The obliging motorcyclist had stopped to pick up a forlorn young hitchhiker, stranded alongside a Spanish highway when his car ran out of gasoline. At his destination, the young man got a look at his Samaritan. If the face under the helmet was familiar, it should have been: it was stamped on the coins in the young man's pocket.
The motorcyclist of the story is Juan Carlos I, King of Spain, a descendant of Ferdinand and Isabella, of Louis XIV and of Queen Victoria. Today, the 6-foot-3, dark-blond sovereign with the French Bourbon nose and Windsor-blue eyes arrives for a 48-hour visit to Los Angeles, a town whose charter was issued in 1781 by his ancestor, Carlos III.
With him is his Greek-born queen, Sofia, and together they are enjoying an almost-leisurely eight-day swing through Texas, New Mexico and California, outposts of the empire once ruled by the king's forebears.
In the last 70 years, the world has jettisoned monarchs like excess cargo in a typhoon. A dozen European dynasties have been dethroned and overthrown. But Spain, which last chased out a king in 1931 and has had eight constitutions, two republics and three civil wars in 170 years, actually restored its monarchy in 1975 in the person of the unprepossessing motorcyclist, Juan Carlos.
Unlike his counterparts in Britain, whose every hangnail seems to make headlines in supermarket tabloids, Juan Carlos I remains something of an unknown in the United States, where nearly a third of high school students sampled recently didn't even know when Columbus landed.
This seventh U.S. visit by the Spanish monarch (not counting his 1962 honeymoon) is an exercise in diplomacy and discreet Hispanic-American wooing. It is also a New World glimpse at the 49-year-old man whose prestige, personality and workhorse role as head of state have come to symbolize stability in a country long riven by factionalism.
Although Juan Carlos and Sofia's regal credentials are impeccable (he is descended from Queen Victoria's youngest granddaughter, Princess Victoria Eugenia; she from Queen Victoria's eldest grandson, the strutting German Kaiser Wilhelm II), the Spanish Bourbons make a modest show.
Their low-overhead monarchy is one of Europe's poorest ruling houses, costing Spain around $3 million a year, which is about half of the estimated bill for maintaining the British royal yacht, Britannia. Juan Carlos, a trophy-winning sailor who pores over videotapes of the America's Cup races, has a yacht of his own, Fortuna, but it is dwarfed by the vessels of mere millionaires.
"They don't have a cent," a Spanish official said, in succinct if inflated metaphor.
The scion of Spain sometimes zips about in a thrifty Spanish-made Ford Fiesta. His queen, who studied pediatrics and hefted her own textbooks to class, prefers boutique shopping to couturier houses. When she was shown a jeweled necklace with a six-figure price tag, her husband teased her, "That's for millionaires!"
Spain's own crown jewels would barely fill a shoe box, much less a Jewel Room like the Tower of London's. The display-only crown made for Juan Carlos' accession in 1975 is supposedly not even real gold.
For 25 years, Juan Carlos' home has been the modest brick Zarzuela Palace, a 17th-Century hunting lodge. There are more imposing castles in Spain--there are even more imposing houses in Houston, sniffed one organizer--but the Zarzuela is "cozy," a word of praise the Spanish advance team used when sizing up American hotel-suite prospects.
Just Plain Folks
As for Juan Carlos, his staff loves to recite his "just-folks" style. He is a speed-demon motorcyclist who prefers sweaters to suits when he can get away with it, romps with the family's 34 dogs, would usually rather be called Senor than Majestad, delights in plunging impulsively among the suitably astonished hoi polloi to shake hands, sends his wife and security men into nervous swivets by piloting planes and helicopters, waits patiently in ski lift lines and, according to the Wall Street Journal, once kidded President Reagan, "You call this a democracy and you can't even drive your own car?"
Unlike his high-handed, thin-skinned Bourbon forebears, of whom Talleyrand said: "They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing," Juan Carlos has learned well indeed. "He is not an invented king" but "a column" of government, a Spanish official said.
In Spain's tilt-a-whirl politics, it may not be enough for Juan Carlos just to make himself useful: he must make himself necessary.
Juan Carlos' father, Don Juan, son of the deposed King Alfonso XIII, became de facto heir after one brother was born a deaf-mute and the other two eventually died of hemophilia, the incurable blood ailment that Queen Victoria's offspring carried to Europe's royal houses. A visiting Russian Grand Duke said the Spanish princes played in a park where tree trunks were padded to keep the boys from hurting themselves.