Childhood Heroes

Childhood Heroes

Television was still new and watching it was a privilege for children of the 1950’s and ’60’s. It didn’t take a lot to fire imaginations that were used to doing all of the work anyway. Saturday mornings were great for heroes like Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger and Sky King. They taught us that good could triumph over evil and doing the right thing was our duty. They also showed us that good guys; got the girls, could ride a horse, play a guitar and sing, had a cool friend named Tonto, and could fly a plane. All admirable qualities to a kid.

There is a lot to be said for being inspired by good guys and it was even OK if you didn’t succeed at everything that they did. I found out that I couldn’t play a guitar and my singing sounded more like a cat in pain. I could ride a horse because I was raised around them and it was a common thing where I grew up. None of my friends were named Tonto, but several were real Indians, and they all wanted to be the Lone Ranger when we played. Unanimously they said that Tonto sounded funny and didn’t want that role, so I was Tonto. But we all liked and respected Jay Silverheels more than Clayton Moore because he was always loyal and trustworthy.

I grew up with a knowledge of aviation due to my father’s occupation as an Air Traffic Controller in Miami, so I was more interested in the Cessna 310 that Sky King flew than the plot. It was usually bad guy grabs girl, good guy has to fly airplane to rescue girl, all have a narrow escape and good guy wins. Do you remember the name of the niece? How about the airplane?

Even more dominate in my memories and by far my greatest hero, was a man that I had read about in books, and who didn’t appear in the Saturday morning lineup until much later. He was still a movie star and his name was Tarzan of the Apes!

Of those who portrayed the ape man since the Edgar Rice Burroughs books first came to film, my hero was number six and the undisputed king, Johnny Weismuller. The yell heard ’round the world! He was and is still, the only Tarzan for me.

He was an immigrant child, born in what is now Serbia, and suffered from polio at an early age, which lead to his swimming for health and strength. Johnny Weismuller was so good at swimming that he won five Olympic Gold medals and one Bronze medal, won 52 National swimming titles and set 67 world records.

I knew about the swimming accomplishments from reading about him, and hadn’t we ALL seen him swim in his films! He could swim faster than a crocodile and was so strong that he could swim upstream against raging torrents.

It wasn’t the swimming that inspired me as much as the decency, fairness and strength of character that Tarzan brought to the silver screen. He never allowed anyone or anything weaker to be mistreated. I could relate to that being smaller and weaker than nearly everyone that I knew at the time. The code of personal conduct that Tarzan lived by, and the respect that he earned from all who knew him was a model that I wanted.

That and to live in that really awesome tree house and have all of those animals as my friends. Forget mansions and fancy cars, I wanted to live in the jungles of Africa like Tarzan.

In December of 1965 Johnny Weismuller was to help officially open the Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft Lauderdale, FL., which he also helped to establish. Tarzan was going to be in one spot long enough for me to see and hear him. It was as kids today would say, an OMG moment.

Sure I was twelve years old and knew that Tarzan was a fictional character, but, this was TARZAN!

I tried to get a ride from family; Dad was working, so mother didn’t have a car, my older siblings would rather have swallowed worms than haul me anywhere. Even my few older friends were working.

I asked my mother if I could go anyway, if I could find a way. Her answer was, “Don’t be ridiculous” and went back to her magazine.  She didn’t SAY no, so I took that as a yes.

“Think!” I kept telling myself. “Tarzan wouldn’t give up!”

If we were urban dwellers like people in New York City, it would have been so much easier and less mentally painful to solve this, but I was a country kid, albeit ensconced in semi-surburbia. But I did eventually come to it.

The bus! I will take the bus. I had taken the bus to the beach and back hundreds of times. I even had to transfer from one bus to another, I was a pro, in my own twelve year old mind anyway. I could do this. Old ladies do this. Piece of cake!

I am going to shake hands with Tarzan and somehow become his friend and go to Africa and … oh wait, he lives in Ft Lauderdale now. Well, I’ll get him to do the yell, that will be good enough, but if he WANTS to go to Africa, I’m with him!

There were no computers in those days. No easy find it online solutions to which bus runs where and when. I tried calling the city bus office, but being a twelve year old kid who didn’t even know which department to ask for, I got the proverbial run around. I also made a big mistake when I stated up front that I was going to go see Tarzan. It became a joke and great sport for the employees to pass my call from one extension to another where they asked me if I knew Jane and could get them a date, or had I kissed Cheetah, or was I “Boy” looking for my ape loving daddy? Finally a supervisor put an end to the sport and rattled off a list of numbers and connections that by that time, I was not prepared to copy down. He hung up the telephone when I asked if he could repeat that, but slower. I was NOT going to call them back. The one part that I caught was go south from Sunrise Boulevard on Atlantic. But how to get there was a mystery.

I grabbed all of the money that I had, which wasn’t much and headed out the door towards a gas station near by. There I got a city map and finally found Sunrise Blvd. I was determined to follow the map and hop from bus to bus until I got where I wanted to be. My first leg would be to catch the bus on Hollywood Blvd to Young Circle. From there US1 or Federal Highway as it was called there, would take me all the way to Sunrise Blvd.

The ceremony was set for early afternoon sometime and I was starting out in the morning so in my mind I had extra time. The ride to Young Circle took quite a while and should have been a clue that I was in for a very long day.

I waited at the bus stop for a long time until I finally asked a man if this was the right place to catch a bus for Ft Lauderdale and he told me that he was catching the bus to Miami from there. Panicked, I went into a local business and asked the lady at the counter where the bus stop for Ft Lauderdale was. She looked at me like I was kidding her and said, “You been standing at it for 30 minutes.” I ran back outside just as the bus pulled up and the man I spoke to sat back down on the bench. 

When it was my turn in line to step up into the bus I stopped at the change box and asked the driver if he went to Sunrise Blvd. He said “no…,” and I nearly bolted out the door before he completed his statement, “… but I connect with the bus who does.” This was harder than I thought.

Not being a veteran city bus rider, other than my short jaunts to the beach, I had no idea how many stops a route bus makes each day. We stopped at every corner and it took forever for people to get on and off the bus. It was already noon by the time I caught the northbound bus from Young Circle and my concept of distance was pretty much limited to what I could see. How far something was on a map and how long it would take to traverse that distance was rocket science to me then.

It literally took hours for me to get to Sunrise Blvd and Atlantic Blvd, and then I had to go back south on Atlantic. I was down to my last few coins when I got to the spot on South Atlantic Boulevard that had signs pointing the way towards the big to-do. I walked in from the bus stop and that was good, I didn’t have to park a car that way. I couldn’t see any available parking spots anywhere anyway.

I had no idea that nearly 5,000 other people would also be there and all wanting to be photographed with Johnny Weismuller and the other Hall of Fame inductees, who ever they were. The ceremony for the ribbon cutting, etc., was over. The crowd was definitely in party mode and they were all dressed up and, adult.

The steam went completely out of me at that point and I was overcome with a “what have I done?” moment. It would have become an utter defeat for me had I not been sitting on a folding chair in the right spot, at precisely the right time.

Through a break in the mob of people I see the dark hair, white suit, and broad shoulders of Johnny Weismuller as he leads the crowd to a statue where he and two beautiful women pose for photos. I can hear a voice from the crowd saying that some reporter claims that the famous Tarzan yell is actually a fake, made up of sounds from several people and sound effects.

In response to many repeated requests, the real, true Tarzan tilted his head back and let loose with a yell that stopped every single person within earshot in their tracks. When he stopped, the entire crowd burst into applause, including me. OK, I’m good. The entire trip was officially worthwhile.

I wish that could say that I got to shake hands with Johnny and we were best of friends until he died in 1984. But that wasn’t the case. Even more people crowded around him than before and he was swallowed up in the moving throng of humanity.

As it was I was left with no money to get a bus back to West Hollywood and an almost certain beating for what I had done. But it was worth it. I did what I set out to do and I heard Tarzan yell with my own ears!

I called my uncle and asked him to call my house and ask for my oldest brother to come and get me. Which he did and I paid for my brother’s gas many times over due to his idea of interest charges. We also concocted a story that explained my absence from home and kept me from getting into trouble, which was a major bonus.

Would I advise twelve year kids to do what I did that day? No. Am I glad that I did it? Oh, Yeah!

— signed: Still a Tarzan fan!

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