Across the table from me, an aspiring alchemist is working on a potion. His formula includes four teabags, hand-washing dish detergent, and nails. The kind you hit with a hammer. The purpose of the potion is still unknown, but it’s also beside the point. He just wants to be a wizard – not unlike a certain Harry Potter, the latest of heroes in Son’s life. And if he was happy to think that Han Solo’s real name was Hannes, just like his, like I told him, he’s also delighted to be “HP”.
Few things date a person as fast and easily as his pop culture – read: superhero – references. I see that often when Son flexes his muscles – fine, not that often, but I have seen it – and Grandma or Grandpa calls him Tarzan. He looks at them, and smiles, and not simply because the Finnish pronunciation is different from the Swedish one, which is different from the English one. (Finns: Tarts-un; Swedes: Taschan).
I can tell he’s got no idea what they’re talking about.
And as a parent, and card carrying member of Finland’s Tarzan club, card number 2427, I do feel ashamed, and I apologize to all my fellow club members for not educating Son about the King of the Jungle. But I’m not ashamed of my parents for making that Tarzan reference. I’m proud of them, and I understand them. For them, Tarzan is the coolest thing a little boy can think of.
At least this little boy. Me.
Tarzan was my Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Harry Potter. I subscribed to the comics, I was a member of the Tarzan club, and I carried the membership card with me at all times just in case I would come across a message that was written in the Tarzan club code – the key to which was inside the membership (folded) card.
And then there were the movies that made any good, lazy Sunday perfect. Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, doing his famous Tarzan call.
Which I, of course, learned, too.
The one thing that made Tarzan special was that he wasn’t that special. He didn’t have superpowers. He was a man who had been left on his own as a baby, who had not only survived, but also carved himself a nice life in the jungle, as the king of the jungle. But of course, he was also Lord Greystoke.
But mostly, he was just cool. I wanted to be just like Tarzan.
It was also pretty easy, since Tarzan, a modern marketer’s nightmare, only wears a loin cloth, made out of a leopard skin, and a medallion around his neck. He also carries a knife.
I had all those things. Dad made me knife holders that I would wear on a belt – cheating, I know, but I’m not sure how Tarzan did it – and Mom bought me a red Tarzan cloth. They had underpants, and weren’t made out of leopard skin, but cotton. I would wear those around the house, and every time I took a bath. Mom also sewed a Tarzan patch on my yellow hoodie, making it the coolest jacket around. I also had a medallion hanging around my neck, as I, with no lions around, wrestled our dog.
The King of Apes – as he was called in Finland – wrestled tigers and rhinos, he rode elephants, and he was as fast as the wind. He could swim faster than crocodiles, he could almost – almost – fly, swinging on a vine, or lianas, from tree to tree. And having been brought up by the apes, he could speak their language.
While I may have thought that I looked like a short Tarzan, I knew I wasn’t strong, and that I couldn’t swim. When I was forced to swim at school, I faked it in the kiddie pool. I couldn’t really swing on the lianas because we didn’t have any in Finland, but I doubt that even mattered: I wasn’t a great climber, either.
But I was determined to learn to speak ape. I went through all my Tarzan comics, and books, but mostly comics, taking notes of the different words that he used, and the translations. Kreegah, look out! Bundolo, to kill. Kala, mother. Yo, friend.
I typed the complete list on Mom’s typewriter, making what must have been the first Finnish-Ape dictionary in the world. It was two pages long, and for a while, our family was bilingual. On my first trip to the Helsinki Zoo, Korkeasaari, after the dictionary had come out, I ran from the ferry to the lions, the first animals in sight, got as close to the cage as I could, and I spoke to them.
You lion. Me Risto. No need to kreegah. I’m yo.
I was Tarzan.