6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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20050916

Calling The Elephants

Tonight as I stand in front of my mirror, brushing my teeth, I notice with concern that I’m really beginning to look old. Looking closer, I can tell my face has definitely lost its chiseled Tarzan features, and now looks more like a marshmallow with penned in eyes, nose and mouth.

Pondering over my transformation that seems to have come too suddenly, I remember what someone once said to me: “Getting old sucks!” At thirty-two, I responded indifferently, but now at fifty-one, I’m surprised by how easily I can relate to that. In spite of my best intentions to stay in shape by being active and watching my diet, it seems something has gone awry.

Certainly it has been a long stretch since the days of my youth. When I was nine years old, I loved watching Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan. He was my hero. Period. I’d spend hours in the woods playing out my Tarzan dreams. The house I lived in Pittsfield, Mass. was close by the Housatonic River. I set up a rope swing in a tree on a branch that reached across the water.

Using a branch just above as a platform, I’d push against the trunk of the tree with my feet, and swing clear across the river and back. The intent was not to swing out and drop down into the water. The Housatonic was not the kind of river you would want to swim in as it was heavily polluted with chemical waste from the factories that emptied into it. No, the intent was to play out my adventure of being in the jungle, swinging through the trees, and calling the elephants with my mighty oh-wa-oh-wa-ohoooooo-waohwahoah.

My first attempt with the rope wasn’t very impressive. As I propelled myself from the branch, I swung twenty feet out over the water. On my return, though, I smacked the tree face first. Somehow my feet found the branch, and I was able to pull myself up, bloody nose and all, without falling to the ground.

After a few more attempts—and close calls—I became an expert at it, just like Tarzan. With my made-from-a-stick hunting knife between my teeth, I’d swing out to take care of the crocodile that had been menacing the villagers across the river.

One day, though, as I swung out across the water, the branch I had tied the rope to cracked and snapped off the tree. Just like that, I landed in the river. It turned out I didn’t have to worry about the “pollution” getting me. When I swam to and crawled up the bank, I discovered I was covered head to foot with leaches. What’s funny, though, is that I don’t remember how I rid myself of them, or who may have helped me, but one thing I know for sure is that I didn’t go home to my mother. Her reaction to certain things could be unpredictable, and it was one of those times when I clearly did not want to test what her response would be.

I didn’t set the rope swing back up, but for the rest of that summer in 1963 I continued with living my life in the jungle. Lions, rhinos, wildebeests, no matter, I could handle them with ease.

I managed to make a lean-to from sticks and leaves that served as my tree house. And in its shade that protected me from the hot African sun, I would read Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes. Between the book and the movies—my imagination filled with vivid scenes of elephants and hyenas—I dreamed I would one day live a life like that. I dreamed of having my own tree house high off the ground with a view of the lush green jungle valley and the misty mountains beyond. I dreamed of finding a woman like Jane and starting a family. I dreamed of living my days enjoying the simple pleasures of gathering bananas for breakfast and spearing fish for dinner. Un-Gaw-Wah.

“Tarzan . . . Jane.” What a simple declaration of love and fidelity. It’s been quite a few years since those boyhood dreams. I never did become a man of the loincloth, but I’ve certainly worn a lot of different hats in my lifetime, none of which I had envisioned as a child: Marine, machine operator, college student, liquor story manager, pizza delivery driver, tour guide on the Queen Mary, teacher of English, car salesman, social worker, manager, and adolescent counselor. And in the middle of being a teacher and a manager, I found the time to be a husband and a father. The husband part didn’t work out but the part of being a father certainly has been my best experience in life thus far.

Even though my crazy childhood Tarzan dreams didn’t pan out, I have two of the best kids that a parent could ever hope for. My son starts boot camp in the Army next week and will be entering as an E-3. He received his first promotion for the college credits he earned for his first year of college and his second for passing their physical fitness test. My daughter will be starting classes at UC Davis in a couple of weeks. I’m not sure what dream or dreams they’ll remember most from their childhood days, but the life they have in front of them is certainly one of hope and promise.

As I look into the mirror, I see the young boy I once was looking back at me. It’s been a long time since those days of swinging on the rope, letting out a Tarzan call for all the neighbors to hear. Rinsing out my toothbrush, I recall Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous lines:

'A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.'



By S. L. Cunningham