I mean no irreverence to Winston Churchill in writing this. I use him as an example because it seems so impossible that he, of all people, could have said some of the things he said when he was young.
Me? Sure. You? Sure. We’re all a bit confused at 21.
But Winston Churchill? A man whose unwavering heroism coming from speakers of thousands of radio sets inspired the British people to stand fast at a time when the rest of Europe lay under the heel of Nazi Germany? A man whose voice gave America hope when the Japanese bombed our Pacific fleet into a row of burned out hulks and then swarmed down the western Pacific, rolled right over the “impregnable” Fortress of Singapore, sped along the underbelly of Asia, and headed for India and Australia like a seemingly unstoppable plague?
Churchill said things he may have later wished he hadn’t said?
Yes he did, but keep in mind that the Winston Churchill of 1895 was not the wise old Winston Churchill who strode the beaches of England in 1940. The 21-year-old Winston Churchill of 1895 who arrived in New York City on his way to “observe” the Cuban Revolution was the product of strait-laced, very proper, late-1800s England.
The grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, and the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer, young Winston Churchill was a product of his time and his position. An aristocrat raised on rambling family estates, he was educated in a series of exclusive private schools: St. George’s in Berkshire, Brunswick in East Sussex, and Harrow in Northeast London. He was schooled in Greek and Latin, and steeped in a national history replete with kings, dukes and earls stretching back to the Roman Empire.
From Harrow he applied to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in Berkshire, where he opted for the cavalry. Having graduated Sandhurst, and now a warrior in search of a war, he embarked on a liner for New York City on his way to “observe” the Cuban Revolution.
What he expected to see in New York I do not know, but this I do know: In reading his letters in the biography written by his son Randolph many decades later it isn’t hard to imagine Churchill’s jaw dropping wide open when he first came in contact with the bustling, rowdy, irreverent people of the New World and found them totally unimpressed by lords, ladies, titles or any part of history prior to 1776.
Not only that, the trip over from England was an eye-opener for the young aristocrat. In a letter home, he grumbled his displeasure. “I do not contemplate ever taking a sea voyage for pleasure, and I shall always look upon journeys by sea as unnecessary evils which have to be undergone in the carrying out of any definite plans.”
You may be thinking that the weather was bad, the voyage one where passengers hunkered down in their cabins, praying they would make it across dark waters threatening to swallow up the ship. Sorry, think again. “It was not the bad weather,” he says. “Though we had some moments, we were never seasick.” Nor was it his accommodations. “... the accommodations aboard ship weren’t too bad. Our cabins were not uncomfortable — but for the lack of any comfortable place to sit down.”
But then he gets to the point, laying out his reasons for never again, “... taking a sea voyage for pleasure.”
“There are no nice people on board to speak of — certainly none to write of. There is to be a concert on board tonight at which all the stupid people among the passengers intend to perform, and the stupider ones to applaud. The days have seemed very long and uninteresting.”
Ah, yes. A typical 21-year-old aristocrat of his era, eyeing the rest of the world for the first time. And so, into New York harbor — and a world he didn’t know existed — sailed Winston Churchill ...
Read on, Johnny — next week. Learn how even a great man like Winston Churchill could not escape being 21 years old.