This article first appeared in the October 1978 issue of Reader’s Digest.
It is a terrible thing to be 16 and never have shaved. At Christmas, I received a mug with scented soap, a bone-handled brush and the most modern razor on the market. “You’ll be needing them soon,” my father said, with a confident wink. Every morning I searched the mirror, but the new year, 1949, began without the slightest shadow on my face.
In February, I made the dreadful mistake of bringing my mug, brush and razor to school and hiding them in my locker, in the hope that my masculinity would suddenly sprout between, say, social studies and Latin. The implements were discovered and displayed – with hilarious commentary – by two hairy older boys.
After that, the elusive first shave became an obsession. I daydreamed, imagining the rites of the ritual: how I would coax the warm, rich lather from my mug, how I would spread it, slowly and luxuriously, over the skin and then make the masterful, sweeping razor strokes that would initiate my manhood. But no matter how often I looked, the mirror still proclaimed that I was beardless.
Then my father announced that Mother and he were planning a brief visit to England. If I wished, he said casually, I could come too.
I packed my unused mug, brush and razor and, on April 2, I walked up the gangway and into the sumptuous comfort of the Queen Mary.
The hour before departure was frenzied. My parents had a cabin on A Deck, and it was immediately filled with well-wishers. (This was the week that my father’s book The Greatest Story Ever Told reached the top of the bestseller list.) My cabin was on the deck above, and I had barely reached it with a group of school friends when a great blast from the ship’s horn announced that all guests must leave. One of my friends had been reading the passenger list. “Look!” he shouted, pointing to a name. I read it aloud, in disbelief: “Winston Churchill.” Churchill! At 16, I thought of him as a kind of god.
The ship’s horn sounded again and, after we said goodbye, I raced to my father’s cabin. “Do you know who is on this ship?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said and handed me a note. “My dear Mr Oursler, how fortunate we share the same voyage! Could you, Mrs Oursler and your son have tea with us on Tuesday?” It was signed by Churchill.
In the next days, I saw the great man twice. First at dinner, two tables away from us. The round, pink face shone above a dark pinstripe suit. He smiled at everyone, until the main course was served. Then he frowned at the plate, and his face turned from pink to red. The chef was summoned, and with much animation Churchill pointed to the food and waved his hands in the air. It was clear that he was demonstrating how the meal should have been prepared.
Late one night, I saw him again. Two men were helping him as he moved unsteadily towards his cabin. It seemed to me that Churchill actually wanted to go in the opposite direction, but the men, with determined gentleness, guided him firmly to his door.
Both incidents disturbed me. This was not the way I had expected a god to act. At breakfast on the morning before the tea, I told my father what I felt. Churchill was rude; he was intemperate.
“And you are judging him?” My father took a deep breath. “More than 50 years ago, this man rode in the last great cavalry charge in history. He escaped from imprisonment in the Boer War and, although there was a price on his head, made it back to England. In World War I, he devised a great plan to bring the war to a swift conclusion. The plan failed and for years he lost his political power. Then he warned the world about Hitler, but no one listened. Finally, when all his predictions came true, when it was almost too late and when America still remained neutral, he inspired his country to fight the Nazis alone. He is one of the greatest orators in history and has written some of the greatest English since Shakespeare. And you are troubled because he is publicly fastidious about his food and you think he drinks too much. Do you know what Lincoln said when people complained that Grant was a drunk?”
“He said, ‘I’ll send him a case of whisky if it will help him win the war.’ Do you know what Cromwell said when he sat for a portrait?”
“The painter wanted to flatter him, but Cromwell said, ‘Paint me, warts and all.’”
My father was silent for a moment. Then he said quietly, “You are becoming a man. You should know that no one is perfect. Certainly not heroes. You must develop a sense of … proportion.”
That afternoon as I dressed for tea, I was not only chastened, I began to tremble with a kind of stage fright. I had taken a fool’s measure of, not a god, but a very great man. Now I was to meet him. Suppose he were to take my measure? (“Tell me, young man, what are your thoughts on the Boer War?”)
I can remember how cold my hands were as I walked with my parents to Churchill’s suite. “Who were the Boers?” I asked suddenly.
My father turned to me. “I’ll tell you later,” he said. “Now remember no one is perfect. You, for example, have a tendency to talk too much. This afternoon I expect you to listen!”
In the first giddy moments after we had entered, I saw with relief that Churchill was not in the suite.
Mrs Churchill had begun making introductions when the room fell silent. I turned and there – like Mephistopheles emerging from a cloud of smoke – stood Churchill himself, puffing on an enormous cigar.
He was dressed in the strangest suit I’ve ever seen. It was grey and one-piece, made of canvas-like material, with a zipper in the front. Later I learned that this was his battle dress during World War II.
Churchill walked through the crowd, shaking hands; then he took my father by the arm and strode to the opposite side of the room. When they sat down, everyone else sat in the nearest chairs. This left me perhaps six metres away, and I watched in agony while the idle chatter around me obliterated their words. My father said something and Churchill laughed. Desperately, I leaned forward and, in that instant, Churchill happened to glance in my direction. He smiled and motioned me across the room.
When I arrived, my father gave me a look that I could not misunderstand: I was to remain absolutely silent.
Churchill began to talk about his speech at Fulton, Missouri, in which he had first used the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’. My father said, “Your predictions have come true again. There is a terrible division between Russia and the West. But your foresight could not make you a happy man.”
“On the contrary,” said Churchill. “I am very well satisfied. We needed Stalin and the crises he brought with him. His aggressiveness has united the West as never before. Together we must make Russia give up the countries of Eastern Europe through free elections.”
“How would you propose to do that?”
Churchill did not immediately reply. He looked at me as if to see if I was following the conversation. Then he regarded the other guests across the room. “Ah, now,” he said, his voice rising, and he delivered his next words deliberately, as if he were making a speech in Parliament.
“Now – you are asking me to tread – the narrow bridge – above the chasm – that separates platitudes from indiscretion!”
There was an explosion of laughter, and for the first time since I had entered the room I felt at ease. In fact, I felt so much at ease that I found myself speaking. “Mr Churchill,” I asked, “if the Russians developed the atom bomb, do you think they would hesitate to use it?”
My father blinked. Then his head snapped and he stared at me. Immediately I regretted my words. But Churchill seemed delighted.
“Well, that would all depend, wouldn’t it?” he said. “The East might have three bombs; the West might have a hundred. But, then, supposing it was vice versa?”
My father started to speak, but Churchill continued. “You see –” he mumbled with the same deliberate rhythm, his voice growing louder with each word, “you see – with the atom bomb – (the room was growing quiet again.) it is all a matter of – (there was still conversation in the far part of the room) it is entirely a matter of – of –”
He seemed to be at a loss for the precise word to complete his thought. I did not perceive that he was merely waiting until he had the attention of the entire room. At that moment, all I knew was that for some reason my father was not going to rescue Churchill from his sudden excruciating inability to express himself.
“Sir,” I said, and my voice seemed to crack, “do you mean that it is all a matter of – proportion?”
Wide-eyed, my father leaned forward in great agitation, but Churchill raised a majestic hand, and pointed that commanding cigar at me.
“That is it, exactly!” he said. “Proportion is a very good word, and it is too often forgotten, in war and in peace. You should say it, young man, every morning when you wake up. You should say it to yourself, every time you stand before the mirror when you shave!”
At those words, my head began to swim. With relief, I could see that my father was no longer angry at me, and I sat in silent glory as the talk continued – talk about coming elections, about the Atlantic Charter, about Mao’s recent victories in China.
When tea was over, and we were walking down the corridor away from Churchill’s suite, I was exultant. “Can you believe it?” I cried. “He actually thought I shaved!”
My father stopped and looked at me carefully. “If I were you, “ he said, “I’d find a mirror and take a good look.”
In the bathroom of my cabin, after much examination, I saw the truth. There, under my nose and on either side of my chin, were the unmistakable hints of whiskers. They were so soft that my fingertips could barely feel them, but they were there.
I found my mug, my brush and my razor. I made a lather that could have serviced every man on the ship. I lifted the razor, looked in the mirror and, in the deepest voice I could manage, I spoke my first words as a man.
“You know,” I said, “it is all – ah, it is entirely – a matter of proportion!”
Currently on the cinema circuit, Darkest Hour is a war drama, starring Gary Oldman as the newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Watch the trailer for the movie below.