The Man Who Nearly Met ...

SOME time ago, a friend of mine was checking in to the Ritz- Carlton Hotel in Boston. As he was shown to his room the telephone rang, and he began a long discussion with his employer in Texas. Meanwhile, he heard a conversation in the corridor (he had left the door open) between the bellhop and a lady whose dulcet tones he thought he recognized.From the conversation, it soon became clear that this lady was none other than Ella Fitzgerald, whom he had admired for a lifetime - and at a distance, considering he had spent at least half his life in Ireland. He tried frantically to disengage himself from the long business conversation with his boss and rush out to the corridor to shake hands with this great lady. But to no avail. His boss droned on, and the mellifluous tones of Miss Fitzgerald faded into the distance, never to return. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the man who almost met Ella Fitzgerald. All of us, at one time or another, have had a desire, secret or otherwise, to meet a person who has loomed large in our thoughts - such as a famous entertainer, a political leader, or an outstanding human being like Mother Teresa. Some years ago, I did meet Mother Teresa, who had come to Northern Ireland to visit Corrymeela, a Christian ecumenical peacekeeping community. She was impressive, with a core of inner strength behind the simplicity. She said a few words and passed down the line of people waiting to greet her. At one point, a man overcome by nervousness or the profound exhilaration of the experience burst into song. Needless to say, he failed to strike the right note - literally and figuratively. Equally, it must be difficult for well-known people to meet their public in all sorts of situations without, as we say in Ireland, turning a hair. In the recent past, I was at the receiving end, following my address to a large group of women who had asked me to speak about my career as an author and a columnist with a large Irish newspaper. As I was leaving the hall, a lady tugged my sleeve, looked at my 6-foot frame and whispered knowingly: "My friend thought that you were a wee fat man, but I had you r ight!" My own record of meeting "famous" people looks impressive - on the surface at least. As a journalist and traveler, I have been about four feet away from Pope John Paul II, and the same distance from former presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Prime ministers, Irish and otherwise, are part of the daily record for political journalists. Distinguished writers, musicians, and artists are all fairly accessible to anyone of credibility who wishes to give them some publicity. But so far, like my friend who didn't quite meet Ella Fitzgerald, I've not quite met British royalty, face to face. There have been several near misses, though. I was a member of the press corps covering the wedding of Prince Charles and "Lady Di" at St. Paul's Cathedral. When I took my seat, I noticed that members of the press were seated much nearer the altar than many of the world's better-known personalities, including Nancy Reagan, who had to make do with a chair in the body of the cathedral. The wedding was wonderful to behold, but it was not an occasion for the royals to dally with the press. A few months ago, my wife and I were invited to St. James's Palace, where our son, Mark, was to receive a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award - an honor given to young people who demonstrate outstanding leadership qualities in the community. The Duke of Edinburgh, who patronises this ceremony, entered the room where the certificates had been presented by four "well known" people in Northern Ireland, including me. (They were hard up for personalities that afternoon, but it was wonderful to be able to present my son with his award.) The Duke was introduced to only three of the presenters, due to time restraints, and I, of course, was fourth in line. Missed again! About six weeks ago, Prince Charles visited Belfast and met several people on a committee of which I am a member. But, yes, you've guessed it, I was not informed until afterwards, because of communication difficulties, lack of time, security, and other allied excuses. Maybe they were trying to tell me something. Or perhaps I am destined to make do with merely meeting the man who met Prince Charles. STILL ruminating on the eccentricities of life, I was driving recently with my wife along an avenue not far from our home when we were stopped by a policeman. He told us that the road further down was "closed" and cheerfully redirected us. My long experience in Belfast led me to assume that it was just another "bomb scare." You can imagine my surprise when I heard on the radio that the Queen herself had come to Northern Ireland and had opened a building not far from our home. The "bomb scare" had been in fact a royal visit. At this stage I have given up any hope of meeting royalty face to face. In fact, I am wondering if I may end up with the reputation of being the "nearly man the man who nearly met the Queen, or Prince Charles, or Princess Diana, or even a friendly "minor" royal. Perhaps this "nearly" syndrome is worse than I thought. This past March 31, I flew out of Paris at the end of a business trip. Later, it occurred to me that I had done it again - I had nearly experienced "April in Paris."

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