By the time he left Calgary for home, the Eagle had an agent named Simon Platz lined up in London, and he was going to need him. It was another measure of the intensity of the devotion of Edwards's following in England that few in the throng waiting to greet him at Heathrow last Tuesday seemed to notice members of the rock band U2 walking by. Meanwhile, Guy Ainsworth paced in the terminal in agitation. He works for Vladivar vodka, whose label features an eagle. Ainsworth claimed he had made a verbal agreement by phone with Edwards while the latter was in Calgary. "We were first off the block," he said to anyone willing to listen. "We got him fixed for our '89 calendar already." Near Ainsworth was a woman in a drab raincoat. As soon as the Eagle appeared, she was to whip off the coat, revealing a barely existent tangerine-colored costume, and grab him while holding aloft a banner proclaiming FIONA VLADIVAR WELCOMES EDDIE.
"Try anything like that 'ere, love," said a cop, getting wind of the scheme, "and we'll 'ave you inside." The forlorn Fiona, whose real name was Karen Tett, fell back into the crowd just as Edwards's thick pink glasses and perpetually bemused expression came into view.
"I expected a bit, but not all this," he said, under siege by reporters in the airport press room. He also said: "I need a bath." And then: "I'm too busy for marriage. I've got a house to finish plastering. It's nice and restful, plastering. And I proved them wrong, didn't I? I was safe enough to jump." It all got written down. And soon it was time for the Eagle to hasten to a recording studio to sing, with a little backing, a song called Fly, Eddie, Fly (sample lyric: The East Germans they got angry/They said I was a clown/But all they want is winning/And they do it with a frown), written by Mort Shuman, whose previous credits include the theme song from the Elvis Presley movie Viva Las Vegas
. But just before he departed Heathrow, Edwards got off one of his better foot-in-mouth efforts. "As a ski jumper," he said, "I want to get from first to last as soon as I can! Uh, I mean...."
In less than 48 hours the real homecoming was going to take place—in Cheltenham, the town in the Cotswolds where Eddie was born and raised, a town famous for its faded gentility. It flourished for a time in the 18th century as a watering place, but now it's known for its numerous retired army officers and for its big horse racing meeting—which includes prestigious steeplechase and hurdle events. The meeting is held each year on the days surrounding St. Patrick's Day and attracts thousands of Irish racegoers.
Thus, most of Cheltenham's sports heroes have been four-legged ones, and you would have to go way back for a real bipedal legend: Fred Archer, a jockey born in 1857. Archer had 2,748 winners in 8,084 rides but died by his own hand at 29, a winner, but a loser, too.
Cheltenham, one could argue, specializes in losers. On the Promenade, the main street, there's a statue to another Eddie, Dr. Edward Wilson, who died on the Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1912; that's the one that reached the pole only to find Roald Amundsen's Norwegian flag flying there. This year, moreover, the city is celebrating the bicentennial of its visit by King George III, and it would be hard to find a bigger loser than he was.
All the same, it was clear in town on the eve of the Eagle's return that he wasn't thought of as a loser at all. That evening he appeared on the BBC's The Wogan Show, and some of the regulars in the Prince of Wales pub were watching. They didn't think of him as a joke, even though this is a tough old horse-racing bar and the big drink is hard cider imbibed from china mugs.
Ian Frazer, a 40-year-old carpenter, hoisted his and said, "What Eddie's got is bottle, see?" (Bottle is slang for guts.) "He's just been doing it for two years. No money, no training. Some of those others, they've been into it for 20 years. How'd you like to stand on top of something as high as St. Paul's Cathedral, then jump?"
And then Edwards came on the telly. The Wogan Show had him fly down from the ceiling on a wire—a la Peter Pan—wearing his skis. After that, the chatter was predictable enough—even to the Eagle's shooting himself in the foot again. Will success spoil him? asked the commentator. "Don't worry; my feet are firmly on the ground," said Edwards winningly. A roar of laughter shook the Prince of Wales. "He can't help it if he looks helpless and just a bit dim," somebody there said.
Next morning, Thursday, was the big moment; somebody said that 34 TV crews would be on hand in Cheltenham to record it. The parade was set to start in front of the Landsbury pub, where two big open-sided, roofless brewers' vans were waiting to carry Eddie and the cameras through the city. The Edwards family pulled up in a black Bentley; sister Liz emerged wearing a sweater with I AM EDDIE'S SISTER across the front. Dad said he was short a plasterer and could use Eddie for a week or two.