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Big John (Johnny Weissmuller, 1904-1984)

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All the kids screamed, "Tarzan".

As he raced toward us, he was making sounds that seals or walruses might understand. Before we knew it, he was dunking us - two or three at a time. When he came to me, I took a deep breath and held it underwater until I thought I would explode. We all tried to retaliate by jumping on him - but it took more than a large pack of kids to get the better of Tarzan. When screaming little bodies smothered him, he would suddenly vault from the pool, take a few jumps backward, and then do a huge flying dive over our heads to neutral waters, repeating the sequence once again. He had more raw energy than all of us put together.

When we were exhausted, he would refresh us by squeezing off prodigious streams of pool water from his great clasped hands - up to 20 feet or more, a truly magical fete. Or, he would swim about with several kids on his back - then stop in deep water and let them sit on his knee. We were both terrified and thrilled by Tarzan's presence. What came through, however, was the genuine camaraderie we shared with Tarzan. To our delight, he returned often to repeat this drama. He had a special affection for kids. Tarzan was a beloved by all.

Years later, Tarzan became a somewhat more sedate Jungle Jim. Instead of frolicking in the pool he played more golf. I was delighted that Johnny allowed me to play with him. With his tremendous strength he would produce a powerful golf swing by taking the club back no more than one-quarter of a normal swing. He was one of the top celebrity golfers, along with Bing Crosby, Forrest Tucker and Robert Sterling.

His athletic prowess had much to do with his control over the anxieties of competition. He never clutched on the golf course or anywhere. Johnny traced it back to his swimming coach in Chicago that taught him to relax when he raced. It sounded contradictory, but Johnny explained that he relaxed during the heat of the competition, both physically and mentally, by focusing on the parts of his body that were not under stress. For instance, in swimming, the arm stroke pulled then pushed. Johnny simply relaxed the pulling muscles when pushing, and visa versa. Technically, Johnny's relaxing ability and his unique crawl style, where he aquaplaned with his shoulder and head above water, were all part of his swimming excellence.

Johnny never was seriously injured during his career except for minor monkey bites, cuts and so forth. He rode bareback on a 3000-pound Rhino, and wrestled countless alligators and tigers. He performed most of his own stunts with ease, including lifting men over his head and swinging on vines. Once, in preparing for a scene in which the elephants were to help Tarzan escape from a steel cage, Johnny stepped inside the cage to test the lock - and it jammed. At that moment, by accident, a passing elephant nudged the cage into a deep tank of water. From his Olympic water polo days, Johnny knew he could hold his breath three minutes or more. The crew needed that time, and more, to remove the heavy cage from beneath the water. Johnny's courage and ability saved him from countless predicaments.

His fun loving approach to life was, in part, a continuous celebration of this awareness.

One dark night, Johnny and his entourage were motoring to Catalina. Suddenly, a large wave lifted the bow of the yacht sharply, tossing Johnny overboard. When he surfaced, the only object visible was the boat's stern light disappearing into the night. Once he was missed, those aboard would have likely begun a search by circling the boat. But, Johnny knew the probability of a successful recovery was remote, and he was many miles from land. As soon as he was able to compose himself, he visualized the outline of Catalina and conjured up a perpendicular course line to guide him. After swimming three hours or more in total darkness and heavy seas, he made landfall not far from his intended destination.

In his later years, Johnny, like so many famous celebrities of his day, fell prey to an inexpert business manager that left him broke. With his money gone, Johnny spent his final years in Mexico, away from the limelight. But, Johnny Weissmuller will be long remembered.

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Copyright © 2003, Robert D. Harrell, all rights reserved

To contact Robert Harrell, Email Robert at harrell@zeecon.com
Horseshoe Bay, TX
June, 2003

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Robert Harrell was born in the early 1930's. An avid sailor and golfer, he lives in Horseshoe Bay, Texas.

Robert Harrell