Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee

You’ll be hearing a lot about Queen Elizabeth II this week. On the death of her father in 1952, she became Head of the Commonwealth and queen regnant of seven independent Commonwealth countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon. Her coronation service in 1953 was the first to be televised. Her Diamond Jubilee celebration starts June 2.

[I thought “regnant” was a typo until I looked it up. “A queen regnant is a female monarch who reigns in her own right, in contrast to a queen consort, who is the wife of a reigning king.”]

How I got to shoot the queen

I was coming back from an assignment in Okeechobee, 60 miles away, when it sounded like someone was trying to call me on the company two-way radio. I knew there was an overpass ahead that would get me high enough to hit the office for about 45 seconds, so I checked in as I started to climb the bridge and told them to talk fast.

Between bursts of static, I thought I heard the boss ask “Do you have a suit?”

“Say again, ‘suit?'”

“Do you have a SUIT? We need somebody to cover the Queen and we think you may be the only guy on the staff with a suit.”

So, that’s how I got the assignment to go to the Bahamas in February of 1975 to cover Queen Elizabeth. It wasn’t because of my spot news prowess, my superior ability to shoot portraits or my ability to find unusual angles. It was because I was the only guy on the Palm Beach Post photo staff who owned a suit.

Is that normal?

Reporter Sally Swartz and I had just settled into our seats in the small plane that was taking us to Nassau when I took a glance out the window. I gestured for a stewardess to come over and asked her, “Does that appear to you to be an extraordinary amount of hydraulic fluid flowing back over the wing?”

“No, sir,” she replied in a calm voice. “That’s perfectly normal.” I was comforted until she took off in a dead run for the cockpit. Soon, the first officer was peering out the window. He went back to the cockpit, I didn’t notice any parachutes in the air and we landed safely in Nassau, so it must have been normal for THAT plane.

On the wrong side of the wrong side

The plane ride was the least dangerous part of the trip. A whole bunch of us journalists were herded onto a beat-up vehicle that was a cross between a van and a small bus. It was driven by someone who alternated between homicidal and suicidal.

It’s bad enough that people in the Bahamas drive on the wrong side of the road. This guy liked to drive on the wrong side of the wrong side of the road. Traffic was horrific, so when he came upon a slowdown on the two-lane road, he’d lay on the horn and pull out to pass the whole world. Either he figured he had a bigger horn than the oncoming vehicles or he didn’t care if he died so long as he could take a busload of journalists with him.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip

Sally and I checked in, got press credentials (more about that later) and a press packet with all kinds of Queenie goodies in it. If I root deep enough, I can probably find it, if anybody wants to put in a bid.

The good news I got at the press center was that photographers weren’t going to be allowed on the Royal Yacht; only reporters. That meant I didn’t need to wear my suit.

The Royal Couple arrived. I bet THEIR plane was better maintained than the one Sally and I flew over in.

Press herded and corralled

As soon as the Royal Couple got off the plane, anyone with a press credential was herded into a holding area where we would be controlled. I saw that the Royals were getting right up with folks, so I ditched my credentials and played tourist.

That worked for a short while. Then, two very tall, very big Bahamian policemen got on both sides of me, gently grabbed me under the armpits and half-carried / half-walked me back over to the press pen. They figured if they went to all of the trouble of issuing you a little piece of paper, you’d better wear it and you’d better go where they tell you to go.

Another photographer busted

My compatriot from a Miami paper didn’t take his ID off, and they nailed him, too. I love his “who me?” expression. (My cops were bigger than his cops.)

HMY Britannia

The Queen and her husband flew in, but left on the HMY Britannia, with lifeboats as big as some yachts. I bet it’s safe to say the rule is “Queens and Princes first, THEN women and children.”

Journalist Andrew Marr wrote in his book The Real Elizabeth that the British government planned for the Royal Yacht to serve as the Queen’s refuge in the event of a nuclear war.

 The Queen does not sweat

She doesn’t even glow. I was soaked to the skin and I saw sweat running down faces in the crowd, but Queen Elizabeth II must have had all her sweat glands removed as a child. I watched her through a telephoto lens for an hour hoping to see a bead of sweat or a hint of moisture. Zip, nada, none. I don’t know how she did it.

Photo gallery of Queen’s 1975 visit to the Bahamas

Here’s a selection of photos from the Queen’s visit to the Bahamas. Time has caused some color shifts, but they still look pretty good. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.

Hats Off to Rain Art

The old newsroom at The Palm Beach Post was depressing. The walls at one time had been an institutional puke green, but tar from years of chain-smoking reporters and editors had coated them with a greasy brown film.

The desks, often shared by as many as three reporters would have been rejected by any self-respecting Salvation Army thrift shop. Dictionaries weren’t used to check spelling; they were used to prop up desks with the legs missing. The lighting was spotty and what ceiling tiles weren’t missing had been coated with cigarette tar like the walls, only worse. We could hear little feet scurrying around overhead and, from time to time, a rat would drop through one of the broken ceiling tiles and go scampering across the room, prompting otherwise worldly cop reporters to scream like little girls.

Purple-faced rage

The metal waste cans around the city desk were bent and twisted because the mercurial city editor would launch them through the air like a fieldgoal kicker. At least once a year, he’d lift a typewriter over his head and give it a heave in a purple-faced, vein-bulging rage. Some of the reporters had a pool going to bet how far the splatters would go if and when he turned into a fountain in the middle of the newsroom.

IBM Selectric typewriters had given way to an Atex publishing system with huge dumb terminals that probably exposed users to more radiation than a chest X-ray. These were hated and feared by the diehards who had only reluctantly given up their manual typewriters a couple of short years before.

The only good thing: room had no windows

The only good thing about the newsroom – from a photographer’s perspective – was that it had no windows.

In the good old days of Underwood typewriters that meant that an editor couldn’t look out the window, see it was raining and dispatch a photographer to shoot “rain art.” Modern technology spoiled that.

The company hadn’t thought to buy a building-wide UPS system to protect the Atex system from power flickers that turned the computers into expensive electronic canaries in our coal mine. Every summer afternoon, thunderboomers would build up and lightning would flash. Lights would flicker, the story on the green computer monitors would shrink down to a tiny dot, then wink out, and the room would turn blue with the waves of invective from reporters and editors who hadn’t followed the directive to save often.

THAT’S when the city editor would realize that weather was happening outside, dial Photo and demand rain art.

At least it wasn’t MY hat

I was convinced that the editor didn’t really care if you came back with a picture that could run in the paper. Geez, how much news is it if the reader can look out HIS window and say, “Look, Maude, it’s really comin’ down out there.”

No, the city editor just liked the idea of  smirking at a drowned-rat  photographer trailing water behind him as he walked though the newsroom on the way back to the darkroom. He REALLY liked it when your shoes squished.

The only consolation I could take was that I probably felt better than the guy who watched his favorite hat blow off his head, go floating down the street and get splashed by a passing car.