The Devilfish & the Value of Delusion
“Wherever I may roam, where I lay my head is home…”
― Metallica, Wherever I May Roam
Midway through sixth grade, Dad got orders to become a ground force liaison to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina. Though my father professed that he had not much enjoyed his time at Headquarters Marine Corps professionally, the years we’d spent in and around Washington, D.C., had been a blessing for our family. We’d had time together, and we’d found a neighborhood community where we’d all felt we belonged.
|Our first Christmas in New Bern, NC.|
The first few weeks of my swimming career astonished my parents, but they recovered quickly. Mom volunteered to be a Timer and then the Clerk of Course for Camelot’s dual meets, learning first to run an official swim meet stopwatch and later to manage the office work associated with scoring a meet and handing out finishers’ ribbons. Once my father realized that I was a real swimmer, he began to read books about swimming, and he talked to my coaches at every opportunity. He still couldn’t swim particularly well himself, but he became a credible Stroke and Turn Judge3 and then a Meet Referee. When that first summer ended, my parents enrolled me in a once-a-week winter swimming program, and I continued to improve. After fifth grade, we went up to training twice per week during the offseason, and I had my first experience with interval training4. My swimming improved exponentially. We started packing for North Carolina as sixth grade ended, and it was during this final summer with Camelot that I truly stood out for the first time. I barely ever lost a race, and by midseason I’d qualified for the NVSL All-Star championship meet as an individual—in the 50 Butterfly.
We were scheduled to leave two weeks before the All-Stars.
“But you’re coming back, right?” my friends all asked. “I mean, you have to come back for the championship. That’s a Big Deal.”
My friends and I stood around in a clump at the end of that summer’s last dual meet. I’d done well that day, winning my race easily and leading our relay team to victory as well. Summer was ending, though, and now we were just a bunch of skinny boys standing around in a circle, trying to figure out what came next. My friends were all headed to the same middle school in Fairfax County, Virginia. All that stood between me and my next move was the All-Star meet.
“I don’t know,” I said. I looked to my parents, but they refused to commit either way.
We talked about this endlessly over the next week, and eventually my folks relented, agreeing that the championship was indeed a Big Deal, though they agreed only grudgingly. With the chaos of our latest move, however, those next two weeks were filled with everything but swimming.
We’d had a nice house in Annandale, a substantial suburban home that my parents had rented on a quiet cul-de-sac in an eminently respectable residential neighborhood. My parents rented that house, though, because they’d not been able to afford to buy in Northern Virginia’s heated housing market. This had bothered my mother, a former realtor and collegiate business major. At the same time, my father was by now a major in the Marine Corps with a decent amount of time-in-grade. He’d become a serious, midcareer professional and had the salary to prove it. He’d become the kind of officer that the Marines could trust with complicated independent assignments well outside his particular expertise.
Compared to Northern Virginia, the costs of owning property in rural North Carolina were negligible. Moreover, the proximity of Cherry Point to the much larger Camp Lejeune, home of the entire 2nd Marine Division, offered my parents the kind of long-term vision of the future that afflicts many military families as their children approach high school age. Dad figured that if he planned his career carefully, he could spend the next six years bouncing between Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune, allowing our family to truly settle for the first time in our entire lives. After umpteen military moves, we would finally set down roots. I would go to junior high school and then high school in the same basic location.
For my image-conscious mother, this chance at a “normal” life was paramount. I’d made friends easily in elementary school in Washington, but Mom was horrified by the idea of my having to be a New Kid in high school. As my mother explained at every possible opportunity, teenaged bonding was considerably more fraught than was bonding at younger ages. Besides, everyone knew that New Kids weren’t cool. The idea that I might be uncool in high school was completely unacceptable.
After a brief map reconnaissance and a bit of rumor-mongering about the quality of the local schools, my folks bought a monstrous, Ponderosa-sized two-story ranch on three-quarters of an acre of land in scenic Riverbend, a decidedly upscale subdivision just outside of New Bern, North Carolina. Our new house had a great room, a kitchen with a breakfast nook, a separate dining room, four palatial bedrooms (one unfinished), and a large two-car garage. The house itself was new construction. It overlooked an enormous expanse of sand when we moved in that my father and I laboriously planted with two-by-two inch squares of centipede grass sod. We had to cut that sod by hand from larger two-by-four foot sheets using Dad’s old hand-axe. Once that single, back-breaking weekend was finished, however, our new house became the nicest place that I had even lived. Our next-door neighbors were another Marine family, the Carswells, and they had two sons, Chris, who was my age, and Jax, who was two years older. I hit it off reasonably well with both but ultimately had more in common with Jax, a fellow comic book fan and enthusiast of both Dungeons and Dragons and the Marvel Superheroes roleplaying game.
It looked to be an ideal situation. New Bern had once been the colonial capital of the Carolinas. Set between the Neuse and Trent Rivers, it was home to Fort Tryon, the colonial seat of government and a legitimate tourist destination. When we lived there, the town also possessed a large Weyerhaeuser paper mill, and this—along with local tobacco farming—supported the regional economy and created a substantial number of middle- and upper-middle class jobs and giving my parents a legitimate adult peer group. H.J. MacDonald Middle School offered a “gifted and talented” program based around a weekly “Quiz Bowl” current events competition as well, and this forced me to get my first subscription to Newsweek magazine.
New Bern also boasted the nicest Presbyterian church I’d ever seen. Located downtown, the site was dominated by a large white wooden antebellum sanctuary with ancient wooden pews set both on the hardwood sanctuary floor and in a balcony surrounding the pulpit. Among other programs, the church maintained a well-run, industrial-scale youth ministry program to which my parents became dedicated volunteers.
Our house was so close to the Neuse River that our dogs, a pair of glorious golden retrievers named Molly and Samantha, could go swimming unescorted. Similarly, my friends and I had unescorted bicycling privileges all across Riverbend, which was not exactly a gated-community, per se, but which was nevertheless a fully incorporated town with its own municipal government and police force and exactly one access road in and out.
Our “town” always kept a cop car parked on that access road to keep out the riff-raff.
Jax, Chris, and I met out in front of my family’s new house the day after we moved in. My head was still spinning from my sudden change in circumstance, and it got worse once Chris and I started talking.
He gave me a quick once-over and then said, “Hey man, can you skate?”
“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
He snickered, seemingly enjoying my discomfort. “Dude, if you can’t ride a skateboard, you’ll never make any friends. Your social life is over!”
“Really?” I hadn’t yet realized that I even needed a social life.
“You better not fart, either,” Chris said. “Then you really won’t have any friends!”
“Yeah man,” Jax snickered. “Don’t ever fart. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
Good God, I thought. What in Hell have I gotten myself into here?
3. The Stroke and Turn judge ensures that swimmers follow the technical rules for each stroke, both when swimming and when executing flip-turns.
4. Interval Training alternates periods of intense effort with periods of rest in order to build overall fitness and high-end aerobic capacity.