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What’s So Great About Being Number One?

By Larry Miller

Sometimes I wait for something to disturb me, or for something which leaves me feeling elated, or something which makes me do some deep thinking about 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.

So, what was it this time that triggered my actions?

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

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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 ordinary event. But something did happen, and it was not new to me; it had happened before, often enough times, in fact, to compel me to discuss it with an appreciative audience, if I could find that audience. And I hope you readers will appreciate the point of what I am trying, and hoping, to make.

Others’ driving habits are often fair game for a group of male members of the church I attend. We meet regularly, every Tuesday morning. Originally, it was a workgroup that was dedicated to doing those little things that needed attention, but as we aged, and lost some members, we became more of a coffee and donut group. Sitting around a massive table, in the room set aside for the Adult Bible Class, we are apt to discuss whatever we deem to be of supreme importance: politics, sports, other people’s habits, etc. In reference to that last subject, Mark Twain said: “Nothing means reforming more than other people’s habits.” Thus we are quite willing to talk about others.

Give a group of men a subject that personally involves them, they will turn a gab session into a contest of whoever can come up with a better tale. So it was that I told our group about the experience I had that particular morning. I was hoping that I would receive some sympathy and understanding. Instead, looking back on the occasion, all I remember is hearing a litany of similar or more bizarre experiences of theirs. Mine received only cursory attention.

Consequently, it is that I turn to the printed page, not even daring to hope for some sympathy, since most of you have no idea of who I am. I can only hope that you read through part of the story and, at least, nod your heads in understanding, if not in sympathy. Writing about it gives me some sense of relief.

Let me explain what happened. As I pulled up to the corner, obedient to the “STOP” traffic sign, with the simple aim to turn right, 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 to the left, and I noticed that there was no vehicle in the curbside lane, only a half-ton pickup, about a hundred yards back, in the interior lane.

I made my turn, and slowly increased my speed to that which is posted. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and serious thoughts were drowned out by an Andrew Lloyd Weber number from my disc player.

Then it happened! The truck that I had previously noticed, went whizzing by, obviously traveling faster than the speed limit, close to the speed of sound.

The driver pulled sharply in front of me, cutting me off, the male driver giving me the notorious finger of authority as he passed, all while giving me a blast of his horn. It was not the first time that a driver had done that to me. The busy street on which I was traveling is considered by some drivers to be their personal domain. They are quick to communicate their disdain for anyone who dares to venture onto their race-laps. They race violently, giving the rest of us a message: “Get out of my way!”

My wife and I have a pithy saying about them: It’s a me-first world.

We have a slightly busy street 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. It is obvious that those drivers feel, apparently, that any intruders who dare to enter their chosen lanes warrant the sign with the finger. What we “intruders” feel. ..well, let’s not think about that. Thinking about it stokes up a passion that one would best subdue. No sense in increasing the fury that one feels inside.

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

I recall, with some melancholy fondness, a sandy area in our neighborhood that provided us with the necessary material. All it took was a small pile of dirt, or a large pile. It need not be anything more than a knoll. Like most people, especially adults, kids often turn knolls into mountains.

When things became commonplace, and we boys seemed to be out of a cure for any restlessness that we were suffering from, the sand dune provided us with a way to challenge ourselves, and others.

Of course there was a challenge to that dune: get to the top, and then wield as much power and wile as one could in order to prevent someone else from becoming “King,” all the while announcing for everyone to hear: “I’m the King of the Castle, and You’re Just Dirty Rascals. “Why, just one short term atop that dune was enough to give a boy the right to brag about the achievement, no matter how short the duration. The top was there, and the boy had conquered it. Kind of like Sir Edmund Hillary and his conquest of Mount Everest. Just slightly less in importance. But, then, we boys did not have Sherpas to assist us.

The announcement from the top 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 modem language, he was Number One. Perhaps the only difference, compared to modem days, is the lack of the extended middle finger. Perhaps the middle finger had other purposes, in those days.

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

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 that the world seems to be going in a perverse direction, toward a self-indulgent attitude that denies the rights and dreams of others. It is not just driving habits I am speaking to. It’s a matter of politics, of religion, of social consciousness, of sports.

Of course, the truly awful thing is that the modem version of such driving incidents includes horrible examples of road rage. Words get exchanged. Passions mount. And, nowadays, guns appear, held in a menacing manner, too often used by.. .well, there are apt words to describe such persons, but I wish this writing to be maintained in a civil manner.

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 while on the road. I realize, here, that I have concentrated on the art of driving and other drivers’ habits. But the real issue I want to talk about is: Who’s Number One?

That issue is most important. At least we humans have made it seem so. It is an issue that is so important that our very lives are often 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. In other words, our President is King of the Castle.

The origin of 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, my twin, 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 life, that I am constantly inundated with lists that begin with the label: “The Ten Most…” You fill in the blank. There is the list of the ten richest persons in the world. And the ten greatest baseball players. And the ten most damaging storms. The ten best restaurants. Etc.

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. The challenge that I accepted was meant to place me in the Germantown Hall of Fame for Kids, a list that existed only in our limited minds. The contest involving the sidewalk was a boyhood thing, something that only a boy could invent. We climbed eight or ten feet into a tree that stood on one side of the sidewalk, inched our way, by hand and foot, under and along the branch, until we reached what I would call the launching point.

Then we would begin swinging, back and forth, kicking our legs in order to increase the arc, 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 fateful day. I was imagining myself clinging to the rope of a trapeze artist, flying high above the crowds of circus-goers, sure of my ability to be Number One. That Hall of Fame was my destiny. For ages, my name would find itself on the lips of all those who would follow in my footsteps. Oh, the glory of it all.

My swings became wild, my feet kicking with fervor, my hands gripping the branch with tension, feeling myself climbing into the stratosphere. And then I let go. But instead of flying outwardly toward that imaginary line, I found myself turning a somersault, and instantly I realized 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 fell on a bent left arm, and I could hear a snap. My arm had broken, in two places, it turned out. One of the bones had splintered the skin, and was peeking out through a fountain of blood.

I wrote about the event in another book. 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, who cautioned against that philosophy. As it turned out, Doc 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 have 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 far less flammable materials than could the others? Or face down a more vicious mastodon?

There was a great need on the part of most of the boys I knew to prove something. Nowadays 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 or weird dance, 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.

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 “Lo and behold stuff-there was a piece of what was supposed to be cheerful news. Since we don’t get much in the way of good-feeling news from the 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.

Anyway, 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. To the little kids, it must have looked like an all-you-can-eat buffet that we adults would have relished. Apparently, it was all part of a test, put on by toymakers, in order to determine which toys were preferred. It seemed, to me, like a perfect activity to help the manufacturers and retailers choose which items deserved their attention.

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 I looked forward to seeing delight on the faces of those innocent babes.

Of course, there was plenty of activity, and whoops of glee were abundant.

And 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 obviously 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? Fifteen 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 with arguing and rights-claiming and jealousy, be so adult-like in expressions and feelings? Emoting? Heck, neither Meryl Streep nor Brad Pitt could have expressed feelings any better. This was one very angry child. Screams pierced the atmosphere. Tears flowed down the tyke’s cheeks. 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 most of 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 so obvious to us adult watchers.

The baby wanted that ball back, and no adult expression could have been displayed more meaningfully. 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. Happiness reigned with the possessor. He looked like some baby-version of the King of the Castle.

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 hands straining to secure the ball, a look of intense chagrin 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 reacquisition had been accomplished, there was another loud cry, this time from the lungs of the formerly victorious baby who was now turned into 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 pure, and sinless. Thus for them to display something that resembles the childish attitude of an adult.. .it was all so disconcerting.

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

I recall many times, during our growing-up days, when Jerry and I fought over the most trivial things. Invariably one of us found a position atop the other, with 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. Being twins, we had the best and the worst of the world.

But back to those babies. How is it that genetic tendencies such as love and envy and bonding and animosity survive the thirty-six weeks of imprisonment that most of them go through? Where did 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? Is life really a matter of survival of the fittest?

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 who seem to 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 thought it would be. Too often we tumble. And the fall hurts.

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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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