The desire to control our environment, to have power, starts at a very young age, like right after we have been pushed out of the womb. At first. out primary means is to scream loudly. It works. Later we learn more subtle techniques such as a smile or magic words such as Mama, Papa, and please. The first time I remember consciously thinking about power, I was in the third grade.
We were deeply engrossed in an intense game of Old West cowboys and outlaws during recess and it was my turn to be a good guy. Unfortunately, the bad guys had the tactical advantage. They were located on a slight embankment that formed the west side of the playground and were shooting down at us with devastating results.
“Bang, bang you’re dead,” they kept shouting ecstatically as my cohorts bit the dust. Drastic action was called for.
“Let’s charge them,” I yelled while beating my imaginary white stallion on his flanks, a.k.a. my butt, and charging up the hill with Rough Rider abandon. Amazingly, the other good guys, including older fourth grade boys, followed.
“You’re dead, you’re dead, you’re dead,” I screamed as I charged into the nest of evildoers with two-finger guns blazing. Third and fourth grade boys dropped all over the place. What a rush. I had discovered the dark art of leadership: if you make a lot of noise, appear irrationally confidant and charge the enemy, people will follow. I had power… and I liked it. I became a power-hungry third grader, a Trumpian character of vast proportions, and vowed to become ruler of everything in sight: President of the class, Boy Scout patrol leader, committee chairperson, and team captain. I wanted it all!
Prior to my charge up the hill, most of my experience at giving orders had been with Tickle. He was a well-mannered dog and, like most Cocker Spaniels, eager to please his human servants. For example, one day he accompanied me to Dub Walker’s grocery store when I was on a mission to pick up a quart of milk. As I went inside, I told Tickle to sit down and wait, which he dutifully did. When I came out, the little brown and white dog was nowhere in sight. I figured he’d gone home but when I arrived there, he wasn’t to be found.
“Mother, have you seen Tickle?” I asked, explaining what had happened.
“No,” she responded, “and you know what that means.” I shook my head yes. It probably meant Tickle had sniffed out a potential girlfriend. It was the one situation where he normally felt justified in ignoring any request we had made of him and whatever the consequences his behavior might lead to. Most of us have been there.
“We’d better get in the car and go looking for him,” Mother had noted with a sigh. Otherwise it might be hours before we saw him again. As we drove down town I glanced over at Walker’s store. There was Tickle, waiting faithfully at the door and wagging eagerly at folks as they came out. Whatever the momentary distraction had been, possibly an errant cat, he had quickly returned to his post and had been waiting for over 30 minutes for me to reappear. That’s how good a dog he was.
Even Tickle had reservations about being ordered around, however. Sit down, come here, lie down and heel were fine the first time around and tolerated the second. On the third time, he got that very distinctive “I don’t want to” look in his eyes. Dogs have a clear understanding of the power game from their wolf heritage. As the challenged leader of the pack, I became more strident in my demands and Tickle became even more resentful. Mother intervened with a suggestion, “Try dog biscuits.” Like magic, Tickle’s attitude improved and I learned the art of dog biscuit diplomacy: the right incentive, offered at the right moment, can snatch victory from the jaws of an irritated Cocker Spaniel.
As part of my political education, I decided that there had to be more to the art of leadership than bossing my dog around and became fascinated with the world of realpolitik. My parents were semi-serious Republicans, semi in the sense that they didn’t devote their lives to the cause but they did vote the party line. The family tradition went back to Abe Lincoln who had been a family lawyer. My indoctrination started young with the 1952 campaign of Dwight Eisenhower against Adlai Stevenson. According to Mother, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were responsible for most of the bad things that existed in the Country and Ike was going to right the wrongs of the previous two decades. I, of course, accepted this view whole-heartedly and had all the makings of a fine Young Republican. Naturally I was eager to share my correct or ‘right’ perspective with fellow students.
They weren’t particularly interested.
After all, what do nine-year olds know or care about politics? One student, whose parents were avid Democrats, was ready to take me on, however. Our debate started in the boys’ bathroom when we were lined up at the urinals and continued on to the playground. Things began well. Even then I was a high-verbal and points I didn’t win on logic I was taking with volume. But the situation deteriorated rapidly. My fellow debater did what most politicians do when they appear to be losing ground; he started slinging mud.
“Eisenhower is a blankety, blank,” he declared with a smirk to underline his cleverness. It was his mistake, now we were talking my language.
“In that case,” I argued with glee, “Stevenson is a blankety-blank, blank, blank.” Marshall, Allen and Lee had taught me every swear word in the English language and a few in Spanish. I could go on for minutes without repeating myself. In fact, Allen and I had challenged each other to a contest once to see who knew the most swear words. There was a vacant lot filled with tall grass down on the corner where Missouri Flat road ran into Highway 49. We got down on our hands and knees and chased each other through the grass while shouting obscenities at the top of our lungs. We were so engrossed in our efforts that we didn’t note that Marsh had time to go home and retrieve Pop to listen in on the exchange. He was not impressed with our command of the language.
Anyway, I was not to be outdone in the mudslinging department; I had a bright future as a campaign manager. It demolished my opponent. Regrettably, I was about to learn an important Hobbesian lesson in power politics: Never start political arguments with a person carrying a baseball bat. He let go with his and whacked me across the leg. Down I went onto the playground and off I went to the hospital as my leg muscle knotted up to the size of a softball. Fortunately, nothing was broken and my man Ike won the election.
My scramble for power peaked in the eighth grade when I ran for Student Body President. Diamond Springs Elementary School had consolidated and become Mother Lode Elementary School. (Later it would be named after Allen’s dad and become Herb Green Elementary School.) In addition to a new school, we now had kids from El Dorado and Missouri Flat.
My opponent was a Doctor’s kid from out of town and across the tracks, so to speak. The campaign turned nasty. “Curt’s a Flirt” and “Curt Eats Dirt” posters made by a fourth-grade class, sprang up all over the school grounds. I resented being used as a lesson plan in rhyming and retaliated by recruiting a one-man enforcer to go around twisting fourth grader’s arms. I even made an inflammatory speech. About what, I haven’t a clue, but it must have been effective. I won the election.
And I still wanted more power. The principal asked me to take over as president of the schools’ new square dance club and I immediately said “yes” even though dancing was just above (and possibly below) going to the dentist on my list of favorite activities. To paraphrase Thoreau, I dance to a different drummer. Other people’s downbeat is my upbeat. As for the square dancing, I confess it was fun. “Stop where you are, give your honey a swing” went the call and I loved giving girls a twirl. The only down side was that the woman of my dreams, the girl who had captured my 13-year-old heart, was assigned to a different square.
Even being President of the Mother Lode Twirlers wasn’t enough, however. I wanted to be a sport’s hero, too, which is the subject of next Friday’s MisAdventures’ blog.
TUESDAY’S POST: A trail review of the first 500 miles of my thousand mile trek.