The only bit of color in my drab dorm room at University College, Oxford, was the poster on the wall. I had put up the poster in an effort to make the place feel more like home. Cattle grazed in the field next to a pond surrounded by rolling hills. It looked lush, green, and cool. At the end of the school year, I bade a wistful farewell to my friends. Most of them were doing as I had done since the age of eleven, heading to summer camp. For me, it had been Camp Nakanawa in Tennessee, where I had been a camper and a counselor. Camp and summer were synonymous.
But this summer was different. It was the second week of the 1976 British Studies at Oxford program. England was locked in one of the worst droughts and heat waves in history. Air conditioning was rare, and I was having a tough time sleeping. I lay in bed, night after night, tossing and turning, tangled in the sweaty sheets. Hopelessly, I was envisioning two months of insomnia.
Blowing my nose again, I tossed the tissue into the trash can. I was sick, and I was homesick.
Gazing at the poster once more, I thought longingly of camp in the mountains. I chose the poster because I liked it, I thought. Now it occurred to me that maybe I had chosen it because it reminded me of Camp Nakanawa, with its lake and rolling hills, with its green pastures, smooth green soccer field and archery range.
An architecture book lay on the bed beside me, a hardcover with a glossy jacket. Eventually, I opened it to the part about All Souls College. I had only to cross the landing to the shared sitting room and I’d be able to see the honey-colored spires of All Souls.
I jumped when the knock came. Who on earth … . .
“Who is it?” I called.
“Hi, Sue; it’s Paul, Paul Martin.”
Leaping to my feet I flung open the door and gave Paul a bear hug. I had never been so delighted to see someone. As there was only one, admittedly uncomfortable, chair in the room, Paul and I both plopped down on the floor, talking ninety to nothing. Paul had just graduated from the seminary at Sewanee and was serving for a year as a minister at Coventry Cathedral. We had both been on the whitewater team at Sewanee. Together, we remembered our whitewater adventures.
“Remember that time when the Nantahala was flooded?” he asked.
“What about that trip we made right after Jimmy won, what, five cases of beer in the PBR golf tournament?” I replied.
Paul was left-handed and he had taught Jimmy how to paddle, and Jimmy, in turn, had taught me. Jimmy and I were both right-handed, but we used left hand control paddles, having learned from Paul.
“Why don’t you come to see me in Coventry this weekend? We can go kayaking, and I can show you around the cathedral.”
“I’d love that Paul. I’d just love it.”
Slowly, I closed the door, thinking about the upcoming weekend.
Finding the listing for the train to Coventry on the board in the Oxford train station, I thought of the old saying about being, “sent to Coventry.” But I wasn’t feeling shunned or ostracized. On the contrary, I was elated. I was going to visit a dear friend. We were going kayaking, and he was going to show me around Coventry Cathedral.
As we put the kayaks in the water, Paul handed me his paddle. “Here,” he said, “use my paddle. I got it at the beginning of the summer. See if you like it as much as I do.” It was a Kober racing paddle. It was lightweight, crafted of wood, and it felt warm in my hands. The shaft was shaped and tapered so that I could feel exactly how the offset blades of the paddle were oriented without even having to look. We paddled along the river, savoring the experience. There was no whitewater, but there was an open sluicegate. We did popups, guiding the bow of our boats directly beneath the cascading water. The water would force the bow of the boat down and then spit us out backward. We had a blast, each trying to outdo the other.
Then we paddled down the river, side by side. Suddenly, with no warning, Paul performed a perfect barrel roll. “Show off,” I muttered as he came back up. Then I, in my turn, did a roll. Wow, the Kobar paddle, with its sculpted shaft enabled me to know exactly how the blades were oriented without having to reach back and feel the blade to make sure I had it positioned correctly. When we got back to shore I splurged and bought my own Kober paddle.
I was ready the next morning when Paul picked me up at the women’s dormitory. Coventry cathedral was bombed by the Germans in 1940, and only the east wall, with the inscription “Father forgive” remains. Rather than rebuilding the new cathedral where the old one had stood, the remains of the old cathedral are now hallowed ground. When they rebuilt, they oriented the cathedral in a completely new way, with the altar at the north end rather than east, as is traditional. Together, the ruins of the old and the new form Coventry Cathedral.
During the service, I received communion from Paul. It was incredibly moving, to receive communion from this dear friend, this friend who had shown up just when I needed him.
Propping my new kayak paddle up in the corner, I smiled at it. There it stood for the next six weeks, the rich wood and shiny finish contrasting with the wall behind it. Paul had ignited a spark. Both my cold and homesickness were over.
I dove into my classes. I loved the art and architecture class. When we studied buildings and works of art that were in Oxford, we’d go see them, The Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre, Christ Church Cathedral. I passed by the famous statue of the dead, nude Shelley every time I walked to the laundry room of the college.
We had lectures and classes four days a week, giving us three-day weekends. We’d throw a few things in a light backpack, go to the train station, and head out. We went to Bath, York, London, and Edinburgh. We went to museums, cathedrals, and theaters.
But my favorite trip was to the Lake District of northern England. Walking the barren windswept hills studded with rock outcroppings was exhilarating. The streams and rivers were called “becks.” The waterfall was called a “force.” We passed among free-roaming sheep with sploshes of different colors painted on their hips, presumably to identify who they belonged to. And it was cool, blessedly cool.
In the train station in London, they told me I had to check my luggage, and they assured me my belongings would make it to Heathrow, then on the plane, and then all the way to JFK. I was dubious about this, but that’s how things were done; so, I had to hand over my suitcase and my new paddle. When we landed, sure enough, everything was there waiting for me. Feeling far more confident about my luggage making it to Birmingham, I checked it for the flight home. With my forehead pressed against the window I gazed down, searching for the familiar sights of home. At baggage claim, I waited for my paddle to emerge from the little door covered with plastic strips. It never did. They had somehow lost it in Atlanta.
I had arrived home without my precious new Kober paddle – but I then realized I had come home with something completely unexpected. I had gone to England reluctantly and, once there, I had longed for home, for the very activities that had meant “summer” to me all my life. I had longed for things to always remain the same. On the other side of my homesickness, in Oxford, England, it seems I had discovered another side of myself. Possibly, it would not have been noticeable to family and friends, but I was different, I had changed. It was that person, one with a new, richer maturity, who had returned to the United States at the end of the summer term at Oxford. The paddle? It showed up the next day.
Sue, this is very beautiful. That summer I was working in Manhattan. I can still remember tawdry Times Square, not the Disneyfied thing it is now. A far cry from your surroundings in England, but your writing brings memories back to me of that time. Thank you.