Sunday, December 26, 2010
Church of Lost Hats Sample Chapter
The Army-Navy Game
The bus passed through
, and turned on the road that led to the Highland Falls, New York , United States Military Academy West Point. I was visiting for the first time. The other kids from my eighth grade class were visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I was going to meet a cadet from my hometown in the Central Valley of California. Cadet Amy Stafford was in her third year at New York City West Point, and I remembered her from 4H events in the Central Valley.
My mother had called Mrs. Stafford to get in touch with Amy for me. Cadet Stafford was going to meet me and show me the campus herself. I hadn't been sick for a year, and I only had to go to Stanford once a month now for a checkup. I tried not to think about the hospital. I couldn't wait to see Amy in her grey uniform with the black stripes.
The bus turned into the
, and I got out with the other people. I noticed that I was the only kid without a parent. It was fun to be alone on my own adventure, away from my family, and I knew my life would change today somehow. I had ten minutes until the shuttle bus would take everyone to the campus, and I could see the cadet at the guard tower just down the street, stopping each car, asking questions. I couldn't wait. I went into the West Point Visitor Center and looked around. There was a dark room with a movie that described Visitor Center West Point and its history, but I had read the catalog and everything else I could find at the local library.
I went over to a room set up like a cadet room in the
West Point barracks. I stared in wonder at the glorious uniforms; everything seemed so strong, perfect in order, everything with a purpose. I wanted to be strong more than anything. I hated being sick. I walked over to the gift shop, and it seemed like Christmas Day. West Point everywhere. Mugs, pennants, hats, shirts, shorts, everything you could ever want. I went directly to the hats. I had thirty dollars from my paper route money, and I wanted a hat with the cursive "A" on it.
Since my time at Stanford, I had started collecting baseball hats. I found the size that fit me perfectly, and I wore it to the counter and gave the woman my money. The cashier smiled at me.
"Is this your first visit to the Academy?"
"I'm sure you'll like it, it's so beautiful. Are you going to be a cadet someday?" she asked me.
I hesitated, thinking of the hospital at Stanford. Cadets don't have cancer. But I nodded at her, and she smiled again. I was going to be a cadet someday. I was going to be a man.
"Are you going on the tour?" she asked.
"No. I'm meeting a cadet."
"Is he someone you know?"
"I'm meeting a girl cadet. She's going to show me around."
"Have a good time." She gave me my change. "I see you don't need a bag. The hat is perfect on you. I know your cadet will like it."
I walked out into the sun as everyone was getting on the shuttle bus. The shuttle would take me to Trophy Point, the place where cadets take the oath of office on their first day. I had read all about that first day, the longest day in your life. Cadet Stafford was meeting me at Trophy Point to give me her personal tour. She had to get permission to be away from her duties, but because she was a second class cadet, a junior, it was no big deal.
As the bus drove past the guard tower, I thought about my dad. He had looked at all the
West Point books I had checked out from the library. He had smoked his cigarettes quietly, not saying a word, but he had been proud of me, I could tell by his eyes. He had never spent very much time with me, but he had been looking at me differently as we looked at the books and the pictures of the parade ground, the Plain, and old Washington Hall. I wanted him to be proud of me. It was like a game we were playing with each other, talking about one thing, West Point, but feeling something else at the same time that didn't have words.
"So you want to go to
West Point?" he had asked me.
His smoke drifted my way, but I was used to it.
"More than anything. I can't wait until my visit next month."
"You'll have to get an appointment from a congressman."
His eyes had been kind behind the smoke, and I had never seen him quite like that before with me. He was thoughtful, like life and his family might still be able to surprise him.
"Or a senator," I added. "And if I were a soldier, I could get an appointment from the Secretary of the Army."
"You've really read these books."
I thought about my dad as the shuttle drove past the beautiful football stadium. He had fought in World War II. He had been at
Pearl Harbor during the attack, and I liked it when he talked about the war and how it had changed his whole life. I didn't want to have to kill people, but my father had been a secretary to Admiral Nimitz, the Chief of Naval Operations during the war in the Pacific. He would always get pissed off if anyone asked him how many people he had killed. He hadn't killed anyone, and I was proud of that too. There were lots of ways to serve.
My mother had her doubts about
West Point, I could tell, but I wasn't going to let her talk me out of it. She had taken me to all of my chemotherapy treatments. My father had never gone to any. My mother knew my health could keep me out, and I knew she didn't want me to be disappointed if they turned me down because of my medical history.
The shuttle bus stopped behind the bleachers by the parade ground. I got out and looked at the ground I had seen only in pictures. I was really here. Two cadets jogged past, and they looked so sharp and strong with their haircuts.
"Nice hat, kid."
I smiled back at them. Some cadets walked by on the sidewalk, and they saluted an officer, a captain, as he walked by in the other direction.
"Are you Nick Geary?"
I turned around and saw her. Cadet Amy Stafford was wearing the uniform that reminded me of a priest's, except the collar was black not white, and there was a black stripe down the middle and down her legs. Her hair was curly and blonde underneath her hat.
"Thanks for meeting me," I held out my hand, and she shook it.
She had a kind look on her face, but I could tell she was a tough cookie. I knew the women took judo, and I imagined her throwing somebody. Using a person's energy against them. Using your head to win a battle.
"So you do look familiar to me," she said as we walked slowly together along the sidewalk next to the parade ground. "My mom told me you're in 4H. What projects are you in?"
"I do aerospace like you used to. We don't have any room for animals, except for rabbits. I remember you from Demonstration Day."
"That's where I've seen you. So where is the rest of your class?"
"They're at a museum," I told her. She snapped off a salute to an instructor, a major, who carried a satchel thick with papers. I wanted to salute him too, but I didn’t.
"Are you sad you're not there?"
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world. It's beautiful."
She looked at me carefully and realized I meant what I was saying. She reminded me of someone. Her strength and intelligence combined with being so pretty. My doctor. Dr. Ellis had red hair and freckles, but both were about the same size. Soon I would be taller than both of them.
"My mother told me that you were sick, but you're better now."
I nodded. I never knew what to say when people wanted to ask me questions. But I wanted to keep talking to the cadet next to me. It was funny. I loved
West Point because it seemed strong, but here I was walking with a female cadet.
"Chemotherapy sucks," I said. Stupid thing to say.
"I can only imagine."
She realized I didn't want to talk about it, and she looked out at the Academy grounds. I had to remind myself this was my first visit, and in two hours I would get on a bus back to the Port Authority to meet my history teacher and her husband. Time should stop some days. The class was going out to dinner and then to a production of The King and I. I had never had a better week in my life.
"What do you want to see?"
"I'd like to see the chapel most of all."
She gave me a quick look before she knew that I was serious.
"I like churches, and the pictures of the chapel make it look haunting. Spooky gothic."
She stared at me. I realized then she had probably dreaded this tour in the middle of her busy schedule; she didn't even really know me, I was just one more duty on a busy day. But Cadet Stafford was enjoying herself now.
"Well, we need to go the other way then. To the chapel."
We turned and retraced the walk around the parade ground. From the parade ground it looked like the chapel was stacked on top of Washington Hall. Like it grew out of the top. But I knew it was higher up on a hill. We walked up the streets of officers' row houses, then up the hill to the chapel.
"Do you like it here?" I asked out of the blue.
"No, not really. It's not the kind of place you like, it's the kind of place you survive. Do you know what I mean?"
Sometimes all you can do is survive, I knew. I had done that, and I liked the way she didn't treat me like a kid. Why can't parents do that?
"Yeah, I understand. I want to be a cadet."
"I know. It shows all over you."
"Will being sick keep me out?" I had to ask someone who knew.
"They have medical waivers. Dispensations for those who are qualified, people who the Academy wants."
"Could I get one of those?"
"You will have to pass a physical, but if you're still in remission you can be admitted. How are your grades?"
"Are you good at math and science?"
I paused, for effect.
"I'm a lover and a poet."
I had heard my mother, an English teacher, use the phrase once, talking about someone else, and I had wanted to use it myself. Today was perfect. You have to make the most of your opportunities. She laughed out loud at my answer.
"This is not the usual tour."
We walked up the steps of the Cadet Chapel, and Amy removed her hat. I took off my Army hat too. It's nice to get your hair back. My hair had changed from blonde to dark brown the second time. We went into the chapel, and it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust. The chapel was stunning; Dark, strong, and haunted. The building was shaped like a cross, and I liked the idea that it was the shape of a body: The body of Christ, the old shape for every new class of cadets. I walked slowly up to the mind, the altar, and I thought, "This is the center of the tribe."
Cadet Stafford sat down and watched me. I could feel her gaze on my back as I made my way to the cross at the altar. Old flags hung above me like old friends, dead cadets, fallen warriors, all members of the tribe before me.
Cadets get married during the week after graduation in June and walk out with their brides under crossed swords. I wondered who would marry Amy Stafford; it would be neat if her husband was civilian, and she was the one in her dress uniform. I imagined I was the one for a moment, but that was a dumb idea. I have a lot of those.
I stood in front of the altar. I knelt and said a prayer. Praying and wishing can be so close together. I wanted to be a cadet, and I knew for the first time I would live to be a man, to enter the chapel on a Sunday as a cadet.
I slowly turned and walked back to where Cadet Stafford was sitting. We walked out without saying anything. Something had changed in the air; we didn't have to talk so much. There was something serious now between us, and clouds drifted across the sun. Rain was in the air.
Amy walked me all the way to the Visitor's Center, and she could have just put me on the shuttle. It was clear that she liked me, though I'm sure she thought I was a little weird, because I am. She gave me a hug when she said goodbye, and I felt both sad and happy when I got on the bus. It had been the greatest day.
The rain began to fall as the bus to
pulled away. Time passes so fast. I waved to Amy Stafford as we left, but she couldn't see me in the window. She was standing out of the rain by the Visitor's Center. I tried to imagine her first visit to New York West Point and how things might have looked to her if she were my age.
On the bus back to
I knew I would never see Amy Stafford again. The connections between people can be so small and so strong at the same time. So much of life lives only in memories. I looked out the window and smiled at the New York City as tears began to roll down my face like rain drops. Nobody could see me by the window. It was good to be alone. I was smiling, and I was crying. I looked at my reflection in the window, but I couldn't see any tears in the face before me. I didn't look sick, and I liked my new hat and my newest dream. Hudson Valley