Friday, July 29, 2016

Memoir Excerpt: Recruiting Visit

I've been writing a memoir about my family and my athletic career.  I'm not sure who's going to care about it, but this is a project that my wife and have been talking about for several years now.  Basically since my dad died.  In theory, we're going to sync our stories and talk about how we complete each other, how athletics and our marriage saved our lives.

Me and Sally in the Mess Hall during my 20th Reunion.
My half of this thing has grown to 55,000 words over about 150 pages.  This is the fifth book I've written, or the ninth if you count graphic novels, so at this point, I feel like I've got a system.  I started, as I normally do, by trying to tell a story to my kids.  Indeed, that may well be the future of this project; if it becomes little more than family lore, I'll be plenty satisfied.  I make it a goal to write for me, and if others have a use for my work, that's a bonus.  One way or another, writing is ultimately a lonely endeavor.

And yet, it helps to have a target audience.  Writing to someone, writing for specific effect, these things help frame the story.  It's easier to pick out what's important if you know who you're talking to and why.  Lately I've been writing to a hypothetical West Point candidate, a rising high school senior thinking about whether or not he or she wants to attend the U.S. Military Academy.  I don't know what such a person's life might hold, but I was them, I remember it well, and this is what happened to me.  Maybe that has some value.  I hope that it does.

West Point is a lifetime commitment.  Not because you'll necessarily serve in uniform for a lifetime--I certainly did not--but because your connection to The Long Gray Line is eternal.  I was on the phone with my old roommate just last night because he needed to talk, and that's what we do.  The guy has been there for me more times than I can count.  I love that son of a bitch.

That's life.  That's West Point.

I don't have a lot of family.  I have my wife and my classmates.  But you know what?  We're doing okay.

The excerpt below is the story of my recruiting trip.  To Harvard.

Swim, Bike, Run, Live, Love, Repeat (Working Title)
Chapter 4 (Excerpt): Recruiting Visit

Harvard turned out to be an ancient collection of brick buildings and concrete pathways that wound through grassy park-like open areas and underneath occasional stone and wrought iron archways.  The teeming heart of Cambridge lay just beyond the campus’s borders, making Harvard feel very much a part of the city in which it lived.  For all that this was the Ivy League, I saw very little actual ivy, though this may well have been because my visit occurred in early March.  It was spring in Tampa, Florida, but the bite of winter still hung heavy in the air around Boston.  The coaching staff picked me up alongside another pair of recruits and dropped us with one of Harvard’s swimmers who then served as an escort.  I took in a freshman biology course in an auditorium but was disappointed to see the same material we’d been learning in AP Biology back at Chamberlain.  Fortunately, the class neither lasted particularly long nor appeared to have engaged anyone’s complete attention.  Even the adjunct teaching it seemed like he didn’t really need to be there.

We went on a walking tour of campus after class that quickly became a blur of sensory impressions.  The campus was organized around neighborhood-like dormitory buildings, each filled with apartment-style rooms in a variety of layouts.  Grass-filled city square parks lay between the dorms, giving space and a shared sense of community to the campus as a whole.  People were everywhere outside, even in March.  These weren’t high school students; they were the serious men and women of Harvard, going about the business of building their future lives.  We stopped into one guy’s apartment, and I flipped through a copy of Playboy magazine that he had left lying out on his coffee table, marveling that it just sat there out in the open.  At length, I realized that there weren’t any parents around, that these guys all had the freedom to do pretty much anything they wanted.  That this was as true at Harvard as it would have been at Florida State.

We went to swim practice.  Harvard had a substantial natatorium, painted off-white with the Crimson logo facing the bleachers.  The swimming center wasn’t nearly the size of the dual fifty-meter competition facility I’d see back at the University of Tennessee, but it was plenty big enough to host a team, even a team with world-class talent.  In the early 1990s, Harvard was in and out of the NCAA’s top twenty-five.  Olympic gold medalist David Berkoff had swum at Harvard on his way to glory in Seoul in 1988.  We met the coach, sat down, and watched the guys swim.  A wooden sign fell down in the middle of practice, and one of the sprinters climbed out of the water, grabbed a gorgeous, fully-stocked leather carpenter’s belt that he apparently kept with him all the time, climbed halfway up the bleachers, and proceeded to make makeshift repairs right on the spot.  It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen.

Yes, this was Harvard.  Yes, these guys were all incredibly versatile.

I was overwhelmed to say the very least.

We left the pool and walked to the weight room where we met Berkoff himself.  He’d won gold in the the Olympics as a backstroker by maximizing his blastoffs, dolphin kicking for forty or more yards at a stretch on his back underwater.  That innovation changed swimming forever.  Nearly every swimming race now makes at least some use of the techniques that Berkoff pioneered.  And there I was, no shit, standing slack-jawed while a literal legend described training for glory.  I asked him how he did it, and he said that he trained in the weight room holding his breath.
“It makes your quads burn,” he said.

One of the other guys asked him how he kept from getting water up his nose, and he just smiled.  “I don’t.  I suck it up because that was what it takes.”
I was awed, and he caught me staring.  “What are you looking so star-struck for?”
“Are you kidding?  You’re David Berkoff.  You’re an Olympic champion!”  To be fair, I’d also met Janet Evans out at Western Zones back in 1988, but this was different.  Not only had Berkoff changed the face of swimming, here he was trying to recruit me to his alma mater.
“Listen man,” he said seriously, “this is Harvard.  This is the best there is, and you’re not here hat-in-hand.  They want you.  You must have realized by now that if anything anybody else can do it, you can do it, too?”
“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess that’s true.”
“It is true.  You know it’s true.  This is as good as it gets, and you’ve made it.  Whether you meet an Olympic champion or the Queen of England, stand with your head held high and realize that they’re no better than you are.  Always deal with those people as equals.”
A good piece of advice.
I wandered out of there in a daze, and the rest of the afternoon went by in a rush of images.  Dinner at a dining hall, improv theater at something like a student union, a party at one the school’s infamous Eating Clubs, part of the original fraternity system.  I had five beers from the keg and got drunk for the first time in my life.  I was on a recruiting trip to Harvard.  Whatever else happened, it didn’t seem likely that a little alcohol was going to ruin my life.  We stumbled back arm-in-arm towards the room where we were staying.  I felt warm and accepted.
This would be a good life, I thought.  It’s maybe not the life I’d planned, but it would certainly be a life worth living.
We got up the next morning and went back to the pool.  Of the three recruits on that trip, I was the only one who hadn’t formally committed.  The coach pulled me aside, and I knew what was coming.
“Where else are you looking?” he asked.
Whatever I say, I thought, he’s about to tell me why Harvard is better.  I sat up straight, mindful of what Berkoff had told me only a day before.  “The only other place is West Point, coach.  It’s either here or there.”
A funny look ran across the coach’s face, and then he shook his head.  “Well, I can’t say anything bad about West Point.  If you were interested in anyplace else in the world, I would tell you that Harvard is better.  But West Point…  If that’s what you want to do with your life, you won’t do any better than that.  You’ll certainly get a fine education.”
And there it is, I realized.  It’s not about which school is better.  These are the two best schools.  What I have to decide is what kind of man I want to be.

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