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Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Importance of A Proper Tarzan Yell!

(c) excerpted from "Swimming Lessons" 2010 by Tom King

Walt Whitman said, "I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."  Every boy ever born understands the need to sound their own personal barbaric yawp. It's the sound of all the fears and terrors, joys and passions that fill you up when you're growing up. It's yelled from rooftops, treetops, diving boards and the hill that everyone wants to be king of. My barbaric yawp was a Tarzan yell.

That would be the Johnny Weismueller-type Tarzan I am talking about! You know, that glorious full-throated “ape man” yell he used to do in those great old movies.  I spent years perfecting my own version of that yell in the tops of the huge oak trees in my back yard. I used to climb one particular oak tree every morning at 8 AM and let loose what I considered a fearsome Tarzan yell. Undoubtedly grateful that at least I had waited till eight, most of our neighbors tolerated my odd behavior with surprisingly little comment. Lottie Warren, the neighborhood busybody referred to me as “that little barbarian King boy” and wouldn’t let her nephews play at our house lest our uncivilized ways were somehow contagious to her grandsons Jackie and Woody. I used to feel sorry for them. They looked so pitiful gazing wistfully through their Aunt Lottie’s garden fence at us.

Every day, my brother and I donned plastic Army helmets shouldered wooden guns and shovels and sallied forth to dig slit trenches in Mom’s garden. They weren’t much as far as trenches go, but we managed to scratch out 6-12 inch deep ditches in the hard clay and piled up enough dirt on either side to avoid most direct hits. The trenches were essential because of the nature of our weaponry. Not satisfied merely making exploding noises or popping off the occasional cap gun, my brother and I used to lob these huge red clay dirt clods at each other in lieu of hand grenades. If you smacked them with enough force against a solid object like a rock, tree or the head of a sibling, you could make them bust apart showering the surrounding area with dirt shrapnel. The object of our brand of trench warfare was to land as many clods inside each others’ trenches as we could without getting brained ourselves. Red clay dirt clods, however, are remarkably tough things, sometimes refusing to shatter. You wanted to avoid those.

Ricochet shots, properly placed, could stun an opponent sufficiently to end the round. We always played till someone got hurt. Bleeding or a concussion usually signaled the end of the war. Now that I think about it, Old Lady Warren probably had a point about my brother and me.

Anyway, barbarian or not, I cultivated my authentic Johnny Weismuller Tarzan yell the way an opera singer works his scales. I never mastered it, but I got close enough to claim the role of Tarzan whenever the neighborhood kids played African jungle in my back yard. Of course, being able to ignore my own personal safety, while jumping from limb to limb in the top of our brittle old oak trees, helped too. By the time I reached 10 years of age, my poor mother had given up trying to keep us from killing ourselves. It got to where she wouldn’t even look out the kitchen window anymore.

And by the way, about Buster Crabbe....

The man had the most pathetic, whiney, wimp of a Tarzan squeal. If it had actually attracted lions, they'd have eaten him. None of the rest of the pretenders that played Tarzan in the movies or on TV ever quite matched up to Weismuller’s glorious Tarzan yell. Some didn't try, but just borrowed the recordings. I finally got to where I would occasionally watch a Tarzan movie that Johnny wasn’t in, but it was never the same. He was an awesome swimmer, crocodile wrestler, elephant rider and my personal role model.

I became a swimming teacher because I wanted to be like him. I discovered years later that Johnny had been an Olympic swimmer and held world records that stood for decades. He and a Hawaiian named Duke Kahanamoku revolutionized the crawl stroke and dominated their events. Johnny later played Tarzan with the breath-taking Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. At camp, I became a lifeguard like one of my later heroes, Ronald Reagan.  I became a Red Cross swimming instructor and went on to train to become a water safety instructor trainer under Bud Bradley, legendary Texas swimming instructor who was trained by even more legendary Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, the man who pioneered mass swimming instruction for the Red Cross.

And I went on to teach hundreds of kids to swim like fish.

How cool is that?


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