Photo with the queen
Essay by David George Ball, James City

When I was growing up in Gloucester, England, I never actually saw the queen. But I certainly knew what she looked like. As a special privilege during the war, my mother would let me look at her scrapbook of family photographs, and there on the same page as me on my birthday was a picture from a magazine of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Mum must have seen a parallel between her two boys and the two girls in the royal family. The picture proved quite useful
on the day Mum sent my brother, Jonathan, and me blackberrying on Robinswood Hill. As we returned down the Stroud road after picking blackberries for a couple of hours, I recognized the faces of two people sitting in the back seat of a black Rolls Royce. I remembered their pictures in Mum’s scrapbook. I pointed to the car and yelled, “Look, Jonathan. It’s Queen Mary and Princess Margaret!” In my wild-eyed excitement, I dropped the basket and the blackberries spilled all over the road. In February 1952, the school bell rang unexpectedly in the afternoon summoning us to the main hall. The headmaster strode in wearing his black gown, stood at the rostrum in front of us, and proclaimed in a loud, dramatic voice: “The king is dead. Long live the queen.” Shock and sadness settled over the school, and in that moment I remembered how the king had refused to leave Buckingham Palace after it was bombed. But we quickly recovered as the pianist struck up the national anthem on the piano. 300 of us sang with emotion, “God save the queen.” That powerful sentiment remained buried when I came to America and eventually became a U.S. citizen. I was proud to serve as assistant secretary of labor in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. But in June 1991, I had no hesitation in accepting an invitation to a garden party at the British embassy to celebrate the queen’s birthday. With my wife, Carol, on my arm, looking glamorous in a new straw hat with green and white trim, I walked boldly up Massachusetts Avenue, past the statue of Winston Churchill making his familiar V for victory salute.

We strolled in the sunshine over lush grass, around white tents brimming with sandwiches and tea cakes, to chat with the other guests and inspect the red English roses blooming along the wall of the brick Georgian mansion. A member of the embassy staff perched on the roof ready to raise the royal standard when the queen entered the embassy. Trumpeters in white pith helmets announced her arrival, and 30 minutes later the Royal Marine Band beat retreat. There she was at the top of the steps of the grand entrance with Vice President Dan Quayle. When she mingled with us in the garden, a snowplow of Royal Navy officers dressed in white protected her. She passed close enough to give Carol a beautiful smile and shake the hand of a lady standing next to her. That’s as near as we got. Never mind. I felt honored. As a schoolboy in England I had never even seen the queen. By the time the queen returned to America in May 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first settlers landing at Jamestown, I had faded into the obscurity of retirement. I was back where I started, a loyal but distant admirer. But when she came to town, I still wanted to watch the queen drive in an open carriage from the colonial capital to the Williamsburg Inn. As she progressed down Duke of Gloucester Street past the King’s Arms Tavern, I ran behind the crowd of onlookers, stopping at intervals to take photos.

A few months later as I glanced at the journal Colonial Williamsburg, I discovered in the center spread a picture of the queen beaming graciously, seated next to Prince Phillip and across from Colin Campbell and his wife in the carriage. Behind her stood two liveried footmen and a liveried groom holding the reins of the magnificent horses. I took a second look and caught my breath. There in the crowd, humble but clearly recognizable, stood a man with a bald head, in a blue jacket, with his camera focused on the 80-year-old monarch. I decided to frame the center spread so it could hang in a place of honor in my home. To my great satisfaction and joy, I had my photograph taken with the queen.   

David George Ball is retired and now lives in James City.