By Paul Beban
In the summer of 1992, I was a ranch hand in Montana. My daily routine consisted of milking cows, chasing bears on horseback and mending miles of fence.
It was also my duty to hammer a nail high into a cottonwood tree, hang Prince William by his shorts from said nail, and then spray him with a hose. All in a day’s work.
To be fair, he was asking for it, and by that I mean he actually ASKED me to do it. Really. You see, he was getting to be a bit of a good-natured smart aleck, and I warned him that if he didn’t watch it, well then, he’d get his. When he asked what sort of retribution I had in mind, spur of the moment, I looked around and came up with, “I’ll hang you in that tree by your shorts and hit you with the hose.” He said he thought that sounded refreshing. So, the Prince got the hose and an epic, arboreal wedgie. He loved every minute of it. And that’s the point of the story I have to tell, one that I and many others have kept secret for nearly 20 years.
That summer of 1992, when Prince William was a 10 year-old boy, his mother and father’s marriage was falling apart in public. Every excruciating moment was playing out in the glare of the paparazzi’s camera flashes. If you look back at those pictures, you can see the pain etched all over Charles and Diana’s faces – and the face of their charming young son. In a plot to get him as far away as possible from the media circus, Diana arranged for William to take a secret vacation to the E Bar L ranch near Missoula, accompanied by Anglo-American family friends. The prince would travel under the radar, a baseball hat pulled down low over his face, much like his mother often did to hide her own expression from the cameras.
For my part, I was 21 years old, on break from Yale before my senior year, spending my second summer working at the E Bar L. I loved the place for the people, the land and the effect that long hours of hard work had on me: no time or energy left to worry about what I was going to do with my life after college. Suffice to say, the marital woes of Britain’s royal family were the furthest things from my mind when William was successfully slipped out of England in late summer, bound for Big Sky country.
Just a day or two before he arrived at the E Bar L, the ranch staff had been called together for a meeting, where we were stunned to learn that the incoming “special guest” we’d been hearing periodic rumblings about was Prince William. What?! Why the heck is he coming here? He’s coming, we were told, for privacy – for a break from the spotlight – and for the very same reasons anyone else comes to the ranch: to ride, to fish, to shoot, to dance, to make friends and enjoy the beauty of this place. So just act natural.
Right! Act natural with the heir to the British throne. No problem! Well, we’d do our best, whatever that meant.
For the first day or so, William was polite but shy, even a bit wary. Understandable enough. Here he was, thousands of miles from home, surrounded by strangers at a terribly difficult moment in his young life. He kept that baseball hat down low.
But the E Bar L is more than just a place – it’s a potent brew of breathtaking landscape, absolutely remarkable people and the warm spirit they’ve nurtured for generations – and within a day or two, it began to work its special magic on William. He came out of his shell and dove into daily life at the ranch. The baseball cap was replaced by a cowboy hat, tipped back on his forehead, just like the rest of us. He rode. He shot (he was excellent at both, by the way). He eagerly competed in the ranch’s old-timey contests, like plunging his face in water before trying to gobble crackers – using only his mouth, no hands allowed – off a table covered in flour. He danced, he sang, he made friends, and as far as the ranch staff and the other guests were concerned, he was just a boy, just William. Not your majesty, not your highness. William, or even just Will.
A few days into his visit, William and his bodyguards (two warm, terrifically friendly and funny guys), decided it was time for what was almost certainly the first and quite possibly the only cricket match ever played in the state of Montana. William and his bodyguards showed us how to lay out the pitch, which I helped mow into the outfield of the lawn where guests and staff normally played softball in the evenings after dinner, a ranch tradition going back decades. Two cricket bats were whittled – that’s right, whittled – in preparation. The bodyguards served as referees, dressed in white suits, black ties and straw hats, while William instructed us all in proper batting and bowling form. And then, it was game ON. I raced William back and forth between the wickets, trading taunts about the merits of American versus British athletic ability that can’t be repeated here. Montana’s cricket debut was not pretty – a lot of whiffs and sticky wickets – but it was great fun, an absolute riot. It cannot be overstated how far outside normal ranch routine this moment was, and how wonderful. And that was before William helped serve all of us – guests and staff alike – tea and cucumber sandwiches post-match. Cucumbers were an item the ranch didn’t normally have on hand, so for them, perhaps more than anything else during William’s stay, a special effort was made: an extra 50-mile grocery run.
It was later that same day, after washing down my cucumber sandwiches with a spot of tea, that I hung the dusty, tired, happy young heir to the British throne in the tree and sprayed him with the hose. At his request, remember.
The moral of the story is that while William’s visit to the E Bar L was of course something very special for all of us who were there, the reason it was such a success was because we all managed to act more or less like it was nothing special at all. We all treated him like what he really was: a kid, a regular 10 year-old boy who needed a safe place to let down his guard, to forget the outside world for a few days, and just be a boy.
I do know that William talked to his mother and probably his father on the phone while he was at the ranch, and despite what he was well aware was going on at home, I like to think the conversations were just like the ones any kid would have on vacation without his parents. Are you having fun? Are you being good? We miss you. We love you and we’ll see you soon.
William left the ranch without incident. But a few days after he’d returned to England, we noticed a small plane, circling very high above the ranch. Immediately, we suspected that somehow, the cover had been blown. Of course it was too late, but we made a plan to secure the property. There were only two dirt roads in, both of them remote and isolated, so it was easy to keep an eye on things. A few other hands and I were given walkie-talkies and kept our eyes open as we went about our chores.
A day or two after the flyover, a strange car came up one of the roads, past a hand on horseback with a walkie-talkie. The call went out, and we all headed to the dirt lot near the main lodge where the car would end up, sooner or later. As it arrived, Bill Potter – the 80-something ranch owner and not a man whose land you want to step on uninvited – came flying up the road in his old Ford. He swerved into the lot, gravel flying, and slammed out of the cab, shotgun in hand. Not more than three or four words were exchanged before the men – two British tabloid reporters, it turned out – got back in their car and drove right back out, Bill tailing behind just inches from their rear bumper. It bears mentioning here that the reporters had driven past a sign, hand-painted by Bill, that read, “NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE VENTILATED.” As in with a shotgun. No more reporters showed up after that. Nevertheless, the British tabs managed to piece together enough information that had leaked out and ran pieces with headlines like, “WILLY THE KID” and “WHAT A DUDE! BUFFALO WILL TAKES A VACATION FROM FEUDING DI AND CHARLES.” One paper even ran a picture of him on a horse that was obviously from some other vacation not in Montana. I mean, there was a palm tree in the background. Sad, really.
Over the years, especially once I became a journalist, people have said I was crazy not to “do something” with these pictures and the story of William’s visit to the ranch. For reasons that I think should be too obvious to detail, I didn’t do anything with them until now, it didn’t feel right. His privacy, more than anything, was something I wanted to protect.
Nearly 20 years later, I think this story offers more than just a tabloidy invasion of William’s privacy. His trip to the E Bar L could never happen were he just a boy today – in the age of the cell phone camera and the text message? Forget it. He would never have made it to the ranch – somebody would have spotted him and Tweet-pic’d (is that even a word?) it before he even left England, probably. If he made it to the ranch, the place would still close ranks around him today like it did in 1992, and he’d be safe, but it’s a different world now.
Over the past few weeks, as the frenzy over his wedding built and I watched this man I once knew as a boy navigate the spotlight with such grace and skill, I decided that maybe instead of being just another gossipy glimpse at William, revealing this hidden episode could serve as a reminder that while he is of course the future king and all that entails, regardless of how you feel about the monarchy, he is also just a man, and he was once just a little boy who got a short but much-needed break from the blazing spotlight of public scrutiny.
Perhaps ironically – perhaps even wrong-headedly – I hope these pictures serve to reinforce the notion that everyone, all of us, need a small space of our own in the world. Tomorrow, everyone but the most hard-hearted anti-royalist will be wishing Kate and William well. Someday, they may need a break from the spotlight themselves, and we should give it to them if they ask us. William needed it once and he got it, and I’m hopeful that he was just a little bit happier for it.
For my part, I don’t want to overstate my own significance to William during his visit to the ranch – no doubt he connected with a lot of the staff and thought of them as friends. There were many wonderful people working there that summer, young and old. The connection I feel to that time, looking back on it through the lens of my own life, is that he and I both had different but important experiences at the ranch that hinged upon being able to set aside our worries for a time in a place where we could be ourselves – we could just act natural. He was only 10 at the time, of course, but I hope he remembers it that way too, and I hope he takes my releasing these pictures and writing this piece in the spirit in which the effort is intended.
All that said, another part of me can’t help but hope he remembers exactly who hung him up in the tree and blasted him with ice-cold Montana spring water, and that he still smiles about it. I do.