My twelfth summer was notable for many reasons. I participated in my first accordion festival at a big hotel down near LAX and won several trophies that became the kind of junk you can never get rid of. I mean, what secondhand shop wants a marble and gold-plated monument to achievement topped with a metal accordion? Old bowling trophies, yes, but old accordion awards, not so much. However, when I wasn’t pumping the squeezebox, I was plowing my way through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels. And that is where our story begins.
Tarzan has become a cultural icon in America, as famous as Superman and the Lone Ranger, although occasionally he is portrayed as having the speech pattern of the Masked Man’s faithful Indian companion Tonto. That is not true to Burroughs’ vision. In the original, Tarzan was highly gifted both athletically and intellectually. He knew multiple languages, many of them learned on the fly, and he could also communicate across the animal kingdom. He was the most famous “noble savage,” raised by Great Apes after he was orphaned, and upon being reintroduced into human society, found he preferred the jungle and all its creatures over homo-sapiens. He loved swinging through the trees wearing his loincloth and large hunting knife and he loved his Jane, the only human woman who could tame the savage breast wherein the savage heart beat.
Tarzan’s creator wrote for pulp magazines in the early part of the twentieth century. At one point before fame came calling, Burroughs sold pencil sharpeners, but after Tarzan was published for the first time as a novel in 1914, he became wealthy and could afford to live the celebrity life. He bought a ranch out in the San Fernando Valley sometime between 1915 and 1919, and named it Tarzana. The name stuck, and the community remains at the western end of Ventura Boulevard. Burroughs died in 1950 of a heart attack.
So there I was that summer of 1975, reading my way through Tarzan’s adventures mostly at night after my parents and siblings were asleep. The small house was just too hot. My parents had an old refrigerated air conditioner in their window, so they cranked that on and closed the bedroom door to keep the cold air in while the rest of us sweltered. I lay up in my top bunk bed reading away and sweating off the pounds while Tarzan swung through the trees in my head.
It was on one such hot night that I had enough of reading about Tarzan and wanted to become Tarzan. I waited until everyone was asleep, and then I dressed in my corduroy shorts and strapped on my Dad’s hunting knife. I thought about going barefoot in true Tarzan fashion, but I’d seen the Ron Ely Tarzan on television reruns wearing sandals, so I modified my Tarzan footwear to tennis shoes without socks. I stealthily crept through the hot house and eased the deadbolt open on the backdoor. Suddenly, I was out in the night as Tarzan.
I climbed up on our cinder block wall to stare at the nearly full moon. The Great Dane next door leaped out of the darkness and I was forced to jump backward off the wall into nothingness, but I landed on my feet. Tarzan had faced his first lion. The Dane slunk back into the night. I ran down the side of the house and out onto the quiet residential street. Nothing stirred, but mockingbirds sang in the trees, a regular southern California chorus at night. I ran with speed and agility across the shadowy lawns of suburbia, ducking around cars and trucks parked on the still steaming asphalt, feeling the heat rise up in my face. I slid between two houses farther down the block and ventured into their backyards. A leopard launched itself over the wall, deciding not to challenge me. I heard his meow plaintively calling under the house. I leapt over into the next block and crouched stock-still in the owner’s vegetable garden. I had moved toward the house when suddenly, I was bathed in light: motion-activated floodlights. I ran like quicksilver and vaulted the next wall and landed in some thick shrubbery. My chest was heaving as I clutched the hilt of the knife on my belt. I was about to move when a light snapped on in the house. I sprinted down the side of the house and out onto the much busier street in the next block. Here there were cars and people, and I considered them big game hunters who must be avoided at all costs.
I ran down three houses and cut through another backyard to jump over a wall and land in rose bushes that cut and scratched my legs. I untangled myself and crept out onto my street again, although now I was a good block away from my house. I had enough of a taste of the life of Tarzan to know what it was like, so I decided to walk home and go back to my reading. I had walked about half the distance when a car turned onto my street up ahead of me, right near my own driveway. I jetted into the bushes and huddled down, waiting. The car came to a stop about four houses away, and I saw a spotlight illuminate the bushes in the front yards on the opposite side of the street. The car was slowly rolling toward me, and the occupants were methodically shining the spotlight first on one side of the street and then on the other. I frantically looked for a way to escape. The car was close enough now that I could see the distinctive light bar on the roof and the black and white color scheme. The cops were also now close enough that if I ran, they would easily spot the movement in their headlights or with the roving spotlight.
I threw myself down under the shrubbery on the cool earth and tried to make my body as flat as possible. I could hear the hum of the car’s engine and the crackling of the police radio. They were almost on me. The radio crackled, and I heard someone say, “Let’s go,” and the police car accelerated down the street and squealed around the corner. I jumped up and sprinted down the sidewalk, through my gate to the unlocked door of my house. But something seized me, and a surge of Tarzan-like courage flooded my veins. I turned to the moon, cupped my hands around my mouth, and gave my best Tarzan yodel-yell into the night. Smiling, I crept into the house and bolted the door.