One of my great treasures as a child was a plastic crown decorated with emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. It was too big for my head, so it sat on my ears, giving me something of a demented Dumbo-meets-Frodo air. In my crown, I reigned over Matchbox cars and G.I. Joes in a kingdom of bathtubs and bedtimes. I was no longer Justin the Boy. I was Justin the King. That is, until King Arthur came along.
The story of King Arthur and his Knights offered everything a young king desires: armor and swords, magic and power, enchantment and triumph. I invented my own version of the story for my friends, and, being the only boy in the neighborhood with a crown, I became Arthur. My best friend was Merlin. Barbie was my Queen Guinevere. Others played knights and villains. All envied my spray-painted symbol of power.
As I entered puberty, I lost interest in the pretend, but my adoration for Arthur and his men only had begun. I began to view them in an unspeakable, romantic way. It wasn’t Arthur who stole my heart—I’d grown tired of him. He represented my life before sexual revolution.
It was instead one of his men: Sir Lancelot. He was the proverbial knight in shining armor. He swept an unhappy Guinevere off her feet with promises of adventure and passion.
Lancelot would do the same for me. He’d dispel my suburban existence ruled by grades and rehearsals. He’d protect me, and wash away the pain of my childhood. He’d whisk me away into Happily Ever After. I watched for his glistening form on the horizon for years.
Of course, Lancelot never came. Whenever I thought he had, he turned out to be another Arthur: a false hope—a stale, crumbling dream.
I was in college when I finally accepted this, but my life was no more my own. Rather than bathtubs and bedtimes, I now answered to class schedules, professors, and a part-time job. I answered to the pressures of my future—my comfortable, bland future. All Arthur. No Lancelot.
I was back home one weekend when my niece, as old as I was when I discovered Arthur, found a picture. “Look Uncle Justin,” she said, “It’s you.”
The picture was 10 years old, and smelled of an old book, musty from being stored away so long. It had that unmistakable early-’90s look about it. The colors were dull. It had a crease in the middle.
There I was, standing in the open front door to my grandmother’s house. I was smiling the awful gremlin smile that was my trademark as a child—my eyes nearly shut, my smile so forced and wide. I was wearing jeans dirty at the knees, tucked into cowboy boots, with a green pillowcase safety-pinned around my neck as a cape. I was holding a sword. My ears were bent outward uncomfortably under the weight of an oversized crown.
My niece began her breathless interview: “How old were you? How many friends did you have? Where’s my Dad? Did you get in trouble ’cause of your jeans? You look silly. Where’s that crown? Will you give it to me?”
So, I put her on my lap, and told her the fairy tale of a young Uncle Justin and his Knights of the Round Table. I recounted tales of silly adventures, of bravery and valor, of the trouble I caused.
As I remembered my hope, my dreams, and my optimism as a child, I realized that all the time I’d been waiting for Lancelot to rescue me really had been spent awaiting someone else—someone more important. Me.