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During Charles' years at Gordonstoun came another royal first: six months at Timbertop, a wilderness school run by the Church of England in Australia. Charles, who in his early teens had seemed somewhat fearful and plodding, responded gamely to the tough regimens of both institutions: "The idea is to challenge a person so they find something within themselves they didn't realize existed," he later explained. "This can have an electrifying effect on somebody who normally, perhaps, was doubtful about his own ability. I know it has had an effect on me, which has lasted ever since. There are a lot of things in life which need doing that you may not like the idea of doing.
This is the whole idea of duty."
If Gordonstoun and Timbertop helped mold the young Prince's sense of duty, Trinity College at Cambridge his next stop, by family decree opened up his personality. Charles is a slow but dogged study; his bachelor's degree from Trinity was only an undistinguished "second class, division two" a sort of gentleman's C. But Lord Butler, master of Trinity, praised the student Prince for what was, in fact, a considerable accomplishment: he was the first member of the royal family ever to earn a degree. Not only had Charles taken time out for state visits abroad and his elaborate investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969, but he had also spent a term at University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, taking a cram course in Welsh to cool nationalist resentment in his titular fief. Even so, a large part of Charles' education at Cambridge was extracurricular. His happiest hours at Trinity were apparently spent performing in a series of comic revues, in which Charles showed a talent for daffy comedy and self-deprecating good humor.
Even as a schoolboy, Charles had a penchant for mischief. He once sent classmates at Cheam into a frantic search for the right-sized headgear when he switched their unmarked school caps around on a wall of name-plated pegs. His sense of the zany owes much to a long devotion to the Goon Show, an innovative British radio comedy program of the 1950s whose routines he has memorized. He often emulates the show's outrageous punning style. (Sample royal groaner, after a dogsled ride in Canada: "That just sleighed me.") He loves to deflate Establishment airs, and once showed up to address a banquet of the Master Tailors' Benevolent Association in a shabby tweed jacket over his proper white tie. "I am often asked if it is because of some generic trait that I stand with my hands behind my back like my father," he told them. "The answer is that we both have the same tailor. He makes the sleeves so tight that we can't get our hands in front."
The Prince defends his clownishness:
"I would probably have been committed to an institution long ago were it not for my ability to see the funny side of life." His wit helps him make the best of bad situations. Thrown twice during a rough cross-country horse race last month, he cheerily observed: "That was excellent practice for parachuting."
Charles has surely needed that sense of humor during the relentless press pursuit of his romantic life and marital plans.