by Robert C. Yeager
Call it blind luck, writer’s luck, luck of the Irish (my middle name is Cushing), or all three.
Benjamin Franklin called diligence the mother of good luck, and I’d been diligently pounding my skull for weeks. But, by whatever name, luck got me out of a jam.
I was stuck for an ending to my new novel, The Romanov Stone. My editor, a crusty but lovable pro named Aviva Layton, said the existing one had to go. And I needed Aviva’s blessing to move forward.
The Romanov Stone traverses much of Europe and the Northeastern U.S. as it chronicles the quest of Kate Gavrill for the world’s rarest precious gem, a long lost alexandrite given by Tsar Nicholas II to her great-grandmother. The story winds up in London, in the heart of the financial district known as The City, not far from the Bank of England.
SP0ILER ALERT!! READ ONLY AFTER YOU FINISH THE ROMANOV STONE!!
I needed a setting that could serve as a venue for climactic action. A real show-stopper that would bring The Romanov Stone’s main characters together and give the reader a satisfying close to 300 pages of hopefully heart-stopping historical fiction and contemporary suspense.
I’d lived in London, but nowhere close to The City. I got out my favorite guidebooks and maps. My fingers flipped through the pages: Threadneedle Street; the Tower of London; St Paul’s Cathedral; Billingsgate fish market; Tower Bridge.
Hmmm, I paused. Tower Bridge.
After some Googleish twists and turns, I found myself reading an amazing story.
But first, a few facts. Eight hundred feet in length and with its main roadway about 12 stories above the Thames at high tide, Tower Bridge was built in the late 19th century (it opened in 1894). The central span was split into two sections called bascules to allow tall-masted ships access to port facilities between London Bridge and the Tower of London.
Over the years, the bridge has served as a set-piece for countless films and television shows. “The Man Who Knew Too Much”; “Mission: Impossible”; “Elephant Man”; and even “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” are just a few of the motion pictures to benefit from the spectacular structure’s Victorian Gothic style.
But none of those fictional episodes compare with the real-life drama that took place on December 28, 1952. That evening, just three days after Christmas and despite the diligence of driver Albert Gunter, a bright red double-decker bus carrying 20 terrified passengers had the distinct bad luck to be crossing Tower Bridge at the precise moment it opened.
In those days, before the bascules opened, the lights would change to red, and a gateman would ring bells to shoo pedestrians off the bridge and close the gates. When it was clear, the head watchman would order the bridge to lift. On this day, however, with a relief watchman on duty, something went terribly wrong. Contemporary accounts captured what happened next:
Albert Gunter, the driver, saw that the road ahead appeared to be sinking. In fact, his bus was perched on the end of an opening bascule. “It seemed as if the roadway in front of me was falling away,” Gunter recalled later. He started to jam on the brakes, then to his horror realized that he would not be able to stop in time to prevent going into the water. Making a split second decision, he decided he would go for it. He accelerated and jumped the three-foot gap, landing on the north bascule, which had not started to rise.
The conductor broke his leg and 12 of the passengers suffered minor injuries. Had the bus plunged into the river, however, the human toll would almost certainly have been much higher. Gunter, 46 and the veteran of hundreds of safe bridge crossings, was feted as a national hero. For his bravery, he received a 10 pound bonus (about US $30 at the time). He also appeared on the popular television show, “What’s My Line?”
So how does Albert’s great adventure take form in The Romanov Stone?
Downriver, Kate saw a private yacht approaching from the open sea. High above the vessel’s deck, a radar dish rotated lazily in the late afternoon sun.
She knew now: Her time was coming…
Kate felt the bus pick up speed as it blasted through blinking red warning lights, rolling under the first stone-covered arch that anchored the Bridge’s massive steel supports.
She watched the bridge heave itself into a mountain. The pavement lifted, rising to a clean edge that became the end of the world. Far below, between yawning jaws, the Thames swirled like a cauldron …
Commercial prudence bars the author from revealing The Romanov Stone’s actual ending. Suffice it to say the reader can hope that Kate’s diligence pays off for her as it did for Ben Franklin, Albert Gunter and your writer, in good luck.