A Beefeater at the Tower of London regales tourists with tales of death and bloodshed from British history. Photo by Andy Coughlan

When I was young, probably around six or seven, my parents took me to the Tower of London for the day. I don’t remember much about the building, although I am sure I was impressed by the history (I was a bit of a nerd even then). What I remember most was meeting a Beefeater, the nickname for the Tower’s guards.

At the time, my father worked in a garage, fixing cars in all weathers. As a result, I remember his hands being cracked and calloused, the folds on his finger joints forming hard ridges like mini canyon walls. To my young self, this was what a man’s hands felt like and that was what my hands would eventually be like. No judgment, no worries — that’s just part of growing up.

The Beefeaters are all older men (and now women), who are retired military of a certain rank. Once they were the Tower’s defense, but are now the docents and tour guides. Near the end of the day, my father whipped out his camera — some sort of Instamatic, I presume — and asked one of the Beefeaters if he would pose for a photo with me and my sister. I ran toward the old man (I have never been the retiring type) and he held out his hand. We stood and faced my father as he focused his camera, but I was oblivious to the image.

My hand was engulfed the Beefeater’s giant paw, and I was completely confused. Here was a grown man, many years older than my father, but he didn’t have “man hands.” These hands were soft. Not just soft, but doughy and warm. Where were the ridges? Where were the sandpapery patches?

In my memory, I stood there for ages, fascinated by these giant soft hands. I think it was at that moment that I knew that I wanted to have a job that didn’t crack my hands up, that didn’t require creams and lotions just to stop the pain. And I appreciated my father’s work, while at the same time knowing I didn’t want any part of it (which, I realize smacks of snobbishness, but I am just not cut out for physical labor).

My father eventually moved into sales, and the ridges on his hands disappeared, although they were never quite as soft as the Beefeater’s.

I focused on a career in the arts, whining every time my dad tried to teach me something about cars (although if I had known I would spend most of my life in America I might have listened) or, worse still, required me to work in the garden for my allowance. During my career, I always wore gloves before I touched anything sharp or chemical or dirty.

When I moved to America in the early 1980s, the immigration officer who booked me through commented on my “immaculate” fingerprints with hardly a blemish. I thought to myself, “Damn right.”

(Note: apparently the picture still exists but my mother can’t find it. I hope she finds it one day)

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