I don’t do this very often but, occasionally, circumstances warrant a little bragging. Specifically: we had a knight in the family. He was not only a knight, he was a war hero, a dimplomat, a gentle soul, and he died last week.
My great uncle, Sir John Wilton, received his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1979. Because being knighted once is what mere mortals often do, Sir John was knighted twice: once to the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George and once to the Royal Victorian Order. On the same day; he was the first person ever awarded two knighthoods at the same time, in fact. No biggie.
A quick perusal of Sir John’s obituary or Wikipedia page reads a bit like a cover story for James goddamn Bond. After a distinguished military tour during World War II (he was awarded the Military Cross), John entered the diplomatic corps and took up stations throughout the Middle East. For many years, his primary occupation was administering Arabic language schools. Sounds vanilla enough, but the story in my family is that Sir John was teaching Arabic quite specifically to spies. In all, Sir John spent almost three decades in the farthest corners of the world serving his beloved Britain. His life was interesting and (at least while we has in Romania, dodging secret police surveillance teams – I’m not kidding) dangerous.
But “dangerous” is not at all how I remember him.
Sir John was my grandfather’s brother and my mother’s uncle, and I know my mom was quite fond of him. We spent a couple of summers at their home in Devon, and I always recall Sir John as a towering, gentle giant. It’s a bit how I imagine very young grandchildren of world leaders must feel: you know on some instinctual level that the man before you is special in some way, but you’ve got no clue of their real stature. That’s not The Spy Master of Saudi Arabia, your six-year-old brain insists, that’s Uncle John. He just gave me a sweet and showed me how to make a wooden boat, etc. etc.
The last time I saw Sir John was at my grandmother’s funeral in February. At age 89, he still towered over a room the way he had when I was kid. He took the opportunity to say some extremely kind things about his late sister-in-law.
Following the funeral, I spoke to Sir John’s son about getting to interview Sir John a bit, to tell the story of a diplomatic legend and a possible teacher of spies. Sir John had been reluctant to talk to anyone about his life and career for a long time, but for some reason he seemed open to talking to me about it. I had a unique opportunity, an exclusive interview with an amazing character and a man I respected. We made arrangements to keep in touch and get started.
This was in February, just as my part-time freelancing was reaching critical mass, and I had all the work I could handle. In May, when I quit my job to freelance full-time, the top item on my to-do list was to explore my great uncle’s long, secretive career. But, through a long bout of lazy, I’ll-do-it-tomorrow attitude and a bunch of other (paying) projects vying for my attention, I never even sent the first e-mail. And then he was gone.
It’s been barely a week since he died, but I can already tell that not hearing Sir John’s memories will be something I’ll regret. As I told my mom: the incredible story is still there, but the incredible man is gone forever.