Growing up, there must’ve been a finite period of time when my family was only half-dysfunctional. Every Saturday night we’d gather around the black and white television and watch Tarzan movies. My dad would make popcorn. “Better than at the movie theater.” It was good popcorn. I marveled at how those little kernels of corn were transformed. We called my dad “The Popcorn King,” and he loved it. It seemed like he thought of himself as an artist as he shook the covered pan awaiting the magic pop. About the time they stopped showing Tarzan movies on Saturday nights is about the same time we stopped eating popcorn as a family. I’m only just now seeing the correlation.
The Tarzan movies were the earliest nature films. Tarzan would be walking through the jungle, and the film would cut away to stock footage of various animals. We knew Tarzan had nothing to fear, because he was King of the jungle. He could communicate with the animals to get their cooperation. He had a clever chimpanzee, named Cheetah, who was his sidekick. And if things got really bad, he had a power call that could do whatever needed doing – such as call a herd of stampeding elephants or cause the evil doers to drop their weapons out of shock and fear. Tarzan was like a shaman/sheriff of the jungle, and all the creatures were his power animals. In addition he could fly through the upper world (on a network of well-placed tree vines) and swim really well. My parents never tired of telling us that the actor who played Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, had been an Olympic swimmer. I thought that was pretty impressive for what I realized was a cartoon hero. I’m not sure we really loved Tarzan. We loved nature, and were willing to root for him because nature needed a hero.
About that same age, from 3.5 to 5 years old, I had a recurring dream. I labeled them my “Little Black Sambo” dreams. I have no idea why. In the Little Black Sambo story, a South Indian boy encounters four hungry tigers. Sambo gives the tigers his fancy clothes, and the tigers put them on. Then the tigers chase each other around a tree until they turn into melted butter (I suppose my father could have used the melted butter, had I been able to transport it from my dream, for his freshly popped popcorn). In the dream, I’m in a clearing in the jungle, and every animal conceivable to my young mind is in that clearing with me. I feel very protected. There was something almost supernatural about the feeling.
I can’t say for certain if the following is connected to my dreams. From about ages 4 – 6 I initiated a game called “animal helper.” The human would have the ability to communicate with his or her animal helper, as well as vice versa. The animal helper could defeat all kinds of evil threats, at the discretion of the animal’s human (of course it was all make-believe). I recall choosing to be a tiger. I also favored jaguar, because they could climb, swim, and defeat anacondas. I can remember being asked by an adult what I wanted to be when I grew up. Rather than something standard, like fireman, I said “a tiger.” The adults would smile. “But what do you really want to be?” I could not be dissuaded; tiger seemed like a fine aspiration.
I don’t recall if Tarzan went on picnics. What I’m saying is that my parents didn’t need Tarzan to help them organize a picnic, because the family picnic was already part of the American tradition. Every year we went on a picnic to Dunlap Island on Lake Minnetonka. The island had many paths, but we were always the only people on the island when we went to visit. We’d go in a little fishing boat that I don’t think we actually owned, but my father often moored at the local public beach dock. I have no idea how he got away with that. Maybe it was due to Tarzan’s power call. Our yearly pilgrimage was for the purpose of an outdoor picnic and a scavenger hunt. Following is an example of a scavenger hunt list:
1. Find an object a once flew (a feather). 2. Find an object that fell to the ground (a leaf). 3. Find an object that was once home to an animal (a snail or clam shell). 4. Find an artifact that’s at least 100 years old. 5. Find any fossilized remains at least 100,000 years old. 6. Find either the philosopher’s stone or the Holy Grail. 7. Find the leprechaun’s pot of gold so that we can buy this island and your father can retire.
By comparison, finding power objects as an adult was relatively easy.
When you think about it, scavenger hunt is an odd name. I don’t think Tarzan would have approved. And for the record, I have never in my life uttered the phrase, “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” though if I’d ever been in a series of intimate moments with a woman named Jane, it’s almost inevitable that I would have. I wonder if women named Jane have had to put up with that kind of nonsense more often than they would prefer. Of course, like the Tarzan call itself, I imagine it would all be in the delivery.
8. Find an object with its own voice.
Note: Just to be clear, about 7% of this post is not true. I’m certain my parents did not know anything about the philosopher’s stone, though my mother may have suggested we hunt for a white stone. Wouldn’t that be a little sad if we actually did find the philosopher’s stone, and then threw it in the lake when the game was over – although I think Tarzan would have approved.