Off the Porch: My summer with Tarzan

Jul. 23, 2014 @ 12:48 PM

There are defining times in our lives, and the summer I spent with Tarzan was certainly one of them. Tarzan and I had a running relationship through most of my childhood. He certainly was a fine role model for a 12 year old boy in 1964, and while I had plenty of good role models, Tarzan was probably the most exciting. I think the reason for my Tarzan summer was an afternoon TV show on one of the two channels available in the Jones household. I suspect the show was syndicated and not local, though it was a bit crude even to my 12 year old eyes. The host was Bwana Don, a poor shmuck who’d settled for the job of hosting an afternoon kid’s show featuring Tarzan and Jungle Jim movies.
There were imposters, but in my era, the only real Tarzan was Johnny Weissmuller. I don’t remember the name of the earlier faux Tarzan, but the later was a too-handsome guy named Ron Ely. The real Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, lived in the jungle, swung on vines, had a best friend named Cheeta, a wife named Jane, and an adopted son named Boy. The shows were exciting and sometimes kind of scary for my unsophisticated Davidson County mind. The best thing was they inspired playing Tarzan, a style of kid self-entertainment that lasted completely through my Tarzan summer.
While it’s OK to play Tarzan alone, having companions makes it better, and mine were Doug Westmoreland and Doug Bryant. The two Dougs were neighbors to each other who lived on Kanoy Road, I lived behind Ledford Middle School.  We all went to church together and were close friends. The big day for Tarzan playing was Sunday afternoons. After church, I’d go home with one or another of the Dougs. Once we’d wolfed down our Sunday dinner, (the noon meal was then called dinner) the Doug I was spending the day with and I would go to the holler behind both houses and give a Tarzan yell. The rendezvous was thus arranged for an afternoon of grapevine swinging, machete chopping, fort building and similar endeavors. We were totally unaware of, and unfazed by, the summer heat.  At least, I can’t remember suffering, and we played all afternoon, swinging from vines over the creek we called a river, and having the normal 12 year old boy kind of fun.
Of course, I also played Tarzan at home. I had a jungle camp in the woods behind our house where I erected a pup tent out of an old tarp I found in the ravine behind the Ledford High School. One of my pastimes was to forage through the junk the school then threw in the ravine. I found such treasures as cracked baseball bats, battered football helmets, and the occasional baseball that was fouled out into the thicket.
My tent was a semi-permanent arrangement that took at least an hour to erect. I had a campfire and a water supply in the little branch that ran through the woods. Contrary to what you see on TV, drinking water from a stream that passes through a cow pasture or two will not kill you. If I ever got sick, I don’t remember it, though it could have had some effect on my ability to emotionally mature, since my Mama always said I was her child who never grew up.
The most memorable experience I had at my jungle bivouac was the time my sister decided she wanted to swing on my grapevine. I had a fairly good grapevine 50 or so yards down the branch from my camp and it swung out off a little bluff. I’m sure now that I was never more than six or seven feet off the ground at the highest, but in my memory, it was a dizzying height. At the time, I was a skinny 12 year old, I don’t know my weight then, but it couldn’t have been much more than 70 or 80 pounds. My sister, Margie, was three years older and the stockiest of the Jones brood. She wasn’t really big, but she probably weighed half again my weight.
I tried to dissuade Margie from swinging on my vine. It wasn’t that I was afraid she’d fall, I was afraid she’d break my vine. Margie was never one to yield to an argument and eventually she grabbed the vine and made a running jump off the little bluff. Things looked pretty good for her on the way out. Her extra weight and the momentum from her run took her pretty far out and I have to admit, it was neat to see someone swing that far out on a grapevine. As she swung out, I was wondering if I looked that cool swinging out over the little branch and as those thoughts passed through my mind, things began going bad for her.
I’d been using that vine for a while, and in order to swing from a vine, you have to cut it, which kills that part of the plant you’re swinging on. Since the vine is no longer alive, it becomes less pliable and loses its ability to continue to cling to the trees it’s climbed. When I first cut the vine, it probably would have supported Margie’s bulk and much more, but now it was old and tired. My first observation that my sister was in trouble was when I heard a cracking/tearing sound overhead. The vine partially disengaged from the tree’s limbs. Margie lost about two feet of altitude. I couldn’t see her face, but I’m sure it displayed unmitigated terror. At first, I thought she was OK, but then there was another tearing/cracking sound and Margie went down in the branch with a thump. Had there been enough water in the branch, the water would have softened her fall and made a more visually spectacular landing. As it was, the branch was only a few inches deep, though the sand and mud probably softened her landing somewhat.
One would think the excitement would be over with the landing and I’m sure this occurred to Margie as well, but she was wrong. She started to get up, but I could see further disaster was heading her way in the form of the vine itself. The vine had completely disengaged from the tree and was now coming down on Margie as a long and flexible vertical projectile. At most the vine couldn’t have been more than 40 or so feet long, but in my memory, it fell on her for at least a minute. She was cowering in the branch, hands over her head and balled up for protection while my glorious swinging natural amusement rained down on her. It must have taken a while to happen, because in the beginning, I was angry she had destroyed my vine. Then my emotions switched very briefly to fear she was hurt, this phase of thought surely only occupied milliseconds, because I distinctly remember having quite some time of enjoyment in watching her get her just deserts for bullying me and insisting on swinging on my vine.
There are times in your life when you learn lessons that stay with you. A lesson that’s served me well is the knowledge that losing one good thing can result in gaining something much better. As I watched my grapevine tumbling down over my sister’s head with her groveling in muddy water, I realized I could find another grapevine somewhere along the bluff to swing on, but I’d probably never see something that funny again for a long time.

Dick Jones is an outdoor writer living in High Point. He writes nationaly for magazines and websites. His book, Off the Porch is a story of reminicences of growing up in the gentle South. He also speaks to groups and can be contacted at