Tarzan and the Timeless Valley of Nostalgia

There was a time when Tarzan was one of the ruling heroes of my boyhood fantasies of power and self-fulfillment. And, while Tarzan was a cartoon show on Saturday morning, comics by Burne Hogarth, movies in the theater in color with Mike Henry, or a weekly series on TV with Ron Ely, he was always Johnny Weissmuller to me. Weissmuller who played both Tarzan and Jungle Jim in the Saturday afternoon black-and-white movies.

I have to admit, I didn’t identify with the character of Tarzan as much as I thought of myself like the character “Boy”, played by Johnny Sheffield in movies like “Tarzan Finds a Son”. It was a significant part of my boyhood to imagine myself being like Boy, free from practically all restraints, able to gad about the dangerous jungle nearly naked with monkey pals and no fear. If I got into trouble by believing my skills were greater than they really were, I would save myself with ingenuity, and, barring that, Tarzan would rescue me. And, believe it or not, sometimes there were fixes that Tarzan got into that he needed me and Cheetah to be creative and get him out of. I knew in my heart that one day real life would be like that, especially once I grew into Tarzan and stopped being just Boy. That idea was in my head so loudly that several times I went to Bingham Park Woods, stripped down, and played Boy in the Jungle.

As in the previous essay about Heroes of Yesteryear, I learned important things from Johnny Weissmuller on Saturday TV. He taught me that all you really needed, even in the darkest jungles of Africa, was confidence and courage. You could stand up to any deadly danger without the protection of any armor, practically naked, in fact, if only you had that heroic goodness of heart. The little boy I was then still believes that whole-heartedly even in the aging body of an old man.

So, Tarzan continues to live in my memory, a part of me, an essential part of my education. He is me and I am he. But only in my mind. Me in a loincloth, swinging on a vine now… and probably going splat like an overripe melon on the jungle floor… well, that is too ridiculous to even imagine being real anymore. Yet he lives on in me. And he battles the metaphorical leopard-people of modern life through me. Unarmored. Confident. And unafraid.

3 Comments

Filed under autobiography, comic book heroes, foolishness, heroes, humor, movie review, old books, review of television, strange and wonderful ideas about life, TV as literature

3 responses to “Tarzan and the Timeless Valley of Nostalgia

  1. Mickey, we loved those as kids as well, even though they are so racist in retrospect. It is funny, I had the same reaction just now seeing Maureen O’Hara as “Jane” as I did when I watched a rerun of “Bewitched” and saw Elizabeth Montgomery as “Samantha.” They were exceedingly beautiful, but their beauty was lost on us boys. Or, maybe we just did not fully realize such. Keith

    • Racism in Tarzan goes all the way back. to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Anglo-centric view of the world. The poor man thought there were “Great Apes” in the world the size of gorillas who were not gorillas. He did, however, acknowledge the fact in his books that white English baby Greystoke could be raised as an ape and be a better ape than he was a man. But the jungle adventures were to me not about race, or politics, or even the superiority of man over animals. It was jungle adventure, and running about the jungle with practically no clothes on, yelling, leaping. and swinging on vines. And the swimming scenes with Jane in them did not go unnoticed by me. I was just too young and stupid to know what that was all about.

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