Toe to toe with tradition

DOWN through the years I have heard traditions referred to as silly, stuffy, even ludicrous. I am ashamed to say I have used that word ludicrous myself. Perhaps I liked its sound. When I began to visit the British Isles every summer and discovered, almost every time I turned round, that I was encountering traditions, they became the chief reasons my annual trip to England was so joyful! Perhaps it depends on one's mood or, possibly, the element of surprise. If a tradition creeps up on you, or jumps out from some unexpected corner, there is no time to build up ignorant antagonism that labels something unknown as ``stuffy.''

On one of these memorable visits a friend invited me to accompany her to Windsor Great Park to watch a polo match. I was pleased. (The closest I had come to polo was meeting an Argentine polo player on the ship heading from New York to Buenos Aires.) My friend conducted me into the private enclosure reserved for members of the Household Brigade Club. I was longing to start asking questions but had learned not to behave like a tourist. If I were patient, I would learn all I wished to know for the article I was about to write.

I sat back in my comfortable seat with a sigh. Suddenly I realized that the polo players, correctly upright on their thoroughbred ponies, were lining up in front of the enclosure. One horse and rider moved ahead, saluted, then stepped back, and the ponies turned and galloped into position for the first chukker. I had a vague feeling I had seen that rider before. I looked around. The members were sitting quietly. Then it came to me. I shook my friend's arm and ejaculated, ``That was Prince Philip, wasn't it?''

All that so-English friend said was ``Shh. Be quiet and watch the game.'' I relaxed. Hm, I thought, there must be a tradition lurking here somewhere. Yet, if it makes people behave, I guess it is all right to obey.

In the front row of the enclosure next to ours I noticed two motionless corgies belonging, apparently, to a young girl wearing a beautiful cashmere cardigan and a tartan scarf tied around her head. Other members had their well-behaved dogs with them, too. I felt conspicuous.

At the end of the chukker a delightfully well-modulated voice came over the loudspeaker announcing, ``Members may now, if they so wish, tread the turf.'' Whoops! I had a feeling that a tradition was about to spring at me.

I followed my friend and others with their faithful canines out onto the polo field. There, by watching a few seconds and not asking foolish questions, I learned what the man meant. When the horses stop suddenly, sometimes their hooves dig up bits and pieces of the spongy turf. The members wandered up and down, keeping their eyes on the ground and tamping down the broken turf. It reminded me of replacing divots on the golf course. I began to do likewise. It was fun.

I went along, eyes on my right foot, trying to see how neatly I could replace the turf. Suddenly two corgies scam-pered past me. I looked up quickly. There, a few feet away, with her own eyes down watching her tiny foot in its oxford treading the turf, was the girl in the cashmere cardigan. Now I recognized her.

It was Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. Remembering my manners, I veered away and managed to carry on at a respectful distance, but I am afraid I did not do such a good job with the turf. Try as I would, I could not stop watching that dainty little figure. . . .

Just then a bell rang announcing that the next chukker was about to begin. The Queen lifted her head, sent a half smile in my general direction, and ran off to what I now realized was the Royal Enclosure. The corgies, her only detectives, frisked gaily after her.

I rejoined my friend breathless with excitement and called to her, ``Did you see? That was the Queen!'' I felt her heavy frown. She said in an undertone, ``Yes, that was the Queen, but in her private capacity as the wife of one of the polo players. The club members respect her privacy and so must you!'' Traditional, I thought to myself, for the club members to do the right thing. They may tread the same turf with their Queen but always ``respect her privacy.'' So, said I to myself, must their guest behave as tradition demands.

Looking back on that afternoon, I still find much to ponder. Words with special meaning crowd my thought, words such as manners, simplicity, royalty, democracy, and graciousness. To paraphrase Robert Browning, ``The done thing is to do. . . .'' Maybe treading the turf is an insignificant gesture, but its meaning is big with promise. Complying with rules of courtesy as one treads either international or familiar grounds could lead to more gracious living both at home and abroad.

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