My brother-in-law as a kid was an odd little bird. He was one of those children who always learns stuff the hard way, who single-mindedly goes out of his way to Go. Do. Grok. Sure, he read books voraciously and still does. Sure he listened when spoken to in school. But books and school don't keep you alive at sixteen when everybody else in the car is killed. Books don't get you rescued from the icy Neckar River at midnight, and land you back home with a bottle of schnapps, two pretty German strangers, and a nice warm blanket.

School doesn't get you back to your hotel room in Manhattan at the age of nine after you've decided to explore the city on your own. And it damned sure doesn't get you back from Vietnam, a decade later, badly wounded but alive.

Books and school may or may not keep you curious and alive to the world.

My brother-in-law is one of the most naturally curious guys I know, and here's one of the most curiously natural things he's done in his life:

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Bob, from a very early age, was in the habit of taking the train from Harrow-on-the-Hill, a suburb of London, location of the famous school for Britain's elite, to the city for adventures. His mother had great faith in the lad, and it is a tribute to British civility that his life and limb were never truly endangered.

Bob's favorite destination in his boyhood adventuring was the Tower of London. To this I can relate. What boy does not delight in suits of armor, locks and chains, dark and dank cells and fantastic weapons created solely to maim and to kill? And this was real-life stuff! It was a history lesson to boot!

The series of structures known collectively as the Tower of London began life as a home cum office-space for William the Conqueror, who built the place after incurring the wrath of most of the Anglo-Saxons when his Norman army invaded England in 1066, killing poor King Harold II and many civilians in the process. William was not a popular guy in the 'hood, and he needed a hideout.

The Romans had built a fortress on the north bank of the Thames in the town they called Londinium Augusta. Reasoning that since it was good enough for the Romans--who knew a thing or two about fortifications and how to breach them--within three months of the Battle of Hastings William broke ground, soon becoming the property's first willing inhabitant.

Time was, one might say, of the essence, but the Tower was well-designed and it has lasted, as castle, fortress, prison, palace and museum for 900 years. It's the most famous 900 year-old structure in Europe. They have had the locking of the gates ceremony there on a nightly basis for over 700 years. I believe this is called serious history.

A boy's imagination can really soar in a place like the Tower of London. William Wallace, the real-life Braveheart , was disemboweled, drawn and quartered, beheaded, and burned there in 1305. Henry the Sixth died in the Tower in 1471. Richard the Third—Shakespeare tells us—knocked off those two kids that were keeping the hunchbacked villain from assuming the throne in 1483. A chest containing the skeletons of the princes was found buried on the south side of the White Tower in 1674. The children are now interred in Westminster Abbey.

It's the Tower of London. It's England. Sir Thomas More. Anne Boleyn. Lady Jane Grey. Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's unfortunate lover. All dead in the name of historical imperative and royal expedience.

Guy Fawkes was beheaded in 1606. God knows what his real crime was, but Sir Walter Raleigh found himself without a head to hang his hat on in 1618. The Tower of London, and specifically the Tower Green--the site of the executioner's block--is where the enemies of the State of England met their maker.

There has been a constant series of witnesses to these deaths, and those less famous as well. I speak of the ravens that inhabit the tower and its grounds. History tells us they have always been present, these heavy, black, lucent birds whose voices have somehow become for us synonymous with death.

Though it is probably not necessary, modern tourism has assured that there will always be ravens at the tower. They are fed and cared for by the Yeoman of the Ravens. It is attention to details such as this that makes me proud to be a consumer of the English language.

A flock of ravens, you may be interested to learn, is known as an unkindness. Yep. The term dates back to the ancient use of the word and it can be found in a list of "proper terms" in the Book of St. Albans, dated 1486. So generations of English children, for at least 500 years, must have said, "Oh look, mother, an unkindness of ravens," upon visiting the Tower of London.

Whether or not Bob knew the technical term for a bunch of big black birds that can be very spooky, even on a sunny day, he nonetheless could not resist doing what any boy would do, upon confronting the block, the infamous instrument of history upon which the heads of royalty and commoner alike were laid. Like Ann Boleyn, Walter Raleigh and Thomas More before him, brother Bob laid his boyish head upon the block and felt the cool seriousness that precedes the unknowable moment before the axe falls.

He set his head upon the block.

And every bird in the place went berserk.

It is within an unkindness of ravens, perhaps, that history's truths are most enduringly preserved.

Here is my theory about the ravens.

The Tower of London is built on White Hill or Tower Hill, name depending on era. As we know, ravens have lived there since time immemorial. Now, a curious bit of Welsh myth from the Mabiongion, in "Branwen uerch Llyr:

King Bran the Blessed died while at war with Ireland. (He was ancestor to King Arthur, BTW.) Now, being a god,* and more than that, a Celtic god, he possessed a magical head that stayed alive after the rest of him was dead. His brother Manawyddan, nephew Pryderi, and friend Taliesin, all returned home from the war with his head, feasting on magical isles and never growing older. Until the day that someone broke a taboo, that is. So, the head now dead, the three, plus four companions, take the head to the White Hill of London (now Tower Hill) and bury it as a protection against the successful invasion of Britain by outsiders. King Arthur, according to the Welsh Triads, dug it up out of arrogance, believing he could protect Britain on his own. Of course, Mordred kills him and the Saxons take over the island.

I mention this, because of what the name Bran means in Welsh--raven.

When I was in England, I asked a beefeater whether he knew this story. He didn't, but said he'd look into it out of curiosity.

Only one prisoner ever walked out of the Tower alive--Elizabeth I.


*To the Celts--as with the Norse--their gods can die. It's strange sort of mortal divine, but as the Celts simply saw death and life as equal passages, and one lead as easily to the other and vice versa, this isn't too surprising.

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