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  • Hank honestly had had no idea he’d done so well on the physics exam. The Captain of the school sent him a congratulatory note, in which he wrote that he’d never seen the likes of Hank’s turn-around, and thanking him for proving to be a worthwhile risk. Needless to say, Hank would be kept on now for the entire program, as long as he kept his grades up. The note concluded with a challenge to maintain his standing at the top of the class: “You’ve built a solid foundation, son – now, the hard part will be to maintain it! Inspire others as you’ve inspired me!” This was heady stuff for Hank – perhaps too heady.

    If he was nothing else, he was highly competitive. Being told he wouldn’t be able to make it at the school had helped to motivate him to prove them wrong – although, not quite the motivater his fear of going back to his old ship had been! Now that he was unfathomably at the top of the class, he determined to keep up the work ethic that got him there, continuing to study four to five hours a night, after all day in the classroom, as he really dug into the new material. But, would it be enough? Did he really care about being at the top of the class? Not necessarily.

    He did love learning the inner workings of nuclear power and the principles upon which a reactor plant operated. It all fell together in his mind as he studied and listened to the class instruction. He found himself studying up, getting ahead of the class, totally absorbing the material like a sponge. He still believed, at the time, that nuclear power was the way of the future. This was four years before Three Mile Island, the first of the infamous reactor accidents, followed by the Chernobyl and Fukishima disasters. Back then, it all felt new, clean and exciting to be a part of. The more he learned about it, though, the more he began to question it’s sustainability and safety – but that would all come later.

    His reputation around the school had gone from that of odd nerd, to something of a school legend, as word had somehow gotten out that he’d failed the incoming physics aptitude exam, but had convinced them to let him stay. He had no idea how that got out there, unless his buddy Joe had told someone, who was the only person, besides the captain, who knew.
  • He didn’t care – he was completely in his own, singularly focused world – to him, it didn’t matter whether they saw him as a nerd or a legend – he was there for one reason, and one reason only. To get through this program, and never go back to the conventional fleet, ever. That’s what drove him, more than anything. The rest was pretty much all bullshit.

    Joe was slowly getting what he’d wanted, which was to flunk out of the school and get sent back to a conventional ship, while hopefully getting his enlistment time reduced. It was just a matter of time, now, before he’d get cut from the program. He’d had to make it look like he was giving it his best effort, but Hank knew he was tanking it. His respect for Joe diminished somewhat because of it – he knew Joe was every bit as smart as he was, and had difficulty understanding why he wasn’t trying harder – but, they were still good friends, and he appreciated the friendship. They’d been through so much together.

    He didn’t think he could have gotten through the first month here, where he really didn’t make any other friends, had it not been for Joe always being there. Joe always kept things loose, something Hank had needed to balance his deadly seriousness about it all. He sensed that once Joe left, they would pretty much go their separate ways, and the friendship would fade away, as they did. Joe had asked him to be in his wedding, slated for that November, which would be during the two week break between the Nuclear Power School and the Protoype Training program. That was something to look forward to. But, after that – he didn’t see much of a future in the friendship. It was kind of bittersweet.

    They continued to do some heavy-duty partying on the weekends during the next month, as Hank did concede that he could at least take it easy on the weekends and have some fun, now that he knew he was here for the long haul. If the sun was setting on this friendship, he at least wanted to make the most of the time they had left to hang out as friends. They had been through a lot together, since they’d met in Boot Camp.
  • They drove up to New York City over the long 4th of July weekend, and sure enough, it was a wild time, which Hank had very little memory of. Joe assured him that they’d had a blast, regaling Hank with the details of their exploits as they made their way across the George Washington Bridge and back down the New Jersey Turnpike.

    That was the problem with these alcoholic blackouts – it was always like it was someone else who had all the fun! All you’d get out of the deal was a memorable hangover the next day, sometimes with a case of the shakes, which Hank had that day – in fact, he was too shaky to drive, as Joe had to do most of the driving. Hank was a nervous mess as he tried to get his head back on straight. He’d gotten used to this, but knew it wasn’t right. Nothing that a good joint wouldn’t help to ease the rough edges of.

    Joe finally got what he’d been waiting for, transfer papers to a ship on the West Coast. By the middle of July, he was gone. By then, the softball players had formed up a team to compete against other teams on the base, and they’d recruited Hank to play. There were a lot of good players, but Hank was the star of the team. He had a solid homerun stroke, and roamed the outfield like an antelope, tracking down anything within his considerable range, and making some sensational plays, as he applied the same focus to playing that he’d applied to studying.

    After games, they’d repair to the enlisted men’s club, and Hank finally made some new friends at the school. That’s when he began to realize what a reputation he’d cultivated there. That’s also when ego began to creep in, ever so slowly and subtly, and he began to lose the edge that he’d honed, with his singularity of purpose, and slowly slipped from the top of the class ranking, after three months at the top.

    But, it was a hell of lot less lonely - it's true what they say about being lonely at the top - as Hank was making new friends, coming back down to earth, finding a more suitable level for him, content to become one of the guys. He felt a lot more comfortable at this level, less driven but more human. He also began to party more during the week, as most of the guys on the team were into partying. It was a "work-hard, play-hard" ethic, and Hank liked it. He kept up his studies, as he was still driven to make it through the school - he just quickly lost interest in being that lonely guy at the top. Who needed that?

    It was a fun summer, as they became the team to beat on the base, and a great comaraderie grew up among Hank and his teammates.
    Photo Credits: Jeremy Cai, Christian Holzinger, Israel Sundseth
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