When I was a high-school junior, I won our state’s first science-fair competition. My entry was a paper entitled, “New Hypotheses in Cosmogony.” It was about…well, I’ll not try to explain that here. Suffice it to say, the subject was sufficiently complex that the judges may have given me the prize simply to justify the amount of time they had to invest in understanding it.

As the first-prize winner, I was given a free trip to Princeton, NJ, for the national competition sponsored by Ford Motor Company and the United States Army. (This was 1966, the height of the Vietnam War, so I imagine the Army had ulterior motives for scouting the nation’s top science students.)

Anyway, on the flight to New Jersey (still a prop plane in those days), my reverie of watching the landscape below the droning engines was interrupted by a stewardess with the beverage cart. I heard her voice but not the question on account of the props, so I said yes. “Then I need to ask whether you’re 18 years of age,” she smilingly replied.

“No.” Not the question I had expected!

Since this was Tennessee’s first year to enter the competition, I was last in line every step of the way. We stayed at an old hotel in the decaying seaside resort of Asbury Park, NJ, so my cell was a retrofitted broom closet on the uppermost floor. It was the off-season (January, as I recall), so the clanking steam radiator brought scarcely a breath of warmth to my stratospheric room. I soon learned to prop my door open to enjoy the rising heat from the rest of the building.

Breakfast in the seedy ballroom consisted of soggy toast and runny scrambled eggs, with a fair amount of shells whipped into them. (To boost the calcium content, no doubt.) Lunch at Princeton University was much better because I fell into conversation with a pair of Army officers walking across the campus and they escorted me into a room where Amy brass were enjoying their midday repast. (The head waiter eyed me with disdain as the only student in the room, but I enjoyed the steak anyway.)

A book of abstracts describing the entries in the national science fair didn’t list mine. A footnote explained that entries from Tennessee and 3 other states had been omitted (another result of our Johnny-come-lately status), so we’ll never know if my esoteric presentation would have won at the nationals.

When I returned home, my teachers at Boones Creek High School invited me to tell the story at their various classes. I didn’t embellish the facts (so far as I recall), but I did share my odyssey’s colorful details–the drink I was offered, the ineffectual radiator, the egg shells, the steak lunch with Army brass, the officers’ club dance, and all the rest. And I discovered something quite unexpected: I loved to tell the story more than I enjoyed the trip itself.

So I became, not a scientist, but a writer.