Goose bumps rose as my flashlight brightened the words in front of me:
Beware and Warning! This book is different from other books. You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story... You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis. This is your most challenging and dangerous mission. Fear and excitement are now your companions.1
At two in the morning, I was supposed to be asleep, not hidden beneath my blanket, reading until my eyes grew sore and I passed out with my face mashed against a book cover.
But as a kid growing up in Missouri, I couldn't get enough of these stories, the ones that put you right into the adventure, that pulled you into a vivid world and then asked you to decide which path to take. Should you investigate the mysterious underwater grotto, or stay in your submarine to analyze the odd bubbles rising from the canyon floor? Should you follow the call of the Himalayan Yeti, or return to the safety of base camp?
Each choice scared and thrilled me. I gobbled the books whole, going back to redo any bad decisions that led to my untimely demise.
Like many American kids, I grew up learning about a world populated by heroes. I read about Pericles, who built democracy in ancient Greece. I read about King Arthur and the medieval Knights of the Round Table, who fought sorcerers and giants, and protected the weak. And I read about great American heroes: George Washington, who crossed a frozen Delaware River and led America through revolution to victory; Abraham Lincoln, whose words at Gettysburg laid the Civil War dead to rest and called a nation to its duty; Martin Luther King Jr., who announced to the world, "I have a dream," and inspired Americans to struggle for justice and dignity.
I loved history, and I liked to imagine myself as part of it. But this rich view of the world also left me wondering where I fit in. My big fear was that God and my parents had made a terrible mistake and that I'd been born in the wrong era, that the time for adventures had passed. I sat in the St. Louis public library and read stories of people discovering ancient cities and settling wild frontiers. I read about warriors, explorers, and activists, and then I'd stare out the window at a world that seemed very small and very safe.
I was worried that all the corners of the earth had been explored, all the great battles fought. The famous people on TV were athletes and actresses and singers. What did they stand for? I wondered: Had the time for heroes passed?
My other fear was that I'd miss my chance at a meaningful life. My mom was an early childhood special education teacher, and my dad was an accountant. They'd told me -- perhaps since kindergarten -- that I should work hard so I could go to a place called college. College, they promised, was "the ticket."
I imagined the ticket as something golden and shiny, like a ticket for a train that would hurtle me to a place filled with adventures. As I understood it, they gave out tickets after high school, but if you wanted one, you had to have good grades.
So in third grade, when I came home with a report card that read: "Eric Greitens, Handwriting: B−," I naturally asked my mom, "Will they still let me go to college?"
She laughed and hugged me.
My parents wanted me to treat others with kindness. They wanted me to be respectful. They wanted me to try hard and to be a team player. But while they cared about these "character" things, they didn't seem so concerned with whether or not I got great grades. Especially at eight years old.
When my third grade science fair experiment -- involving tulips, soda, and my dad's beer -- ended in catastrophe, I asked again, "Will they still let me go to college?"
When at ten years old, I lit a pile of leaves on fire to keep myself warm while waiting for the school bus and managed to accidentally set a whole sewer full of dry leaves on fire, I asked: "Will they still let me go to college?"
It was in college, everyone told me over and over, that I could pursue big dreams. College was the first step into the "real world," where every great purpose could be pursued. In college, my adventures would really begin.
Excerpted from The Warrior's Heart by Eric Greitens. Copyright 2012 by Eric Greitens. Excerpted here by kind permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Book Group.
1 R. A. Montgomery, Journey under the Sea (Choose Your Own Adventure #2) (Warren, VT: Skylark, 1978), 1.