Meeting Ian Fleming
“Do you still want to be a writer?”
The question was put to me over a late afternoon snack of milk shakes, iced tea and hamburgers at a drug store lunch counter on the edge of Staten Island’s Clove Lakes Park. Our little party of three had just spent a pleasant hour or two on horseback, roaming seven miles of sun-dappled, uphill and downhill bridle paths on a warm spring day. I was 19 years old.
The speaker was an Englishman, who, with a lady companion, had come over on the ferry from Manhattan to ride – a change of terrain from canters around Central Park. I rode along as their guide/minder/instructor. It was a barter deal with the stable where I kept a horse named Harrigan, a part-time, working-my-way-through college job, highly dependent on tips earned by making the ride safe and fun. I was to speak only when spoken to, offer instruction only when necessary and, above all, keep horses and riders calm.
The couple came suitably attired, he in boots and britches and she in jodhpurs, usually but not always a sign of competence. But an air of familiarity among horses and riders was evident within five minutes of leaving the stables--always a good sign. After settling down in the saddle, the Englishman turned, scrutinized me, and said, “I know you. You’re the kid who played cricket with us down at Livingston. Do you remember me?”
Yes, I did, though I couldn’t recall his name. He introduced himself and his lady friend, and we soon broke into a trot, then a canter, and continued merrily through the park.
After the ride and after I had put the horses away, stripped of saddles and bridles, hastily rubbed and combed, I was doubly rewarded with a generous tip and an invitation to join the Englishman and his lady for a hamburger.
Too busy devouring my burger, I added little or nothing to their conversation. The Englishman rattled on about our old days on the cricket field, mostly, I think, for his lady’s amusement, although he talked mainly about me: How I was a lousy batsman, but a more than decent fielder. Did I remember a stunning one-handed catch off so-and-so, a brutal line drive with me at silly mid-on, barely 15 feet away, that spun me in a circle, propelled no doubt by the hard cork, leather-clad ball sizzling deep into my palm. I remembered. It was agony!
I had been the American kid, the Englishman recalled, the team mascot.
Now here I was in college, riding horses, having what must be a great time of it! What was I studying? Before I could answer he asked the question. “Do you still want to be a writer?”
“How do you know I want to be a writer?” I was astounded and somewhat embarrassed. How did this virtual stranger, after what must have been a ten-year gap in our acquaintance, know this much?
He addressed the answer to his companion.
“One day, my God, was it 1951? Ian was passing through New York and came by the Cricket Club for a knock and drinks with the boys. We were sitting around on the veranda at tea break, and there was this lad sitting there as usual, minding his manners, sipping his tea, watching the adults make fools of each other, not missing a word, of course, right? How old were you then – ll, 12?
“We were teasing Ian when someone on the verge of a filthy riposte noticed this unobtrusive child and abruptly changed the subject. Do you remember?” he said, turning to me. “At that point this chap, perhaps Eric, said to you, ’And what do you want to be when you grow up, young man? You said, with great gravitas, ‘I want to be a writer, sir.’ And someone crowed: ’So does Ian!’ and we all simply convulsed in laughter. Of course Ian just frowned and reddened and went sullen --- but what a laugh we had that day.”
“Who was Ian?” I said.
“My God! Ian Fleming! Of the best-selling James Bond stories!”
“I’ve heard of him,” I lied. “But I haven’t read any of them.”
“You must by all means! He’s famous.” He pushed back from the table. “ We must pay the bill or we’ll miss our bus. It was wonderful seeing you again! I can’t wait to see your name on something. You’ll make a great writer, I’m sure, because you have one of the skills: you’re a great listener.”
And that’s how I almost forgot meeting Ian Fleming.