Biomythography Note 67
The Gifted Have Fallen
In the autumn when I was fifteen, I got a plain white envelope in the mail. It was addressed to me, personally, and according to the return stamp in the upper left, the contents came from the University of Connecticut.
When I opened the packet, I discovered a small yellow slip inside. With my left hand, I pulled it out, puzzled over it for a moment, and noticed there was more. I dug into the envelope again and extracted one regular-sized, typewritten page. I unfolded it and read the University of Connecticut logo at the top.
"Another college?" my mother said. I was at a seat by the dining room table. My parents were cleaning up the dining room and kitchen. They seemed to be preparing to cook dinner although I hadn't asked. "It seems early."
This was the third university, I thought, and I was only a junior in high school. I hadn't applied anywhere. I didn't want to go to college. I was done with school. I desperately wanted to end it, to be completely done and free.
After I skimmed through, I paused to reflect on how I'd basically understood nothing on the paper. I didn't want to go to school anyhow and the letter wasn’t telling me what I expected. I thought I'd hear about the campus. This note was different. It basically said, now, now, now.
I checked the yellow slip. It had one of my breaststroke times on it, not my best one but my most recent. The writing marks of the digits were blue. I realized this was the middle page of a triplicate carbon copy. Someone had made a decision based on this. They'd sent me part of the triplicate as an explanation.
With my left hand, I raised the letter once more and looked at it more seriously. I could tell by the first paragraph this was a recruiting message. The University of Connecticut was offering me a $2000 swimming scholarship. They didn’t mention the cost of tuition or room and board at the University. They just said I needed to decide now. I needed to join right away.
“They want me to attend this semester?” I turned the page. The back was blank. I flipped it over to read again. Yes, the essential point was definitely that the college needed a breaststroker for their men’s relay team. If I applied to the University of Connecticut now, they would accept me for the next term. I'd start swimming as soon as I got there.
Someone leaned over my right shoulder to look at the letter. From the nice smell and the padded sleeve of her white blouse, I knew it was my mother.
"Does Connecticut have a university?” I asked her. She frowned at the short paragraphs in the recruitment letter. “Is it a real place?"
"It might be," she said. She gave me a thoughtful look. Then she directed her gaze across the room to my father. Her uncertainty led me to a new line of inquiry.
"Does every state have a university?" I called to him.
"Maybe." He raised his eyebrows. After a moment, he made a decision and nodded. “Yes, probably. I'm pretty sure there's a university in South Dakota. That means every state has got one.”
At the time, I didn't follow his reasoning. Nowadays, that sentence makes sense.
In 1978, we couldn't look things up except by driving to a library and grabbing a bunch of college guides, which we weren't allowed to check out and take home. Plus we were all discovering, bit by bit, we had been taught a lot of traditional wisdom that wasn't true. We had doubts, generally, and always saw reasons to do further reading. But my father's logic was good. It seemed like a weird concept. But the University of Connecticut was probably real.
As an aside, despite how I insisted to my parents that I didn't want to go to school, both of them were sure I was headed for college anyway. They were paying for me to go to a private prep school, after all, where I was doing well enough, in their view, to skip a bunch of required college classes wherever I went. That was the view of some of my teachers. It was the view coming back from a few placement tests I had taken. I seemed to be the only one who disagreed. I was a shitty student. And college was a shitty idea.
I didn't want to see a classroom ever again. On the other hand, if I accepted a place at University of Connecticut, I could leave home. That had some appeal.
"What do you think?" I asked.
"I think you're fifteen," my mother said. Her cheeks flushed as she realized I was considering it. Her scowled deepened.
"Now, Ann." My father, who I despised, tried to intervene. "He's going to be young when he goes to college anyway."
"He's going to be seventeen, Bob. Not fifteen."
My parents ignored me during their argument. They went on about college for a while and it gave me time to think. Although I hated school, at this point I hated swimming even more. I liked the other kids in the pool, of course. But the mindless laps and the boredom of actual swimming wore me down. These days, I worked out with the National Training Group in Rockville. There, my separation from the girls in the supposedly faster male-only lanes removed the one element to practice that broke up the tedium and made the hard slog through the pain seem bearable.
Also, out of spite I didn’t want to come in on my dad’s side.
"The girls in Connecticut wouldn’t like me anyhow," I rationalized.
"They'll be nineteen." My mother turned on me. She didn't want to call me unattractive but she was happy to point out the fairly obvious social challenges of going to college immediately.
"So?" I wanted to contradict her even if it meant turning back against my own point. "I'll be sixteen in a few months."
"They will turn twenty." My mother folded her arms.
I had to shrug. Probably women that old wouldn't even look in my direction.
"At least I could see them," I responded. "I'm not allowed to see the girls here."
That was an exaggeration. We lived surrounded by farms and forests. Our isolation was so effective that any level of hyperbole about it felt true.
"I've driven you on two dates," my mother snapped.
My mouth opened. I closed it. We seemed to be headed down a conversational road I hadn't meant to drive onto. My mother might win the argument even though I felt completely right.
There were girls here, not far from me by car. I mostly wasn’t allowed to see them - although I suppose my mother did help me out by driving, sometimes - and they were my age. They sent me letters. I met young women on swim teams and through my lifegaurding jobs. I gotten a dozen love notes from Mary, who I had tried to date last summer, and one from Jeannie, who still made my heart and head ache. And some of the girls, even at school, didn’t hate me completely, maybe. I was still trying to figure it out.
"But Ann," my father said, "it's a scholarship."
"He got one. He'll get more," my mother retorted.
My mother ended up being wrong, though. No more swimming scholarships arrived. That may have been because I hated swimming and stopped improving. I didn't have the foresight, though, to point out that was the direction I was headed. The argument of 'I am determined to suck' does not inspire parents much, anyway. I'm not sure anything I could said would have carried much weight.
"We can't turn down free offers," my father warned. "The next one that comes in, we should take it."
We didn't know we would get another, decidedly non-athletic offer a couple months later. For better or worse, the notice would come from the United States Navy.