Authors: JF Freedman
|The Obstacle Course|
I want to be like one of those who race
With bolting steeds across the night-black air,
With flaming torches like unfastened hair
Aflutter in the stormwind of their chase.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Boy”
(translated by Walter Arndt)
This story takes place in southern Maryland, from January to June, 1957
HE 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
—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.