Aside from the meals we ate together, today was scheduled separately for each of the climbers. Each climber was to meet with their guide and decide on their course of action for the day. Owen’s guide showed up at 7:30, whisking him away to do ‘so many important things’ while they still had time.
I waited until 8am, but Guttenberg didn’t show. There was no way of knowing how long he had kept drinking after I left. And even if he had stopped then, I didn’t imagine he would be feeling too well this morning. I decided to go on down to breakfast without him.
As I entered the banquet hall, everybody seemed to stop. I noticed one or two people pointing at me and a few trying not to stare. As I approached my table, Kris stood up and started clapping.
“A big hand for Rock Haversham, folks.” He gestured for the others at our table and surrounding tables to join him in clapping. By the time I got to the table everyone was standing and clapping, and I didn’t know why.
“Now Rock here,” Kris smiled playfully. Despite the sarcasm and over the top presentation, I was a bit relieved. “Would have us believe that he was a simple country boy, who knew nothing about the climb.”
Kris was hamming it up. It seemed everybody but I knew what was going on.
“And yet…” He unfolded and held up the morning’s paper. It was a special edition of the Chicago Tribune dedicated to this year’s climb. The cover photo was of the Vice President addressing the climbers at the welcoming banquet the night before. In the bottom right corner of the picture, you could see our table, and part of the back of my head, but that couldn’t be what this was about.
Kris continued to open the paper, showing the front page articles below the fold. The left side contained the same ‘Who to watch’ ranking that it did every year, while the right half had a human interest story about some climber who was-
“What the-” I ripped the paper from Kris’ hands and flipped to the bottom half.
This Year’s Dark Horse, Solid as a ‘Rock’
Well, he isn’t the youngest, or even the strongest man signed up for this year’s climb, but Richard ‘Rock’ Haversham not only impressed this reporter, but captured the imagination of spectators in the city of Chicago and the nation.
At 28, Rock is a bit older than most climbers, but years of hard work raising feed for dairy cows in one of our nations farms have given him not only physical strength and endurance, but also the mental and emotional drive that makes good climbers and good citizens.
There’s something about the underdog that touches our hearts. We know so little about them, and yet we cheer for them as if they were family. Their wins are our victories, their losses our failures.
People like Rock Haversham make us believe that with hard work and determination, anything is possible. We want to believe that a 28 year old farmhand can climb to the top and provide a better life for his family. We want to believe that if anybody is able to make it to the top this year, that Rock will definitely be one of them. We want to believe that America is still a land of opportunity, and that just like Rock, every person in this great country has a chance climb that ladder, be it figurative or literal, and achieve greatness.
Next to the article was a picture of me and a reference back to the climber ranking article, listing me as number 8.
“What the hell.” I stared at the paper.
“And you said you didn’t know anything about how the game was played.” I’m pretty sure Kris was joking, but some of the faces around the table seemed almost upset.
“Well played, Rock.” Alex frowned as he sat down, ignoring the festivities, “But those opinions can change quite a bit between now and starting time.” Drew and Gary seemed to have attached themselves to Alex and were sitting on either side of him. They nodded in agreement and shot me dirty looks. Their actions didn’t bother me as much as the fact that a few other guys at our table and those surrounding us seemed to be in agreement with Alex that I had somehow cheated and gotten the jump on good PR before the climb.
“I swear.” I sat down. “I didn’t even know she was a reporter.” I was about to say more in my defense, when I noticed everyone had stopped talking and eating, and were no longer looking at me, but beyond me.
I didn’t need to turn around to recognize the voice. I sprang to my feet and spun around, standing at attention as if I were a soldier.
“Mr. Vice President. Sir.” It seemed that this morning’s article had attracted more than just the attention of my fellow climbers. “Sir. I didn’t mean to…”
“Relax, son. You’re not in any trouble.” He reached forward and shook my hand. His grey eyes seemed friendly but calculating. “Ms. Ross and her crew pick a few climbers to single out every year.”
“Yes sir.” I didn’t know what else to say. I wanted to kick myself for being so mute. I felt like a complete idiot.
“She said you were a man of few words.” He smiled. “She also said that you have the integrity it takes to reach the top, and the patriotism to be a model citizen if you do. That true son?”
“Yes sir. I want nothing more than to be a citizen of this great country.” In truth, what I wanted more than anything in the world at that moment was to be somebody else, but with the general standing right in front of me, I’m surprised I was able to answer at all. As powerful as he looked on TV, he was even more intimidating in person. His smile didn’t make him seem any more human.
“Where’s your guide?” A balding man steeped out from beside the vice president.
Part of me wanted to blurt out, ‘Probably sleeping it off’, but I wasn’t sure what kind of trouble Guttenberg would get in if I did. And, truth be told, I kind of felt sorry for him.
“He’s running a few errands for me before we get busy today.” I racked my brain trying to come up with a palatable lie. “I wanted to send a few copies of the Tribune to friends and family, but since I couldn’t leave the hotel, Mr. Guttenberg offered to do it for me.”
“Well, make sure you stop by event headquarters when he gets back.” He stepped back in line with the Vice President. “A lot of important people want to know who you are.”
“Enjoy your breakfast gentlemen,” the Vice President said, and without another word, they turned and left.
“That was clearly bullshit,” Kris said as he sat. “Owen said your guide never showed. And you didn’t know about the paper until you got here. What’s going on?”
I gave him a quick recap of the night before, and said I’d be fine without a guide.
“Not true, especially for you. Today is the most important day of the welcoming.”
As we ate, Kris gave me a rundown of why sponsors were important. While I may be used to the Wisconsin cold and to working outside, that wouldn’t be much help against a 102 story climb on Thanksgiving, after having walked the loop.
“So you think you want to bundle up for the cold, but then you get hot and sweaty on the march.” He took a sip of his orange juice and checked the clock, gauging to see if he had time to finish his explanation. “And if we went straight up the Tower, you’d probably be ok, but then we stand there in the cold for twenty minutes or so while they give speeches. All of that sweat cools off and soaks you.”
I was pretty used to getting sweaty in the morning moving bales of hay around, only to eat lunch at a picnic table before going back to work. Kris was right about the sweat to some extent, but it wasn’t as bad as he’d have everyone at the table believe.
Guttenberg still hadn’t shown up as we finished breakfast, and Kris dragged me along to meet with his guide.
“This is Rock,” He introduced me to his guide, who seemed to be about my age. “Rock, meet Jeff.”
Kris’ guide seemed to be the polar opposite of Guttenberg. While Guttenberg was stiff, Jeff seemed relaxed. Where Guttenberg was detached - even distant- , Jeff seemed warm and friendly. And unlike Guttenberg’s spindly appearance, Jeff appeared to be quite athletic.
“Yeah, I think everybody already knows who you are.” He smiled and reached out his hand. He had a firm grip and looked me straight on as he shook hands. I liked him.
“The thing is,” Kris explained, “Rock’s guide hasn’t come back from running a few errands for him yet, and I was hoping he could tag along with us for a while.”
“Sure. No problem.” He looked at me for a moment. “Who’s your guide?”
“You got Jeremy Guttenberg to run errands for you?” He looked at me quizzically. “That doesn’t sound like him.”
“Do you know him?”
“We go through orientation and guide meetings each year, so I kind of do, but not very well. He always seemed to be one of those guys who was just biding time until he got his 25 in.” He shrugged. “I’ve never really seen him take an interest in one of his climbers. It’s a good thing.”
We walked along a long train of booths with vendors offering merchandise to climbers. Most offered goods that would be useful for a climb in the freezing cold, but I didn’t know any of these companies, so I followed Kris and Jeff.