December 7, 2008

The Things We Do for Apes


When I was a kid, my dad was always adamant about teaching me valuable moral and ethical lessons. He was never obvious about this—maybe because he realized that if he sat me down and said, “Okay, today’s lesson is about sharing,” the lesson would fail miserably. More likely, I think this moral behavior was so deeply ingrained in him that it just came out naturally.

      Still, thinking back on it now, he did end up using some fairly sophisticated Pavlovian techniques. Here’s a two-fold example.

      When I was nine, my folks and I were in a massive warehouse of a bookstore on Green Bay’s west side. While scouring the bargain tables, I came across something called Ape: Monster of the Movies, by David Annan. What it was, essentially, was a survey of just about every film ever made that featured an ape (or ape man)—from Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast through the Planet of the Apes series—with a special emphasis on King Kong and various King Kong knockoffs like Konga and Mighty Joe Young. If a film featured a man in a gorilla suit, it was in there. Best of all, it was heavily illustrated with stills and movie posters (and for a book of this nature, my god, so many boobs. I’m not sure why, but if you’ve got gorillas, you’ve got boobs, and that’s just the way it is). I’m not exactly sure who comprised the book’s target audience apart from me. I was nutty about the Great Apes at the time, and so was obsessed with seeing any movie that featured a gorilla in any capacity. Which explains why I had to have it—it was my new Bible.

      As I remember, the asking price was $1.99, which seemed awfully expensive for something on a bargain table, and about $1.99 more than I had on me at the time. Clutching the book to my chest I tracked my parents down and asked if they would buy it for me.

      Lesson One: The Protestant Work Ethic.

      No, they weren’t about to, y’know, just flat out buy me something so frivolous just because I wanted it. And they made it clear that begging was not the way to go about it. My birthday had passed, and Christmas was six months away. So if I really, really wanted that book with all the pictures of apes and boobs in it, I was going to have to earn it somehow. I couldn’t whine or complain about it, either. That was the only way I’d get it—by earning those two bucks myself. But if I whined, the deal was off.

      My dad, as it happens, had a little chore in mind, which he explained on the trip home.

      A few months earlier, we’d moved into a brand-spanking new house. Being a new house, it still needed a few touch-ups here and there. Among them were the window frames. The frames were wooden, and they all still had a few nail holes in them for some reason. Before my dad hung the shutters, he wanted all those nail holes filled in. So that was the deal—if I wanted that ape movie book, I had to work my way around the exterior of the house, filling in every hole. I couldn’t do a half-assed job, either, because he was going to be checking.

      This was a two-story house, and it had a lot of windows. It wasn’t the easiest of jobs for a nine year-old, being both tedious and potentially deadly. But I needed that book, so I kept my mouth shut and set to it early the next morning, armed with an aluminum ladder and a can of some sort of putty compound.

      For the next three days I was up on the ladder, scouring each window frame for holes and dutifully plugging them with putty. In the process I ended up with a nasty sunburn and a few scrapes and bruises from falling off the ladder, but as my dad checked my progress, he said I was doing an okay job.

      On the morning of the third day, when I still had four or five windows to go, he hopped in the car and drove off, telling me he was heading to the bookstore.

      Being that close to victory, I threw myself into the final stages of the job and finished with a flourish. When I was finally done, I returned the ladder and what was left of the putty to the garage, and waited.

      Lesson Two: Learning to Live With Life’s Seemingly Endless Disappointments.

      It wasn’t long before the car pulled into the driveway again. Sunburned and sore, I ran outside to meet him and get my book.

      But when he stepped out of the car, there was something wrong. He wasn’t holding a bag, and his expression was dour.

      “I’m real sorry,” he said, “but they didn’t have it anymore . . . They were all sold out.”

      I felt some small thing die inside me. Hot tears began welling up in my eyes. But somehow looking at the expression on his face—the clear sadness and disappointment he was feeling himself—I choked everything back.

      “That’s . . . okay,” I forced out. “I guess I can live without it.”

      Suddenly his expression changed. He began smiling again and clapped me on my sunburned shoulder. “Okay then,” he said, “now you’ve really earned it.” He pointed into the car, where the damn book was sitting on the front seat. Had I thrown a fit there in the driveway, that book would’ve vanished, and I never would’ve seen it.

      Most contemporary parents, to listen as they coddle their little monsters on the streets or on the trains, might consider my dad’s Wonkaesque methods unsound, perhaps even borderline cruel. But little tests like that, mind fucks though they might’ve been, have come in awfully handy over the years. If you don’t learn early how to deal with disappointments both large and small, accept them and put them behind you, then you’re doomed—and a big whiny baby to boot. And if you don’t learn early what it means to earn something you want, then you end up going through life with this incredibly annoying and undeserved sense of entitlement.

      (And looking at most kids these days, well . . . )

      The ironic twist, of course, would’ve been if I’d flipped through the book once, then put it away and never looked at it again—but that’s not the way things worked. I devoured that book, reading it over and over, memorizing every image and using it as a reference for years. That book was still with me by the time I moved to New York, where I finally passed it along to my friend Gary, who at the time was in the market for some old images of men in gorilla suits.

      This whole story comes to mind now because in recent days I’ve found myself thinking about that book again. Much to my surprise, even after all these years, I could remember that book in remarkable detail. I knew all the images, the layout, and chunks of the text. It would’ve been an invaluable resource for something I’m thinking about right now. I mentioned it to a few people, then put it out of my head. Ahh, well, I figured, I’d deal without it.

      Then this weekend I opened a package from my friend Don. Inside were a couple of movies and a couple of books—one of which turned out to be a pristine copy of Ape: Monster of the Movies. I had to stop and stare at it for a second before it registered. I have no idea where he found it or what put the idea in his head, but I nearly wept as I flipped through the pages. I didn’t even need to get on a ladder this time.

      I’m not really sure what kind of lesson is to be learned in all this, but there you go.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.