The Gifted Have Fallen
My father gave me a curious look. I set aside the envelope he passed me without glancing up from my book.
When my eyes got tired of the cheap, pulpy pages, I reached to the style section of the newspaper. From the bottom, I tore a scrap of newspaper to use as a bookmark. I slid it into place and shut the paperback around it. For a moment, I rested my eyes. But then I noticed the envelope to my right, grabbed it, and ripped it open. As I did, I glimpsed the return address, which read Gifted and Talented.
"Ugh." This had to be more unwanted college admissions material.
Inside the envelope, I found a fancy page with a United States Naval Academy logo at the top. The printing was too good, as if it were all meant for someone else. Along with it, someone had included a computer printout generated by a fancy line printer with multiple colors of ink ribbons. Although the letters were a trifle fuzzy around the edges, they provided blue and black bolded words on the pink card stock. It was kind of cool.
The text was full of weird, formal phrases. Gifted, gifted, gifted, it said. Come visit.
"Why would the navy invite me to spring break camp?" I waved the notice to my parents. "I don't go to camps."
My father put his pencil down from his Washington Post crossword puzzle. My mother ignored us and kept on cleaning pots in the sink. So my father and I contemplated the message together.
"Did you apply for something?" he wondered.
"Well, this looks real enough." He had worked for the military and later for a federal agency as a civilian, so I supposed he knew what forms the government used for these things.
The more I re-read the letter, though, the more I became convinced the Navy had made a mistake. They really meant this for someone else, someone gifted and talented and nice and dutiful. Someone who wanted to be in the Navy, probably. I wasn't any of that. Of course, the camp promised a week away from my parents. They even said my parents were forbidden to visit. (They apologized for it but to me it seemed amazingly great, like a fantasy.) I wouldn't have to pay anything to escape my home. And my chances to escape had been rare so far.
"I'm not skipping driver's education," I remembered. That would start at the local public school in the summer. Now that I was sixteen, I wanted the benefits of my four-year-long war of sleeplessness against my parents. I had made them drive me everywhere. I'd made them get up at four in the morning and return home, back and forth, all day for every day I could arrange things on my schedule. Finally, my mother had agreed I should drive. I was determined to make my parents let me take the class.
"This navy camp is free," my father pointed out. "You don't have to wear a uniform. You don't march around. It sounds nice. I could move the driver's ed class."
Wow, my father really hated the military. He hated letting me enroll in driver's ed. I could only guess that he really liked getting something for free. I did, too.
"The dates don't conflict," my mother pointed out. She could read the notice from four feet away, apparently. She had been glancing in my direction as she worked.
"Should I go? Maybe it's not real. It could be a scam." Although I didn't assume it was, the offer did seem outlandish. The Navy's description of the camp made it seem too good to be true.
"They say your invitation is based on your PSAT score," my father murmured. "I don't think anyone not in colleges or military academies can see those."
"It's real," chimed my mother.
That day, I signed up. The pre-military experience was something I did to myself. It was all for a free vacation, a break from my parents. I didn't foresee how stupid I was going to be.
Actually, I did have a sense of it. I dreaded my own social stupidity even as I filled out the forms. I anticipated the awfulness of my behavior with a gray-souled, spotty-visioned, hand-sweating feeling of panic. I endured flashes of the same panic, half-days at a time, during the months leading up to the camp. Even so, I didn't anticipate how closely my actions would border upon lethal. I didn't understand what I would do in front of other kids to prove myself cool. Or what I would do for them to be their friend. Neither, I would guess, did the military.
When spring break came, I packed my bags the day before camp. My vague desire was to take as little as possible with me but the Naval Academy camp had supplied a list of requirements. I met them. The items, such as combs and toothbrushes, have left me nowadays with a vague memory of a backpack and a duffel bag, plus a sense of counting everything twice. The list was a long one. Fortunately, most of my transportation to the Naval Academy, even my arrival and escort through the process, is a blur.
I must have visited my grandmother - she was five blocks away - but my anticipation of the camp erased my recollections of any other events that day.
My first clear memory, after a vague sense of meeting other teenagers and standing in lines with them, is of Dave and another, taller young man. The tall one wore his clothes well. He had gotten a reasonably fashionable cut to his hair. The friendlier, more acne-scarred one, though, had scruffy hair and careless clothes.
"Eric? Wicked." He stuck out his hand to shake mine. "I'm Dave."
"Dave, cool." I had no idea what accent he had but it sounded like a bad imitation of British slang from a poor neighborhood. "Where are you from?"
"Where you from?" With his question, he dropped the 'are.'
"Wicked." Every time I would have said something was cool, Dave announced it was wicked. He was not much taller than me, so he was pretty damn short, but he was thin and athletic in his way. His brown hair was thick and his pale skin had freckles.
The taller boy and I made fun of Dave's accent for a while and, to my delight, Dave made fun of us in return. Something about being insulted by him in his ridiculous accent made me laugh. Far from being offended, Dave liked me chuckling at the things he said.
"You're all right," he decided. It was one of the few sentences he used in which he pronounced an 'r' sound.
Together, because no one stopped us from self-selecting our acquaintences into a gang, we gathered two more young men and endured together what seemed like a many-hours-long afternoon of orientation. The navy announced their schedule for us. They gave handouts. They gave folders with more handouts. The read them to us, although they watched our faces and saw how we felt insulted as they read to us, and they embellished their detailed, long-winded plans.
Our gang made a lot of comments about the plans.
“They made a lot of mistakes,” Dave said.
"Yeah?" I was looking at the schedule. What I saw was a heavy load designed to keep us busy.
“Yeah. They think smart kids are going to listen to them.” Dave paused, mouth slightly open in a cockeyed smile. A couple other boys glanced in his direction as they absorbed the criticism.
I snorted because I knew what he meant. The military seemed to think that high achievers, if that's what we were, were inclined to follow the rules. They may have even gotten that right in a general way. After all, we had lasted long enough in high school to get good test scores. We had agreed to this camp. But some of us in this bunch of smart kids had gotten good at eluding and subverting authority.
Kids are kids, smart or not. Bright young men and women who wanted to break the rules tended to get away with more than the average. Dave seemed to be someone good at subverting authorities. Or so I assumed.
Even at the time, I had the sense that Dave was acting extra badass for us. I'd seen it in myself at times and in other teens, too. We wanted to be admired and liked. As I glanced around at the other young men in our group, I realized we had probably assembled the most rebellious youths in the program. That wasn't saying much. We were, for sure, not as badass as we wanted to be. Already, Dave's background emotional simmer of being slightly angry at everything was making one or two guys nervous.
My roommate seemed quiet and he was maybe a rule-follower but he was nice. Dave teased him a bit but gave up when he saw it bothered me. He headed off to tease his own roommate. We all bunked down to rest for the first full day, which included both sports and academics.
My favorite sport was talking to girls.
I don't remember the actual Navy agenda for the day. What I remember was the girls. I made a couple snarky comments in the first class. I had to say them to no one in particular because my new friends weren't in the same classroom. Fortunately, two of the girls in the seats beside me thought I was funny.
It would have been amazing to find rebellious girls among the camp attendees. But when the same girls came to chat with me after the first session, some of my buddies saw what was happening and stepped in to stop it. It was kind of weird. My new young, male friends were so awkward, I got the impression they didn't even like the idea of talking with the opposite sex.
The girls got that impression, too. They gave me a pitying look and split off for their next activity.
The same pattern repeated itself all day. I wasn't mad about it. I knew what it was like to be an awkward, teenage guy failing with women. But my gang was full of these guys and they couldn't even realize they were screwing up and fall back to what I considered level zero, which was my behavior when I didn't know what to say to young women: shut up and let them talk. I learned a lot from listening. But these guys could not resist spouting their opinions even if it led them into making insults or horrible, condescending comments.
Amazingly, at the group lunch Dave and a couple of his acquaintances amused a few girls with me for half an hour. But toward the end of our free time, Dave got irritated about something and showed he was particularly good at driving the girls away, too. He couldn't resist doubling down on his insults. And yet, when he turned to me personally, he relaxed. He followed me to my next activity and keep cracking jokes until he made me laugh again.