Excerpt From Chapter 8 – The Epiphany
What we looked forward to most was seeing the crown jewels. We lined up along a narrow path and leaned against ancient castle walls while we waited. The walls themselves seemed redolent with history and strife and with the passing of centuries, but the time for leaning against stone walls was over, and we followed a long line of fellow sightseers into the castle and entered the chamber in which the jewels were housed.
I knew what was going to be on display. There would be the St. Edward’s Crown with its thousand-year-old sapphire from Edward the Confessor’s ring. There would be the Imperial State Crown with its central ruby, which was really a red spinel that Henry V had worn at the Battle of Agincourt. As the story goes, that stone had saved the king’s life; the sword nick in it is still there today. Along with the crowns, we knew we were going to see the Stars of Africa, the largest of which is the great pear-shaped diamond in the scepter that the queen used at her coronation. Then there were the orbs, the bracelets and rings, smaller crowns, and even the little crown Queen Victoria wore on her coil of long hair.
In advance of our visit, I had seen pictures of most of these great named jewels in blurred newspaper photographs. With my nose touching the page, I had squinted at pictures of the royal crowns and massive jeweled objects used specifically for the coronation. Finally, the time had come when I would see these world-famous jewels in person. We entered the chamber. The glass case was beautifully lit from within, and the wooden railing was several inches away from the glass.
Inside was the sparkle of one of the greatest collections of jewels in the world. What I saw was a flickering, sparkling, dancing panorama of lights. I leaned against the wooden rail and craned my neck toward the glass display case. The flash of light cast by a king’s ransom in diamonds obliterated all of the shapes and forms of the jewels themselves, for that wooden railing, built to keep the tourists at bay, kept me from getting close enough to see any of the details. I knew I couldn’t touch the glass case, for that would set off alarm bells. I leaned forward as far as I could and stared into the brightness. I couldn’t find Edward the Confessor’s sapphire or Henry V’s “ruby.” I couldn’t find the largest cut diamond in the world that topped the great scepter. I was within inches of the jewels, but I couldn’t see them.
I felt an overwhelming and crushing disappointment. To this day, I remember that feeling of hurt and emptiness. The delight of anticipation was thwarted and destroyed by the reality of my severe visual limitations, or was it? In less time than it took to catch my breath, the images of the blurred newspaper photographs of the royal regalia, which I had looked at for months, were superimposed over the real thing. There was the purple velvet and black-and-white ermine on the St. Edward’s Crown, and there was the scepter supporting the largest cut diamond in the world.
Somehow, even at the age of nine, I knew that I had discovered something special. I had knowledge. I had beautiful, clear, illuminating knowledge. I knew the history of these jewels. I knew how old some of them were and which kings and queens had worn them. I knew some of them by name. They were my friends! I was sure that the people standing five or ten feet away from me, gazing at the jewels, even grownups, probably did not know as much about them as I did. Nobody had to lecture me. Silently, I told myself that it was enough just to be in the presence of all of those jewels and to be in that ancient tower where so much history had taken place. I had been in rooms where kings and queens had walked. I had touched stone walls that had guarded London for centuries, and unlike Anne Boleyn, my ticket through the Traitor’s Gate had been a round trip ticket. That inner satisfaction has stayed with me from then till now, and the lesson I learned that afternoon in the Tower of London was that knowledge is a precious thing that is worth far more than a king’s ransom in diamonds. I had experienced great anticipation, and even greater disappointment within the space of a few minutes. That had been followed by a realization so profound that it was almost a revelation. At the age of nine, I understood the importance of education and that without it, the world around me would close in upon me so that I would become increasingly confined in my own world by my diminishing eyesight. Now I knew that never need happen.
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