Updated: Mar 24, 2019
The Customs agent at Boston’s Logan International Airport gave me a quizzical stare. He seemed astonished that I had nothing to declare after spending nearly five months touring around Europe.
No Tower of London tea towel from England. No expensive wine from France. No tartan anything from Scotland.
Nothing. No souvenirs. At least not the kind you — or I — would expect to bring home after an extended visit.
When I arrived in London, my plan was to see the sights of Europe for a year, mostly by way of a bicycle. My first few weeks were spent taste-testing the countless varieties of ale in what seemed like most of London’s pubs.
After a side trip to Scotland — that included a search for “Nellie,” the Loch Ness monster — I determined it was time to push off on my two-wheeled journey. I purchased an English-built Dawes bike, with its Brooks leather saddle and all the necessary supplies, and pedaled joyfully through the southeastern portion of England and headed to France.
After spending several days along the Channel coast between Calais and Dieppe — which involved camping in parks and along country lanes — I decided to catch a ferry back to England to visit my friends before setting off on another adventure.
Heading into central London, with just a couple of miles to go to a well-deserved bath, my life changed forever. Not to mention the plans for my European trip.
As I approached a traffic rotary, I brought my bicycle alongside a truck. When the light turned green, both the vehicle and I headed to the left. That’s when things started to go wrong, or right as it turned out.
As the truck entered the rotary it came closer, leaving me with nowhere to go because of a railing running along the sidewalk. The truck picked up speed. I was frantically attempting to get out of the way. Suddenly, the stitching of my sweater was snagged by some rigging sticking out of the truck.
Faster and faster it went, and I was no longer in control of the situation. I was thrown to the pavement and run over, along with my bicycle, by the multi-wheeled vehicle. The story could end here, but it actually gets better.
I spent the next two months in St. Thomas’ Hospital recovering from my injuries. A broken collarbone. A fractured pelvis. A ruptured urethra. And more. But at least I had a nice view of the River Thames and the Houses of Parliament.
I also had the opportunity to meet some very nice people — and one person in particular.
She was a senior staff nurse. When she worked nights, she’d bring me hot cocoa when I couldn’t sleep and we’d talk, or play the game “I spy with my little eye.” Believe me when I say that throughout my eight-week hospital ordeal, ours was strictly a nurse-patient relationship, although subconsciously we were fast becoming good friends.
One of her duties was to assign student nurses to their daily chores. The fact that there was this young American stuck among a ward full of geriatric patients meant there were plenty of requests to be stationed at bed number 18 — mine. Frequent nurse rotation became one of her priorities.
We talked about everything. England was just mopping up after its involvement in the Falkland Islands War, so we chatted about that. We talked about places we’d been and where we grew up. We talked about past relationships. Very little escaped our attention.
When the topic turned to what I was going to do after leaving the hospital, it was a given that I had to return to the States at some point to undergo more surgery. The senior staff nurse was thinking about taking a vacation, possibly embarking on an African safari.
After that didn’t pan out for her, I suggested she come to the United States, and I’d be her guide back in my home state of Michigan. To my surprise, she agreed to the visit and, after departing the hospital on crutches, we got together over lunch a few days later to discuss the logistics of her trip that would take place in three months time.
We ended up spending much of the day together. Lunch at a place called Porter’s in Covent Garden. An afternoon full of talking and soaking up the sun in Hyde Park. When I dropped her off at her apartment, I said goodbye and stated I would see her again in August when she arrived in the U.S.
But things didn’t work out that way.
I had to return to St. Thomas’ due to complications arising from my still-healing injuries, and once again, our paths crossed. After leaving the hospital a final time, we decided to spend a week together in Cornwall. The bed and breakfast we stayed in — called the Warwick House — was situated at the foot of a steep cobblestone street, next to the sea.
Unable to walk very far, and with hills proving particularly difficult for me, our favorite pastime was to visit a little shop and feast on tea and scones with jam and clotted cream — thick, yellow and guaranteed to take years off your life.
Our relationship was growing stronger by the day. We kept remarking to each other that events were happening too fast. But our caution seemed to fly away with the sea breeze that was ever-present in Penzance.
We fell in love.
Nearby, there just happened to be a jeweler’s shop, and it seemed only natural to propose. She accepted, and we picked up the ring before heading back to London. In a span of just four weeks, we went from having our first date to becoming engaged.
Not the sort of time frame for everyone, but barely a day goes by that I don’t thank that truck driver for getting in my way while riding my bicycle.
Yes, I must confess, I didn’t come back empty-handed. My souvenir has been my Valentine for nearly 36 years.
Editor's note: The above article appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Strut & Axle, the membership publication of the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine.