Wednesday, August 8, 2018

#SBRLLR: Duty - Honor - Country (Part 5)

Whether it was my newfound work ethic or just simple physical maturity, cow year was my best in the pool by a wide margin.  I won my event at Navy for the third time, leading a trio of Army butterfliers to finish something like first, third, and fourth.  We lost the meet, decisively this time, but I found some peace with it for once, content in the knowledge that I’d at least done all that I could do.  I also scored a dual-meet win in the 100 Fly against Harvard later that same season, the only individual win for the Army team in the entire meet.  This was important because I felt like it proved that I hadn’t given up too terribly much in the pool to pursue my other dreams.  About midway through the season, Ray Bosse posted a list of top national collegiate times, and I saw myself ranked something like 90th overall in the 200 Butterfly.  
500th Night with Dave, his eventual wife Holly, and my girlfriend Marla.
Sure, there were faster swimmers, but this was not too bad.  In explaining to people how my collegiate swimming career was going, I began using this benchmark as a basic point of reference.
The Patriot League Championships were at Fordham that year, and with two years of team titles in a row, Ray took a chance and decided not to shave his top swimmers for the meet.  Instead, we set Easterns as our primary goal and tried to swim through Patriots in-stride.  That suited me perfectly because I tended to get a little less bounce from tapering than a lot of other guys did, but some of the guys struggled.  Army was in second place as we entered the meet’s final day with the 100 Butterfly set as one of the final events.  
By now, I’d lost this same race twice to the same man, who was from then meet-leading Fordham.  I knew again that my team needed me to perform.  He knew it, too, and as we sat in the Green Room before the race, he gave me an ice-cold stink eye.  I felt nervous, even a little unsettled, and for whatever reason, that stink eye left me jittery.  They called us out before I had time to get too deeply into my own head about it, fortunately, and when we hit the deck, they played Rage Against the Machine’s Bullet in the Head while we walked out towards the blocks.
Adrenaline hit me like a lightning blast.  The race had unexpectedly become a showdown against a guy I loathed, with the meet on the line and the pounding rhythms of Rage blaring from the sound system as the crowd looked on.  We stepped to the blocks, and I knew that this would be a memorable race, win or lose.  
We took our marks, and the starter sounded.
I hit the water at full power and never looked back.  I led every inch of that race and won my first and only outright Patriot League Championship in the 100 Butterfly.  It was arguably the best swim of my entire career.  Certainly it was the best sprint.
As I climbed from the water, my friend Stein, a year behind me at the Academy, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Dude.  That was the best race I’ve ever seen.”
Army took the lead after that race, and when the day ended, we’d clinched our third Patriot League title in three years.  I went a little faster in both my events the next week at Easterns when we finally shaved, and as a team, we wound up finishing an outstanding fourth at Easterns, two spots ahead of sixth-placed Navy.  That final 100 Fly at Patriots will always be the more personal victory, however.  That was the third and last time I ever felt truly great in the water.  
As they say, “There is no substitute for victory!”
* * *
Swim season ended, and life slowly took on a new sense of normalcy.  I went with the History Department to walk the battlefields of Normandy during spring break cow year, and it proved to be one of the most memorable experiences I’d ever had.  We walked the invasion beaches during the day, talking about the leadership it took to come ashore in the face of machine gun fire, and at nights I split bottles of wine with my friend Jen in the local cafés of Northern France.  Midway through the week, Colonel Cole Kingseed took us to a little Vietnamese place, a restaurant that a refugee had started following the chaos of Dien Bien Phu.  There he talked frankly about his three tours in Vietnam.  
“I don’t know if the war was a mistake,” he said over a bottle of Chinese Tiger Beer that night, “but it’s wrong to say that there was never anything good about the United States’ involvement.  A lot of guys tried to do good over there, and a lot of South Vietnamese really wanted us there and were grateful for our help defending their country.  
“You all need to understand that.  You need to understand all of this stuff at a deeper level than you can from just mimicking the slogans that you hear on TV.”
I returned to the Academy feeling all cultured and worldly.  My friends and I settled into a weekend routine that included live music and imported beer at pubs in and around Newburgh, New York, along with frequent visits to my parents’ house in Newport.  My friend Amber broke up with her longtime boyfriend just after spring break, and I gleefully introduced her to my then-roommate Matt.  They hit it off immediately, just as I myself started seeing a beautiful brown-haired girl named Marla, the daughter of a fellow West Pointer who lived just a few doors down from my folks at the Naval War College.  The four of us spent that spring bumming around downtown Newport, walking along the water, and taking in my folks’ “million dollar” view.  We spent one perfect afternoon flying kites on a bluff overlooking Newport Bay and another investigating the many hole-in-the-wall seafood shops that lined Newport Beach.  My favorite date saw Marla and me up at five a.m.  We drove down to the beach to watch the sunrise and then came home and fell asleep in each others’ arms, clothed but curled up comfortably together on my folks’ couch.
My dad served as bartender in those days, telling war stories from the Marine Corps and talking in general about the nature of service and of personal honor.  He frequently said, “Don’t be a pussy.”  By which he meant, “Don’t be a suck-up,” “Don’t be afraid to speak truth to power,” and “Be tough when toughness is called for.”  These sentiments were endearing, both because Dad was manifestly not a pussy and also because he said them in an inclusive way.  He didn’t see himself as some kind of gatekeeper.  He was inviting us into the Brotherhood of Arms, even Amber, who was our classmate and as welcome as any man inside my father’s circle.  He was especially inviting us into the Combat Arms.  He knew what our futures held, and he was excited for us.  
Still, my father’s sense of masculinity was decidedly old school.  He started mixing Fuzzy Navels37 for the girls one night while Matt and I looked on, and Matt said, “Sir, can I please have a Fuzzy Navel?
My dad laughed and said, “You can, but you’ll have to make it yourself and drink it outside.  The men are drinking scotch.”
Matt quoted that sentence endlessly afterwards.
Bonus shot: 500th Night with Marla.
By the time cow year ended, I was as happy as I’d ever been.  I knew who I was and who I wanted to be.  I was no longer a New Kid, nor would I ever be one again.  Instead, I was a member in good standing of the West Point Class of 1995.  I belonged.  I respected my classmates, and I respected the man that I was becoming.  I had a girlfriend that I liked, friends that I loved, and a place that I understood.  As I headed into my final year at the Academy, I was startled to realize that I’d lived at West Point longer than I’d ever lived anywhere in my entire life.
 Amazingly, the United States Military Academy had become my home.

37. Peach schnapps and orange juice, garnished with a slice of orange.

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