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Being the youngest kid sucks. “You’re too young; you’re too little; you don’t know how; you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can’t do it.” And, of course, “You’re sitting in the middle.”
I’ve said before that I was the youngest of four brothers, two sets of two born a year apart, with three years in between. That’s four boys in six years; the oldest being five years older than me, the youngest. Most of the time we were divided into two groups, and I was just the younger of the younger group. But whenever we were together as a group, as a family, I was a the bottom of the heap. And although my two older brothers would occasionally include the third, that was usually just so they could exclude me.
Now, sometimes the youngest gets spoiled, but not in a crowd like that. I was just part of the horde, the nameless rabble; you know, the little one on the end. And the nameless part was almost literal; whenever my Mom yelled at me, she had to work her way through three other names before she could remember mine. (She did them chronologically.)
And you keep on being the youngest, year after year. It’s completely unfair. You never get to be the oldest, or the biggest, or get to know the stuff the other guys don’t, and you’ll never be left in charge. (Just as well … if I’d been left in charge, I would have had my oldest brother in leg irons.)
Even strangers felt entitled to belittle me. I met the only man I ever called Grandpa on the day he married my father’s mother, my grandfather having died shortly after my birth. When I was introduced, he looked down at me and said, “So you must be the baby of the family.” I tried to take his head off. I was five.
(He loved to tell that story. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that he had boxed professionally as a young man. He liked me, not in spite of me trying to deck him, but because I tried to deck him.)
But it was always tough being the little one.
When it was time to bully someone for laughs, I was always there. I was routinely pinned down by my oldest brother, while he dribbled a string of saliva down to my face, sucking it back in at the last moment. Because I was the smallest. Of course, I made him pay for the privilege, with a couple of mule-kicks to the spine. But as much satisfaction as that may provide, it still wasn’t worth it. And that sort of thing never happens to the oldest. I mean, I never pinned him down and dribbled spit in his face, no matter how severely in need of it he was.
And I don’t want to talk about the episodes that started out with the dreaded words, “Let’s de-pants (Judge Mental)!!!”
Of course, sometimes they were right; sometimes I didn’t know what I was doing. Like the first time I played baseball. I was playing first base, with a runner on first, when a grounder came my way. Being an avid kickballer, I knew what to do. I scooped it up awkwardly, and turned to throw out the base runner. I have a memory of everyone there, both teams and spectators included (even my Mom), shouting in seeming slow-motion unison, “Noooooooooooooo.” But undeterred, I nailed him right between the shoulder blades. Hey, how was I to know? That’s how you do it in kickball … you know, a man’s game.
But the quintessential example of the cruel hierarchy of the sibling pecking order was riding in the car. I always had to sit in the middle, riding on the hump. Now, other than church and vacations, most of the car trips we took were my Dad and us, which put me in the middle of the back seat. But even worse, on a car trip with the whole family, I not only rode the hump, but had to do it sitting in front between my parents, excluding me from the group one more time.
How I hated sitting on that hump. There were no springs in that part of the seat, so it was uncomfortable. You couldn’t see out the window without someone’s head in the way. There was no place to put your feet; either you put them on the hump and your knees are in your face, or you put one on each side and get kicked by your brothers.
It was even worse when my father bought the first foreign car in the neighborhood, an old used Fiat. It was black with a white roof, although calling it black would be giving undue credit; it was so faded out that it was charcoal at best. It had a one-lung, putt-putt engine and no air conditioning.
Guess where I got to sit?
But in the end it was all just fuel for my annealing in the fire of perpetual struggle. You see, always being the low man on the totem pole, always being the smallest, being picked on, being told that I just couldn’t do it, gave me something to prove. I was Avis and I had to try harder. I could do stuff, and hey … I grew. I went out into the world to do it and do it better, and I did things the other guys didn’t do, I went places they’ll never see, and I achieved things that they’re not even aware of. It doesn’t even matter if they know; I did it.
Because I always sat on the hump.Published in