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King of the Castle

By Larry Miller

Originally Published on October 18th, 2018.

Sometimes I wait for something to disturb me, or for that which leaves me feeling elated, or which makes me ponder what life is all about. I’m talking about what it is that compels me to sit myself down at my computer and express myself in words that often are alien to my normal self.

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This time it was an automobile running down the interior lane of our four-lane avenue just outside of our subdivision. Little did I know, at the time, that my thoughts would cause me to write about what eventually happened.

It never occurred to me, when I pulled up to the stop sign at the intersection, that such an ordinary day would be somewhat ruined by such an otherwise ordinary event. But something did happen, and it was not new to me; it had happened before, often enough times, in fact, to carry it all over to a subject that I had often discussed with friends.

Let me explain what happened. As I pulled up to the corner, obedient to the “STOP” traffic sign, I quickly glanced to my right, just in case there was a pedestrian who might be there or another car that, for some stupid reason, just might be traveling in the wrong direction. Then I focused onto the left, and I noticed that there was no vehicle in the curbside lane, only a half-ton pickup, in the interior lane.

Then it happened! The truck went whizzing by, obviously traveling faster than the speed limit, and cut me off, the male driver giving me the notorious finger of authority as he passed. It was not the first time that a driver had done that to me. Sometimes the busy street that I was pulling onto is thought to be the domain for only certain drivers, they run down the street with the idea that everyone else should get out of their way.

We have a slightly busy lane there, and many are the drivers who zip down the interior lane, knowing full well that they are going to cut over to the other lane in order to exit onto the bypass that leads to the south end of our town. That they should give someone the familiar token of angry displeasure toward someone who dared to leave the entire road to their enjoyment is not totally unexpected. We all are victims, at various times, of those who think solely of themselves.

For some unfathomable reason, after he passed with that extended finger raised, I thought of an old childhood game that speaks to what had happened. Probably you have played the game. If you are a male, then it is most likely you have played the game. It was, and still is, called “King of the Castle.”

All it took was a small pile of dirt or a large pile. It may have been nothing more than a knoll. Like most people, especially adults, kids often turn knolls into mountains.

Of course, there was a challenge to that dune: get to the top, and then wield as much power as one could in order to prevent someone else from becoming “King,” thus having the temerity to announce, for the whole world to hear, “I’m the King of the Castle, and You’re just dirty rascals.”

The announcement often was made with pomp and a vain sense of self-importance. After all, for a few brief moments, a kid could gain the status of being the Big Shot, the Boss, the Ruler, the Exalted. In modern language, he was Number One.

Oh, how glorious it was. For a precious moment, until a usurper gained the upper hand and threw down the arrogant one who had taunted all the underlings. Oh, how awful, that feeling of defeat!

Of course, it was all done in a childlike manner. After all, we were only kids. Little did I realize, at the time, how true to life the game really was. It pointed to the need to become number one. And when we achieved the place at the top, we raised our fist in defiance of all those who were below us. Nowadays the raised fist has been reduced in size to a single finger that not only symbolizes one’s displeasure, but can also be construed to mean: “I’m number one.”

Whenever I witness selfish driving habits, especially habits that tell us that it is okay to be rude and uncaring, I like to mention to my wife: “It’s a world of all about me.”

Now, I have to admit that I drive somewhat slower than does the average driver. And my turtle-like driving (at least, according to my children) is not something that I developed when I reached the age when one is labeled “senior.” Actually, I became a more careful driver when I realized that it wasn’t doing me any good to travel overly fast. Speedy driving creates the opportunity for repair shops and gas stations to sell more brakes and gasoline. Not to mention there is the wear and tear of one’s nerves.

My kids tell me that I should put away my watch, and just take a calendar to gauge my progress in my movements. I realize that I have concentrated on drivers and their habits. But the real issue I want to talk about is that very issue of Who’s Number One?

The issue is most important. We, humans, have made it seem so. It is an issue that is so important that our very lives are dependent on how we approach it. Only recently our President expressed to the despotic leader of North Korea that we have a much bigger nuclear capability than does Kim. In other words, if that despot does not cease and desist, then we will bomb the heck out of them.

The idea of being number one goes back to one’s childhood. We wanted to be the best, at something, at anything. Well, maybe not something that is evil or notorious or ridiculing.

As a twin, I always had a foil by which to gauge my efforts. Both Jerry and I wanted to be the best, at baseball, or basketball, or football, or racing to the corner, or holding one’s breath, or… You get the idea. One just had to be the best.

It is interesting, at this later stage in my life, that I constantly am inundated with lists that begin with the label: “The Ten Most…” You fill in the blank. There was the list of the ten richest persons in the world. And the ten greatest baseball players. Or the ten most damaging storms.

It seems like we can’t get away from lists of the greatest. I recall, vividly, the day that I was going to set a new record for swinging myself over the sidewalk at a friend’s house. It was a boyhood thing, something that only a boy could invent, that contest. We climbed eight or ten feet into a tree that stood on one side of the sidewalk, inched our way over the branch, and held onto the branch with our hands, all while swinging ourselves in ungracious arcs until we let go, hoping to launch ourselves onto an imaginary line that would indicate who was able to launch out the farthest.

Oh, how wildly I was swinging that day. And then I let go. But instead of flying outwardly toward that imaginary line, I found myself turning a somersault, and instantly I recognized that I was about to fall on my head. So, I put out my arms to break the fall, hoping to prevent a broken neck. That worked very well; I did not break my neck, instead I broke my left arm, in two places, the bone of one of the breaks peeking through the blood that spouted out.

I wrote about that in one of the books I wrote. It might have turned out more tragic if I had not listened to my doctor, ol’ Doc Martin. He encouraged me to use my arm, even while it was in the cast, in order to make it more functional. There were other doctors, at the time, that cautioned against that philosophy. As it turned out, Doe Martin was right, and the arm healed remarkably fast, for which I am extremely grateful.

That was just one example of my efforts to be number one. Did I learn anything from that experience? Apparently not, for I have found that I spent too much of my life trying to achieve the status of being the king.

What is in back of all this? Why the great need to be numero uno? Is it some genetic trait that arrived from back in the caveman days? Did Orgoman tell Boogylopsis that he hunted bigger game? Did he brag about the drawings he created on the walls of the cave? Or build a bigger fire from fewer flammable materials than could the others?

There was a great motive on the part of most of the boys I knew, as a youngster, to prove something. Now I can’t even explain what the great motive was. It all seems so silly, those childish games we got caught up in. It makes me wonder if what we are doing now, as adults, is just as childish.

I watch football players score touchdowns and then go through some theatrical thumping of the chest, I suppose to show their superiority. And then I think of the great Barry Sanders, who simplified it all by handing the ball to the official, before retreating to the bench. Guess which player we admired the most. Sure! Barry!

Which all goes to prove that there is some place for humbleness to assume proper control.

I learned a lot about human selfishness, not too long ago, when I was wandering through the futile offerings of my television. Lo and behold – let’s not get too Biblical with all this – there was a piece of what was supposed to be cheerful news. Since we don’t get much in the way of new news on our media, I watched it with an eagerness that approaches the same feeling I get when I am able to tune in to another repeat performance of either “MASH” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” Yeah, I admit I am hooked by them!

Getting back to that bit of cheerful news, the segment involved a horde of little babies crawling around on the floor of a daycare center, with tons of toys of all kinds littered around the room. Apparently, it was a test, put on by toy makers, in order to determine which toys were preferred by those who were destined to either use them or ignore them.

Now, I am not about to get into the issue of whether the floor was dirty or clean; what I am going to relate is what I observed about human nature, just by watching these lovely babies. I personally think all babies are lovely. So, I anticipated a kind of Candid Camera kind of moment. All those cuties, waddling and crawling around while wearing only diapers, attracted and distracted by the decisions they were to make, regarding the toys. It was all so cute. Who could resist the joy to be found in such endearing moments? It was with anticipation that looked forward to seeing the delight on the faces of those babies.

Then it happened! A squeal. A cry. A tone of anguish, from one of the tots. He or she – I never can determine the sex of a baby without a look at the appropriate accompanying structural parts-was angry at another baby over the ownership of a particular green ball.

There was, on the baby’s face, a look of…well, I am not sure what. Resentment? Wrath? Pique? On a baby’s innocent face? At the age of what? Eight months? Surely the baby was not that uptight. Was he? I mean, after all, how can such a young human being who has had no experience at arguing and rights-claiming and jealousy, be so adult-like in expressions?

Emoting? Heck, neither Meryl Steep nor Brad Pitt could have expressed feelings any better. This was one very angry child. This was worthy of an award. “And the Oscar winner is…”

There it was for everyone to see and hear. Meanwhile, life went on, with all the other babies concentrating on amusing themselves. Not one of them was even curious about the plight of the sufferer, whose blatant expression of profound exasperation was obvious only to any adults nearby.

The baby wanted that ball back, and no adult expression could have been greater in tone. Meanwhile, the other baby sat up with what can only be interpreted as a look of victory and satisfaction, the ball held firmly in his hands.

At this point, the suffering victim tried to retrieve the ball. He crawled toward the other baby, and reached out in a most hostile manner, his tiny hand straining to secure the ball, a look of intense temper etched in his features.

It was a most passionate drama, worthy of Shakespeare. A battle was in the making, one that involved the most innocent of creatures.

And when the re-acquisition had been accomplished, there was another loud cry, this time from the lungs of the baby who was now the sufferer. Such an expression of displeasure was so noticeable that I found myself laughing. Laughing at a baby’s extreme displeasure? To laugh at an innocent but sincere utterance was not like me. As I said before, I really love babies. I have had lots of experiences with them, being a father and a grandfather and a great-grandfather. Babies are so cuddly and so sinless. Thus, for them to display something that resembles the childish attitude of an adult…it is all so disconcerting.

An event like that causes me to consider what it might have been like for me and my twin brother when we were in mother’s belly. Did we jostle for space? Did we compete for the precious little food that was given to us through processes that still perplex me?

I do recall many times, during my growing-up days, when Jerry and I fought over the most trivial things. Invariably one of us found, in a position atop the other, the capacity to administer the severest of blows. Yet, when the day ended, we shared a bed and memories and aspirations that most other children would envy.

But back to those babies. How is it that such genetic tendencies as love and envy and bonding and animosity survive the thirty-six or so weeks of imprisonment that most of us go through? Where did that all that come from? Are we born with the need to be number one? Is it something that God gave to us to help us in our journey through life? Is it a necessary learning experience?

I don’t have the answers to such questions. The best that I can hope for is that I run across fewer idiots who drive as though they rule the road and thus feel justified in giving me the symbolic gesture of the raised finger.

Number one? Maybe. But certainly not on my list of those I admire. After all, I learned early on that life at the top of the castle was really not as great as I would have wanted it to be.

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Larry Miller was born and raised in Port Huron. Author of two novels loosely set in Port Huron: “When Life Was Good, Sometimes,” and “Haunted Youth.” Larry and wife Carol have three children, seven grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren. Larry is a graduate of Central Michigan University. He taught English and American Literature at Port Huron Northern High School.

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