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Those Glorious Tarzan Days

The ups and downs of swinging from the trees

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Hang on, good people, we're headed back to the days of Johnny Weissmuller, who was a magnificent Tarzan of the '30s, keeping company with his beautiful film-version mate, Jane, portrayed by Maureen O'Hara as they met in "Tarzan the Ape Man," filmed in 1932 with a pet chimpanzee named "Cheetah."

In 1932 I was only four years old, and had not yet seen a movie. But in 1936 my Uncle Harry (or Horace) took me to my first movie, "Tarzan the Ape Man," and I was hooked, along with my three uncles and the rest of the teenagers in the U.S.

The Rockefeller Farm Tarzan Tree, illustrated by my son Caleb's wonderful art talents. - CALEB ANDERSON
  • Caleb Anderson
  • The Rockefeller Farm Tarzan Tree, illustrated by my son Caleb's wonderful art talents.

One day, those three big galoots threw a bunch of ropes to me and said, "Bring these along Catsfur (my nickname), we're going to make a Tarzan Tree out in Hubbard's Woods." And we did!

My Uncles Horace, Ben and Harry threw the ropes over the lower limbs of a big, very old and dead elm tree standing on the edge of the forest between our neighbor's farm and Rockefeller Farm, where I lived, and started rigging Tarzan vines (ropes) we would all end up swinging on.

My Uncle Harry asked my grandmother, his mom, to sew the cow hides that were stacked up in the back of the milk barn into Tarzan clothes (a vest that was minus one shoulder, no legs and fitted snug), and away we went swinging through the old elm, yodeling and dressed like Tarzan. The only thing we didn't have was a pet chimpanzee named Cheetah.

But we did have a great pal, Barney Lutenburger, who lived close by on the summit of Jones Hill Road. Barney—who was not the most coordinated guy—was a constant visitor to my grandfather's farm and the poor guy usually got hurt on each visit.

First off, our pet crow, Joe, hated his guts. Every time poor Barney paid us a visit the first to meet him was Joe. The crow would be up in the cherry tree out front of the main house and spot Barney coming down the road on his bicycle. Joe would hide behind a big hedge and when Barney turned off the main road he'd fly up and land on poor Barney's back, crowing for all he was worth, and begin pecking on Barney's neck.

Barney would fall over onto his bike while trying to get the crow off his body; it was an awful sight! I'd run over and try to chase Joe off, but I was nobody to that crow once he made up his mind to kill off poor Barney.

It was even worse for Barney once he got past that crow. He'd come out to the Tarzan Tree and claim he could do what my uncles were doing, swinging from rope to rope, giving off the Tarzan cry.

"No, Barney!" Harry and Horace would shout, "please, don't do it!" But Barney would lean his bike against the tree, climb up the rope ladder to the first rope and my uncle Harry would sigh, "Oh no, not again..."

Barney would grab the rope, leap off the limb and yell his version of the "Tarzan cry." Then with the velocity of a falling rock, he'd leave the first rope, miss the second one, and, screaming, fall to earth and land flat on his back under the tree.

My Uncle Horace was the one who usually got to him first, and we could see Barney's face turning blue as he was gasping for breath. Without hesitation, Horace would grab Barney's trouser belt and begin to pump him up and down on the ground, which got Barney breathing again.

When he started breathing regularly, he gasped, "I know what I did wrong, I gotta remember to hold the rope."

He'd stagger to his feet, climb up the tree, grab the rope and go swinging off and grab the next rope without releasing his hold on the first one—and then come sliding down, screaming in agony from rope burns, falling to earth to land flat on his back again.

Horace pumped him up, and when Barney was breathing again, Harry put him on his bike and said, "Oh, Barney, please get out of here before you kill yourself!" And away he went to battle his way through Joe's parting blows, getting out on Jones Hill Road and pedaling up the hill back home.

It is impossible for me to tell you this fun-filled memory of those times on the farm without sharing a little on swimmer Jonas (Johnny) Weissmuller, who was the first live Tarzan I can remember from Edgar Rice Burroughs' famed "Tarzan" books.

Weissmuller rose to fortune and fame as a world-class swimmer, even though as a little boy of nine years of age he suffered a bout of polio. The disease left him with poor breathing, so his doctor told him to take up swimming as a means of rebuilding his lungs. That started him on his way to becoming a world-class champion swimmer. He never lost a swimming race from that day on!

He went from being a champion swimmer to having an astonishing career in Hollywood and gaining even more fame. Weissmuller spent his last years in Mexico, and when he went out among the stars, the last thing he asked his family to do was to play a recording of his Tarzan cry when they were burying his tired, old body.

Meanwhile, I can't tell you what fun it was to sit with my grandchildren the other night and watch that 1932 version of "Tarzan the Ape Man" one more time.

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