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Man vs. Nature: My Tarzan Story

A brush with a childhood hero holds lessons about desire and loneliness


In the fall of 1983, my barber asked me to go with her to Acapulco. A client of hers had a beachfront house there that was sitting empty. “Go use it,” he told her.
 
I booked my airline ticket.
 
So did three others, who my barber also invited.
 
The casa was situated in a small complex called Los Pelicanos, just north of the resort city. Finding it wasn’t easy. We had to maneuver a rental car along a twisty highway with narrow shoulders and precipitous cliffs.
 
Our first view of Los Pelicanos was through the bars of a locked iron gate. To enter, we had to ring a bell that summoned a caretaker with a key.

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Once inside, we discovered a beautiful jungle with perfumed flowers, lush ferns, fruited banana trees, exotic butterflies and brightly colored birds. The complex was named for the pelicans that hung out on the rocky shoreline that framed a cozy beach.
 
In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle
 
Built on a steep hillside, the two-story casa that my barber's friend lent us was neither grand nor luxurious. It was made for entertaining. The upstairs contained a spacious, open-air living room and bar. Since there were no screens, anything that flew, slithered or had six legs could easily drop in. The piercing screams that we heard in the night usually came from one of us city dwellers.
 
At twilight, we’d have margaritas on our deck that overlooked a swimming pool. Because we didn’t want to go to town after dark — not along that road — we’d stay in. The caretaker’s wife, Carlotta, would cook us traditional Mexican dinners. We often dined by candlelight, as the nightly thunderstorms would knock out the electricity.
 
Perched directly above our white stucco casa was a larger one that had an enormous, red-tile deck. Whoever lived there must be somebody important.
 
Whoever it was enjoyed watching the tropical sunsets. Every evening from our deck, we could see him leaning against the railing of his deck gazing out to sea. Although we could see him, and presumably, he could see us, he never waved or acknowledged our presence.
 
He was a large man with very wide shoulders. He could have been any age. 
 
It was obvious he was an invalid. Two young men in white T-shirts would hoist him, their hands under his biceps, to and from the railing.
 
Here’s Johnny!
 
One morning over breakfast, I asked Carlotta to tell me about the mysterious man on the terrace. She worked for him, too.
 
“No, no,” she said, excusing herself from the room.
 
Being a journalist, I had to find out.
 
Problem was, Carlotta didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Spanish. Still, we managed to communicate.  
 
The mystery man, it turned out, was Johnny Weissmuller, the legendary athlete who in the 1920s won five gold medals in swimming.
 
More than that, though, he was Tarzan of the Jungle!
 
Hollywood and Vine
 
Weissmuller starred in 12 films based on Edgar Rice Burrough’s fictional ape-man in the 1930s and ‘40s. I grew up watching those old black and white movies on TV. It wasn’t, however, the adventure-laden storylines that kept me indoors on Saturday afternoons. It was Weissmuller, swinging from vine to vine, clad only in a loincloth. He was the first person to tap into my emerging sexual desires. Were those tom-toms or my heart?

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How I envied Jane and Cheetah, who shared a cozy tree house with him.
 
Like me, the Tarzan I saw on TV always knew that there was something different about him. And when he discovered others just like him, he didn’t know whether to stay or go. 
 
How many of us growing up faced that dilemma?
 
Another Movie in the Works
 
Despite his large, 6-foot-3-inch frame, Weissmuller didn’t have a chiseled, overly buff body — not like today’s movie heroes. His looked as if rushing water had gently sculpted it.
 
There have been lots of other Tarzans since Weissmuller — in dozens of films, animated features and TV shows. There was even a 2006 Broadway musical. Sorry Lex Baxter, Ron Ely, et al, but for me Weissmuller has always owned the role and always will.

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Tarzan’s uluary yell — the one that can summon elephant stampedes — is still being heard in Hollywood. Producer Jerry Weintraub announced earlier this year that a live-action, 3-D Tarzan movie is starting production for 2016 release. Alexander Skarsgard is playing Tarzan to Margot Robbie’s Jane. Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz have also been reportedly cast.
 
As long as there are movies, Tarzan will always endure. Man alone against the elements is a universal theme. Just look at the popularity of reality shows like Survivor, Out of the Wild and Naked and Afraid. But the Tarzan I grew up with wasn’t summoned to a nightly tribal council to discuss his daily challenges. “Tarzan, Jane; Tarzan, Jane” was his idea of meaningful dialog.
 
The Mystery Solved
 
Carlotta confided in me that Weissmuller’s wife brought him to Los Pelicanos in 1979. She wanted him out of the public eye. While he was undergoing heart surgery in Houston, something went terribly wrong. Not many people knew this — TMZ was decades away — but the anesthesia left Weissmuller mentally incapacitated.
 
So that’s what became of my childhood movie hero.
 
After a week in Acapulco, it was time for my friends and me to return to the Bay Area. As we drove out the gate of Los Pelicanos, I caught one last glimpse of Weissmuller being lifted by his arms and carried to the terrace railing.
 
Three months later, his obituary appeared in The San Francisco Examiner, where I worked. It said he died at home in Acapulco. He was 79.
 
I can’t say that I ever met Tarzan. But I can say that he spent his last years in a Technicolor jungle, where kind people looked after him.
 
And where, from his terrace, he could look out to sea, past the gentle waves to infinity.

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