In Oxford dining halls a sconce is a penalty exacted in the spring of the year for some breach of taste or decorum. It is a welcome penalty, eagerly exacted. If you showed up late for dinner or wearing something odd like a turtleneck sweater or if you said something that could be remotely construed as offensive, you were sconced. Once I said something slightly off color.
"We'll have a sconce on you for that," the man next to me said. He wrote my offense in Latin on the back of a menu, "Seager dixit obscenissime" and had a waiter take it up to high table to be approved by the dean. It was a formality. The dean always approved sconces. "What will you take it in?" I was asked. In theory you had to drink a silver quart pot of some liquid, bottoms up. In practice you had no choice; custom said old beer. Once I saw a man take it in fresh cow's milk and he never lived it down. It is the sort of thing planters discuss in Kenya and Borneo 20 years later.
The strength of English beer is indicated by the number of Xs on the barrel. Ale is the weakest, one X. Bitter beer is two Xs. Old beer is five Xs, about as strong as sherry. It is never iced, but in college it comes from the cellars and it might as well be. It looks almost coal-black and it is as thick as stout. It is hard but not impossible to drink it all down at one go. If you do, the man who sconced you has to pay for it. If you fail, it is passed around the table like a loving cup. But the minute you set the pot down empty, you're drunk.
The Cambridge match was held at the Bath Club, then on Dover Street, London. It was a posh club. (I like the origin of posh. When people used to tour the Orient from England the most expensive cabins on the P&O boats, those that made the most of the prevailing winds and the least of the sun, were on the port side going and the starboard side returning, so the luggage for those cabins was marked P.O.S.H., that is "port out, starboard home.") We took an afternoon train down to London already dressed in white ties, black trousers and our blazers, and with an affectation of gaiety we sauntered up Piccadilly in the early evening and into the Bath Club. I knew I had to fear this Cambridge speedster, Hill, who had done 58 seconds, because I had done only 61 that season. (I had done 61 when I was a long, whey-faced boy of 15 in high school in Tennessee.) My fear was degrading. That's why I was mad: it was a real fear. And I felt that my teammates had begun to wonder when I was going to demonstrate that I didn't fit one of the stock British images of the American, lots of noise and no performance.
I figured I could take Hill in the 50 if I scrambled, but in the 100 I knew I would have to swim and I figured I could swim about 75 yards before I blew up. Since the English started slow and finished fast, I figured I would start fast, get a big lead, frighten him and finish on whatever I had left.
The Bath Club looked like a court levee, the ladies in those English evening gowns, the men in white ties and tail coats, and the Old Blues wore their blazers. Diamonds glittered. I detected dowagers with lorgnons, a colorful throng, posh. The club pool was 25 yards long on both sides, but it was dark at one end. Since you can bump your head into a goose egg or even oblivion if you slam into a turn you can't see, I wet a towel and hung it over the far end in my lane to make a white spot. As I walked back I heard resentful murmurs from the spectators, "He's an Ameddican," as if what I had done were cunning and illicit.
The 50-yard race went as I had expected. I scrambled. I won in a record time of 25 seconds. I went back to the dressing room to worry about the 100. Hill was a little fleshy fellow whose fat might hide more stamina than I had.
I swam the first two lengths of the 100 in 25 seconds, and after the third length I looked back at Hill. He was 30 feet behind, but I was not encouraged because I could tell I was going to blow up. I blew and finished the last 25 yards with a frantic overhand, dazzled by fatigue, my head out all the way so I could breathe. But I won by a yard, and they said it was a new record, 57 seconds. My teammates shouted and pounded me on the back as if I had done well. My shabby little victories gave Oxford the match.
The adulation of the English for sports figures is greater than that in this country, possibly because a sound sports record keeps a chap from being too "clever"—which is repugnant (Churchill was too clever by half, right up until the blitz). Let a man die who has not specially distinguished himself as an admiral, a cabinet member or a press lord, and if he has been a Blue, Oxon or Cantab, the obituary will very likely be headed OLD BLUE'S DEMISE. That is what is important. A few months after my victories I was having tea with some people at a public tearoom in Oxford.
A man came up to the table, a student, and said to me, "Is this Mr. Seager, the famous swimmer?"