Lehman and I hitchhiked from Oxford to Bournemouth one July Saturday that summer of 1968. He was a gawky redheaded teenager from New York City, and I was a shaggy headed Midwesterner who had never even been to New York much less London; I was trying very hard not to be the fish out of water I clearly was. David wanted to go to Bournemouth because it was where his mother had landed when she fled Austria in 1938; I did not know that at the time, and I didn’t know why I wanted to go to the sea until we got there.
The coastal resort of Bournemouth is only ninety miles from Oxford (I just Googled it), but it took us all day. Much of the time we spent standing beside the road, we played games. The “First-Line” game: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “Call me Ishmael,” “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I have been turning over in my mind ever since.” The “Guess-the-Poem” game: I knew some Kipling verses and a few Robert Frost lines. David recited whole great chunks of Chaucer and Paradise Lost. Perhaps as a concession to me, we also played the “Old Baseball” game: name the starting infield of the 1958 Cincinnati Reds: George Crowe at first, Johnny Temple at second, Roy McMillan at short and Don Hoak at third.
I don’t remember the rides we got except for one old man in a ’56 cream and sky-blue Hillman Sunbeam hardtop. That I remember the car better than the person is because I was not far beyond that stage in life where cars were more important to me than people. As a kid I had had a Dinky Toy of that very car in those same colors.
I remember a raucous waterfront pub in Bournemouth. We were still charmed by our ability to sidle up to a bar and drink a legal glass of beer (neither of us was twenty-one yet), but it was probably just one because neither of us had much money. Later that night, I remember going from one cheap B&B to another without any luck finding a room. I remember finally asking for help at a police station hoping, I suppose, that the cops might let us sleep in a cell. Instead the Sergeant on duty said, “If I were in your shoes, I’d sleep on the beach.”
“You can do that?”
The town even provided rather nice beach lounges on which we stretched out and shared a bottle of cheap Spanish wine. When David fell asleep, I wandered out onto the town pier where two German guys were playing guitars and singing. I looked out across the water, and then I realized why I had been drawn to Bournemouth. I was homesick. I wanted to be looking out at Lake Michigan in the middle of the night while people sang, but the English Channel and the German guys would do just fine. Close enough.
Of course, David and I did lots of other things that summer. We both sort of fell in love with cornfed girls, his from Kansas, mine from Jeffersonville, Indiana. We bought secondhand bowler hats, climbed all over Stonehenge (you still could do that then), ran around the track where Roger Bannister had broken the four minute mile, made Charles Baudelaire’s Milk and Honey Mixture (an inch of milk, a half an inch of honey and a heaping tablespoon of hashish: stir, drink) and became friends. All these years later we still are, even though our initial encounter was a bit rocky.
The day I got to Oxford, David stuck his head out of his room next to mine and asked if I had a copy of The Paris Review. “I have a poem in there. I’m a poet.”
“Right,” I said. And I’m Under Secretary of State. But before the summer was over David had given a reading for the assembled faculty and students, and John Fuller, one of our dons and a bright young British poet, had published a broadsheet of David’s verse. The son-of-a-bitch really was a poet.
When I got home to Chicago, I quickly put Oxford out of my mind. The tumultuous ’68 Democratic Convention was in full swing, and I dived right in. I enlisted as a courtesy-car driver for Eugene McCarthy and got a front row seat to the whole show. I watched cops chasing protesters under the el tracks on Wabash Avenue and protesters fleeing clouds of tear gas in Lincoln Park. I delivered tipsy delegates to the Conrad Hilton under blinding klieg lights between banks of cops in riot gear and banks of kids in riot form on Michigan Avenue. On TV I watched Abbie Hoffman drilling Yippies in self-defense techniques and Mayor Richard J. Daley shouting “Fuck You” at Senator Abraham Ribicoff on the convention floor. Then I sat up all night typing angry letters about American injustice. When the convention was over and the smoke finally cleared, I went to our family’s summer cottage in Michigan to decompress. My favorite aunt, Ollie, patted the seat beside her and said, “Come. Sit. Tell me all about your amazing summer.”
“Then tell me the most important thing that happened to you this summer.”
“Okay,” I said, and then somewhat to my own surprise, “I met this writer….” I told her all about Lehman and even read her some of his verse.
“I’m not sure.”
“Do you think you would like to be a writer?”
“Well,” I said, “I think it might.”
Ed. note: The two young men had enrolled in the “Oxford Summer Seminar” organized by Prof. Ernest Hofer of the University of Massachusetts. It was a six-week program preceded by a week in London with tickets to “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the West End and a Richard Strauss opera at Covent Garden. I remember taking the train from Paddington and arriving in the most magical looking city on a magnificently blue day most rare in England. Ed Goltz and I arrived, a day early, and stayed at a bed and breakfast.
Our group, which included undergrads from U Mass, Columbia, the University of Ohio, Oberlin, Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, and Smith, among other places, was housed at St. Hilda’s College, ordinarily an all-female college (photo at top). Christopher Ricks gave us lectures on the differences between America and Britain (“You have climate, we have weather”), on the one hand, and between prose and poetry on the other. We saw productions of “As You Like It” and “The Cocktail Party” and a son-et-lumiere show at Christ’s College.
The other photos are of Bournemouth; a Hillman 1956 automobile (wrong colors, alas); Magdalene College, Oxford (which has its own deer park), where John Fuller taught; The Paris Review 43 (which included the poem Pete referenced, and the cover of his superb novel Travel Writing. While there may be no good excuse for how I introduced myself to Pete, it is true that I shamelessly identified myself as a poet. What can I say? I was very young. — DL