Sunday, March 23, 2014

"People see God every day, they just don't recognize Him."  ~  Pearl Bailey

I couldn't have been luckier! The phone rang one night, and it was the renown English professor at the University of Vermont saying that he had chosen me as one of the 15 National Endowment for the Humanities' Fellows to study "Chaucer and the Medieval Illuminated Manuscript" at the University of Vermont AND the University of London, England for 6 weeks that summer...  ME! I had submitted all my information for that amazing opportunity several weeks before this phone call, and it was suddenly a reality! Out of several hundred applications from teachers all across the country, I was chosen!

I'm ashamed to tell you what I said to Bill, but, after all this time, it is kind of funny... "Well, I'm so thankful that you've chosen me, Professor, but I'll have to call you back tomorrow to give you my answer..." 

What a FOOL, you're thinking... at least you SHOULD be thinking that! But, all at once, I had become sooooo scared! I'd be away from my husband, my home, my friends, for 6 whole weeks, traipsing all over Vermont and England with 14 people I'd never met before... and I was still very, very shy in those days...

"Uh... Uh... Well, I guess you can call me back tomorrow.... but I need to know because there are many, many other people who want to go.......... OK, I guess.... but, PLEASE call me back as quickly as you can tomorrow...... Uh, good bye... (CLICK)..." answered the nationally-famous expert on Dante and Chaucer.  

Now, the University of Vermont is the 3rd oldest university in the United States, and it sits at the very top of a hill that overlooks the city of Burlington which overlooks Lake Champlain... gorgeous! EverythIng about this place was perfection in my eyes! This diverse group of 14 teachers and 2 professors were going to be my travel companions and fellow students for the next 6 weeks, and, as I looked them over, I was in awe, scared, excited, and homesick - all at the same time! By the way, cell phones had not yet been invented... no texting, either... no iPads... The dial telephone was all we had... that and letters and post cards!

My roommate from the Midwest was wonderful, but I became really close friends with an amazing woman from Tennessee and a funny, canny "girl" from New York who visited Vermont every single summer and at Christmas, too, because her parents had a summer home there. Ellen plopped us into her newish VW convertible and became our guide as we drove over all the backroads of Vermont, stopping at every tiny town that would appear around some bend in the road. At each place, around every corner, it looked like a tranquil painting that some dreamer had made up.

We Fellows studied every day, except Sundays, for 3 weeks, learning to read Middle English, and, because of our professor, Bill, we could finally read Chaucer in the original language. The "F-bomb" word was used in Chaucer's time, too, but it was an entirely different word. Ellen decided, one day, that we ought to go to the tee-shirt shop in town and have tee-shirts made for the 3 of us with that word in Middle English printed upside-down on the front! Mary Lou was all for it, but I told them that we were flying to LONDON! Surely, there would be people on the streets of London who would KNOW what we had plastered across our chests, so the idea was scrapped! Whew...

When we arrived in London and were all moved into our quarters in Canterbury Hall, we found out that the daily routine would be lots different than it was in Vermont. Bill and the art history professor told us that our studies would be Monday - Thursdays from 9AM - noon. We'd be taking trips thoughout London during the afternoons, and we'd be having outings through the Chaucerian countryside on the weekends. Could it be any better than that? 

I've always been an early-riser, and my mornings were heavenly... I'd start with a two-block walk to the green-grocer, who called everyone "Luv," to buy a basket of "freshly-picked-that-morning" raspberries for 45 pence... DELICIOUS... I'd savor every one of them on my way back to the Hall. Then, I'd walk across the narrow street to the tennis courts and play doubles with Bill, the art professor, and another of the Fellows. Afterwards, we 4 would go into the Hall, grab a tray, and get into line at the student cafeteria for an English breakfast of bangers and eggs and tomatoes.

On the second week there, a large contingent of German students arrived for summer graduate studies. That meant more people vying for a place in the breakfast line. On their first morning at Canterbury Hall, a tall, "Arnold Swartzeneger"-type man was in line behind me, and, as I slid my tray along the counter, he kept bumping his tray into mine. He wasn't happy unless my tray was touching the person's in front of me. Well, "it takes all kinds," as my Mom would say. 

The third morning of this was enough, though! About the third time he WHAMMED my tray, I took mine and shoved it backwards into his... Well, he shoved back, again! So I shoved mine backwards harder, and he looked at me, smiled broadly, and shoved mine even harder into the next person's tray! 

My "Irish came up," as they say, and this time I gave my tray a mighty sling backwards (using my very BEST tennis back-hand), and his tray went flying past his nose, clattering onto the floor! Folks turned to look at what had happened, as folks will do... The tall, German-version of Arnold Swartzeneger" bent down, picked up the tray, and gave me the biggest smile I've ever seen! From then on, if we'd arrive in the caferteria at the same time, he'd give me a little bow, back up the entire line of waiting people, and offer me the place ahead of him! In some mysterious Germanic way, I'd passed muster with that scholar! I've always wondered if he knew that I'm also 1/4 German... Hmmmm...   

There are dozens of things I could tell you about that wonderful 6-week experience, but there is one that has puzzled me ever since... one I will never, ever forget...

There was only one day, while we were in London, that I had an afternoon all to myself, and I had a plan. I'd SHOP! The "tube stop" was a lovely walk away from "The Crescent" where Canterbury Hall was, and I'd ride the "tube" to Harrod's and have a day of it.

When I arrived at my stop, we were deeply underground. There are escalators down under London that carry you out of the "Tube" bowels of the earth up to the daylight when you climb off the car. But the stop I was at had the longest escalator of any tube-stop! When you stepped onto this escalator, it flowed up at least 3-stories before you could step off at the ground-level exit. It's a marvel!

That morning, for some reason, I'd decided not to carry my heavy purse with me. Instead, I just shoved some pound notes into my trench-coat pockets, along with a lipstick, and off I went. And, now, as I got on that hellaciously long escalator, I was glad not to be weighted down with that purse. The day was mine! Yay!

Strangely, there were very few people on that escalator that morning. I loved that because I'd been using those escalators for exercise. Instead of standing still on them, or walking up them as they flowed, I'd RUN up the escalator. It was fun! 

This time, I'd run up about 1/3 of the way before I ran out of breath completely. As I was hanging onto the the railing, gasping, I saw two guys in their early 20's hurrying towards me, taking two steps at a time. When they reached me, instead of going on past, one shoved me into the side-railing, and the other stood behind me, pressing his whole body against me. They were speaking to each other in Cockney. I could only understand one word in ten that they spoke... but what I could understand wasn't good. They were going to rob me, but they didn't see a purse over my shoulder. They were talking about me like I wasn't there... like I was a thing, instead of a real live human being...

I love words, and I love writing, but I don't have any words to tell you how scared I was... The only people on the escalator were a story-and-a half above us! There was NO ONE behind us, either. I could see all the way to the floor where I'd first got on this thing! Whatever these two had in mind could NOT be stopped...

I looked back up the escalator to see where the end was, but we still had a long ride to go. I was desperate! I was going to be hurt... there was no way out and nothing I could think of to do... I couldn't scream... I had no voice... I was terrified...

I turned to look back down the escalator, and suddenly, there was a man, a FEROCIOUS man, only 10 steps down from us, climbing towards those men and me! It was IMPOSSIBLE! No one could have climbed that far that fast! There couldn't be a man there, but there WAS!

He stopped on the step behind the guy pressing against me.. The two guys, seeing my face, turned around to see what I was looking at, and they froze, too. That man was beefy-large, dark-haired, with angry black eyes, and a huge jutting brow. I will never, ever forget that man!   

The two guys said something in Cockney, then stumbled and ran up the stairs of the escalator. The ferocious man stood right behind me until the escalator reached the large ground-floor exit room filled with people. I glanced down to get off the escalator without falling, and quickly turned to thank the man who had actually "saved" me, but he was GONE! He'd DISAPPEARED!

Now, that couldn't be! That huge ferocious-looking man could NOT have passed by me from behind and disappeared in the time it took me to glance down at my feet as I stepped onto the level ground. And a man that huge and that scary-looking would have stood out in any crowd.  He could NOT have vanished! But he did. He did!

Call it whatever you like, but I do believe that "man" was my "guardian angel," and I will believe it until the day I die! There is no other explanation for it. I've never had anything like that happen again in my life... or ever, before that happened, for that matter. It defies my understanding. You decide. But, "There are more things in heaven and in earth, Horatio, than..." Well, you know the rest of Shakespeare's line...

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