WWII RAF Poster 1…my family moved to the U.S. from Lincoln, England. I was five years old. It was the summer of 1956. We were all refugees in our heads and my father was a refugee in fact. He’d fled Poland in 1939, made it to England and joined the RAF. He met my mother at Friday night dance on leave from his airbase. They were married in ’43 with bombs still raining down and rations in effect for everything from petrol to chocolates. After the War, the Iron Curtain was drawn and there was no Poland to go back to, nor was there much of a welcome left in England for foreign servicemen like my dad who were overrunning British towns, competing for British jobs and charming British lasses as well.

So we came to a city called Tarzana in the San Fernando Valley of California where a friend of my mother’s said we would find paradise. I suspect the weather alone was grounds enough for her superlative, but my recollection is that she was damn close to telling the unadorned truth…the Valley in 1956 was Eden for  kids, at least on its exterior.

b14 - Tarzan posterThe word, Tarzana, sang in my brain the whole journey across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. It echoed louder...Tarzana…TarzanaTarzana…accompanied by the rhythm of the train tracks as we chugged from New York to Chicago to California on the Santa Fe Express.

Tarzan The Ape Man? Could it possibly be? Tarzan and Jane? The hero and the damsel? Would they be waiting for us in Tarzana? The jungle king and his delicate queen. Were we moving to darkest Africa where the shadows hid unspeakable dangers? Would Tarzan’s yell ring out through the streets with Jane answering his call, hurrying to his side?

When we arrived, there were no obvious dangers in sight, and there was no Ventura Freeway that today slices its way through the belly of the desert landscape of the Valley. There was just a two lane Ventura Boulevard that we kids could easily run across on an asphalt-sticky summer’s afternoon without fear of getting mowed down by today’s BMWs, Mercedes, Range Rover’s, and the currently ubiquitous Maserati’s (good lease prices I guess).

Tarzana CompoundOur family moved into a two-bedroom rental on Avenida Oriente. A few days later the neighborhood kids came by to find out who the strange, new foreigners were and to let us know that we had landed at the center of the universe…the universe of Edgar Rice Burroughs that is…the man who created the Tarzan legend, named the city Tarzana, and whose five acre compound was at the top of the hill of our very own street!

Tarzana…Tarzana…Tarzana…the words rang out again.

For me, it had been incredible enough to move from the bleak and rainy substrata of middle-grade England to the sunshiny spectacle of Southern California with Hollywood just over the hill and Elvis on the radio, but to have the house that Tarzan built within walking distance took my little life into the realm of fantasy.

Burroughs carTurns out, Burroughs had died just six years earlier; and though the house on the hill was rented to a regular family with a kid my age (which gave us access to the compound), the grounds, the house, and the outbuildings were all still imbued with Tarzan’s aura.

Lagoon 1Especially, the lagoon-like swimming pool, which had been built by Burroughs and Johnny Weissmuller, the first and best Tarzan star of them all. I was sure crocodiles were hiding in there to eat us kids alive if we were ever stupid enough to take a swim.

Then came the fire. Not of the compound on the hill, but of a warehouse at the bottom across the street from my house.

The smoke billowed over Avenida Oriente, blowing into our eyes as we kids ran to see the fire trucks and the firemen and the flames and the gathering crowd.

“It’s a book depository…” someone said, “Tarzan books…originals…first editions.”

None of this meant much to us kids until the firemen started tossing out book after book into the alley, then carrying out box after box of books: Tarzan of the ApesThe Return of Tarzan…The Beasts of Tarzan…The Son of Tarzan…Tarzan the Untamed…Tarzan the Terrible…Tarzan and the Golden Lion…and countless more.

The fantastical images of my heroic Tarzan and Jane that had bloomed in my head since before my arrival in the States were transformed suddenly here at my feet into the stark reality of the printed word, the charred corners of the books, the smell of the burning building, the sighs of the gawking people. I couldn’t put words to it then or even be sure what I felt, but I knew some dream had been eclipsed on this day in the alley.

The neighborhood kids grabbed armfuls of books and ran back to their houses to get their wagons and wheelbarrows and even brown paper grocery bags. I did the same, racing across the street and back again with my Radio Flyer wagon in tow. The excitement turned solemn, though, with each crossing we made, the wagons bumping along under their heavy load like caissons in a strange funeral procession.

And sure, sometimes I think of my Radio Flyer wagon stacked with Tarzan books, some of them crispy black, some of them water soaked, but plenty of them in pristine condition. What did I do with them? Where did they go? Where are they now? Who can say?

Tarzan and JaneBut in my head, none of that matters. None of my reality lives there.

Instead, I see the two of them still, Tarzan and Jane. Together forever in the impossible jungle, living a life of wonder and enchantment in the tree tops of my youth.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.