My Hero Goes Half-naked
As we speak of memories while this good year draws to an end, one odd story to share comes to mind; but not of the holidays of the moment, but more of family, heroes and events. Permit me to depart from the norm for the present, as I recount an inappropriate detour through the deep south. Come along as I return to Georgia, set in the late forties.
A day-trip into Claxton assured my two younger sisters and me of some things different. Not long after one of us won the contest by first sighting a distant water tower, father pulled over and stopped at a roadhouse on the edge of town. Once inside, the dark cool interior offered us a strange world filled with extraordinary sights and more eccentric folk.
Running across the floor to claim an empty barstool, and dodging a woman hurrying her tray filled with beverages, we passed by a shuffleboard table by the door. There, two odd characters slid a metal disc from one end to the other over a slick grit-covered surface, while both hurled funny insults to each other.
Father stood among some of the locals to exchange greetings before he and mother found a booth and ordered beer for mother and him, and fizzy ice-filled glasses of cokes for us three.
While spinning away on my stool, I noticed on the wall colorful and glowing neon signs advertising brands of beer; some designed as kinetic waterfalls, some with tilted bottles, pouring a continual stream of golden brew.
Then on a long shelf up behind the bar, colorful dinky birds there performed a hypnotic and magical dance for us. I had to stop and watch. They each perched on individual shot glasses that held a blue or red or green liquid. The plastic birds sat rocking back and forth, looking content with their capture. But each time they swayed, they traveled a little farther, bringing their beaks down closer to the drink.
Then at one point a bird would lean forward and dip its tiny yellow bill into the glass. The little bird would pause for a moment as if taking a sip, then mysteriously upright itself to begin its dance all over again.
The contents of the glass never diminished, but the friendly bartender only smiled and winked when we asked why.
At one end of the bar where we sat twirling, a metal rack displayed bags of potato chips and salted peanuts for sale. A bowl filled with hard-boiled eggs took up space next to them. Pickled pigs feet, nasty-looking things, seemed to float inside of a large jar while our parents relaxed with their cold glasses of beer and took part in the noisy conversations. Then after a time, they gathered us up, and with lots of goodbyes, we headed into Claxton.
Closer to town stood the tobacco auction barn. Periodically the modern low metal building overflowed with people, exotic sounds and smells. On those occasions we followed close behind our parents, not wanting to get lost among the throngs attending this popular event.
Farmers dressed in work clothes and wives with children in tow moved about constantly amidst garbled chatter that rose and fell, while the hefty odor of fresh-cut tobacco leaves saturated the air, its sweet pungent smell tingling noses.
At various times auctioneers would sing out their rapid and swift chants, yet somehow their voices managed to rise above all the din and confusion. I listened but failed to grasp a word of what they said.
Done with that, mother took us shopping. A brand new store had opened. It went by the unusual name of Piggly Wiggly. What this name had to do with groceries we never understood, but it was fun to say out loud.
Afterwards she took us next door into a peculiar place of ice and fog-breath. Here a company rented lockers to the community where individuals could store wire baskets filled with frozen meats.
Passing through a small lobby, we entered a large frigid room filled with row after row of small metal doors. We were warned not to touch the ice-covered walls. Giant fans hummed and circulated arctic air throughout the room, and after Mother picked out her cuts of meat, we became as anxious to leave as we had been to enter. The hot upholstery of the car felt wonderful after the freezer trip.
A quick visit to the Tos Bakery followed the frozen food locker. The delectable smells of fresh-baked pastries reached out to tempt anyone foolish enough to pass by this place. A small bell mounted over the front door announced our presence with its cheerful tinkle. Then a mad rush to a glass display case gave us agonizing moments to decide among the vast array of fresh-made delights it contained. The world-famous boxes of fruitcake the bakery had stacked on exhibit sat ignored, for we preferred the staggering choices of sweets.
But after all the standard begging and pleading for more than one item, a decision came, and we left the store either biting into a large cookie decorated with white frosting and red stars, or hesitantly removing an arm or a leg from an unfortunate gingerbread man.
Claxton held all these things and more, but the town’s main attraction sat next to the bakery. Inside the front doors of a white stucco building, a long red carpet led past a popcorn machine. It ended at a thick red velvet curtain.
Pushing past the curtain, we shot down the aisle to front row seats where we became lost in the adventures of Hollywood heroes and villains. We gobbled down popcorn as newsreels of soldiers and planes and tanks flickered on the large screen, followed by cartoons of talking mice, dogs and cats. Then a lion with a frightful roar or a lady wearing a blindfold and holding a sword aloft caused us to sit back and take notice – the main feature was about to begin.
Occasionally, my favorite cowboy Hopalong Cassidy appeared on the silver screen. Dressed in black, he rode a white horse and he never ran out of bullets.
Or maybe Lash La Rue took command. He favored a bullwhip that deftly removed guns or knives from the hands of first-surprised and then-defenseless adversaries. It also enabled him to climb buildings or tall cliffs to rout them out.
We thrilled to the sensible adventures of Superman as he cleared Metropolis of crime. I believed with all my heart that he was invincible to bullets. Being from another planet, it made perfect sense. I really thought he could fly too, as well as see through walls with his powerful x-ray vision. I knew it never hurt to get punched in the face by the bad guy because he always looked at them and laughed.
I especially liked the part when he took a gun away and bent it with his bare hands. The criminal always appeared shocked by this particular stunt; but then again I knew criminals weren’t all that bright.
However, I always thought Clark Kent's disguise looked weak, and I wondered why his friends never caught on. That always puzzled me.
Still, he did excite me.
But by far, the best of all the heroes was Tarzan, the ape-man.
He dressed simple and lived outdoors. He could out-swim crocodiles, he traveled through the jungle on handy vines and he carried the largest knife I had ever seen. I felt close to this man, for I did these things myself.
My sisters and I had discovered a huge tree back in the woods. It was an ancient hardwood, and grapevines hung from its upper regions. It sat on a slight incline in the deep forest, and its lower branches grew close and parallel to the ground.
The dirt below this magnificent tower lay soft and bare of undergrowth. The huge low limbs made comfortable perches for us to sit on, and there we played for hours, pretending to be the shipwrecked Swiss Robinson family living in this readymade tree house of ours.
Sometimes it became a sailing ship where fierce pirates forced us to jump overboard, or walk the plank after they had captured and enslaved us. We fell to many horrible deaths and were devoured by countless hungry sharks or vicious crocodiles. At times I bravely saved a sister; sometimes we let one die.
But the tree presented us with a problem. Most of the grapevines were too small to swing on, or they grew in inconvenient places. However, one in particular came close to perfection. It grew firmly rooted in the soil, and the mighty vine rose to great heights from the slope down below. It hung just out of my reach from a favorite perch on one of the larger limbs. More than an inch thick, its girth resisted all efforts to dislodge the thing from its roots with our hands.
That vine tantalized me.
If only I could free it, I thought, we could swing just like our hero.
Tarzan would solve this problem with his sharp and trusted blade, I imagined, so I slipped away to the house and returned to the tree with the largest one I could find. I pilfered one of my mother’s favorite huge butcher knives.
And after hacking at the base of this vine I set it free at last. Three cheers echoed through the trees.
A moment later my sisters stood on the ground below, watching me expectantly. After I climbed up to the launch site, one grabbed the loose end of the vine and swung it toward my out-stretched hand.
As I stood there getting ready to swing I observed my intended route. The path of travel seemed clear enough. I looked up and tugged hard on the vine. It felt solid, so I leaned back against the main trunk, and then with a Tarzan yell I eagerly leaned out over the empty space below and shoved off.
Gravity instantly propelled the vine and me forward and downward. As the forest rushed past us, my feet briefly touched the ground, grazing the side of the sloping hill. But we kept going. Everything around us became a blur as we sped onward, completing the arc far away from where we started.
The ride stopped just short of another tree where the vine and I hesitated for a split second. Then immediately we began swinging back the other way. All I could do at this point was hang on tight. I looked back over my shoulder to see where we were headed, and we almost made it back to my perch. My feet missed the spot by inches.
So I held on until the thick pendulum and I finally came to a stop. I then shimmied down the vine to the ground where more cheering greeted me. What a ride that was.
Mother has passed away and is dead now, so I can tell this without fear the shock will kill her.
I had once seen Tarzan swinging half-naked through the jungle with that knife clenched firmly in his teeth.
And so did I, mom. So did I!