By lex, on April 11th, 2004
The kids have just finished up their Spring breaks. Which, so far as I can tell, entails rolling their sleep calendars four or five hours to the right over a week’s time. They’d sleep ’til noon if I let them (today I did not, it was Easter after all), and then shake, rattle and roll until the small hours of the morning.
But it would be OK by them, because they knew they’d get at least eight hours of sleep before the next day’s events.
Eight hours of sleep – there have been times in my life where that would have seemed the ultimate reward, a glimpse of heaven.
This all started when I was a midshipman at the US Naval Academy. High school had been a breeze, I’d never studied, never needed to. At Annapolis, I discovered that there were many smart kids that graduated high school, and many of those ended up in the warm embrace of “Mother B,” Bancroft Hall, the dormitory at USNA.
I was forced to study. I had no study habits.
This created for me a certain degree of friction.
I was fortunate enough to have had a superb English teacher my senior year in high school, who had prepared me very well for first year English at the Naval Academy. So well in fact, that I carried a brief case with me to class.
There was a class of students at USNA who customarily carried brief cases from class to class – I did not fit naturally into this class. The rest of us considered them geeks, quite frankly. But my briefcase was different. I didn’t carry books, paper, pens and a slide rule in my briefcase.
I carried a pillow.
In Professor Boatman’s class, I could lift the top of my brief case on my desk to face the prof, lower my head inside the box, and sleep my way to equilibrium. It was wonderful.
I was less well equipped to sleep through my engineering classes. I remember quite clearly one time, in preparation for my second year final exams, and having poor study skills, I was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for engineering finals, long nights burning the midnight oil. Which didn’t run out until 0500 or so.
You could do that for one day, no problem. To do so over a period of five or six days was impossible. Unless you had caffeine pills. No Doz, to be precise. The trucker’s helper. Caffeine pills, I surmised, could get me through finals.
So after several days of high stress testing, and little to no sleep, I found myself one day in a naval engineering final for which I had been singularly unprepared. I’d spent yet another night up late, in the company of No Doz, preparing for this final. When test time came, we were all sitting in a large classroom, with the seating rising up in escalating levels from the professor’s perch unto the lofty aeries of the pupils in the back. I was busily sawing away at a stability problem, head down over my materials like the seventy or so other students in my section, when I saw (to my surprise) a squad of small trolls, perhaps six inches tall and outfitted in garish colors, carrying spears and axes, advance towards my seat.
I saw this. They were there.
The squad advanced up the steps to my seat, and snarling, lifted high their axes, pikes and spears to thrust them into the yielding flesh of my exposed ankle. I did what anyone would have done in the circumstances. I screamed.
Pencils snapped all about me, lead tore through test materials, as over-stressed midshipmen reacted to this unanticipated stimulus. Heads jerked up, and nearly seventy pairs of questioning eyes, including the proctor’s, swiveled around to focus on your humble scribe, who was at that moment quite at a loss to describe the trolls, or where they had gone. Because they had vanished. Because, it might be considered, they were never really there.
So I learned about No Doz, from that.
I had gone to a Catholic high school (although I am not, myself, Catholic). The Christian Brothers who ran the place (known more for the quality of their vineyards in France than their educational skills in the US) were a rough lot, somewhat given to pinching, and the throwing of heavy objects (bibles, e.g.) at those who dared to sneak off to the land of Nod while under their care. If you were to be so bold as to doze off, and receive a bible flung to the forehead by way of gentle remonstrance, it was expected that you carry the expended round back to the brother, pour encourage les autres.
So one day, when taking notes in the back of a plebe English classroom on a hot September afternoon, I rested my pen bearing hand against my face during the professor’s discourse, and closed my eyes, just for a moment.
And fell instantly asleep.
Something clattered to the desk below and woke me up. Understanding in a moment that I had received a high velocity, ball-point pen as punishment for my moment’s inattention, I reverted to form. I picked the pen (oh, how mightier than the sword!) and walked with it to the front of the classroom, in full view of a cohort of amazed midshipmen, and returned it to the shocked and speechless professor. I thought at the time that he was laying it on a bit thick, myself.
I had walked all the way back to my desk, and prepared myself to take notes again, when I realized that I didn’t have a pen.
I had given it away.
So, I walked back to the front of the class, held my hand out to the English prof and requested my pen back. Which he returned, still uncomprehending.
But this was all great training for the Navy. It taught me how to deal with that all too familiar brown haze that comes with too little sleep, for too many days. It taught me the art of napping (25 minutes or less for a catnap, 90 minutes for real sleep – the middle ground is to be strenuously avoided).
And it taught me to hold on to my pen, and skip the No Doz.
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