Cheeta Lives

I was looking for something to write about without actually leaving my
bed when I ran into an interesting tidbit:  May 15th was Cheeta’s
71st birthday.  The chimp from all the Tarzan movies is alive and
well, having outlived most of the cast and crew that he worked
with.  He’s currently housed in a Palm Springs rest home for
retired show biz animals and he’s tended by a full staff of nurses,
dieticians and vets.

This news item came shortly after I discovered that the original lights
at railroad crossings were called Wig-Wags.  I had a dilemma on my
hands:  Two useless facts and nobody to tell.  Sometimes I
wish I had a girlfriend, just so I could burst in on her while she was
doing something delicate or entertaining her conservative parents or
something, breathlessly blurt out facts like this, then laugh
hysterically and run out the front door.

It’s all about the little things.  They give me a sense of worth
and I’ll be talking about Cheeta and Wig-Wags at dinner parties and on
dates for the next six months.  Usually, I’m the quiet guy in the
corner who occasionally screams out a sexually related word, so I’m
glad to have a conversation topic.  This is good stuff to know,
too!  It’s culturally enriching.  The only thing I really
knew, when this day started, was that getting out of bed would be more
painful than putting clothes on.  This is why people become
writers.

Cheeta is the world’s oldest chimpanzee, by the way.  That means
that, any day now, he’ll start talking like the baby monkey in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.  So you’ll
be glad you know about this stuff when he leads the revolution against
you.  Oppressor.

I always liked Cheeta because he was the real hero in the old Tarzan
flicks.  Tarzan would get himself into some retarded situation and
it would be Cheeta who would have to swing down and knock over a
cauldron or something.  Bang – monkey takes initiative, instant
bedlam.  Tarzan dives into the lake, several dozen tribesmen shoot
at him and miss and he goes to confront the white hunters who started
the whole mess because they were seeking the ivory tooth and bejeweled
eye patch of the blue elephant of the Congo.

{mosimage}I know Cheeta was the real star because, hey, who named
him?  Tarzan can’t name for shit.  It took Jane a few days to
make him understand that she was Jane, and he named his son (whom he
kidnapped) “Boy.”  So where’d Cheeta’s name come from?  Not
Tarzan, certainly.  And he predates Jane and Boy.  Cheeta’s
just there, like he stopped by for a few drinks and never left.
Even in the Burroughs’s books, Cheeta is the trusted companion from the
get go.  I think he was part of the ape family that raised Tarzan,
so maybe they sent him along as a watcher.

“Cheeta, go along with the hairless one and make sure he doesn’t fall
in love with a sexy brunette and constantly mix it up with white
hunters.”

“Oh, come on, dad!  He’s a retard!  I’ll spend the next 25
years knocking over cauldrons and bringing him the key to the jail
cell!”

Cheeta doesn’t have to worry about any of that now.  All the
actors who played Tarzan in the 1930’s-50’s have dropped.  Jane,
played by Maureen O’Sullivan, was the most recent death in 1998.
Actually, I think Boy is still alive.  But, still, quit an
accomplishment for a little chimp.  Cheeta’s original destiny was
to be euthanized, just because everyone in Hollywood is bitter.
He was saved and brought to the Palm Springs animal retirement home
where he’s spent the last 20 years being entertained by hookers and
doing lines of cocaine.

Get this, he loves to read National Geographic.  He knows which
day the latest issue is supposed to arrive and sits in a chair waiting
for it.  That’s not the only mail he gets, either.  He has a
few other magazine subscriptions, which he picked out from a catalog,
and he still gets fan letters, which his handlers read to him.
Seriously.    After he deals with his mail, he spends
some time playing the piano and he’s managed to learn some basic
songs.  Then it’s TV time!  The only movies he’ll watch are
the ones where he was starring, but he will take time out to watch
Animal Planet and the Cartoon Network.  He also paints, and his
“Ape-stract” art is being sold for big bucks.

Cheeta not only lives but he’s richer and more comfortable than you
are.  Not because he’s in the jungle, either.  He’s living
the life I want to lead – smoking jacket, monocle, wait for the mail
every day, learn a musical instrument, watch six hours of movies, nap,
wake up and paint for a bit, then watch the sunset through the gigantic
bay window while a semi-nude nurse gives me a pedicure.
Things must be bad when I’m jealous of an ape.

Now, Wig-Wags.  I had to spend the rest of my day reading about
them.  The name sounded to me like some goofball pre-American
Century nonsense and, well, I was right.  Used to be, a warning
sign was all you needed when a railroad crossed the street.  You
still get some crossings in rural America where the only hint is the
crossbuck warning sign.  Those are always fun.  I ran into a
few in New Mexico and I’ve seen them in Ohio, as well.  Frequently
used railroad tracks sitting right there waiting to kill you, and all
you have to go on is the vague crossbuck warning sign sitting behind
the overgrown holly tree.  Stop, look and listen, asshole!  I
got into that habit in Ohio, when I crawled the countryside in search
of the world’s first traffic light (still operational) and found myself
trapped on a county road, the sole function of which was to divert
traffic up and down and around farmland, so getting from point A to B
takes about two hours even if they’re just a few miles apart.  At
night, this is the heart of darkness.  This is real white map
territory.  The farms are dead, the lights of civilization are
nowhere to be seen and you know when you missed a crossbuck because
you’re stalled out on the train tracks, at which point the tripod of
lights suddenly appears out of the darkness and an angry whistle blows…

Then you wake up and leave Ohio as fast as you can.

In the early 20th, that was the way all crossings were handled.
Up till 1945, remember, America had no cities.  All we had were
vast communist farmlands for the white people and brutally run chain
gangs for the black people.  And the poor.  And the
micks.  As our population grew and people started dying horribly
on the train tracks, the Wig-Wag was introduced.  Well, before
that, train companies hired people at a half dollar a day to sit at the
crossing and run around with a red flag whenever a train was
coming.  Then the Wig-Wag was introduced.  The Wig-Wag was a
metal post with a pendulum and  a bell on top.  On the
pendulum was a little round piece of metal with a red light in the
center.  When a train came, the bell rang and the pendulum swung
back and forth.

{mosimage}To save money, the railroads made the Wig-Wags magnetic (they often
went off when a train wasn’t near), and put a red light that was three
inches in diameter in the pendulum so no one could really see it.
If they were looking, that is.  Most Wig-Wags were only four feet
tall.

So in came the gate and the two flashing lights we all know well.
But ask the old timers, and they call those two flashing lights a
“Wig-Wag.”  I hear it occasionally from my grandparents and I
ignored it, figuring it was a symptom of senility or something.
But when I heard other old folks refer to the two flashing lights as
Wig-Wags,  I decided to look it up and – viola – it’s all over the
internet.  There are still a few in action, and fervent fan clubs
keeping them alive.  Everything has a fan club… I’d say more
here, but I learned long ago not to cross swords with a train-related
fan club.  Those people are violently psychotic.

Are the modern flashing lights officially called Wig-Wags?  No,
they’re not.  Much to my disappointment, they are officially
called “crossings.”  While you may think that’s logical, it’s
actually a bit surprising to me.  Everything has a silly
name  if you look hard enough.  The two original models that
led to the modern day crossings, for instance,  were called
Griswold Rotating Banners and  Automatic Flagman.  This was
before somebody had the clever idea to keep it simple — just two
lights and a gate across the road.  Judging from the 1950’s
models, gates must have been an alien idea for a while.

“A…a gate, Jack?  Are you sure you don’t want to go with the
shimmering curtain of titanium snakes that rise from the ground and
snap at cars, because that’s what we’re budgeted for.”

America got boring after the Eisenhower Administration.  Since
then, we’ve become militarized in so many ways.  Instead of
“Auto-Instant Flash Flagmen Numetal” we get “crossings.”  All the
action words and made up futuristic words have been dropped.  A
new fast food item is called by what it is – new sourdough
cheeseburger.  In 1950, they would have said: “presenting the
deluxe American drive-thru cheeseburger placed on a space age
bun!  It’s atomic! Bring your Radarman decoders, kids, and get a
penny off!”

Oh, well, no use pointing out that our Humanity has been raped since
the 1950’s. I’m the one lying in bed crying right now.  So, happy
birthday, Cheeta.  I’ll see you at the family reunion.  And
leave your nurse alone!  You go through three a month and it’s
really embarrassing.


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