Episode VI - On Belay for Pizza!

I wasn’t always the erudite English speaker that I am today. My vernacular consisted of more type of odd jargon catchphrases and grammatical foibles than a herd of saltating sand grains. I had the bad patois of a Southern California teenager, a fact that was blown into my face by an overlarge customs officer as I entered the United Kingdom. In a plain, polite, obvious and typical cockney accent he made it clear to his ears, and his ears alone, that my dialect was atrocious and that I should accompany my dialogue with hand written cue cards so that others would hopefully glean that I was indeed speaking English during my stay in the United Kingdom.

At this juncture, one may wonder how I escaped my home country after such initial vile transgressions and many other sundry details about my private incarceration. It is easy to say that these details are of such a mind-numbing nature that they were repressed and omitted from this narrative. I did receive an early parole for good behavior. I was released to travel abroad to Oxford, in the hopes that further education might reform my foolish nature.

Oxford is a glorious town, steeped in every imaginable facet of human life. Americans view Oxford as a singular entity like a reputable Ivy League school. In reality, Oxford is an amalgamation of a myriad of colleges each formed in the crucible of time. Once through customs, I took up residence on the rear of the third floor at the back of my college; unnamed here, but eminently famous for one individual’s speed and the college’s combined aptitude at darts. My room was accessible through a steep, narrow staircase; it had iron bound windows that opened to a perilous drop to the street below, and it smelt strongly of musty attic. It was also quite large, spacious, and four stories from the bathrooms which were in the basement, below the ground level where just outside the doors, manicured quadrangles glistened with perfect, even grass.

The first objects I found in my room were billiard balls in the desk and posters demanding a tuition reduction. I later learned that my room had been the bastion of student demonstrators the last term, protesting the injustice of higher tuition, just before the police had dragged their billiard ball throwing non-passive protests and ribald chants off to someplace that was most likely not the Tower of London. Lumpy bed and all, my room and I were a perfect fit.

And despite whatever flaws my dialect possessed, I soon had a ready circle of friends at the college for that summer term. Like Biscuit and Cracker, their names are not important – there was the other Californian, the Canadian, the Texan, Ms. Illinois, and Ms. Western Canada. In short order, our society had but one name that fit our salon of sophistication – “The Dudes Club.” Dude is such a coarse word – for example, one would never write a haiku inspired by or featuring such a collection of letters. The word evokes images of city slickers from tall Eastern cities venturing out to the old manifest destiny frontier of early America, among other things, but “Dude” conveyed the solidarity and mutual affection that we viewed each other with.

The disparate members of our faction had been drawn together by the discourse the other Californian and I had started one night at dinner. The others had been enthralled by our disjunctive noun and verb splitting that horrified true linguists. Bad dialect, it turned out, was charming. Like flecks of light captivated by a black hole, they had eased closer on old wooden benches listening to the true origins of the English language disappear in omnivorous everlasting adjectives and jargon. Once in earshot, they had no chance to turn back, and decided to become our friends in the hope that the rambling stream of words would not consume their previously diagrammed and structured minds.

It was more of a junta then a club as there was no definitive head and no hierarchy, no dues, and no rules. There were lofty aspirations and trouble-making, rumor-mongering and joke-telling. Our first exploit was to seat ourselves at the High Table at dinner on a supposedly random night. The High Table was the usual mainstay of actual luminaries, who on that night were all most likely away on holiday. From that moment on, it was set in firm cobble-stones that we were indeed, rabble-rousers.

Like any good junta, we had a nightly routine. We would sally forth from our college gate, because a majority of most Oxford colleges had actual mock castle gates designed to keep the corrupt influences of the town away from the students, and vice versa, and head to our favorite pub. At the pub we would pass the night in a sober, rational manner, and never engage in any activity that was undignified. As we were on foot to and from our local dispenser of alcoholic products, there was no need for a designated driver. What we had instead was a designated timekeeper. We had need of such a position because at midnight, our small castle doors would swing closed; and despite whatever cajoling comments we would make to the gatekeeper the doors would be barred fast from the night. Always, always, at 11:58, 11:59, and sometimes 11:59.32, we would scoot through the doors on rasping hinges, cackling at our own fortitude and luck.

From there, we would retire to my lofty roost, because it was the largest and most isolated of all of our rooms. Invariably, at ten minutes, or some nights, five minutes after we had successfully avoided being trapped outside, and were safely in my room, the grumbling of stomachs would commence. The gates that were now closed and protected us also prevented us from any late night snacking. It would have been a simple matter to either eat before returning, or store food for such occasions, but not surprisingly; such common sense passed by the wayside.

It was the windows of my room that attracted our attention as a solution. The building overhung a popular street corner, from which we had harangued members of our cabal and total strangers as well. If we could devise a method of reaching the corner three stories below, we could, in theory, gain late night sustenance. One night as we staggered back the other Californian and I happened to spy one of many student-made fliers that papered the town advertising used mountaineering rope. Grasping at it, we managed to secure it and several other interesting offers as we swayed through the gate. The next day, in a more coherent condition, we contacted the owners of the aforementioned rope. We had almost consummated the purchase with them for a very reasonable price after much serious haggling when the issue of what College we were from bubbled to the surface of the conversation.

Collegiate rivalries in Oxford are a serious business – as they are in the states, only in a more intense and gentlemanly fashion. After all, rowing, darts, and billiards, are all gentleman’s activities, along with the occasional competition in other matters. Adroitly, we managed to bend the truth of our true educational loyalties, procure the rope and continue to verbally diagram our plan for that evening. The rope was easily long enough to reach the ground with plenty of slack. We had two options. We could first call for delivery, then, tie the rope to a box, place our money and a note in the box, and lower the box and wait for the delivery person to leave the food in the box whilst taking the money.

While prudent, this plan had many flaws. Would the delivery person be perceptive enough to check a box? Would they simply take our cash and leave? Would the box overturn with food on its upward ascent? A second, more dangerous plan was then devised between us. As both of us were novice climbers, we quickly ruminated that a person could easily be belayed down to the street with the rope, and then raised back up with the food. Granted, as there was no harness, and the remaining tensile strength of the used rope was unknown, the plan called for a greater assumption of risk. Like all irrational ideas, it took root in the light of day, and began to germinate over the next week. Eventually, we, and the members of the society were determined to pluck the fruit that we had sown.

In this manner, I found myself tying all types of Gordian knots and every other knot known to my mind from the Boy Scouts in order to secure my fundamentally unsafe rope harness around my waist. I had been chosen to be lowered to bring back the pizza as I was the lightest, and I had the most climbing experience. Once I was as satisfied as I could be by the knots, I stepped to the ledge of my window, and surveyed my friends, bracing the loose lengths of rope next to their bodies, legs braced against a solid nearby wall. There was nothing fitting that I could say to such people, who along with me were willing to place a life at risk in favor of a large, hot pizza. I nodded, and simply stated that I wanted some slack, and calmly stepped out of the window.

The initial jolt seared my very being, as my legs caught nothing but air after that slight step, and my whole body cascaded down the three story drop irreversibly, until the rope caught and snapped taught. Once my breath had subsided lower than the rope’s creaks, I gave the prearranged signal, and planted my feet against the exterior wall and began to belay down to the street. My feet whispered over ancient sleeping stones on the side wall, and I was beginning to enjoy the cool night air, when with a gradual bump, I had reached the ground. Then, I looked up at my distant window, and the beaming faces of the fellow Dudes, and tried not to let my body shake completely with the terror and relief that cascaded through it. Minutes later, the delivery man appeared, and commented not on our odd meeting spot on a corner, nor the tangles of rope I had around me. Pizza in hand, I resigned myself to the rough, chafing, and bone-chilling jerks of being hoisted back to my room. The sweet taste of having cheated death provided the pizza with an extra savory topping as all of us basked in our mutual glory of having defied curfew.

With success in hand, it was a given that we could attempt the same technique for other late night take-outs. Seven days had gone by since the initial attempt, and I was becoming habituated to the adrenaline that coursed through my veins on each ascent and descent. On the eighth night, our group was vigorously discussing who to call for food, when uncouth sounds sprang from the now not so distant street below. As I was closest to the sill, I looked down to see two total strangers. While this was not surprising, the fact that one was brandishing a pipe was quite odd. The dialogue that followed made it particularly clear that the non-pipe holding personage was in fact, being mugged. The icy thud of a pipe breaking bone in the victim’s left leg cleared any doubts from our mind. As I was already outfitted in my harness, our course of action was clear. As the victim’s cry of agony reached our ears, I was waiving at the other Dudes to assume rope positions, and with one foot out the window, hissed frantically “Belay on!”

Darkened windows sped by my feet as I rushed toward the street. With easy effort, I was able to channel a primal scream at the attacker as gravity dragged me down. I didn’t see him flee, but I could hear the quick and definite patter of feet running down the street away from the corner. By the time I hit the street, pipe and mugger were long gone, leaving the victim moaning. Just as I was about to render medical assistance to the victim, the telltale wail of sirens rasped in my ears. Eyes wide, I grabbed on the rope which was now ascending frantically. Ignorant of blisters or any other slight pains, I clambered back up the rope as the others pulled. Once inside, we quickly doused the lights and peeped quietly out the window as the police and ambulances helped the victim. The next morning the rope was in the trash, and for the rest of our term, we had to bear our hunger pains until breakfast was served. Fortunately for us, I doubt the victim ever noticed me because of the pipe wounds, else we would have had some very elaborate explaining to do. However, the next time we usurped the Head Table at supper, we had no doubt of our qualifications to be there.