Real Life Lessons: The Designated Doofus

The summer of 1984 was a fun time to be alive. Sure, we all thought the USSR was going to bomb the bejeezus out of us—and they were thinking the same thing about us—but movies like The Day After notwithstanding, there was more to life that year than the looming specter of World War III.

During that summer, the music world saw the issue of Prince’s Purple Rain, Sammy Hagar’s VOA (it was no Standing Hampton, but it was still a good album), and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. It was the summer of killer movies, too, marking the releases of The Last StarfighterThe Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and Ghostbusters.

Yes, it was a high time for all, or so I was told. I’d missed most of it due to an eight-week stint in U.S. Navy boot camp, so I had to discover it later. My time in boot camp wasn’t wasted, however. On top of learning brand new words for everyday objects—a floor is a deck, for instance, a water fountain is a scuttlebutt, and a ceiling is an overhead—I took away number of valuable life lessons that remain relevant in most real-life situations. One of the things I learned about that summer was the notion of the Designated Doofus.

During my stay in Great Lakes, Illinois, I endured many minor hardships, most of which came in the form of ridicule and embarrassment. This was the entire point of boot camp, as far as I could tell, along with teaching us how to improve our swimming. In those kinds of turbulent situations, where you’re at constant risk of incurring the wrath of some guy in khakis who controls every aspect of your life, the only thing that can make it even a little bearable is the idea that someone else down the row has it worse.

Our guy who had it worse, our Designated Doofus, was a young go-getter who went by the initials GT. (He reminded us of Cruiser from the movie Stripes, and he had a real name, but none of us knew for sure what it was.) GT was also from Alabama, so I felt both a kinship with and responsibility for him. He was actually a somewhat intelligent guy—he tested into the navy’s nuclear program, for what that was worth—but he had a difficult time getting things done. To make things worse, he was eager to please and gullible.

Anything related to military bearing, uniform regulations, marching in formation, or remembering which folks in khakis merited salutes—all of these concepts somehow managed to escape GT. And none of us helped him. In fact, any time we saw our Designated Doofus skating close to the edge of getting chewed out, dressed down, or written up, we’d just pretend to ignore him, hopeful in the knowledge that as long as our two company commanders’ eyes were on poor old GT, they were off of us.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more convinced that few people have any clue what they’re doing in life. In this paradigm, getting by is largely about learning to fake knowing how to do things. The better you are at faking, the more likely you are to be successful. The Designated Doofus is valuable, then, because he helps divert attention from others’ fakeness while they’re busy learning how to be better fakers. In the boot camp example, while he’s running in place for an hour or, let’s say, being sprayed with a firehose, everyone else can cheat on their pushups or sneak outside for an unauthorized cigarette.

In case you’re wondering, we also had fun at GT’s expense. I’m not proud of it, but these things all happened. We told GT that Ronald Reagan was coming to our base to do a special inspection. He believed us and began standing nightly toilet watches, just in case President Gipper decided to pop in for a midnight pee. During week five, we told him he was in charge of collecting our company’s underwear for a special base wide recall. As you might’ve guessed, he believed us again and dutifully stored everyone’s skivvies in a laundry bag, which he hung on the end of his bunk for pickup. The next day, during inspection, our division officer found the bag and publicly proclaimed that GT had some kind of underwear fetish.

GT didn’t graduate boot camp with us because he was sent back two weeks for hanging around naked in our building’s courtyard. He got caught because someone locked the doors so he couldn’t get back into the barracks. Word got around later that he’d ventured into streaking on a dare, and we were pretty sure the person who locked him out was the same one who’d egged him on.

For all I know, GT is still in Great Lakes, trying to finish boot camp. Maybe he’s running the navy. Either theory seems equally plausible. Whatever happened, we all did it to him. Every one of us bet him a Coke that he wouldn’t dash naked through the courtyard, and every one of us locked that door so the night watch would find him. We should have done more to help him. Taking advantage of the Designated Doofus isn’t a decent thing to do. I could plead youth or ignorance or say I just went along with the crowd, but none of those are valid excuses. I don’t know, maybe we could have taken him on as a civic project.

If you take anything from this story, I hope it’s the idea that in life there is almost always a Designated Doofus. If you take away two things, please let the second be the knowledge that you should never be cruel to the Designated Doofus. And if you find you have sufficient room in your brain for a third new thing, it should be a burning desire to avoid being that Designated Doofus.

As it turned out, we’d overplayed our hand with GT. Sure, he probably settled in with his new company—and maybe he wasn’t even the most incompetent guy anymore—but we found ourselves in need of a replacement Designated Doofus. Otherwise, we might’ve had to buckle down, fly straight, and make it through the rest of boot camp based on our own abilities. There was no way that was going to happen.

In the end, we found our new Designated Doofus. I don’t remember much about him, but I do know we were nicer to him, more responsible. We tried to allow him to be a functional doofus while still keeping him from going too far in the wrong direction. There were no more dares, no bizarre underwear gathering activities, no late night streaking escapades.

Mostly, though, I was just happy the replacement wasn’t me.