BITS and PIECES # 35

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September 1, 2013 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 35

Hello again from Luquillo,

Here’s another story for your consideration — it’s gleaned from some fond childhood memories of my ‘adventures’ with a friend — I hope you like it…

TARZAN (AND BUTCH)

Tarzan, the main character in the famous series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was a pivotal magnet for my imagination as a young boy — I eagerly devoured each successive jungle narrative in my growing library of ‘Big Little Books’ (unless you’re a septuagenarian, you’ve probably never heard of these tiny, 10 cent, literary gems) — imagining that I was the ‘Ape Man’ as I trekked fearlessly through the tree, plant and flower-bed ‘jungle’ bordering our backyard in Beverly Hills. I felt that I understood Tarzan well enough to be just like him…

And then one day I met Tarzan, and we became friends!

Johnny Weissmuller was the definitive Tarzan of film, as well as a highly regarded (and much bemedaled) Olympic athlete and swimmer. He and my dad were friends — both had worked in movies produced by the same studios (MGM and RKO) — they appeared together in the 1943 film ‘Stage Door Canteen’, so it was predictable that Johnny would become a frequent guest at my family’s monthly weekend pool parties. As time passed, he became a weekend regular at our home, relishing swims and mingling with friends, as well as enjoying dad’s stories and cocktails, and mom’s delicious Hors D’oeuvres…

I was painfully shy as a youngster — preferring books that fertilized my imaginings to intimidating social encounters — my parents would dutifully introduce my sister (she was the social butterfly) and I to our guests — I would shake hands politely — answer as few questions as possible — and then scurry upstairs to my bedroom and my books…

In July 1940, when I was seven years of age, the summer before I entered elementary school, our family took a train from Los Angeles’ Union Station  to Bakersfield, about 100 miles to the north, where we changed trains and boarded the Valley Flyer, a special Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train that would take us non-stop, 400 miles farther north to Oakland, where we would attend the Golden Gate International Exposition, a World’s Fair event held on Treasure Island, an artificially created islet joined by a causeway to Yerba Buena, a small island in the middle of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge…

Besides experiencing all the astonishing features of this once-in-a-lifetime event, dad had obtained front-row tickets to Billy Rose’s Aquacade an amazing musical, dancing and swimming extravaganza with hundreds of swimmers and dancers and fountains of colored water that served as both background and emphasis to the show’s myriad delights…

My recollections of both the exposition and the Aquacade are blurred by the passage of years — but, I have an indelible memory of Johnny Weissmuller pausing before he leapt from the high diving board into the huge Aquacade swimming pool, to shout “This one’s for Butch” (my beloved grandmother, Mary anointed me with this unhappy sobriquet when I was a chubby, pink-skinned, blond haired baby — she thought I resembled the German butcher our family frequented – in retrospect, I suppose it was better than ‘Junior’). As I remember it, I was self-conscious and delighted in equal parts by this attention — a spotlight was shone upon me as I sat dumbstruck with my family. It’s the one crystal-clear memory I have of that journey — I can’t even recall much about the train trip, which surely must have impressed me…

Shortly thereafter, when our Swiss ‘nanny’ Bertha, took my sister and me to see a Tarzan’ movie, an afternoon matinee at the Beverly Hills ‘Egyptian’ theater — and I saw someone who looked and sounded suspiciously familiar playing the lead role, I slowly came to  the earth-shattering realization that my ‘friend’ Johnny Weissmuller, whom I often swam with in our pool on weekends (he sped from one end to the other like a torpedo, emitting wonderfully accurate ‘sea lion’ sounds as he turned to cross again) was Tarzan — I was swimming with the ‘Ape Man’…

When I confronted him with this deduction, Johnny instantly obliged with his signature ‘ape call’ – causing neighbors to bring in their children, dogs to howl and cats to scurry for shelter…

A few weeks later, as we swam again in our backyard pool, Johnny casually mentioned that he was filming yet another Tarzan movie ‘Tarzan’s Desert Mystery’ for RKO — they were filming in the Alabama hills near the Lone Pine Indian reservation about 200 miles north of the city — “Would you like to visit the film location and meet ‘Boy’ (Johnny Sheffield) and ‘Cheeta’ ” he said…

Would I!  As Johnny relaxed with the other guests over drinks and snacks out by the pool, I asked dad for permission – “Of course, old boy, but you’ll have to clear it with your mother first” he replied.  I quickly dried myself off and ran to tell mom of Johnny’s splendid offer and to obtain her permission. She was quite fond of Johnny, so she agreed immediately…

We traveled by studio bus to the Lone Pine location, leaving before dawn in order to complete the long trip by morning — I sat with the crew — I was introduced to Johnny Sheffield — he was four years my senior, so he seemed almost an ‘adult’ to me, but he was quite polite, treating me as an equal — when I asked him if he enjoyed playing ‘Boy’, he said “It’s okay, but its hard work”. Cheeta sat patiently with his trainer, chattering softly — later that morning, after we had arrived at the location site, I got to shake hands with him. I was fascinated with everything, taking it all in with wide-eyed scrutiny…

I watched as they filmed a scene in which Tarzan and Boy foiled an attempt by a German officer to steal a horse — they took the scene over a few times, and then moved on to the next scene. Soon it was time to return to Hollywood on the bus — I slept most of the bus ride back to Los Angeles, dreaming fantastic ‘Tarzan’ dreams, until we arrived. I thanked both ‘Johnnys’ (and Cheeta) profusely for making such a great day — I prattled endlessly between yawns about my ‘jungle adventure’ to Saylon, our chauffer, who had been dispatched to collect me and bring me home…

Summer was soon over and I was off to school and more adventures — and new friends. My Tarzan fascination dwindled as I concentrated on school work — it faded away entirely when I discovered Howard Pyle’s illustrated ‘Book of Pirates’ in the school’s tiny library — I decided roaming the high seas a pirate would be much more fun than scrambling through the jungle…

Cppyright 2013 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

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One thought on “BITS and PIECES # 35

  1. mkhulu says:

    Captain, I begin better to see how your experiences have shaped the friend I came to know. You da man.

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