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Blast from the Past: Studying Abroad in London

London's Hyde Park
London's Hyde Park (Pete Turner - Getty Images)

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By Ron Charles
Sunday, November 2, 2008

In 1982, I was a sophomore at Principia, a small Christian college outside St. Louis. I was pining for a girl I hadn't seen since high school, and so when I heard she was spending the summer in England, I got my parents to let me study theater and satire at London University.

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This was the time known as "The Troubles," when a small, deadly group of Irish nationalists called the Irish Republican Army was launching terrorist attacks against Britain in their ongoing battle for an independent Northern Ireland. But I knew no more about the Irish Republican Army back then than I did about Individual Retirement Accounts. To me, the idea of Catholics and Protestants battling away seemed more like a quaint episode of "Masterpiece Theatre." London was cheap and friendly, the perfect place for an American rube out in the world for the first time. I'd never ridden a city bus or a subway before, never stepped in a pub or seen people with spiky green hair. I bought a used black tailcoat that I thought made me look particularly cool. My naivete was boundless.

On a sunny day in late July, a wealthy American friend hired a taxi and took several of us to Buckinghamshire to see Cliveden, Lady Astor's mansion, on its lofty perch above the Thames. Afterward, we returned to the city for a snack near Hyde Park. In the middle of our meal, we heard a faint roar, like distant thunder. Somebody made a joke about the noise.

A few minutes later, sirens started wailing. One of the worst episodes of IRA violence had begun. Terrorists had exploded a car bomb full of nails as the queen's cavalry rode through Hyde Park, less than a mile from our restaurant. Two soldiers were killed, along with seven horses. Tourists watching the parade suffered ghastly injuries. Shortly thereafter, another bomb exploded under the bandstand in nearby Regent's Park, as the Royal Green Jackets performed music from "Oliver." Six of the military musicians were killed instantly; more onlookers were wounded. One of the people listening to the performance was a fellow student. She dropped out of our program that day and flew home. Her sudden disappearance hung over us with haunting intimations of what she must have seen or what calamity just missed us. The final death toll for that day was 11; more than 50 people were injured.

But I didn't even think to call my parents, which just slays me now that I have teenage daughters of my own and expect them to check in at the first sign of snowflakes. Walking home from class the next day, I wandered along a street next to the park that was blocked by police tape and barricades. Next door, all the windows of a grand old building were blown out.

It pains me to recall how deplorably ignorant and incurious I was. Even standing on pieces of broken glass, looking at the site of one of Europe's worst terrorist attacks, I was struck only by how surreal the scene looked. In those days long before Sept. 11, 2001, there seemed no way for a young American to feel connected to such a tragedy, no context in which the fear of an explosive assault like that could make sense. Terrorism was as exotic to me as Yorkshire pudding.

I learned a lot about theater and British satire that summer (and that my old high school girlfriend had no romantic interest in me). But it would take another 20 years and strikes by a different group of madmen on my own soil to strip away my smug sense of invincibility.

Ron Charles studied abroad during the summer of 1982. He is now a senior editor of Book World and can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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