Winning the Race

By the time I was entering adolescence, my older brother had made three serious attempts on my life. I’m not exaggerating or speaking metaphorically. Let me begin this section of “The Ontology of I” with what I remember of these three attempts.

The first attempt must have happened when I was very young. Probably about five or so. I remember nothing of the larger context of this event – what led up to it, or how it was handled. What I do remember is King – carrying a butcher knife from the kitchen – chasing me around the dining room table. I remember my fear. Then I remember the mother of the family that rented our upstairs, which had been converted into an apartment, stopping him. That’s it for the first attempt. I must emphasize that he was not playing or pretending. He was chasing me with the intent to kill me.

The second attempt was at the lake in Minnesota where we went for a month each year for a vacation. There was a platform at the water's edge that was about four or five inches higher than the surface of the lake. From this platform, a small sloping structure extended into the lake to facilitate a person pulling his or her boat onto the ramp. I think that was where they were stored during the winter. At the time of the incident I am describing, the boat-platform was mostly, if not totally, clear. In my memory my brother and I are fighting – wrestling. I am probably about seven or eight. Being two years older than me, he was stronger. But I was a tough and wiry kid and was able to put up a fight. He was dragging me over to the edge of the ramp where he intended to force me off the platform, drag me into the water, and drown me. A man whom we probably knew at the time, but I don’t recall, came across us and broke us up. Again I don’t remember the larger context.

The third incident was a year or two after the one I just described. It was at a camp in Michigan where we vacationed a couple of years because the camp that Minnesota had been sold to a man who catered to a rougher, drinking crowd. My father didn’t want us exposed to that sort of thing.

I had been on a boat trip with King and a slightly older friend. I don’t recall his name. We’ll call him Joe. Joe was friends with both of us. That is an important point, because for me to usurp the friendship of a mutual acquaintance would’ve been a capital offense – a repeat of my usurpation of our mother’s love, as I’m sure King saw it.

We came back to shore. Both Joe and I had gotten out of the boat. I was still on the dock and King was still in the boat. It occurred to me that it would be a great joke if I pulled the oars out of the boat and pushed it away from the dock. What must have prompted me to consider such an act!?!

But I did it.

King was not defeated for long. He simply got out of the boat. The water was about waist high where he was – and he walked in to the shore. I could see by the expression on his face that I was in serious trouble. I knew that he would not be content to beat me up. He would want to kill me. Again I’m speaking literally. I began to run but I had delayed too long. He caught me and was doing his utmost to do serious injury to me. Joe came and pulled him off. Joe was able to hold King back long enough for me to get a head start. I made it to our cabin and locked the screen door from the inside. But the door was flimsy and when King began to yank at it I could tell that he was going to break it down – and soon.

There was no place for me to go and there were knives in the kitchen drawer. As luck would have it my parents drove into the yard at this moment. They had been on a trip into town. My father got control of King and I was safe for the moment.

Then something interesting happened. Rather than punishing or reprimanding either of us, my father took us both into a bedroom and just talked with us. Among other things, I think I had to apologize for humiliating King in front of a mutual friend. I think that King also accused me of trying to take this friend away from him. There was some truth in that. I agreed to stay away from his friends. That at least is my recollection of what we talked about.

I think there were other things as well that we discussed that I don’t recall. I don’t know, but somehow this three-way conversation changed things. I no longer had to be afraid of King. We even, gradually, became friends.

King was tough, intelligent, informed and independent. He seemed to know everything about wildlife. Among other things he had a rather impressive collection of snakes. I would hunt for the snakes with him and he would show me the most likely places to find them.

One of my most vivid memories of things I did with King concerned our early spring visits to a place called Grassyforks Fish Hatchery. This was a place about 20 or 30 miles south of our home in Indianapolis. They bred goldfish there for pet stores. There were a bunch of rectangular ponds that were used for this. In addition to the ponds there was a stream that ran through the Grassyforks property. (It was a rather swampy area.) A fair number of the goldfish escaped from the ponds and could be seen swimming around in the stream. Taking an ecological rather than a business perspective on this, all these goldfish provided a lot of food for other species. Snakes – especially water snakes (not water moccasins – though the two species are sometimes mistaken for each other) were plentiful along the banks of the stream. Turtles – especially snapping turtles and softshell turtles populated the ponds.

When King was 16 or 17 he took me down to Grassyforks to hunt turtles. It was early spring soon after the ice thawed. The ponds were drained in the winter and what remained were rectangles of mud that came up to our knees when we waded through them. King knew the habits of turtles. They survived the winters by burrowing down in the mud and hibernating there. Both the softshells and the snappers did this. I suppose they were in some special metabolic state and did not require much oxygen, but it was still a mystery to me how they could survive the whole winter on no oxygen at all. But survive they did as I was to learn from King.

King carried a stout pole about 5 feet long. When he saw a slight depression in the mud he would poke the pole down repeatedly in various places in the general vicinity until it made a hollow sound. Then he would use the poll as a tool and he would pry the turtle out from its hibernating location a foot or so beneath the surface of the mud, and bring it out where we could catch it. Catching it was fairly easy once he dug it out of the mud because it was still sluggish from its hibernation.

It was always either a snapping turtle or softshell turtle that was delivered from the depths of the mud. A snapping turtle is a rather fierce and ugly turtle with a thick, heavy, rough shell. A softshell turtle was about equal in size if you were measuring the diameter of the shell and disregarding its thickness. But in contrast, its shell was quite flat, smooth and streamlined, and it was leathery and flexible rather than rigid like the snappers. The color of the softshell turtle was beautiful – a bright green – and it had a long tapered nose. In the summer you could occasionally spot one swimming with just it's nose above the water.

I looked up softshell turtle on the Internet and discovered that the ones we captured were spiny softshell turtles. They were a real prize. We took them back home, where we kept them in a pond that King had dug in the back yard.

Throughout my adolescence I loved going on trips with King. We always found interesting things. The dangers of the early years were mostly behind us. I was still a little bit afraid of him, but I never contradicted him and always accepted his leadership. This seem natural as he was the older brother. If you read the section on Mrs. Worms you will notice that he was God and I was only St. Peter. That’s the way it always was. But being St. Peter was fine with me.

Before winding up this section on King I’d like to do a thought experiment – an exploration of a “what if?”. Suppose on any of those three attempts on my life King had succeeded. Suppose he had killed me. It is certainly possible. In each of these situations, I was rescued by the intervention of an adult. It certainly is conceivable that they might not have been there. I can see the headlines: ”Son of highly respectable and responsible parents brutally murders his brother.” That would certainly give the newspapers something to chew on. The fact that my father was a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church would add a nice touch to the scandal. It might even have made it into the Inquirer or Some similar tabloid.

But in all seriousness, how was such a thing to be understood? Isn’t responsible parenting supposed to produce mentally healthy children on their way to becoming upstanding citizens? So what is going on here? The tabloid writers would have heard of the “bad seed” theory. Some children are just born without a conscience. How else could you explain a boy that is capable of murder being the offspring of responsible parents? Many professionals would essentially agree with this and would cite Clecky’s “The Mask of Sanity” as a competent development of the theory.

But I was a member of my family and know a bit more about it. No, we were not subjected to satanic rituals in secret. Yes, my parents were decent, responsible human beings in every respect. But even responsible well-meaning people can make mistakes or can be driven by inner demons that create problems. When King was born my mother was very insecure about raising children. Also, she had lost her mother while she was an infant, and been abandoned by her father. She was raised by gentle and caring relatives, but I suspect the disruptions of her early life left their mark. She never talked much about this, so the details are not at all clear to me.

I also know she didn’t particularly like infants and small children. But she did want to do a good job with her own. So she read a book on the subject. It was written by a behaviorist who believed that all behavior was a result of reinforcement patterns. If the behavior was rewarded it would be repeated; if it was either not responded to, or punished, it would be extinguished. When this principle was applied to infants it meant that when infants fussed and cried they should not be picked up and comforted. That would reinforce the fussing, demanding behavior. The correct procedure was to put infants on a schedule and meet their needs by the clock rather than as prompted by their fussing. So for the first year or two that’s how King was raised. Then one day she listened to his crying – coming from the bedroom where he was all alone. She realized that the book whose program she was following was wrong – or at least she decided that she could not follow it any longer. She went and picked him up in response to his fussing.

That was good, but in some respects it was too late. A lot of damage had already been done.

The outcome of maternal deprivation in human children is pretty similar to what Harlow demonstrated it is in monkeys. Infants deprived of touch, affection, holding and love do not grow up to be normally functioning adults.

What I knew about my brother was that he was dangerous, that he sucked his fingers even more voraciously than I sucked my thumb, and that he had to rock himself back and forth to go to sleep. This rocking behavior, though of course I didn’t know it at the time, was similar to the rocking behavior of children who are raised in state institutions where they are severely deprived of love, touch, holding and interesting stimulation. I recall watching a documentary on this about an institution in Bulgaria. It was heartrending to watch the children waste away. I’m not trying to pick on the third world countries here. Europe and the United States have their own atrocities. But countries with very limited financial resources do seem to do the worst in this regard.

So about the time my mother discovered her error and began to include a lot more holding and affection in her parenting, I came along. King must’ve noticed me getting the holding and affection that had been denied him. The younger brother usurping the older one is an issue that is literally of biblical proportions. We see examples both in Cain and Able, and in Jacob and Esau. So we don’t need a questionable theory about a “bad seed.” Humanly understandable dynamics are sufficient to explain it. One could argue that killing me would have been a bit of an overreaction. I tend to think so. But the behavior is understandable.

In general, for the rest of his life, King had a lot of problems. He drank on an alcoholic level, and took a fair many illegal drugs. His marriages were not successful and he made more than one suicide attempt. An injury in the first year of life – one that disrupts the bonding process – does not go away easily. Corrective emotional/interpersonal experiences can help but do not generally totally undo the harm.

King was smart. That impressed my mother. She remarked more than once on the fact that he had “a very fine mind.” I think she basked in the glory of his intellectual achievements. Certainly he did better than I did in this regard. I hated school and barely avoided being held back when it was time to pass from one grade to another. So it would seem that academic achievement was a domain in which he might regain his superior position in our mother’s esteem.

Given these possible ramifications, Kings completion of his academic career is of some interest. King studied to become an anthropologist. I remember one summer when Carroll (my wife) and I we went to a place where he was working with a group that was digging up an Indian mound. While we were in that general area we visited the Dixon Mounds. Some of the people who worked there showed him some bones to get his opinion about possible diseases the person would’ve suffered from when he was alive. He already had a reputation for being knowledgeable about such things. I also remember visiting the room at Indiana University where all the bones for his project were laid out on a big table for assembly and analysis. King had finished everything for his PhD except writing up the research he was doing on the Indian mound and its bones. Then he stopped working. He didn’t say he had stopped working – but he just never got around to finishing the project.

Despite his lack of a degree, he was hired to teach anthropology in a Midwestern school on the condition that he would finish writing up his research. He accepted the position but never finished writing up his research. Eventually they had to let them go and he got a job as a dispatcher in a flower delivery company.

And that was it. He never did get his PhD.

How could this self-defeating behavior be understood? Perhaps there are two clues.

The first clue for me was a movie that I remember seeing called “The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.” It is about a boy in a center for juvenile delinquents who excels in running – especially long distance running. His institution was going to compete with another more prestigious institution of some sort. Winning against them would provide the center where the long-distance runner resided with a lot of positive recognition. The director of the institution wanted very much to win this competition and offered our long distance runner some valuable perks if he would enter and win this competition. And so he did. At least he entered the contest.

As the runners were nearing the finish line our runner was well in the lead. Then he slowed down as the competitors from the other school gained on him. Finally he came to a dead stop as the other competitors ran around him and won the race.

He lost the race, but won a moral victory against his superiors in the institution. They punished him but could not take away his moral victory. I recall my mother saying that it was a shame that King let his fine mind go to waste. Perhaps his reasons for doing so were similar to the reason why the long-distance runner never finished his race.

 

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