So between ages eleven and fifteen, I embarked on a short archery career, filled with enough victories to make both my parents and me very happy indeed. Within the junior archery ranks, I was club champion the first year, eastern regional champion the following year, and national American junior champion the following year. I recall with some pride the many victories, the medals and trophies, the growing list of national record scores. Mom, to my consternation, sent news releases of my archery achievements to both local and national papers, claiming that was her role as "head of public relations for the Newton Archers." So failure, such as my third-place finish at the Junior Nationals in 1956, is forever fixed in my memory. "You're terrible," I yelled, throwing open my archery tackle case, pulling out a handful of aluminum arrows, bending them into an unusable mess of spent metal.
Only later in life did I learn that failure can be the best teacher, but that lesson escaped me in my archery years. Once I lost a regional championship to a remarkable archer named Lloyd Corby who kept shooting in an awful thunderstorm. Ignoring the high winds and biting rain, he scored very well while those of us who sought shelter stared in amazement. When the storm abated, I was so stunned by his composure that I finished badly and lost the championship. How had he done it? "It's Zen," he explained later with a quiet smile.
I thought I understood the paradox that made Lloyd Corby a champion: his state of mind was everything; the weather was irrelevant; he achieved perfection by not seeking perfection at all. Sadly, it was a truth that did not sink into my soul for forty years. I persisted with my simple method: rigorous preparation yields success, and total preparation yields the highest success. I was not about to change it; it seemed foolish, and almost un-American, to give up such a treasured formula for a wild notion like Zen. Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers was more my style: "Winning isn't just the goal. Winning is everything."
In 1957, after finally winning the national championship, I was flattered to be invited by the women's world champion to spend the summer at her rural Pennsylvania home so she could coach me for the Olympics. We knew that the International Olympic Committee was considering archery as an official sport in its meeting that very summer, so I had visions of making the team and competing in the Rome Olympics in 1960. One day my coach approached me with a long face: "There's good news and bad news," she reported. "Archery was approved, but archery competitions won't occur until 1972. What will you do?" No way was I going to keep practicing eight hours a day for the intervening fifteen years, when I'd be an old man of thirty. At age fifteen, my archery career was over. To this day, I cannot bear to watch Olympic awards ceremonies on TV; it hurts too much to imagine how glorious that gold medal would have felt around my neck. Of course, not going to the Olympics did have one advantage: imagine my self-punishments if I had lost the biggest competition on earth!
So archery was over. The next battleground was the classroom. I had coasted through elementary and junior high school, usually getting stellar report cards, until one day in the eighth grade. The task was to produce a five-page paper on some aspect of twentieth-century American history. My draft paper produced a shocking result, a grade of C for "sloppy writing and almost no background reading": worse yet, we were required to enlist parental help in producing the final paper. I can still see my father's frown as he read my shamble of a paper, tightened eyes reflecting his agreement with my teacher, and his penetrating stare hurting worse than a whipping. On this occasion, there was no time for my self-abuse ritual; it was late Thursday, and the paper was due on Monday after a long holiday weekend.
For the next three days, under Dad's uncompromising scrunity, I had a tutorial on paper writing "by the numbers": a day in the library learning the card catalog system and how to take notes, a day at home discovering how to make an outline and write a first draft, another day at home absorbing how to edit, to make footnotes and a bibliography, and to prepare a perfect final copy. When it was all done, presented to the teacher in a neat green binder, I was delighted to discover that schoolwork was really archery by another name. The grade for "Admiral Mahan and the Modern American Navy" was A-plus; the wayward son was welcomed back into the fold with smiles all around. My mother taught me another trick that had helped her produce an admirable record at the University of Southern California. "Take all your notes from class," she said, "organize them well, and type them into a finished copy. At exam time, you memorize the notes and the underlined parts of your books." So, after teaching myself to type, I became the only student at my high school, maybe in the whole United States, who had three-ring binders chock-full of typed notes. Even after I transferred to Poly Prep, a private school in Brooklyn, New York, my father's paper-writing method and my mother's system of memorizing typed notes worked wonders.
Excerpted from A FRACTURED MIND by Robert B. Oxnam. Copyright 2005 Robert B. Oxnam. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion.
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No Man's Land
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