him how the old man was and he said “He’s still a teenager in my book.” [Churchill was 86 in 1961; Baruch 90]

At 12 oclock the nurse, Muriel Thompson, and Onassis Am. Agent, and Churchill Private Secretary, Antony Montigue Brown came ashore. Montigue Brown left. The agent and his wife gave Muriel and me a lift (in a Cadillac limousine) up Broadway for coffee. [I later learned the “agent” was J. Peter Grace, president of W.R. Grace Steamship Lines]

We talked for about two hours about her life with Churchill and other aspects of her career. I must say it was a thrill to be so close to someone who was so close to greatness. Churchills handkerchief was given to me by her at this time. In England Churchills laundry mark is no. 20. [Miss Thompson showed me hypodermic needles she carried with her at all times which she injected directly into Churchill’s heart in a cardiac crisis. I did not feel I could reveal this information when I was 16 years old. Oh, the days when privacy reigned!]

We walked down Broadway in pouring rain and 70 m.p.h. winds[youthful exaggeration?] for 15 minutes looking for a police car. Finally we hailed one. I told them it was Sir Winstons nurse and we’d like to get back to the ship. We were immediately brought there.

We looked for a crisscraft to take us to the yacht. Only one was there and it was waiting for Onassis and couldn’t leave. The rain was to[o] hard to wait. So we woke up the men in a police launch and they took us out. As we approached the side of the Christina a quick current caught the launch and our mast smas[h]ed in to the Christinas flag pole. Then one of the engines conked out. The current carried us and half of Onassis flagpole down the Hudson. $250 worth of damage was done. Finally we got Muriel aboard.

All the way back the men grumbled and cursed ‘…this what happens when you try to do someone a favor.” I told them apologetically that I threw no weight around here but that I would intercede with Muriel in the hopes that she had some influence over Mr. “O”. After all he pays $4400 a day to keep his ship running so what’s a mere $250 to a man like that? [What gall I had. I didn’t have a chance in hell of interceding with Muriel Thompson!]

I walked up to Broadway in a pouring rain coupled with gale force winds. I had no idea where I’d go or what I’d do. Finally I went to a subway station and took a jaunt. I went from 108th street to Brooklyn at least 15 times that night. At 5:30 I went to Pennsylvania Station and tried unsuccessfully to get a couple of hours sleep.

At seven I walked down Broadway in 70 m.p.h. winds [this is the second time I wrote this: maybe it is accurate!] and a combination of every type of precipitation known to man. With my last 12 [cents] I had a cup of hot chocolate and then went to the pier.

I stayed with the reporters until noon and watched tugboats and crisscraft make several attempts to get near the Christina. At last they gave up and Montigue-Brown announced the delay of Sir Winston’s disembarkment by 24 hours.

I was disgusted and exhausted and I went home. I ate dinner and talked to my Uncle, Charles Crook a Hamden pharmacist, who agreed to refinance my return trip to New York.

I was overjoyed. I took a hot bath and went to bed at eight oclock that night.

However, if it hadn’t been for my mother I never would have returned to New York. Something awoke her at three that morning. Then she woke me from a VanWinkle slumber at five. If she hadn’t I would have missed the train. I took the 6:05 and was in New York at 7:30. I hopped a cab and payed $1.50 fare to the boat basin. I ran down to the pier and nearly had triple heart attacks. The yacht was no where in sight.

I ran up Riverside Drive and tried to hale a taxi for ten minutes. When I finally got one who knew where the boat was and took me there. I gave the cabby a buck for a 65 cent fare and asked for the change. He said no so I let it go.

I nonchalantly walked by the security guards right up to the gangplank. I waved to my Greek sailor friends and saw Aristotle Onassis.

In 15 minutes Churchill was assisted off. Everyone cheered and I was within a foot of him. He got in the limousine and I talked to the nurse. She had asked him to shake hands with me but she was so far behind him she couldn’t point me out. I bid her a fond farewell.

I ran up to the Churchill limousine, pushed my head through the bulwark of police, and with a beaming smile gave the ‘Old Man’ his famous V for Victory sign. With a nod and a chuckle he flashed it right back to me.

Right then and there all my efforts were rewarded. It was the crowning joy of my sixteen years on this earth.




On Mon, Jul 1, 2013 at 5:03 AM, Allen Packwood <> wrote:

Dear Paul,

Sarah and I met this morning and carefully unpacked the cigar. I am delighted to confirm that, apart from a couple of small pieces that had come away from the frayed end, it is intact and looking in good condition. Sarah is now going to think about a safe way of displaying it that will prevent further deterioration or damage during handling. We will send you a receipt shortly. In the meantime, thank you once again for this unique item, and for sharing its fantastic back story.
All best wishes,


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