Close Encounters

by Scott Jann

Two weeks away from home was a long time for me when I was fourteen. I’d never been away for more than a week before. When I was away, it was somewhere like boy scout camp, which was always with people I knew from school. Being away for two weeks with no familiar faces nearly petrified me as I rode in our Oldsmobile station wagon which was to Northfield. I was filled with questions: Am I smart enough to go to this? What will the other students be like? Summer is the time for adventure, away from school, time to try unfamiliar things, right?

This was the summer before high school, I was chosen to go to St. Olaf College as part of the Young Scholars program, through the National Science Foundation. I was among thirty students who got to live on campus for two weeks while working with the faculty of the science and math departments from St. Olaf to further our knowledge about these subjects.

Our station wagon finally entered the campus. We followed the map to a parking lot between Larson Hall and the Science Center. I had to register in the Science Center before I could bring my bags up to the room in Larson Hall. I walked in with the security of my parents and sisters behind me, and met the coordinator of the program. Most of the students were from farther away than we were, and weren’t able to drive in like my family did. Most of them were already there, including two that flew in the evening before from Germany. The rest of the students were mostly from Iowa and northern Minnesota.

I had mixed feelings when he told me that my roommate would be the boy from Germany. I thought I’d be stuck with someone who could hardly speak English, and he would be really hard to live with. At the same time I was exhilarated about the mystery surrounding a foreigner. My mom yelled, with a lot more exhilaration than I had, “Oh won’t it be exciting to meet someone from Germany!”

My dad helped me carry my luggage up to the dorm, and into our room. The white tiles on the floor and white walls throughout the hallway were reminiscent of a hospital. My room was frighteningly sterile, empty walls, empty desks, just the sunlight coming through the open window filling the room. Besides the emptiness, John was already in the room starting to dominate the cupboards.

“You must be John.” I interrupted from around the wooden door.

I was surprised, he didn’t seem like he was from another country, he sounded just like everyone else. I wondered how he could actually be from Germany. He was actually from San Diego (I guess Diaz isn’t a very German last name). His dad was in the army, and he lived with his family on a U.S. military base in Germany. He has continuously moved to different places following his dad’s orders, Germany just the most recent.

He confused me by asking, “What brings you here?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what part of science are you interested in?”

“I read a lot about physics and astronomy.”

“Oh, so how do you feel about extraterrestrial life?”

I had become utterly confused, what happened to all the normal things you talk about when you just meet someone? I was suddenly being drilled on my feelings on alien life, what is wrong with this guy? “I guess I haven’t thought about it much.”

Eager to fill me in on his what he was thinking, he said “What happens when we reach a point that people travel in space, finally we begin colonizing planets, then the colonies follow separate paths. Eventually they will lose contact, and probably forget about each other, and probably evolve separately, right?”

“I guess so.”

“So won’t all these people be aliens to each other?”

This isn’t exactly what I was expecting.

By this time I realized that being away from home wouldn’t be so bad. I’m a lot closer than John is to home. After meeting him, it was much easier to say goodbye to my family for two weeks.

We spent each morning and afternoon in the classrooms, following a schedule of sessions each day. This left us with the evenings and part of the night to do whatever we wanted. The pool was open for us to use, but I never got to go to it. In the dorm there was a TV lounge which was the most popular place to relax.

We didn’t always have to find our own things to do. Friday night everyone took a trip to the theater to see Dick Tracy . When the previews started, I had to explain to John that we didn’t have to sing the national anthem before the movie started. I don’t know if this was something they do in Germany, or if it was something they do on a military base, but the concept sounded insane to me; on the other hand, how much different is watching a movie from a baseball? Following the movie he looked puzzled because he had never seen a movie without commercials, even the movies he’d seen in the theater had commercials.

After only a couple days of being together, it felt like I’d known John for years. I wonder if it seemed fast because its the first time I’ve lived so closely with someone that was previously a stranger. Maybe we bypassed the normal routine of getting to know each other because we had a head start of knowing more or less what each others interests were: science.

Everyone in the dorm spent a large part of our free time playing games. One of the boys down the hall Nintendo. Every night most of the boys crowded into his room to play on a tiny black and white TV. When I wasn’t the lucky one to have a controller to play the video games, I played cards.

One day we wanted to get away from the rooms we were always in, but there were no chairs left in the lounge. While returning to the second floor on the elevator, John and I decided to just sit down and play there. We spent several hours playing Gin Rummy while sitting on the floor of the elevator. I had fun watching the people’s reactions to stepping into an elevator with people playing cards in it. When we finally finished, it was like stepping off a boat onto dry, not to mention still, land, almost dizzying to cease the familiar up and down motion.

Over the first week, we met in a large group for the class sessions. The second week, we broke out into four specialized groups. I wanted to do something stimulating like the group in physics was doing. But I had to be in the math group. The first few days I heard from John how much fun they were having in the physics group. When it came time to see what their group was doing, John and Chad had to confess that they had been making up what they were telling us, and that the advisor for their group was incredibly boring. They sat through his lectures all day, and hadn’t been allowed to do anything else. He was actually jealous of what I got to do.

One afternoon, while exploring the dorm, I found a room on the tenth floor that was unlocked. Everyone was supposed to remain in the lounge or on the second and third floors, so up on the tenth floor it was nice and quiet. The room looked like it was used for storage, since there were about eight desks in it. Only four people knew about it, including me and John. I would only stay up there for a half hour at most, since I was paranoid we’d be found out, and get into trouble. We talked about many things things up there, but I think the most important thing about that room is that we shared a secret. Once we had our hideout, we were the closest group of any of the students there.

Living together for two weeks is like a few months of a regular friendship, just in a more potent form. By the end of the second week, I could no longer imagine not knowing John. We were committed to staying in touch after it was over. Looking back, eight years later, I think we exchanged maybe one letter each direction over the next month, and then drifted apart.