The Phantom Tourists: A New York Story

As we prepare to jet off to New York, a look at some of the folklore that exists in that most flamboyant of cities.


My father-in-law’s ears saved his life.

He was a dashing adventurer, and during World War Two all the brightest and best applied to be airmen. Charles applied to the air force. He was bright, clever, quick witted; everything they needed. But there was a problem with the medical, and his ears would not stand the pressure. He joined REME instead – the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. His was an eventful war, but he made it through.

He may well now have done, as a pilot. World war II, before America joined the struggle, was a tough time for British airmen. Take a look at the statistics for the Battle of Britain in August 1940:



The odds were not good. Precious few pilots made it through this most vital of battles. They fought fiercely, with incredible bravery. Some wrote about it with words which sear the heart; they adored being high up there, in the sky, on the edge of life, even in the light of the knowledge that death stalked them.

On the edge of the cliff, overlooking the channel where they fought, there is a memorial. A statue of a pilot sits, arms cradling knees, gazing out to sea at Capel-Le Ferne, near The White Cliffs. And a wall carries the names of almost 3,000 pilots who lost their lives during the second world war.

They had hopes, and dreams.

And across the Atlantic, in roughly the direction of the pilot’s gaze, a ghost story still makes the rounds, concerning the hopes and dreams of a pair of English pilots.

So: 1940ish, and a Harvard graduate was standing at the lights in Times Square, New York, waiting to cross the road. And as he waited, he noticed an incongruous sight: two British airmen in uniform, walking towards the lights. They stopped beside him, and turned, and grinned; immediately likeable, these two.

So, as you do, they began talking as they strolled along. The two men kept checking their watches; a nervous tick learned from their experiences? the American speculated.The two had wanted to see Times Square all their lives, they said, and now they were finally here. The war had been grim, and it was good to have some fun.

Their excitement was infectious, and the American was delighted to share some of the inside knowledge about the city. Why didn’t the pair join him to dine at his club, he asked, and the two accepted with gusto.

A convivial evening was had by all. A fabulous meal, great wine, plentiful and absorbing conversation.If the two seemed a little preoccupied with the time now and then, it did not interfere with the warmth of the regard which grew between the New Yorker and his two new-found companions.

It was not until the final scotch was polished off, and midnight approached, that the two men rose to leave.

“Thank you, ” the taller of the two smiled. “We have always wanted to visit Times Square, and you made it such a pleasure. ย It is a great shame that we will never meet again.”

The New Yorker protested. The odds were bad, but not that bad, surely?

The British pilot gazed at him reflectively. A little wistfully, maybe. And he delivered a final line before leaving: ” I fear that argument is a little redundantย for us. We had to wait to visit Time Square until after we died: my friend and I were shot down last night over Berlin.”

And with that, before his very eyes, the two vanished, never to be seen again.


41 thoughts on “The Phantom Tourists: A New York Story

  1. ooooh, goosebumps again Kate. I love the idea of using the time difference to do something you’d really wanted. You’re not really dead until it’s been the time of your death all over the world… You could do something wonderful with that Ms Shrewsday

  2. those unbelieveably brave men, in all of the services, off to face death

    How much better if the world lived in peace and they could have gone there for real

    1. Very true. Most wars I would call it a pointless waste; but in this one, these men were our last line of defence against an evil whose extent we only later learnt. Every now and then we call in at Cpel-Le-Ferne. It is because of these men that we are free today.

  3. I am going to think of this quiet story every time I wander through Times Square.

    I know you’re planning to go to the Art of the Brick. A few blocks away, in Le Parker Meridien, is a very American dive called The Burger Joint. Better burgers than the much-publicized Shake Shack. If you go, they only take cash.

  4. Enjoy your trip! Constantly juggling the time zones between California and Norway have made me ponder the same questions, when does things really happen? I do now the scientific answer, the philosophical quest is much more intriguing! Well, just now it’s time for a snack, anywhere!

    1. It was a strange quirk that kept Charles out of the air, Isobel. But he went on to distinguish himself as an engineer and be my husband’s father, to boot. A life well lived, in my book.

  5. I never heard that story before but now the hairs on my arms are standing up.

    You’re going to be in my neck of the woods?! Have a great time among my flamboyant people, Kate, and safe travels!

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