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The Bump Races come in two sets, late in January and early in May. They are rowed for six days, Thursday through Saturday and Monday through Wednesday. The colloquial name for the January races is Toggers; the formal one, Torpids; but no one could tell me why. The May races are called Eights, and they are quite social. If you have a girl, you bring her, give her luncheons of hock and lobster mayonnaise and she sits on the top of your barge to watch you sweat. Toggers are grimmer because January is grimmer.
Bump races are examples of much made of little. The Thames is a small river at Oxford; in fact, I think Ralph Boston could jump over it at a place called the Gut if he took a good run. There were about 25 rowing colleges at Oxford, and each college put two boats in the river, the larger colleges, like Balliol, three, sometimes four, so there were perhaps 60 in all. I doubt if you could row 60 eight-oared shells abreast at Poughkeepsie, and you certainly can't on the Isis, so they start one behind another and chase the one in front.
Small stakes are driven into the bank 60 feet apart. To each stake a rope 60 feet long is fixed. The cox holds the other end and lets the boat drift until it is taut. Each boat has a starter. Five minutes before time all the starters gather at a little brass cannon in a hayfield to synchronize their stopwatches with a chronometer. Then they come back and stand on the bank beside their boats saying, "Two minutes gone. Three minutes gone," to the yawning oarsmen in the river below. In the last minute they count off the quarters, and finally, "10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, come forward, are you ready?" and "Bang!" goes the little brass cannon. The college bargeman gives you a hell of a shove with a boathook and away you go, the cox howling the beat at about 50 strokes a minute. It is very common to black out completely during the first 30 seconds. As soon as you are under way, the stroke drops to about 40, but not much less, because the course from Iffley lock to the top of the barges is only about a mile and a half.
Most of the members of your college are scrambling along the towpath beside you, yelling and shooting off guns. You can't tell whether the boat behind you is gaining, because you are watching Stroke's oar or your own, but if the cox's voice rises to a scream and he starts counting to raise the beat you know you are overtaking the boat ahead. When your bow overlaps his stern, the cox turns the rudder sharply. Bow touches stern. This is the bump.
When you make a bump, the next day your boat starts in the place of the bumped boat. You go up or down each day according to your prowess. The final aim, which may take several years to achieve, is to become Head of the River, the first boat in line.
I came back from Paris not in the best of shape. A wisdom tooth had started acting up. It ached and swelled monotonously. I made my apologies to Tom Smith, and he found another Six. For a week I tried to ignore it, hoping the swelling would go away. It didn't and I asked the dean to recommend a dentist. I found this man in what I took to be a large bedroom with the bed moved out. The walls were covered with flowered wallpaper, and a chromo of Watts's Hope hung on the wall. He sat me down in a chair with four legs. He took a look and, as God is my judge, he prescribed an infusion of camomile and poppyhead—not opium, poppyhead—with which to bathe the afflicted parts. I was not sleeping much and I was smoking about 50 Players a day, but I bathed away conscientiously. It didn't do any good. The swelling went gruesomely on. When I looked as if I were trying to conceal a scarlet pippin in my cheek I went back to the dentist and said, "Lance this, will you?" He bumbled and said at last, "I can't. I'm not a dental surgeon." So he took me to a real surgeon, who had his learning son in the office, and there before a blazing coal fire the three together gave me gas and lanced it. Afterward I didn't feel good, but at least I didn't feel like a bomb about to go off.
That night I was sitting in front of my fire, reading and bathing my wound with a little neat whisky when Tom Smith knocked at my door. He said that his No. 6 had just come down with a bad case of flu. Toggers started the next day. Would I care to fill in? It was so casual and the honor of the U.S.A. depended so heavily on it that I said I would be delighted—which was a lie.
On the first day of Toggers I was personally lucky. I had to row only the first six strokes. When the little brass cannon went off, we laid into the first strokes hard. The cox had just shouted, "Six!" when No. 7 in front of me caught a crab. If you are quick you can sometimes lie flat and let the oar pass over your head. Seven was not quick. He was probably blacked out, and the butt of the oar caught him in the belly and jackknifed him out of the boat. Falling, he broke his oar smack off at the rowlock. The boat staggered. There were cries of "Man overboard!" and Dawson-Grove, the cox, was yelling oaths like a banshee. I don't believe it is possible to overturn an eight-oared boat, but we nearly made it. In the confusion, Exeter came tearing into us from behind and sheared off all the oars on the bow side. It was a mess. No. 7 avoided having Exeter's keel bash his head in by cannily staying under water until after the collision; then he swam soggily ashore. Our race was over for that day and I was barely winded.
The next day, with new oars, we caught St. John's on the Green Bank and made a bump. In fact, we made five bumps in all during Toggers. If a boat makes five bumps in Toggers or four in Eights the college is required by custom to stand its members a Bump supper. It is a big jollification in honor of the Boat Club. The manciple (head chef) outdoes himself and provides a really good meal, with fresh soup (I think) and champagne at will. Alumni gather and there are sherry parties. Since many Oriel undergraduates study theology, many of its graduates are parsons, but Church of England clergy are not stuffy. They go to sherry parties, and they don't stand around with a glass in their hands for the look of things, either.
At our Bump supper the hall was in an uproar because of the sherry parties beforehand. Cheers were started but forgotten. Boating songs were begun, broken off and begun again. A stately portrait of Matthew Arnold, once an Oriel don, hung on the wall. A swaying youth, his boiled shirt coming out in welts from spilled champagne, pegged an orange from the centerpiece clean through Matthew's jaw just at the muttonchop. A bonfire sprang up in the front quad, fed by side tables, chairs and Van Gogh reproductions. The son of a Scottish laird broke into the provost's lodgings, stole all the shoes belonging to that good old man (now knighted for his translations of Aristotle) and hurled them all into the flames.