One of the gifts of having really young parents is that you usually get the chance to come to know your grandparents and even great grandparents well. I was blessed in this regard. My grandparents half raised me and I have many fond memories of several great grandparents. Its quite a feeling to watch your great grandmother hold your child, seeing the span of five generations connecting 3 centuries right before your eyes. How many people can say they got to hold their great, great grandchild? Witnessing such an event is like seeing time stand still. Granny Pauline, this same great grandmother whom I watched hold my daughter, took me to Disney World nearly 30 years before I saw time stand still in that hospital bed set up in her bedroom.
Granny Pauline, along with my great grandfather, known to us as Grandaddy Bill, and my grandmother, loaded me up in their big brown Buick that summer of 1977 and we set out for the wonders of central Florida. Back then, it was a big deal to go to Disney World. Although I’m sure I was awash in the Disney glow, I don’t remember much about the trip, except that we also visited Silver Springs and Sea World. I remember Sea World not because of leaping killer whales or acrobatic dolphins, but because it was home to a water ski show in which all the skiers were dressed in the costumes of Batman, Robin, Superman, the Flash and the rest of the DC Universe Superfriends. During the show they vanquished the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Lex Luthor.
Throughout my childhood I was obsessed with Batman, Superman, and superheroes in general. My Saturday mornings revolved around the Super Friends TV Show and later, the Justice League of America. My closets and desk drawers were filled with comic books, I played with action figures and dressed as either Superman or Batman every Halloween. So, this water ski show was a really big deal for me. I still have old Polaroid photos of myself with Batman and Robin in their neoprene costumes. I recently found a website that provides the full story of the history of this water ski show, including interviews with those who donned the costumes.
If you read the title of this piece you may be asking, “What does all this have to do with a pet monkey”? Be patient. Time will tell. Sometime during the trip, I came away from one of the gift shops at one of the theme parks with a stuffed toy monkey, which I named Melvin. We became fast friends. Over the years Melvin and I had many adventures together. He became so ragged that his shaggy brown faux fur came unglued from his plastic head around the ears so that he looked as though he was wearing a bad toupee’.
Shortly after the trip to the playgrounds of Central Florida, I started first grade. Now, you may not remember this but first grade can be a bit intimidating. After all, it’s the big time. No more ½ a day at school. No more nap time. You soon discover they have replaced it with Math! First grade is where you learn to write letters on that cheap paper between the wide blue lines and the lower case letters have to stay below the red dashed line. At least, that’s how we learned. Nowadays they just learn to write binary code.
We also learned social skills in first grade. Important things like how to play with others, how to share, how you shouldn’t pick your nose in public. In fact, I have used something I learned from a classmate in first grade nearly every day since—how to cuss. It serves me well when I am using uncooperative tools or when I stub my toe. I learned the art of the four letter word from a kid named John, who had mastered this skill by the age of 7 from listening to his Dad. John taught another kid, Eddie, and myself the basics. We worked hard to master this skill but we didn’t quite know enough about it to realize you couldn’t cuss around just anybody.
One day as we were putting a little extra effort into this endeavor, we were overheard by one of the girls in our class—Shellie. I don’t know how much little Shellie knew about cussing but it was enough to know these words weren’t meant for her innocent, young ears. So, she did what any prissy little girl would do. She told our teacher.
Mrs. Forehand, like most first grade teachers, was a joyful woman who looked for the good in everyone. However, she had low tolerance for cussing among her students. This led to the unfolding of all sorts of unforeseen events. In addition to being so optimistic about the human race and having no tolerance for cussing, Mrs. Forehand, we would learn, was a germophobe who could not abide filth, neither within nor without.
We had always been highly encouraged to practice good hygiene, to wash our hands prior to lunch, before snack time and after recess. Because who knew where kids that age were likely to put their hands. When Mrs. Forehand heard of this newly discovered language babbling from the mouths of three of her students, she decided she would use us in demonstrating to the class the proper method of using Dial soap to cleanse our palates. Not only that. She sent notes home to our parents.
The soap rinse wasn’t so bad. At least it garnered us the attention of our classmates, all of whom asked us for our review of this new culinary delight. But, the letters to our parents presented a real problem. We knew from Mrs. Forehand’s reaction that our parents would not respond favorably to this new information. John wasn’t too worried. He said his parents knew about and didn’t care about his cussing. Eddie and I didn’t have this assurance. So, John suggested we rip up our notes and try to stuff them down the water fountain. It never occurred to us that Mrs. Forehand would have requested in the letter that our parents sign them and send them back. The next morning the jig was up and our parents were called in for a conference. The consequences were not good but thereafter we confined our cussing to only those times when there were no girls or adults around.
Things got better as the year wore on and with the exception of having a slight anxiety attack when, due to frequent use, my eraser tore through the paper on a math test, first grade was a resounding success. The highlight, (and this is where the monkey comes in) came about when we were instructed to share things about ourselves to the class one day.
Since my last name begins with “W”, I have always been blessed to be toward the end of the line. So, as we worked our way from Basner to Worley, each student telling a fascinating tale of their favorite cereal or the time their Dad got pulled over for speeding, I had plenty of time to put together the story of my adventures with Melvin as I imagined them to be, which did not necessarily coincide with adult reality.
Somewhere along the way, either through television or something my mother read to me, I learned that some people who kept monkeys as pets had them wear diapers so they didn’t deposit unsavory gifts all over the house or anoint the furniture with their leavings. I had also learned that, as far as monkeys go, spider monkeys made good pets.
I’m not sure what kind of monkey Melvin was supposed to be, but to my mind, he became a spider monkey. There was an old pecan tree inside the dog pen in our back yard where Skippy the dachshund and Buffy, the cocker spaniel, resided. The old pecan tree had a forked trunk and though I now know pecan wood is too brittle to allow such trees to be used in the building of tree houses, back then I had grand designs for such a structure.
By the time my turn came to share something about myself I had dreamed up an alternative reality in which my spider monkey, Melvin, wore a diaper and resided in the tree house in my backyard. I fed him fruit and ice cream and he played the day away with Skippy and Buffy until I got home.
The entire class, including Mrs. Forehand, was enthralled by the story and was fascinated at the prospect of me having a pet monkey. They begged me to bring Melvin in to meet the class, which I dodged by saying he didn’t like crowds. For the next several weeks, occasionally Mrs. Forehand would occasionally ask me how Melvin was doing. “He’s doing great”, I’d reply and then embellish another story to add to Melvin’s legend.
This all came to a head one night when my mother attended a PTA meeting. The evening had gone along great with the polite conversation and awkward, encouraging smiles that so accompany teachers and parents in these gatherings. At some point, Mrs. Forehand approached my mother and asked, “How is Lenny’s monkey? I’ve never known anyone who had a pet monkey before.”
I don’t, to this day, know what my mother’s reply to this astonishing comment may have been. But, I don’t recall being admonished for my tall tale. To their credit, it seems that all the adults involved—my parents and Mrs. Forehand-were amused by it and may have just agreed that an imagination is a good thing for a kid to have. After all, as Mr. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
Teachers are special people. I don’t know if Mrs. Forehand is still alive or how many years after that she may have taught. But I wonder if she ever thought anything more about the little boy who claimed to have a pet monkey and a mouth she washed out with soap. More likely, I was just another of the many children she ushered through this stage of life. I’ve thought about her still seeing hope and possibility in a young man with such an inauspicious start. About her willingness to look over these early discretions-or at least that of the tall monkey tale-and see it as simply a child’s curiosity and imagination at work.
I’ve thought about those old people too. The ones who cared enough to take me to the theme parks of Central Florida, of all places. The ones who took me to see a bunch of super heroes gliding across a small lake on water-skis. The ones who bought me that little monkey. And I’ve thought too about how 30 years later, I saw the oldest of these hold her great, great granddaughter in her arms. Life is a strange thing to tie all this together. All these links, all these stories, all these people.
©2020 Lenny Wells