Apr/May 2017 Travel

The Coolest Pilot in London

by Kurt Schmidt

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer

I met Bond in Switzerland. Actually his name was Ben Ashton-Fletcher, but his rugged build, square chin, and deep voice made me think of Sean Connery in his role as James Bond. It was obvious from the beginning that he was a British adventurer who, like Bond, had strong convictions and a way with women. What was not so obvious was why he befriended an American vagabond like me.

I was on the last leg of the drive from Aigle to Leysin, which was steep and seemed to rise forever. It was sunny, the terrain was covered in snow, and the Swiss mountain peaks were so jagged, I had to stop my VW Beetle occasionally to photograph a primitive scene that made Earth seem more than an astronomical accident. I was in a sort of reverie as I passed up a couple hitchhikers, two clean-cut kids with a red maple leaf sewn on their backpacks. Maybe Canadians, I thought, and probably not the serial killers who lurked on the highways. But you couldn't judge a killer by his face, and I couldn't break my rule about not picking up hitchhikers. I did feel guilty though, because the boys had short hair and nice smiles and looked disappointed when I took a last look at them in my rear-view mirror.

The snow-covered chalet gave me a two-person room with a balcony where you could absorb dark valleys and snowy mountains as if from a spiritual viewing portal. As I looked out across the valley, continuous white peaks seemed as divine an experience as that which Thoreau had experienced when climbing Mt. Monadnock in New England. The stillness and motionless air—all part of a moment difficult to commit to memory.

My first supper at the chalet featured long eating tables dominated by rowdy Australians, both male and female, although there were Canadians seated near me. The young man next to me introduced himself as Ray from Vancouver, British Columbia. The guy next to him was John, also from Vancouver. I had this eerie feeling I'd seen them before and said they looked familiar.

Ray said, "Do you drive a green VW?"

"I do."

"I think you're the guy who passed us up on the road today. How come you didn't stop and pick us up?"

"I just never do it anymore. I used to do it sometimes in the States, but it got to be too dangerous."

Ray said, "But we didn't look dangerous, did we?"

I smiled and said, "No, but I thought the red leaf on your backpack was the symbol of some satanic cult."

Across the table, a tall, rugged-looking man chuckled.

Ray said, "You're kidding, right?"

I said, "Yeah, but I'll make it up to you. If you're going my way when I leave, I'd be glad to give you a ride then."

Ray said, "It's a deal."

The rugged-looking man had blue eyes and a square jaw and spoke with the same self-assurance as James Bond. We talked as if we'd been friends for a long time. Ben was a Brit who'd left home for Australia as a teenager and learned to fly any bushwhacking plane that could get off the ground. He was now a pilot for Quantas Airline, splitting time between his Australian home, an apartment in London, and a farm in the English countryside.

On crisp, sunny days, Ben and I hiked farther up the mountain with rented skis over our shoulders and skied down to a slope-side chalet that served white wine and hot cheese fondue. We sunbathed outside in lounge chairs beside a big shaggy dog who lived there. One afternoon we skied in the vast Alpine sun fields without our shirts. On a cooler day I drove us to nearby Col des Mosses, where we skied down wide hills of fresh powder snow that had fallen in the night. I caught my ski tips and plunged forward like a man who thought burying his head in the snow would be an enlightening experience. I was wet and sore but felt as though there was no better place than the mountains.

In the evenings Ben and I went out for a beer and exchanged life stories. Like me, he was a poor kid who'd left home young and lifted himself up. We had that in common.

When a sexy Australian girl tried to mooch a drink from us once too often, Ben told her it was time for her to pay for the next round. I told Ben I admired his strength of character and his candid manner with sexy Australian girls. Ben said he admired my quest. He said Australians called it a walkabout, which meant a period of wandering. It originated with the Aborigines as a way for a young man to establish his manhood. The custom eventually caught on with young white Australians looking for adventure. That was why you saw so many Aussies at the chalet. "But they're just looking for a good time," Ben said, "not for any meaning in life." Ben said I should stay with him when I reached London.

I was disappointed when Ben had to return to resume his flight schedule. At the train station Ben and I shook hands. He said, "I expect to see you in London. You've got my address and phone number."

I said, "I should be there this summer."

I watched the cog-rail train as it descended at a steep angle toward the valley.

Back at the chalet I remarked at the supper table what an interesting guy Ben was. The sexy Australian girl said, "Ben uses people."

I said, "What do you mean?"

She said, "I mean Ben uses people."

I said, "Everyone uses others to some extent. This summer I'll be using Ben to show me London."

She said, "Be careful then."

I wondered if she and Ben had had a fling during his stay or whether she was angry with him for calling attention to her beer-mooching propensity.

Six months later at the end of June, I left my VW in Le Havre for shipment to New York and boarded a ferry for the trip across the English Channel to Southampton. I was running low on money and couldn't afford to drive it during my last two months of traveling. Shrinking funds had contributed to my shabby appearance, too. Italians had stolen trousers from my VW near Sorrento, so I'd continued to wear the same pair while worn spots on the butt had become holes in two places. At times I'd considered wearing the Bermuda shorts in my luggage, but I didn't want to look like an American tourist.


After arriving in Southhampton and discovering that the youth hostel was full, I left a large bag there and rode a bus to Winchester, where I slept in a converted mill with a stream running through the hostel's sleeping quarters. The gurgling water made for a tranquil sleep. The next day I explored the huge Winchester Cathedral, returned to the Southhampton youth hostel, and prepared my bags for hitching to London. The following morning I decided to wear black and burgundy Bermuda shorts. I was too ashamed of the trousers, and I'd seen movies with the British in shorts.

I lugged my bag out to the road and held up a small American flag as younger hitchhikers had advised me to do in England and Ireland. I got a ride with a trucker who treated me to tea along the way. When we talked about free societies, he said, "Here you can't change the tiles on your roof without a permit."

In London I called Ben's number without an answer and then tried the number he'd given me for his girlfriend Meg. She said Ben was out on a flight, but she'd pick me up in Ben's Mini Cooper, which turned out to be a boxy red coupe with a surprising amount of space inside. When I saw that Meg was a tall, brown-eyed beauty in a short dress that accentuated an elegant body, I thought lucky Ben had captured a modern Aphrodite. She was in the middle of moving, so I lugged some boxes for her and took a shower at her apartment. Meg cooked me a nice supper and said I should be comfortable sleeping on her sofa. I was.

In the morning Meg asked me to drive Ben's Mini Cooper to the Mayfair Hotel to pick him up. His flight crew always took a shuttle from the airport to the Mayfair. Meg needed to go to work. I said okay but realized it was a mistake as soon as I was out in traffic. This was the first time I'd driven on the left side of the road with the steering wheel on the right side. Traffic was heavy. My brain was panicking at every traffic circle, as if it really didn't know how to get out of the death wheel. I was sweating. What if I tried to leave the circle at the wrong time and somebody whacked Ben's car? Jesus! As I drove up to the Mayfair Hotel, I saw Ben standing on the curb in his pilot's uniform, giving me a wave. I pulled up to the curb, got out, and shook his hand. Ben said, "I'm glad you finally made it."

I said, "Driving your car in London traffic was harder than getting to England."

He said, "You've driven in cities tougher than London. You should be an old hand at it by now."

"Yeah, but you British have the steering wheel on the wrong side."

"British tradition." Ben tossed his small black bag in from the passenger's side and said, "If you don't mind, I'll let you drive. I'm really bushed."

"You'd be safer in a plane with one engine on fire."

"I like your sense of humor."

While I sweated through London traffic as Ben gave me directions, he said, "We'll stay at my parents' apartment while they're visiting my sister in Spain. I also want to take you to the country and show you the farm I rented."

"I had tea with your sister one night while I was in Madrid. She seemed nice."

"That's unusual. Most people think she's bitchy."

She had been more than bitchy, but I couldn't say how she'd complained all through tea that she was damn tired of Ben sending all his Australian vagabond friends to her with the expectation of sleeping on her couch, or that her weasel face indicated she viewed American vagabonds with the same disdain. And I couldn't say how she looked like a Cruella De Vil who must have come from a womb other than Ben's mother's.


It was a small apartment on Baker Street, and I was curious why James Bond lived with his parents. When Ben asked why I was wearing Bermuda shorts, I told him about thieves stealing my trousers and jackets. He said he'd go with me to a London men's store tomorrow while I bought new trousers and a sport jacket. He said, "You really can't go around London looking like that. We'll tell them you just came in from the bush."

I guessed that was a manly image—just in from the bush. Just in from the Australian outback. I thought I should go to the men's store unshaven and with dirt smudges on my knees. Maybe a big knife clipped to my belt.

The next day Ben stood in a fancy London men's store, telling me I looked good in brown slacks and a tan corduroy jacket. Spending the money hurt, but I wanted to know about Ben's life without embarrassing him. I added a dress shirt to the ensemble and looked more refined that evening when we ate at a restaurant with a Quantas stewardess and her friend Alicia.

In the morning the Quantas stewardess called Ben and had some sort of tantrum over the phone. Ben stayed calm. He said, "Sorry, old girl... wish I could... I have a previous commitment."

After the phone call, Ben suggested that we drive to the farm. Down on the farm I met Ben's horse and a woman named Molly who took care of Ben's horse and appeared to be the third of Ben's women. Molly was attractive and unpretentious in a pair of old jeans. She and Ted and Ryan joined us for lunch and beer at the Frenshem Pond Hotel. Then Ben raced his Mini back to London, where we discussed happiness that night at a restaurant with Meg and the same Ryan who had joined us for lunch. I was thinking the more wine we drank the less anyone knew about happiness. I could tell when theoretical discussions were useless.

I thought Ben seemed more nervous than when we were in the Swiss Alps. I thought balancing three women was not good for his metabolism. Later when Ben and I were alone in his car, he said, "I've been thinking of marrying Meg. But my last flight to Sidney, she jumped in the sack with the shop steward while I was gone. Now I don't know. What do you think?"

I said, "Are you and Meg engaged?"

Ben said, "Not really, although I thought we had an understanding."

I should have reminded him that he was balancing three women in England and God-knows-how-many in Australia. Why should he expect exclusivity from Meg? And when you have a kind woman who looks like a Roman goddess, why do you need others? But I was not going to make judgments. I would continue to observe and stifle my opinions. I said, "Do you think Meg would have done it if you were officially engaged?"

"I don't know."

"Do you love her?"

"I don't know that, either. I know she's beautiful and we get on well together. And she's good in the sack."

"Can you see yourself spending the rest of your life with her?"

"I don't know. Things like that are difficult to predict."

"But would you have proposed to her if she hadn't jumped in bed with the shop steward?"

"I think so."

Perhaps Ben's problem was that he thought a shop steward was in the same class as a janitor. Maybe Meg should have gone to bed with another co-pilot or someone higher up the British social ladder. I was already having difficulty with Ben's ego and the class-conscious stuff about not appearing in public in Bermuda shorts. So I said, "You know what a Greek philosopher once said about marriage: 'Am I not a man, and is not a man stupid? Yes, I'm married—wife, children, house—the full catastrophe.'" I laughed and said, "You should get married."

"Why aren't you married?"

"Because the girl I loved wanted a house by the ocean. I didn't want a house by the ocean. American women are very materialistic. They want jewelry and a big house."

"I think that's universal."

"If I were honest with myself, I'd say my failure with relationships is because I see them as ephemeral. I don't think that'll change until I know where I'm going with my life."

"Are you any closer to finding the answer?"

"Some days I think I am. Other days, I don't know. I can't go back to being a mechanical engineer. There's no soul in machines. The thing that comes to mind the most is the possibility of becoming a writer."

"You could do that. You have a way with words."

"How did you know you were meant to be a pilot?"

"I didn't. I was 17 when I went to Australia. I took odd jobs around airports, got up in the air whenever I could hitch a ride. After a few years I was flying bush planes. Eventually I applied to Quantas, and here I am."

"Are you happy being a pilot?"

"I like flying, but sometimes I think there should be more to life. That's why I've been thinking of settling down."

"Well, I like Meg. And she's certainly a beautiful woman."

"She is. I need to give it some serious thought."

The next morning Ben excused himself while he went alone to the Mayfair Hotel to straighten out his problem with the Quantas stewardess who was having the tantrum there. I suspected she wanted more of Ben's time. The next day Ben took me sightseeing to Parliament and Westminster Abbey and asked me if I'd drive Meg and her girlfriend Robin to the shore the next day while he took care of "personal business."

So I did that, joining the women for a day at the beach, even though the sun was not strong enough to make them as brown as they were trying to be. I realized I was becoming a facilitator in Ben's balancing scheme.

The next day I drove Ben to the Mayfair, where he caught an airport shuttle out to Heathrow for a flight. I drove back to Ben's apartment and watched Wimbledon tennis on TV for two days until Ben returned and Meg made us dinner and the two of them went to Ben's bedroom for the night.

The next morning Ben and I drove Meg to work before heading for the country. Down on the farm Ben introduced me to Sharon-the-Sexy and Pam-the-Homely. Ben concentrated his charm on Sharon, so I was confused whether Ben was attempting to add to his harem. Pam-the-Homely talked incessantly through black, whisker-like stitches around her mouth about wanting to go to bed with a certain married man. God pity that poor man.

And God pity Ben for deciding to add a puppy to his circle of life. We made a long drive with heavy Mrs. Bacon, who actually looked like a fat hog with big false eyelashes. And her idea of conversation was to provide dissertations on everything from dogs to mediocrity, leading me to conclude eventually that she was full of crap. Ironic how Ben seemed to know a woman for every task that he was reluctant to perform on his own. Mrs. Bacon picked the best puppy of the litter, and Ben was exceedingly grateful.

We returned to the farm where Molly played with the puppy and tried to get it to sit at Ben's feet. While Molly minded the puppy the next day, Ben and I rode horses. When we returned, the puppy ran to greet us. A resident farm Dalmatian nipped the puppy. Ben kicked the large dog hard in the ribs and sent it yelping away. I wondered if kicking the dog was necessary.

We packed the Mini for London, including the puppy, and Ben said, "Would you be so kind as to drive me to the airport?"

While I was driving, Ben said, "Would you be so kind as to go a bit faster? I'm late."

So I was a fast taxi and then stuck at Ben's apartment with a puppy that preferred to pee on the rug instead of on the newspaper laid down for it, a puppy that jumped around on my bed all night. Meg came in the morning with Robin and helped clean up puppy poops.

Two days later Ben came home and got to clean up puppy poops all by himself. As I'd done over the past days, we walked the puppy in the park. When the puppy dawdled, Ben said to me, "Would you be so kind as to carry the dog?"

I smiled and said, "I think you ought to do it."

I was thinking life with Ben was wearing thin. Ben called Meg and seemed irritated that she was babysitting that evening and not available.

The next day we drove the puppy down to the farm. After Ben and I rode horses, Ben said, "Would you be so kind as to hold my horse? I guess I'll skip tea. I have an engagement." While I helped Ben's friend deliver a horse in town, Ben sped off. When I got back to the farm, the puppy was howling. When I asked Molly if Ben had fed the puppy before he left, she said Ben didn't know what I'd been feeding it. By the time Ben returned later from London, I was thinking how I could make a graceful exit from his life.

Ben introduced me to more acquaintances who had chaotic lives but spoke in some strange British matter-of-fact way about it all. Perhaps they were exhibiting the traditional stiff upper lip. Joining us at Mrs. Bacon's dinner was a stiff-lipped woman who had five children and a husband who now lived on a Greek island with peasants and his Greek mistress. She said, "I'm glad. I don't miss him."

The next day I drove Pam-the-Homely with her mouth stitches still looking like dog whiskers to an auto repair place to pick up her car. She asked me if I thought she should sleep with the married man of her desires. I didn't really care, so I said, "Sure. The beauty of life is it's so full of carnal surprises. Maybe you'll be so delightful in bed he'll divorce his wife and marry you."

She said, "I had a dream he married me."

I said, "Maybe that's a sign."

"Do you think so?"

"Definitely." I was glad to leave the troubled gentry and the pooping puppy in farm country and drop Ben at the Mayfair for his shuttle to the airport. I was homesick and tired of travel and the folly of Ben's life. When I visited Madame Tausaud's Wax Museum, I visualized a figure of Ben memorialized in wax for being the Balancing Man, the guy who thought love was having everyone adore him and do his bidding.

Just when I thought I'd leave when Ben returned from his trip, Ben's parents arrived with Ben's Cruella De Vil sister. Ben's mother was big and robust like Ben. His father was thin and quiet. They seemed surprised to find me in their apartment, and Ben's mother and Cruella seemed edgy about it. Maybe Ben hadn't told them I'd be there.

In the morning Ben's father came to me and lowered his eyes and said, "My wife really needs her privacy. I'm afraid you won't be able to stay. I'm sorry."

If he'd said privacy the American way with the long "i," I probably wouldn't have minded getting kicked out. But privacy with the short "i" sounded like snobbish. So I said, "I'll be gone in an hour. If you don't mind, I'll leave my suitcase in Ben's room and take a small bag to Ireland. I'll pick up the suitcase when I get back."

Ben's father said, "That's fine. And please don't rush."

But I had to rush, because I couldn't wait to get away from the piercing glances of Ben's mother and sniper sister. This was the strangest family I'd met in Europe.


Standing out on the road that day with my little American flag, I felt despondent that my ship wouldn't be leaving for a month. After 11 months on the road, I was tired of traveling. But an affable Englishman gave me a ride and treated me to a mug of ale at a local pub. I felt better after the ale, especially that there were some friendly Brits who enjoyed conversing with me instead of seeing me as an intrusion on their privacy.

When I reached Oxford, I wandered through the courtyards of the great university and wondered how many great writers formed audacious ideas in the ancient stone buildings. The next day I visited Stratford-on-Avon and Shakespeare's House, even though William was the person I'd hated most in high school, especially having to memorize crap like the quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.

Almost as soon as I reached Wales, a family picked me up, took me to their house for lunch, and then drove me to a spot on the other side of town where I'd have the best chance for another ride. Those who picked me up wanted to know about life in America.

After a ferry to Ireland, I found Dublin to be a cheap city for a short stay. I enjoyed movies and a horse-jumping show where an Italian rider spurred his horse too fast toward the hurdles so the horse couldn't get the spring it needed to clear the obstacles. I decided that was a metaphor for life. If you went too fast, you missed the different rhythms for each maneuver. Or, in the case of Ben, exposing a personality that had made him seem at first like a cool and sexy pilot.

I hitched to Newry in Northern Ireland because my sister's pen pal had written me a letter of invitation. I stayed with her family, but dinners with them were silent and depressing. And I sensed some tension. I didn't know if silence was typical of people who lived in Northern Ireland and worked for the Salvation Army, but I expressed my thanks and headed south again to the Irish countryside.

I was standing beside the road to Galway when a car went speeding past and screeched to a halt. I ran up to the car. The driver said, "If I didn't see the American flag, lad, I'd never stopped. I've got the terrible hangover." The Irish were a great bunch. Then I got picked up by a Swedish family with small kids who wanted to know about the United States. Down around Kilarney, I even got a ride to the youth hostel on a horse-drawn wagon. I spent three days wandering around the lakes and mountains there, but the rain and cold stifled what little enthusiasm I had left.

It was night when I took the ferry to Fishguard in Wales, and I was surprised when a van was at the landing to pick up those of us who needed to go to the youth hostel. The ride was along a bumpy dirt road that eventually led to a white house that seemed hardly bigger than a cottage. I was so tired, I didn't ask where we were. But in the morning I woke to the distant sound of the surf and looked out the window and saw that this little house was sitting alone on the edge of a cliff, and the ocean was pounding hundreds of feet below. After breakfast, I walked a path that followed the edge of the cliff. If there had been no three-day limit at this hostel, I would have stayed there until my ship left. This was the most tranquil place I'd found, where the only sound was the wind and surf.

The youth hostel sold a black-and-white picture postcard of itself as a distant white speck on the edge of a long curve of cliffs above the boiling surf below. Printing on the card said "Pwllderi, North Pembs National Park." I bought two cards, as if the extra one would guarantee the memory, and added them to my card collection. I was sorry to reach the three-day limit, but I thought it was fair. If there were no limit, the amiable middle-age hostess could wind up with a small house filled with permanent residents.

I hitched to the city of Bath and visited the Roman Baths Museum. As I walked the streets that had the famous Georgian architecture, I knew my interest in English history was done. I just wanted to be on the boat to America.

While hitching back to London, my host drivers sometimes asked about violence in America. I said the U.S. was still a social experiment trying to move toward a society in which class and race were irrelevant, that there was bound to be turmoil involved with this experiment. I was a poor kid who had transcended the class stereotype. Early exams in Great Britain and other European countries would have weeded me out and barred me from college prep courses in high school. I was grateful that America gave late bloomers like me a chance to succeed. Some had trouble believing I came from poverty, but I insisted I grew up poor, became a mechanical engineer, and saved enough money in three years to buy a VW and travel in Europe for a year. The British were sure I was lying.

When I picked up my bag at Ben's residence in London, Ben's mother disappeared. Ben's father insisted I take 20 bucks in British pounds to help with my trip home. I said thanks and that I'd pay him back. I thought he felt guilty about kicking me out. I should have said he did me a favor by propelling me toward a new adventure, but it always hurt to feel unwelcome. Instead, I just said, "Tell Ben goodbye for me when he gets back from his flight."

When I reached the youth hostel in Southampton, the large suitcase I'd left there two months ago reminded me I should travel lighter next time. A traveler really needed only a small pack, a camera, and a journal to store memories.

I thought about Ben, who in Switzerland had been a James Bond man of exemplary character. Now I saw a man without any fidelity or sense of purpose. He didn't aspire to an exciting career or a loving family. He thought mostly about sexy women who were good in the sack and whether they or a visiting American could perform mundane tasks for him. I thought that his mother, who had expelled both Cruella and Bond from the womb (perhaps to regain her privacy), had somehow damaged both of them.


(Some names have been changed for privacy consideration.)


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