The world has lost a gem. At an age when many kids – even adults – are self-absorbed, patriotically indifferent, unapologetically indulgent, and willfully ignorant, Queen Elizabeth II stood up. World War II’s dark cloak threatening free nations, she addressed Britain – age 13. At age 18 – 1944 – she joined the Army, active duty, became an overall-wearing mechanic. All her life, she knew the sound of a 4-stroke combustion engine working right – and wrong. Oh, the lessons she taught …
Here was soon-to-be Queen of England, who had no pretensions, wanted none, worked under the hood of a truck, knew how intake, compression, spark, and exhaust worked, crank shaft, pistons, greasy rocker arms, how a dry cloth under a wet distributor cap, especially after a soaking rain, might get an engine to turn over.
Here was a future monarch who wanted to be what her people were, hardworking, undeterred, courageous, resilient, and can-do. When the war ended, she and her sister – dressed in common clothes, Elizabeth in Army duds, mingled with the celebrating crowds. She did her part.
As Queen, age 25 on, she performed many noble deeds, official and unofficial, personal, professional, wartime, peacetime, keeping the British monarchy and beleaguered commonwealth together, keeping weary countrymen aware of their past and hopeful with her uncommon poise, grace, perspective on history, and personal dignity.
Much will be written about her individual deeds, tenure through the coming and goings of 13 US presidents, her relationship with history-changing British prime ministers, like Churchill and Thatcher, her presence and impact on history.
All these tributes are worthy, well-placed, elevate qualities we see too little in leaders – dignity, honor, decency, patience, respect, fidelity to history, family, and the perspective of others, not to mention elegance and eloquence. She knew when to speak, when to let others speak, when to intercede and when to let the engine spin down.
While most of us never met her, we saw the unchanging influence of her quiet temperament on history. She was not a bystander, but not a braggard. She was not without her emotions, losses, disappointments, resolve, and charm, was a reservoir of stoicism, stabilizer in an unstable world.
During my two years at Oxford, the odd day put me in London at The Old Bailey, an historic local Courthouse, watching Parliament or ambling as kids do around the big city, periodically passing Buckingham Palace, watching the “changing of the guard,” those regal beefeaters, all the precision. Somehow, her influence suffused that place. She was an extension of history, personification of nobility’s better side.
But all this really pales, the palaces, anniversaries, pomp, circumstance, and ceremonial events – just bookmarks in a long and wonderful life – by comparison to something bigger.
She was destined to be Britain’s monarch from birth, lived the role with dignity, but that is not why most Americans respect her. She honored America’s spirit, the “special relationship,” understood that our young saved Great Britain and Europe in World War II, as Reagan with Thatcher brought down the Soviet Union. She knew heart – not genetics – makes the person.
What I personally admired – do in her passing – is her heart, the heart of a young woman who stepped up to responsibilities she did not need to assume, insisted on placing herself at risk for freedom as a matter of duty, preferred mingling unrecognized with her countrymen than a tiara.
What speaks to me is the young woman, destined to be Queen yet responsive to her conscience, who loved liberty enough to embrace what it takes to preserve it, who worked hard, got dirty fixing Army trucks at 18, knew combustion engines, did her part. If she could, we all can. If more just took that lesson, the world might be a better place. She was a gem.