Have you ever heard of a game called King of the Hill? I’m pretty sure there are over a dozen variations of this game, but generally (like climbing) the objective is the same. Don’t fall!
I’m not usually a fan of using Wikipedia as a source, but this time they seem to have summed up this game perfectly.
King of the Hill (also known as King of the Mountain or King of the Castle) is a children’s game, the object of which is to stay on top of a large hill or pile (or any other designated area) as the “King of the Hill”. Other players attempt to knock the current King off the pile and take their place, thus becoming the new King of the Hill.
The way the “king” can be removed from the hill depends largely on the rules determined by the players before the game starts. Ordinarily pushing is the most common way of removing the king from the hill, and punching and kicking are not allowed. The potential for rougher versions of the game have led to it often being banned from schools.
- The first to get on the hill at the start becomes the king
- To become a king, you need to go up the hill and push the king off
- At the end, the king wins
At Wilson School, the “hill” was just two logs set at about a 15-degree incline, meeting at a pillar nearly 2 feet off the ground. (See Fig. 1)
The eastmost log was about 12” in diameter, while the western log was much thinner at about only 8” in diameter thus giving the kids on the eastside an enormous advantage.
Every morning before school, us schoolkids would line up on each side and battle to determine who would be king! The students who arrived earliest would get the most shots at the crown, but it all ended when Matt Simpson stepped off the bus.
Matt Simpson was the king of kings. I remember his face only vaguely, but his stature is unforgettable. At the time, (4th grade) I was of average height and weight for a 9-year-old kid, but Matt Simpson although only one grade older had the physique of a grown man.
He must have been all of 5 feet tall, weighing in at over 130 lbs. I remember his curly dark hair and sausage size fingers, his size eight Chucks, and his manly peach fuzz mustache. Once that man-child stepped onto that playground, we all knew who was about to be crowned king.
Prior to Matt Simpson’s morning arrival, the optimal log would be the east log. Matt Simpson was no fool, no matter how long the line, he always opted east. Those burly size eights were too much for the westside.
Stepping up onto the log, Matt Simpson would bide his time, slowly moving up that sturdy ramp as the kids in front of him were gradually eliminated one by one. Once Matt Simpson made it to the apex on the 12-inch side of our royal arena, those massive Chuck Taylors sunk into that twisted cedar log like crampons in solid ice.
I’m not sure if they were optimistic, in denial, or didn’t want to feel the wrath of Matt Simpson’s flying arms, but kids would continue to get in line on the eastside log behind Matt Simpson. Those poor bastards in that line were stuck there until the school bell rang. Once Matt Simpson attained the royal scepter, he was not giving it up! All hail the king.
Now the kids on the west log were a whole different story. Maybe we were the optimistic ones, maybe we were the ones in denial. Whether it was misplaced hope or just short-term memory from past defeats, we on the westside we gluttons for punishment. Us west-siders just waited our turn, moving up the log one by one until it was our shot at Matt Simpson who would always send us plummeting back to earth. We would just do this over and over until the morning bell. Our knees and elbows were scraped from the mulch in the fall, and our clothes were left soaking wet from the snow in the winter.
If Matt Simpson was ever going to fall, we needed to train, and so day after day we took our lumps. We must have looked like tiny planes getting swatted by King Kong, we were all falling off that log like synchronized swimmers getting into a pool.
Freezing days were the most challenging. Water would seep into the cracks of the log and freeze thus making the approach up that 8” log even harder to navigate than usual. Kids would be falling off left and right even before reaching the ominous Matt Simpson. But when our log was slippery, that meant that Matt Simpson’s log was slippery as well. Those mammoth Chuck Taylors were fine when the logs were dry, but could they hold up in sub-freezing temperatures against an onslaught of fourth graders in Moon Boots?
Interestingly, King of the Hill was not allowed during school hours, which is why we had to play in the morning before school. This meant that during recess and lunchtime the “hill” was just a plain old balance beam. You better believe I spent many a recess on the westside just practicing my balance, standing on the threshold with my toes over the edge. Shifting my weight back and forth, leaning one way and then recovering my center of gravity, standing on one foot, jumping to the other foot. I was my own Mr. Miyagi, just waiting for my Daniel LaRusso moment. There was improvement, but if I was going to slay the king, I needed an equalizer. I needed something to make up for the 4” disadvantage constantly confronting those of us who were destined for life on the westside.
That equalizer would come in the form of a freezing Michigan winter day. Moon Boots on, jacket and gloves off. Matt Simpson had already taken the throne by the time I began my first ascent. The King was swatting kids like Ari Melber rushing the stage at a Meek Mill concert. I barely made it halfway up the west log before I slipped on a patch of ice and had to go to the back of the line. Luckily for me the line was moving quickly. Between Matt Simpson’s unyielding assault and the those displaced by slippery log falls, it wouldn’t be long before I arrived at the top.
I had a plan…keep a low center of gravity, dodge Matt Simpson’s first swat attempt, place my foot directly next to his on the summit thus preventing him from any pivot or adjustment. If I could stick to that plan, it would force his adjustments onto his back foot, and with a little luck, that foot adjustment hits an ice patch, and I reign supreme.
Matt Simpson knocked me off immediately.
The clock was ticking, time was running out, I just needed one more opportunity. The playground gods smiled upon me. On this day I would get my opportunity. I marched to the peak, set my foot, dodged his blow, Matt Simpson’s momentum was forced to his back foot, and on this day those tractionless Chuck Taylors were not enough for slick surface of the eastside log.
The King had fallen, Matt Simpson was on the ground.
My coronation was short lived, the next person in line immediately pushed me to the ground. The bell rang, my reign had ended.
Long live the King!
* If you look closely at the cover photo, you can see the “hill” at the bottom left corner.
** Wilson School was a casualty of public school budget cuts, and no longer exists. Rumor has it that if you listen closely, you can still hear his name blowing in the wind…Maaaaatt SSSSSSSSimpson.