Coming of Age, 1972: Episode #4

Thursday, September 29, 2022

After two days of walking the streets of London, I was ready to leave for Ireland. I figured I could do a quick loop, take a look around, return to Earl’s Court to pick up any mail, and then proceed to France to settle in. The London Underground rises above ground after it gets outside the central city, and took less than two hours to reach Oxford. I have a friend who is spending a week in Oxford at the moment, and I’m sure it will be productive time, but my goal was to reach Stratford-upon-Avon by nightfall. My one memory of Oxford is a wide grassy stretch beside the highway as I walked.

I realize that Oxford has one of the world’s fine universities, the oldest in the English-speaking world. (My youngest son would study his junior year abroad there). Oxford got its big boost in AD 1167, when my ancestor, Henry II, banned his subjects from attending the University of Paris. Of course Oxford had turned up often in biographies. Growing up in the Methodist Church, I knew about the ‘Holy Club,’ founded by Charles Wesley, led by his brother John, and including America’s first great evangelist, George Whitefield. Yet, by my late teens, I had left behind my Methodist upbringing, and could no longer claim the Wesleys as my own. Perhaps, as well, I was still burned out after my last year at UCLA. I had no strong desire to walk around another university.

I doubt that I walked the whole 39 miles from Oxford to Stratford, but I don’t recall hitching any rides. The town of Woodstock stands out, a medieval settlement that has guarded its historic appearance. I did not realize how close I was passing to Blenheim Palace—just a hundred yards off the highway—where Winston Churchill was born and where Queen Mary locked her half sister Elizabeth away. When I visited England in 2019, my main objective was time with kids and grandkids, but Blenheim was the next thing on the list of things I didn’t get to.

In Stratford, I found the Youth Hostel and checked in. Across Europe, I was to discover that the rural YHs were more attractive and less expensive than the city versions. They were mostly stately mansions that had been donated when a younger generation could not afford to pay the inheritance taxes. I seem to recall that a bed with mattress at most of the rural Hostels cost me about the equivalent of 80 cents U.S., and I was carrying my own sleeping bag. The bedrooms would have three or four sets of bunkbeds, and guests could use the kitchen, though no meals were provided. In the morning, I found the Royal Shakespeare Theater and bought a ticket for a play the following night.

After pushing for several days, Stratford allowed me to rest. I’m a sucker for the Tudor-style, black and white or black and tan, half-timbered buildings. In my mind’s eye, I have intended to build one for myself, though it gets ever-smaller as I age and my ambitions shrink. It fascinated me how buildings dating from the 1500s could now have indoor plumbing and neon lights.

I took some time for a peaceful hike, through fog, along the River Avon. I had much on my mind. The previous three months had raised the possibility that I had found my life partner. I met Vicki during my first quarter at UCLA. We had one class together, ‘Education of the Mexican-American Child.’ It would be the only education class I took there. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a teacher, but with a History Major and English Minor, that could be a possibility. During my two years at UCLA, I tutored English to 4th grade immigrant kids in L.A. Chinatown. A year earlier, after deciding my years of competitive running were over, I went back to my high school coach, and he gave me the tenth-grade cross country team to try my hand with. We made it that year to the city finals. I’d enjoyed both of those teaching experiences.

At UCLA, though, I took a series of creative writing classes. A writing career interested me, but not if I needed to be ready to support a family. I knew too many starving writers. For a short time, I pondered studying for the pastorate. That would have been for all the wrong reasons, as much to figure out what I believed about God—if He existed—as to serve the God who might be there.

Then, on a lark, I took a Movement Behavior class, partly to better be able to describe my characters in fiction. The professor, Dr. Hunt, was teaching Kinesiology in the Dance Department, but as a physical therapist she had lived among and treated Bedouins, Inuit, and a variety of other cultures. She introduced a remarkable amount of anthropology. I was so blown away by what I learned that the following quarters I took every class she offered. In the process, I didn’t quite finish my minor in English, but I did complete one in Kinesiology. I began to ponder a career in Physical Therapy, until I realized I would need two years of math and science prerequisites before PT school. As I walked along the River Avon, I leaned toward teaching. Vicki was studying to be a teacher. Two teachers would have the same vacations.

At Thanksgiving of my first (junior) UCLA year, I mistook a reply from a young lady and incorrectly jumped to the conclusion that I was engaged. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I was checking my dorm mailbox multiple times each day, always to find it empty, but sometimes to see the student who was sorting the mail on the other side. I knew her slightly from my ‘Education of the Mexican-American Child’ class. On the first day of that class I did what all unattached students do, I glanced unobtrusively around the room, and thought to myself, “Nothing here.” She remembers whispering to Bonnie, her roommate, “Nothing here.”

They lived two floors above me and we often left for class at about the same time, so I occasionally walked them to the main campus, or saw them in the dorm cafeteria. At the end of the quarter, Tuesday of finals week was my 21st birthday, and I went home to celebrate with my parents and siblings. Back on campus, the next evening, a coed was stabbed to death in the parking structure not far from our dorm. The crime has been connected to the Zodiac Killer, and left the whole campus on edge. When the final exam for the education class got out after dark on Saturday evening, I finished early, but stuck around outside to walk the girls back to the dorm. I was still thinking about the girl from Thanksgiving, but I remember thinking that I hoped there was someone available to walk my future wife safely home. Little could I have imagined.

We had to move out of the dorm for the Christmas holidays. My parents came to help me transport my things, and while Dad and I made several trips up and down the elevator, my mother—who could strike up a conversation with anyone—chatted with the nice young woman who worked behind the desk, who seemed to know me.

I do not remember what play I saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theater that night. What fascinated me most was the way the set could be staged with almost no scenery. Instead, sections of the stage itself would rise or fall, high to become the bow of a ship, or less to become a bench. However, I could leave and say that I had seen a Shakespeare play at Stratford-upon-Avon. I walked back to the Youth Hostel ready to leave in the morning for Ireland. Admittedly, that was in the opposite direction from France.

Once, for a session of the Movement Behavior class, Dr. Hunt took the students to a large, walled-in, grassy area behind the Women’s Gym. Our assignment was to move. Just move. After a while, she called us in and she reported what she had seen. The class was heavily dance majors, and she’d observed the way many of the students had picked a spot and waved arms and legs or done a variety of artistic contortions. Then she got to me, and chuckled. “Brian, you explored every inch of grass and every corner.” I didn’t realize it yet, but that would describe my trip to Europe.


Post a Comment