We were there to see the magnificent stained glass windows high up above the altar in the chapel of Kings College in Oxford.
It wasn’t the first trip we had made as part of the course we were taking — Art History From the Reformation. In fact, it was the sixth, and my reputation for finding courses we could take which were both fun and educational was at an all-time low.
The “we” in that last sentence were the 21 men in my small outfit on RAF Upper Heyford, an air training command detachment whose mission it was to teach technical courses for the base.
I had spotted this art history course on a list of extension courses being offered by Oxford University, and it sounded almost perfect after I called and asked a few questions.
To begin with, they were willing, as they had been in the past, to hold the course right in my own large, well-furnished and air conditioned classroom, provided I could get enough men or women signed up for it.
In fact, they even agreed to hold the course one hour a day, five days a week, during lunch.
“Except, of course,” I was told, “for the field trips.”
I wasn’t worried about field trips. I knew that with a course that was offered during lunch instead of in the evenings, I could scare up the necessary 15 students in a heartbeat. In fact, when I told the guys in my outfit about it, six of them signed up on the spot. That made seven including me. A half dozen calls around the base got me the other eight men in less than an hour.
A surprisingly large number of men and women on RAF Upper Heyford were doing the same thing I was doing, building up semester hours for college.
The rosters usually filled right up. Of course, we had to pay for the courses, but the fees were fairly small because the Air Force picked up part of the tab.
Anyway, my recruiting pitch for the course was a winner. I said it was a “free three” — three semester hours credit for just sitting and listening while you munched your lunch. But then the course started and I found myself in hot water.
The field trips of course.
Who knew there were seven of them? Or that attendance on at least six was mandatory?
On the first field trip we went to a museum over a hundred miles away in Cambridge. For each of the next four, we drove to London, about 70 miles away. We studied the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Gallery, the British Museum.
And here we were on our sixth field trip, the next to last, in Oxford, fortunately just 12 miles from the base. We had already been to the Ashmolean Museum and now we were in the chapel of Kings College at Oxford University.
I had seen “chapels” before of course. We all had. There was a chapel on every base, usually a small, wooden structure of some sort built to serve all faiths. They were OK in their own way, but certainly nothing to talk about.
But this ... ?
Had I not known where I was, I would have thought I had stumbled into a cathedral. And I think I could have been forgiven for making that mistake.
In my mind, accustomed to thinking in New World terms, a building so much larger than the church I attended as a boy was no chapel.
Its granite walls, topped by gothic arches and lined with tall, stained glass windows, along with row after row of highly polished hardwood pews, together with four utterly magnificent stained glass windows high above the altar, at which we stared open-mouthed as we entered, said “cathedral” to me.
The silence was deafening. We quietly tread down the carpeted center aisle, looking around at stone, marble, richly polished wood, and stained glass.
We were usually a noisy bunch, but no one said a word this time, and just as the instructor pointed his hand upward at the four saints depicted above the altar — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — and opened his mouth to say something, the air suddenly filled with the sound of a Gregorian chant.
Coming from the choir loft above and behind us, 20 male voices broke into a medieval paean to the Lord.
The instructor signaled us to sit down and we did. For more than 20 minutes we sat there in that great open space, our eyes filled with the sight of sunlight streaming through four great stained glass windows and our ears filled with the sound of the all-male choir.
It was beyond a doubt one of the most beautiful moments of my life, and all the more beautiful because it was so completely unexpected.
Afterward, outside the building, a couple of buddies from my outfit, a pair who had been leaning on me pretty hard about talking them into taking the course, sidled over to me.
“Garrett,” one of them said, “I gotta admit, that was really something. I guess you’re off the hook for that free three thing.”
The other one grinned. “Yeah, I guess you can’t beat a guy who has God lined up his side.”
I kept my mouth shut. I may not be too smart at times, but at least I know when to keep quiet.
Then our instructor called us over, beaming from ear to ear.
“Well,” he said, “I rather suspect that you gentlemen have had a taste of what it must have been like back in the Middle Ages as ordinary people knelt in church each Sunday.
“There can be no doubt that the sights and sounds they experienced in a structure such as the one you have just seen contrasted strongly with the mud floors and rough structures to which much of the peasantry was accustomed. It had, I am sure, a marked effect on their beliefs.”
Smiling, he paused for effect. “And now, having kept it, as you know, for a surprise, I wish to announce the destination of our final field trip.”
He paused again. “It will be the Louvre, in Paris. Now we will meet here in Oxford on that morning, and from here ...”
Well, there went my reprieve.
I never did live down that “free three” thing.