The Tower

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Chapter 7

When we arrived at the Hilton, Guttenberg rushed me to a reception counter, and quickly found my nametag. “Did you have a chance to read the information packet?” He looked at me disapprovingly.

“Yes,” I lied. He seemed to dislike me enough already. I didn’t want to give him more of a reason. Having only received my packet the day before, I planned to read it on the train. I hadn’t planned on the soldiers taking my bag or my seating me next to the medic.

“Good, because we have no time.” Double checking the number on my badge, he grabbed a canvas sports bag with the same number from the table. “Follow me.”

My travel bag was handed to a member of the hotel staff, and I was ushered to a long bank of elevators. I couldn’t get used to the size of these rooms. The elevator lobby had 3 long walls with five elevators on each. The shining brass doors opened, Guttenberg stepped in and swiveled in place to face the front. As I turned around, I saw him pushing the button for floor eight.

“Where are we headed first?”

“Physical test.” He looked over at me. “It was in the information packet.” He let out an exasperated sigh and shook his head. “You’ll need this.” He handed me the bag and as the elevator came to a stop motioned for me to get off. “Be at the grand ballroom by five o’clock.”

Exiting the elevator I saw a number of other climbers with bags walking. I followed them through a door and entered a locker room.

I found an empty locker and quickly began getting changed. I felt a little self-conscious. I hadn’t changed or showered in front of other men since high school, and these boys were all a bit younger and more fit than I was.

Still, I was in good shape. I had added a little weight over the years, but I was still stronger than most people I knew.

We all wore identical track suits. Black sweat pants, a white t-shirt, and a light black jacket. Mine had my last name, Haversham, and the number 42 on the back. On the front right side was the number 42 and the word Rock. It would seem that I was going to be stuck with that nickname here as well.

Following the others that had already changed, I exited the locker room from a door on the far side. I had never seen a gym like this. There was a swimming pool - indoors - and a number of weightlifting machines and benches. The other climbers were ignoring these and lining up at the far end of the room.

There were five stations for the physical tests; pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, flexed arm hang, and running. The line at the pull-up and flexed hang bars was the shortest, so I went there first.

Watching these boys go through the tests, I was amazed to see how hard they were trying. The boy in front of me was crying out in pain by the time he let himself drop from the flexed arm hang. The fact that there was no backing out had been impressed upon me when signing up, so I was pretty sure they weren’t going to disqualify me based on my results.

“What’s the point of these tests?” I asked the attendant as I stepped up.

“They help decide your ranking.” He seemed bewildered that I didn’t know this. “Go ahead.”

I moved forward, reached up, and gripped the bar. The boys before me only seemed to be doing between three and five pull-ups each. I knew from training with Ed for the hay bale stacking contest that I could easily triple that, but I didn’t see any reason to tire myself out, so I stopped at four. In the flexed arm hang, I dropped as soon as my muscles started feeling it.

I continued this way throughout all of the tests, laughing to myself at the machismo of the very young. Why worry about little things like ranking and pride when the only thing that mattered was whether or not you got to the top of the tower, or how high you got before you fell.

I didn’t entirely slough off, but wasn’t about to spend too much effort for a few days’ worth of bragging rights.

“Why did they write my name as ‘Rock’?” I shook my head as I fastened it to my shirt. Looking around the room, I wished I had brought better clothes. Most climbers were simply dressed in plain shirts like me, but the guides and a mass of other guests were all wearing expensive suits, tuxedos, or gowns.

“Your file says that’s what the people in your town call you.” Guttenberg shrugged. “I assumed it would make you seem more friendly and real.”

The climbers were seated at tables of seven or eight. I recognized Kris Donner at my table immediately.

“Richard!” He stood and greeted me as I approached the table. He had changed into a shirt and tie. “Or is it Rock?”

“Nickname…” I shook my head. “I don’t know how they even knew that.”
“Trust me, these guys probably know more about us than we do. They start gathering files on us the minute we sign up.” He turned his attention to the other members seated at our table. “Anyway, everybody this is Richard ‘Rock’ Haversham.” He made quotation marks in the air when he said Rock and smiled. I knew that it was pointless to try and make friends here, but I liked Kris.

“Owen Berger.” The boy seated next to me held out his hand for me to shake. “Looks like we’re roommates.” He held up his room key and pointed to mine, still lying on the table next to my napkin. Owen seemed like a pretty good natured guy. He was from a place called Holland, Michigan where he worked on a tulip farm. I couldn’t imagine how people could get by farming things that they didn’t eat themselves. Then again, Owen was pretty skinny.

“So which of you losers is already scared?” A man whose nametag read ‘Alex’ said. “If you’re not, you should be. I came here to climb that tower, and there’s not much room at the top.” He said it with a smile, but something in his eyes made the smile seem anything but friendly.

I was about to ask what one man’s success had to do with another’s, but the Vice President took the podium and began to speak.

“Climbers, supporters, honored guests.” The voice of the Vice President rang out over the room. It was strange seeing the man speak in person. On his televised speeches, he was always sitting alone at his desk. He was always so poised and confident. He seemed larger than life. Here, standing with soldiers on either side, he seemed suddenly human. “Allow me to welcome you to the fifteenth annual Tower Climb.” The room filled with applause. Most climbers smiled with pride. I tried to smile, too, but I was getting a deep feeling of dread in my stomach. What had I gotten myself into? I wasn’t one of these boys who still had nothing to lose. I was a husband, soon to be a father.

The Vice President gave a short speech about how this was the finest group of climbers he had ever seen, and that this was a sure sign that America was on the road to recovery. A lot of what he said, especially when he talked about how this year’s group of fine young climbers showed that the poor non-citizens of this country were becoming strong, and that America could turn her attention from providing for them to more important matters like growth and prosperity, sounded crazy, even offensive to me. But most of the crowd nodded and clapped.

“It does sound kind of like bullshit, doesn’t it?” Kris leaned over. He had obviously seen the look of disapproval on my face. “But make no mistake, most of these clowns here believe it.” He laughed and took a sip of water. “They actually think that they’re the ones supporting us.”

“I don’t care what they say,” Alex beamed, “Because next year, I’ll be one of those guests clapping along, and you’ll all be dead.”

Finally, the Vice President finished by wishing us all luck and hoping that we’d have a record number of climbers reach the top this year. “What America needs most of all is the hope and the courage that you will show them when you climb the tower. God bless you, and God bless America.”

Dinner was a buffet style with more types of food than I have ever seen in one place at the same time. All of it looked delicious, but given how nervous I was, I knew that my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I hesitated to take very much.

“If you’re going to eat a lot, tonight’s the night,” Kris said as he piled a few pieces of fried chicken on top of the two steaks already there. “Eat too much tomorrow night, and it will affect your climb.”

I didn’t see the point in gorging myself, and to be honest all of this extravagance was a bit much for me, but I did take his advice and added a steak to my plate.

As we ate, the rules of the welcoming were explained to us.

“Tonight and tomorrow, you are free to go anywhere within the confines of the hotel on your own. Guests are permitted to visit your room, but must leave by 11:00pm so as not to disturb the sleep of other climbers. Within the hotel, all food and drink is complimentary. Any journeys outside must be pre-approved, and in the company of your guide. Transportation costs, as well as cost of food and drink, are not covered by the event, and are the responsibility of the climber.”

The speaker droned on for a few more minutes, but most of us were focused on eating and getting to know the climbers at our table.

As we were finishing eating, the MC returned to the stage.

“Climbers, guests, I am pleased to announce that we have finished tallying the results of the physical tests.” The entire room turned to face the stage. The screen behind the podium came to life, and there was a list of all the climbers in order of rank. The scores for each test were also displayed. I was surprised to see myself at number 34. I had barely tried. Kris was ahead of me at 18, and Alex Winters was number 1.

“Forty nine!” Owen cupped his face in his hands. “I’m as good as dead.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is, “I said. “It’s just a number.” The entire table looked at me. Alex seemed to be on the verge of laughing. I didn’t know him at all, but I disliked his smugness.

Please tell me you’re joking.” He rolled his eyes in such a way that I imagined for a second what they would look like with a big bruise around one of them, and I’m not a violent person. Alex came across as a bully, even if he was just doing it with words. “That number means everything to the sponsors.” I had heard the speaker mention sponsors earlier and remembered from what I had seen of climbs in the past that they would sometimes mention what gear the climber as wearing. “Nobody wants to sponsor somebody who’ll drop out on the tenth floor. The higher your number is, the better stuff you get.”

“I hadn’t really thought about sponsors,” I stated matter-of-factly, “I brought cold weather clothes from home, so I was just going to use those.” Kris looked like he was about to say something, but Alex jumped back in before he got the chance.

“And what is this amazing gear you plan on climbing the tower with?” I didn’t want to answer him, but everybody was looking.

“I have long underwear, t-shirts, a sweater-

“What’s your long underwear made of, genius?”

“Cotton.”

“Cotton!” Obviously I had said the wrong thing, because everybody who wasn’t laughing had a look of concern on their face. “You might as well wear a few wet sponges while you’re at it. Don’t you know anything about the climb?” He shook his head as if signifying he was done with me, and turned to the brag about his ranking to the boy next to him.

“Don’t worry about it too much.” Kris looked up at the screen. “Your ranking isn’t that bad. And physical test is only one part of it. By tomorrow, the list will look different.” I wanted to ask him what the other factors were, but was afraid to put my foot in my mouth again. I sat there feeling unprepared, wondering what would come next.

After eating, we were escorted to a second ballroom, where we were to have the VIP reception. Those of us who had volunteered were seated at tables surrounding the room. The convicted climbers were seated in a row at the far end.

The tables and chairs were tall enough that when someone approached a climber their faces would be at optimum height for conversation. Next to each climber was a small tray with various empty glasses, an ice bucket, and a carafe of water. There was a tray to put glasses we were finished with on for removal. Guttenberg explained that while it was good manners to accept any drink offered and take at least one sip, it would not be a good idea to finish all of those drinks, because there would be so many.

When the doors opened, dozens of people dressed in suits filed in. The looks on their faces reminded me of how I felt when I went to my first dance. So eager, so hopeful, and yet so nervous. A few of them walked toward the convicts, but most of them made a beeline for a long bar at the rear of the room.

One by one, they walked away from the bar, each of them carrying bottles containing various types of alcohol. Some were obviously wine, a few I could recognize as whiskey or vodka, and some of them, including one bottle that was so blue it seemed luminescent, were completely foreign to me.

With bottles in hand, they began approaching the various climbers at the tables.

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