My Rookie London Trip
by John Delach
My first experience arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport was humiliating at best. Mary Ann and I arrived on a Sunday morning having flown overnight on British Airways. The seal on the bottle of Johnny Walker Red had come undone somewhere during the flight. I had bought it at the Duty-Free Shop at British Airways’ JFK Terminal on the advice of my boss, Charlie Robbins. Enough whiskey leaked onto my sports jacket that I’d stowed beneath it in the overhead to make me smell like the town drunk.
“What should I do?” I asked Mary Ann as we prepared to de-plane.
“You don’t smell as badly as you think you do. You’ll be fine.”
Perhaps she was correct, but, from my end, I swore I stank. Curiously, nobody mentioned it, not Chuck or Ann Marie Sabatino, our traveling companions, none of the officials at Customs and Immigrations nor the snotty driver from Bland Welsh who drove us and the Sabatinos to the Carlton Tower. The staff at check-in nor the bell-hop who took us to our room didn’t seem to notice either, still…
The year was 1976 and Chuck Sabatino and I both had reputations as “wise asses” at Marsh & McLennan, he on the cargo side, me on the hull side. Despite this, both of us had been promoted to Assistant Vice Presidents and our bosses decided that it was time for us to be make our debut in the London market. Whoever decided to send us over together insisted that we bring our wives for obvious reasons. We had both been prepped by various bosses on how to behave including what to say to our wives. Our prep went so far that our supreme leader, John Buzbee, invited us to his office after five pm on the Friday before we left. We were heavy with cash advances both in Dollars and Pounds as credit cards were not yet universal. We both had the traveler’s high, the combination of excitement about our coming adventure and money to burn.
John’s purpose was to take us down a peg by warning us about the impressions we would make; “Don’t be frivolous, lose control (see drinking) and be respectful and serious.” I expect his lecture would have gone on longer, but Chuck cut him off with this: “John, I know this drill. When I was in the Marine Corps, we made a trip to Japan, but before they let us off the ship for liberty, our Captain gathered us in formation and said: ‘Men, Japan is an ally: Keep it in your pants!”
What a week, what a time and what a city. London was fabulous. Mary Ann and Ann Marie’s days were free, and they had a grand time both sightseeing and more importantly, shopping. But London was a dangerous place that spring. One of the IRA’s bombing campaigns had just ended. Posters lined the underground, buses and public places warning citizens to report any unattended items. The Carlton Tower had a security desk just inside its lobby entrance manned by uniformed guards. Mary Ann and Ann Marie befriended the guards, but they still inspected the contents of the ladies shopping bags every afternoon as they did our briefcases when we returned from the city.
At night we went our separate ways as the cargo scene and the hull scene encompassed different casts of characters. In those days, we placed business with several different Lloyds brokers, so each couple had a full dance card for the entire week.
Each night revolved around a big dinner proceeded or followed by an event, the theater, a cruise down the Thames on a hydrofoil, a trip to a country inn or a concert.
We did manage one serendipitous late-night encounter where we could be ourselves and blow off steam. That night, we all arrived on our floor at almost the same time. Mary Ann and I had just started toward our room when the next elevator arrived. We both turned around and out came Chuck and Ann Marie. Mary Ann carried a large bouquet of flowers presented to her earlier that evening. Chuck took one look and sprinted toward her blowing by me. I watched as he jumped into her arms as down they went flowers cascading in every direction; one of the funniest sights, ever! We all exploded in laughter then retreated to our room where the four of us drank my bottle and the mini-bar dry as we let loose.
God knows how many rookie mistakes we made. The most common, when taking a ride with a Brit in their company Jaguar; automatically walking over to the left-hand door. The Brits loved it and always asked, “Oh, I didn’t know you were driving.” I can’t tell you how long it took to break that instinct.
Private lunch clubs prevailed, all of them position or class oriented. If I went to lunch with the, “so called, ‘boys,” the senior boy hosted the lunch at the firm’s pub. (Yes, they all had their own pubs and luncheon clubs and, in those days; men only.)
Lots of pretensions, many lunches were command performances for us to present ourselves. That’s why lunches with those boys were my favorite. They were ambitious wise asses just like me and we could get on using guile and humor. Many of those boys became lasting friends.
My rookie lunch reckoning came at a more upscale lunch in the executive dining room belonging to Mead, Shapiro and Tyndall, a small firm, now long gone. The meal began with fried prawns as the appetizer, one of my favorites. I looked around for salt and spied a bowl that I assumed was what I sought. I spooned some on my dish and Giles Bly, a junior broker, admonished me my saying, “John, I didn’t know you liked sugar on your prawns.”
He deliberately compounded his slight by demanding that the waiter replace my ruined prawns immediately loud enough for all to hear.
To this day, Mr. Bly doesn’t realize how close he came to death for doing that.