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Charles Bell doesn't run about claiming he once was chummy with Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, nor that his brush with the British monarchy gave him an insider's view of the benefits and consequences of royalty.

Rather, if casual conversation should turn to places lived and jobs worked, Bell might mention that he grew up in Detroit, started out as a professional musician, studied cooking, enrolled in a English butler school and, by the way, became a caterer to the royal family when he happened to be in the right place at a frightful time.

As he recalls, the Prince of Wales addressed him directly exactly once. Still, Bell did serve the royal family throughout 1984, the year that Prince William, who's just now preparing for his Friday wedding to Kate Middleton, turned 2.

The experience nearly three decades ago placed Bell frequently in Kensington Palace, where Charles and Diana lived, as well as Guildhall and St. James Palace. It seems to him that, then and now, most Britons and former Britons hold one of two extreme opinions of the royal family.

"You either love them or hate them," he said.

What he saw of the royals while helping to feed them leaves him appreciating and pitying them, as he might any pampered birds confined to a gilded cage.

"They were all lovely. They were all nice," Bell said. But their lives of isolation and unblinking public scrutiny, even before the press frenzy over Diana and her divorce and death, he found terribly sad.

Diana was a young mother, just 22, the first time Bell was in her presence. He was 30, having studied at the California Culinary Institute in San Francisco and then come to London to train at the Ivor Spencer School for British Butlers and Administrators.

"I was trying to build a resume," said Bell, a lean and muscular man of 57 who all these years later is preparing to open The Wurst, a sausage restaurant in Healdsburg.

Upon graduating from butler school he took a job with the top-drawer catering firm of Searcy Tansley & Co. Ltd., which was founded in 1847 and was busy serving at endless social functions hosted by members of the royal family.

In late 1983, Bell went to work in a Searcy kitchen in London, slicing vegetables and such as a member of the prep staff. The afternoon of Dec. 17, "the whole building moved, like in an earthquake." Sirens blared.

Bell quickly learned a car bomb planted by members of the provisional Irish Republican Army had blown apart some of the nearby Harrods department store, where members of the royal family shop for Christmas. Three police officers and three passers-by were killed.

Nobody in the royal family was in Harrods at the time, but British authorities took the blast as a warning to them. Bell remembers British intelligence officers coming to speak with operators of Searcy catering.

"They said that anybody who's Irish can't go near the royal family," he said. Searcy had no choice but to dismiss its many Irish employees.

Bell suddenly was promoted from the prep line. "That next night, I was doing a dinner for the Queen Mother in St. James Palace," he said.

For the next year, he worked frequent events hosted by members of Queen Elizabeth II's family. Moments that spring to his mind include the time he roamed freely about Kensington Palace, taking in the breathtaking art and the grandeur.

Another time, he was busy at a chopping board at Kensington Palace and became aware that music was coming from behind a curtain someone had put up near him. He learned later he'd been hearing the warming-up of Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the world's greatest cellists.

"That was typical," said Bell, who now lives in Healdsburg with his wife, Julie, and 6-year-old daughter, Sophia. "You never knew what you were walking into."

As he recalls, Prince Charles addressed only after hearing him say something to a fellow member of the catering team. Detecting that Bell was American, Charles asked him how a Yank happened to be employed by Searcy.

Bell doesn't recall mentioning that he was working without papers.

What he does remember is sensing that everyone in the royal family was charming and decent and that they were sustaining an extraordinarily deep-rooted and worthy tradition in Great Britain. Still when he hears complaints about what the royals are costing that nation, he feels certain that much more is paid in by visitors who come from around the world to see Buckingham Palace and other landmarks associated with the monarchy.

"It is what makes London London," the former caterer said.

Although much antagonism toward the royal family is surely borne after envy, Bell said it occurs to him that William and Harry had no choice but to accept the press hounding, isolation from everyday freedoms and other drawbacks of royalty. Having last seen Diana when she was pregnant with Harry and knowing what followed in her life makes him appreciate the un-storybook complexity of the vow Kate Middleton will take Friday.

The royal treatment? Bell wondered aloud, "Who would want to live like that?"

You can reach Staff Columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.