The Obstacle Courseby J. F. Freedman
After growing up in a hardscrabble Maryland town, a teenage boy will stop at nothing to pursue his dream
It’s 1957, and fifteen-year-old Roy Poole has again been awakened by the nightly argument between his mother, his sister, and his hard-drinking father. Roy sneaks away after the old man passes out, and hitches a ride to the US Naval Academy/b>… See more details below
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After growing up in a hardscrabble Maryland town, a teenage boy will stop at nothing to pursue his dream
It’s 1957, and fifteen-year-old Roy Poole has again been awakened by the nightly argument between his mother, his sister, and his hard-drinking father. Roy sneaks away after the old man passes out, and hitches a ride to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, to use its brutal obstacle course, which he can run better than most midshipmen. Whenever he’s navigating the ropes, gullies, and jumps, Roy finds that he’s able to leave his troubles behind.
Roy’s dream is to join the Academy as a midshipman, but after years of bad grades and mishaps, Annapolis is a long shot. When a chance encounter with a retired admiral sets him on the path to a better life, Roy will face his greatest obstacle yet.
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The Obstacle Course
By J. F. Freedman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 J. F. Freedman
All rights reserved.
The reason I got here so early, here being the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, was 'cause my old man came home around one-thirty in the morning drunker'n shit and woke the whole damn house up, staggering around, bumping into every stick of furniture in the damn house and swearing to beat the band. He and my old lady got into it real hot and heavy like they always do when he comes home in the bag, which is at least once a week, usually more. My sister Ruthie, who's in the eleventh grade and has a set on her like Cadillac bumpers—36DD, I swear to God, I know 'cause she's always hanging her bras and stockings in the bathroom, there's no way I couldn't see how big they were even if I was a blind man—she got into it and tried to separate them, which did a lot of good, all that happened was he got on her case worse'n my mom's, they all wound up yelling and cussing out each other.
I laid in bed and watched the snow come down. I need that kind of shit like I need another asshole.
They all went back to bed, but I couldn't fall asleep again. I hate that, people getting drunk and yelling and cursing each other. I don't know why my mom doesn't leave my dad, she hates his guts, she tells him "I hate your goddamn guts, you sonofabitch," she'll get right in his face, even though she knows he might coldcock her, even though she is a woman. That fucker gets drunk he's liable to do anything.
More than anything, what I want, except to come to the Naval Academy and be a midshipman, is to get out of my house. I'm going to, too. The day I turn sixteen and get my own wheels I'm out of here, I shit you not.
I jacked off again to try to get back to sleep but that didn't do any good, I was too worked up from all that commotion, they could wake up a goddamn graveyard the way they yell and bitch at each other, so I got dressed and went downstairs. My old man was laid out on the sofa, cold as a fish, pukey drunk-dribble coming out of his mouth, I could've shot off a shotgun in his ear he wouldn't have moved. He's a pretty tall guy, when he was my age he was skinny like me, but now he's got a beer-gut on him like he's got his bowling bag stuffed inside his shirt. He's pretty good-looking, actually, he's still got all his hair and teeth, he's always had this kind of mean-nasty truck-stop look about him that a lot of women seem to like, although his act wore out with my old lady a long time ago. I lifted a couple of bucks out of his wallet; he wouldn't know if he had five dollars or fifty in there, condition he was in. I figured he owed me. I didn't give a shit anyway—better his own son borrowing a few bucks than having him throw it at some barmaid down at the Dixie Bar & Grill.
Practically as soon as I stuck my thumb out I got a ride straight to Annapolis, a bunch of good ol' boys going over to the Eastern Shore to duck hunt, happy as hell even though it was four-thirty in the morning. I went duck hunting once, last year, with Burt Kellogg and his brother and old man and a bunch of their friends. I didn't feature it all that much—you sit around colder and wetter than shit waiting for a bunch of dumb birds to fly close enough so you can blow their asses off. Burt's dad, he eats it on a stick—drinking coffee and booze with your buddies, getting away from everything. He's a cool guy. He gets drinking, everything's real easy. Like these hunters. Some guys they start drinking, they get real funny and mellow. Other guys get mean and fucked-up. I got lucky—I got the mean, fucked-up kind.
I folded my jacket carefully, wrapping it up in newspapers to keep it from getting wet from the snow, and laid it on one of the wooden benches. It's not that good a jacket, actually it's pretty ratty, but it's the only one I've got and my old man would tar my ass something fierce if I lost it, so I take real good care of it. I lost a jacket two years ago, I put it down and somebody walked off with it—a nigger probably although I couldn't prove it for sure—and my old man just about had a hemorrhage. I had to go without a jacket for a month until my mom talked him into getting me this one. It was wintertime, too, colder'n shit, I liked to freeze my cookies off walking to school. It'll make you a man, was the way my old man put it. Like he knows what the hell it takes to make anyone a man.
It was still snowing, falling down easy, the flakes large and wet, laying a smooth blanket a foot deep.
The campus was quiet. Nothing was moving except the boats moored on the water, the Severn River. The sky was gray-white with the snow. No one was awake. Dawn and the sun were still an hour away.
It's an old campus in an old town. The buildings are stone and wood. A place for serious business; a place to become a man. That's what I've always thought, ever since I started coming up here as a little boy, first with my family, then by myself.
This is where I'd learn to be a man. That's why I come all the time.
The athletic fields were beautiful under the snow. Icicles hung from the metal basketball nets and the wire-mesh batting cages.
All the way at the back was the obstacle course. It's this great big area, a good two and a half times larger than a football field. It can be murder running this thing, I've seen midshipmen who thought they were in good shape puke after running it just one time. It has thirty-six separate obstacles, and not one of them a piece of cake. Twenty-five-foot rope ladders, twelve-foot-high walls of brick with intricate footholds, water-jumps fifteen feet across, all kinds of tough barriers, forming a circled track inside its fenced-in space.
I stood at the starting line.
Before I go any further I should probably tell you something about myself. Just the facts, like Jack Webb says. Okay; I'm fourteen years old, soon to turn fifteen, in the ninth grade, taller than average, and strong for my age. Well-coordinated, too—I've been playing Boys Club football and baseball since I was ten and I'm one of the best ones on the team, especially football. I play quarterback, and center field in baseball.
One thing about the way I look—I'm always surprised when I see myself in a mirror, because my face has this stubborn expression, like I'm pissed off at something, even when I'm not. My teachers call it my sullen look; they say I look like I'm never happy about anything, that I look on the world as my enemy, as if something's always out there to beat me down, fuck me over.
A lot of boys I know have this look—most of my friends, in fact.
But when I'm doing something I enjoy, like running the obstacle course, my look changes. I don't have to look in a mirror, either; I just know. Everything relaxes, my face, my body, it's like I'm weightless. Then I look like somebody about to fly, to really fly up into the clouds. I really have my head in the clouds here; but no one sees it.
It wasn't all that cold out. I was wearing my jeans and sneakers and a sweatshirt over my T-shirt and I wasn't hardly cold at all, when it's snowing it doesn't get so cold, something about the air and the moisture, we learned about that stuff in science class, but I didn't remember it, if I need to know a fact for some reason, which I will when I go here, I'll look it up in the encyclopedia. I like reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica—I've read it all the way through a bunch of times, because when I was in the third grade and my teacher, Mrs. Witcomb, would keep me in at recess for doing something bad like talking out of turn or carving my initials in my desk, I'd read from the encyclopedia. By the time I was finished third grade I'd read the whole thing, cover to cover, all eighteen volumes. The encyclopedia's pretty neat; you can learn a lot from books.
One thing about knowing things, though: you have to be careful where and how you use them. In Ravensburg, the town I live in, it's not cool to be too smart. People think you're putting on airs, too good for them, that kind of shit.
Actually, when I was in grade school, I was a good student; in grade school you could be a good student and still be cool. One term in fifth grade I got four A's and two B's. Even my parents had been impressed. In junior high, though, that stopped, almost from the day I walked in. One of the first things I learned was not only is it uncool to be smart as far as kids are concerned, teachers don't like it, either. Not the kind of smart where you think for yourself and say so. What they want is conformity, and above all, no hassles. Don't fuck with them, do your homework, be part of the crowd, and you're a solid B student, easy. I could never go along with that shit, so right out of the box I was branded as a troublemaker, which is the same thing in their puny little minds as a bad student, to the point where, even though I don't deep-down believe it, I acknowledge it. Anyway, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, that's one of my mottos.
I took some slow, deep breaths, clenching and unclenching my hands, shaking my fingers, rocking back and forth a few times.
Doing that stuff gets you loose, I learned it from watching these track guys, broad-jumpers, here and at the University of Maryland. It's cool-looking, too.
Then I started running.
I ran at a fast, steady pace, concentrating on nothing except the obstacle in front of me, and then the one after that. I took each easily and with assurance, landing lightly on the balls of my feet after each jump. This is what I'm best at, where I can lose myself in the dreams that careen around in my head, away from the bullshit that forces itself on me in ways beyond my control, ways I can't handle. When I run here there's nothing in the world to stop me, to tell me I'm less than perfect, which is how things go usually.
The thing I like the most about the obstacle course is that it's just me and it; you can't bullshit it, you can't fake it out with lies or promises. You run it, that's all. If you put in the effort you get rewarded, and if you slough it you know it. No one has to tell you.
There was no one around to watch, to applaud. That was fine; I prefer being on my own, in my solitary world, hearing the cheers inside my head, the roar of winning, with the snow ahead of me, clear and crusty, breaking under my stride.
I came to the end and stopped for a moment, deep-breathing, bent over, hands on thighs. Scooping up a chunk of snow, I made a couple of snowballs, hard ones, packing them tight as baseballs, and threw them at the nearest obstacle. They hit with a good hard thud, the sound echoing faintly in the quiet.
I took a deep breath and started to run the course again.
I ran the course five times. That isn't so many, I can do that many pretty easy, I'm faster on it than most of the midshipmen. I've got a lot of stamina for a kid my age. I ran it once twelve times in a row without stopping. That was last summer, when it was light out until nine-thirty. There were some midshipmen hanging around, working out, and they started watching me when I got going, then they started cheering for me, rooting me on, "come on, kid, keep going," they were yelling, counting the laps, one would join me for a lap and then he'd drop out and another one would take a lap with me. A whole bunch of them came over to watch, it was like a big party, they were laughing and yelling and really having a good time. I was, too.
Later on they took me over to Bancroft Hall and let me eat with them. It was really neat, they have good food there and plenty of it. Actually, it was one of the best days of my life. Probably the best day.
The sun came out while I was running. It looked like a slice of lemon, real pale yellow. It didn't get any warmer, though, actually it got colder, because the snow stopped falling. The day was really clear like it gets sometimes after it stops snowing, this kind of real hard, pale, metal-blue-looking kind of sky. All the big soft clouds drifted off, leaving these little finger clouds, real high in the sky.
Five times is about average for me. I could always come back and run more if I felt like it. I had sweated clear through my T-shirt and sweatshirt both; I was warm now, comfortable even without my jacket. My shirts were sticking to my chest so I plucked them away from my skin, the steam from my sweat rising up over my body, like it does after you take a real hot shower, the kind where the needles sting real good and your body gets as red as a lobster. I walked over to a patch of clean snow and fell straight back, keeping stiff so as not to spoil it, and then I moved my arms and legs to make an angel.
I just lay there for a while. Way off in the distance the bells of the Academy started chiming church carols. They do that every Sunday, it's really beautiful. I like getting up here early to hear them. I don't actually like going to church but I like hearing the bells. If you listen carefully you can hear the bells coming from town as well, they've got churches all over Annapolis, it's a really old town, the oldest state capital in the U.S., I learned that from the encyclopedia, too. In sixth-grade geography class we studied Maryland state history, I used to be able to name every county in Maryland. There's twenty-three of them. I know just about everything there is about Annapolis and the Naval Academy, I can be really smart when something interests me, I could be the smartest kid in my class if I felt like it.
I don't remember all twenty-three counties by heart anymore. If I need to know them again I'll look them up.
I was sitting under Tecumseh, a famous old statue of an Indian chief which is like a symbol of the Academy. It's outside Bancroft Hall, the main building where all the midshipmen live and eat. They can serve four thousand people at the same time, it's the biggest dining room I've ever seen—probably one of the biggest ones in the whole country, I'll bet.
The midshipmen were coming by in groups on their way to breakfast. On Sundays they can come to meals when they want. The rest of the week they march to meals in formation, the whole brigade. It's one of the coolest things you can see, all of them marching like one man, ramrod-straight in uniform.
One thing I love about the Academy is the uniforms. They're really neat-looking, summer and winter both. What's good is that they're all wearing the same thing. You don't have to worry about whether you're a cool dresser or not, or if you have enough money to buy all the right clothes or not. Some kids, just because they can't afford new clothes, are treated like shit. There's some kids in my class who've probably never had new clothes in their life, not even shoes. They have to wear their older brothers' or sisters' hand-me-downs. One girl in elementary school had to wear her older brother's clothes, even his shoes, which were big black brogans—clodhoppers, they're called. I really felt sorry for that girl, Clara Wilson. Her parents were sharecroppers and when the farm they shared on got sold they had to move. She was a nice girl, too, pretty and smart both, but all the other girls treated her like a leper. It wasn't her fault her folks were poor. If she was still around I'd probably be wanting to take her out. She really was pretty, even in fifth grade.
I was hungry as hell. You get hungry running the obstacle course as many times as I did. I could've gone into town and bought some breakfast, but I wanted to eat here, with all these guys. Sometimes I pretend I'm somebody's kid brother, visiting for the weekend. The problem is I don't have a brother, and if I did he sure wouldn't be here, not the way my family operates. That's another reason I want to get out when I'm old enough, because if the people here ever found out what kind of family I've got I could kiss my chances of getting in goodbye.
"Had your breakfast yet?"
I jumped up and fell in step with this midshipman. He was second-year, what they call a youngster, walking along all by his lonesome. I could tell his rank by the stripes on his uniform, I know all that shit, I've memorized it.
"Breakfast," I repeated. "Had yours yet?"
"On my way," he answered, glancing over at me.
"Take me in with you, will you?" I asked, trying to keep the whine out of my voice. Sometimes when I want something real bad my voice goes up so I sound like I'm about ten years old. I hate it when that happens. "You can bring guests in on the weekend," I told him, in case he didn't know.
"Only family." He knew.
"So tell 'em I'm your brother." He was walking fast, the way they do, but I kept up, matching him step for step.
Excerpted from The Obstacle Course by J. F. Freedman. Copyright © 1994 J. F. Freedman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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