Growing up as the second of four kids in my family, it was essential that I assert my personality, that I find my niche. Everyone in our clan had slipped easily into their role. Why couldn’t I find mine?
To hear my parents tell the tale, I was the Worrywart — not exactly the most popular personality type in anyone’s book. Everything made me nervous and, try as I might, I just couldn’t summon the same cool, unflappable calm of my older brother, the confident Jock. My other two siblings only clouded the issue further. My younger brother was the Artist, possessing an early and uncanny natural gift, thanks to the creative talent on my mother’s side of the family. My sister was the Baby and the only girl, both of which stamped her with an identity as indelible as the one that I so desired.
I reasoned that in order to shake the Worrywart label, I needed to find my something else. I finally found it when I turned eight. It was the summer of ’72 and I’d discovered the Planet of the Apes.
I saw the first three films (1968’s Planet of the Apes, 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes) with my father when our local theater ran the whole series for two straight weeks in an orgy of ape cinema that unquestionably changed the path I was to walk.
It helped that my movie-watching career up to that point consisted mostly of summer double-features of lighthearted Disney films like Bedknobs & Broomsticks, or The World’s Greatest Athlete. Those saccharine efforts could never have prepared me for what I was to behold in the Ape films.
For starters, the first movie introduced me to the thespian talents of the immortal Charlton Heston, who I thought was the greatest actor of all time. His portrayal of the film’s astronaut antihero, Taylor, contained zero subtlety. When he was mad, he screamed. Really loud. When confronted with the slightest obstacle, he groaned as if mortally wounded. The lack of nuance in his portrayal helped a budding young cinephile like myself to follow the plot without a hiccup. I didn’t care how much scenery he chewed up in the process.
Beyond Heston, there was the main attraction. Of course, I’m talking about those amazing apes. They were simply like nothing I’d ever seen before. These creatures were no ordinary simians. These apes were scientists, doctors, soldiers, philosophers, and senators. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when I became incontrovertibly hooked on the Ape mythology. At one point, there appeared onscreen an ape soldier riding on horseback, which I thought was impressive enough for a primate. But then he reared the horse up onto its hind legs while waving an automatic weapon in the air, seeking to corral the wayward humans into a frightened group. At eight years old, I wasn’t even sure a human could do those two things at the same time.
At that moment, I knew that the Planet of the Apes had officially become my thing.
It’s a well-established fact that the films resided in the science fiction genre, but in 1972, they seemed more history to me than fantasy. So many of the story’s elements had such a touchstone in reality that it was hard for my young mind to make the distinction between what was fact and what was fiction. For instance, the presence of astronauts in a NASA space capsule in the first film’s opening moments struck a chord immediately.
It’s easy to forget how much sway astronauts held in the cultural zeitgeist during that era, but we’re talking only three years removed from the first moon landing. Those hotshot flyboys were nothing short of rock stars. The US space program was universally revered — the last proud bastion of the Cold War battlefield on which our country could reliably count on besting the evil Soviet Union. Hell, every kid I knew had Tang on their breakfast table every morning. For the uninitiated, Tang was a vile, orange-flavored drink made from a powdery crystal mix, but we drank it anyway for the simple reason that the Apollo 11 astronauts told us to.
But, for me, the eerie reality of the films didn’t end there. The first film concludes with the now-famous scene in which Taylor discovers that the apes have blown up the Statue of Liberty. This punch in the gut to the progress of man was meant to signify the ascendancy of the Ape Empire, and it provided a chilling cliffhanger that left me quite uneasy as we left the theater. Growing up in Queens, only a few miles from the New York City skyline, I had actually seen the Statue of Liberty many times. The scene was frighteningly real, leaving me very nervous.
I needed to be reassured that none of these scary Ape stories could ever come true in real life. However, this competed with my other need to shed the dreaded label of Worrywart. After much soul-wrestling, I went to the wise, old sage who was the font of all knowledge throughout my childhood: my father.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, trying not to sound too skittish. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Making shelves for the kitchen,” he replied, clenching nails in his teeth. “Ya wanna help me?”
“Nah, that’s okay,” I answered. “So, Dad, uhh, what did you think of the movie? Pretty cool, right?”
“Yeah, it was okay. But you were so quiet on the way home, I thought maybe you didn’t enjoy it. Everything all right?”
He’d seen right through me. Laying his hammer down, he put an arm around my shoulders. “Listen, when I was your age, I was scared of the bad guys, too. It’s okay to be afraid.”
“I wasn’t afraid!” I lied. “It’s just that —”
“Charles, it’s all right. You just have to remind yourself that those apes on the screen are regular people. They’re all dressed up in makeup and costumes, like in any other movie.”
“Listen…remember the movie you watched at Grandma’s house last weekend about the boy and his horse?” He was always terrible at remembering the names of movies and shows, but that was my savant specialty.
“Ya mean My Friend Flicka?”
“Right. That’s the one. The kid in that movie played the ape in this movie, the main guy.”
“Yeah, Cornelius,” he said happily, seeing me lighten up a little as this thought made its way through the apprehension I’d been wearing on my face. “Under all that makeup is that kid!”
I was almost sold. “So…the things they do in the movie, it’s — I keep wondering if —”
“No,” he guessed right, “none of that stuff can ever really happen. It’s movie magic.”
“For real?” I asked, longing to hear the right answer.
“For real,” he said. “Now, c’mon. Help me bring these upstairs.”
With my fears now fully dispelled, I happily re-embraced my Ape fandom, and couldn’t have timed it any better, as the fourth film in the series was due out in June of that very summer. It was called Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and my father took us to see it the weekend it opened. I was all a-tingle with anticipation as the film began, but that lasted only through the very first shot of the movie, which showed what looked like modern-day Earth transformed into an ugly, barren wasteland. Then a title appeared on the screen, reading “North America – 1991.”
I remember thinking, “Oh my God! I live in North America! 1991 will occur in the span of my lifetime! In North America!” I whipped my head around to glare at my father (or as I thought of him at that moment, the biggest liar in the world) to get some kind of explanation for the confusion and panic that were now fermenting in my head. My dad was blissfully unaware of my distress, though, and when I started peppering him with probing questions for the remainder of the movie, he only countered with a loud “Shhh!” What followed were the least calm ninety minutes of my entire childhood. Scenarios of what was to come were only strengthened by the mayhem occurring on the screen, in which the apes overran humans, taking control of the world. You could’ve slid me off my chair with a spatula when the movie ended.
The car ride home amounted to a cross-examination of my father by a completely unnerved me, seeking even more placating of my wildest ape-induced fears. I wasn’t as easy to coax in off the ledge this time, but eventually my resistance withered and I couldn’t help but believe my father was telling the truth.
What a sucker I was.
The good thing about being eight years old is that there’s an opportunity to embrace a new obsession or fad almost every hour of every day. The plethora of two-week-long crazes in my house must have driven my parents absolutely bonkers, but it seemed to be the natural rhythm of our hurly-burly childhood. If it was Monster Week on The 4:30 Movie, then our lives revolved around Godzilla and Mothra. If we’d seen Evel Knievel jumping a stack of 18-wheelers on Wide World of Sports, then we were daredevil bike-jumpers.
So it happened that into this morass of temporary trends stepped the least likely phenomenon of my youth: the Olympic Games.
It’s not that I wasn’t a sports fan. I loved watching sports almost as much as playing them, but up to that point, my sports interests had only ever been a regional story: you either liked the Mets or the Yankees, the Jets or the Giants. There was really nothing bigger than that in my sports sphere until my parents cajoled us into watching the Opening Ceremonies of those ’72 Summer Games. I was struck immediately by how far-reaching this event was, hearing the names of countries that may as well have been distant planets to me. The circus-like pageantry of that ceremony, along with avuncular announcer Jim McKay’s descriptions of the various customs and traditions of all these nations, had me in a big-time frenzy.
The fact that the Games took place during the summer made it seem like an unannounced two-week holiday. I watched them incessantly, the pull of my new obsession growing stronger with each passing day, a new idol or puppy-love-crush minted every hour. Mark Spitz collected gold medals like they were baseball cards and was easily the coolest guy I’d ever seen. I fell in love with each Eastern European gymnast who pranced onto the floor, but none of them caused the butterflies in my stomach like the pixie-ish Olga Korbut. The cute-as-a-button sixteen-year-old from the Soviet Union was the darling of those Olympics, and the breathless behind-the-scenes video features that ABC showed during breaks in the action made me feel even closer to her. Sure, Olga was twice my age, but I knew with a certainty beyond my years that she would one day be my blushin’ Russian bride.
As the Games forged ahead into their second week, I was as deep in their thrall as I had been with the Apes, which might as well have been a lifetime ago. So ubiquitous were they that I was even rabidly watching things like archery and team handball —fringe sports that would cease to exist for me once the Games wrapped up. But there I was at the gas station, collecting limited-edition glasses and dishes that celebrated America’s glorious gold medal win in Skeet Shooting…whatever the heck that was.
A strange thing happened one morning, as I bounded into my living room, ready to plop onto the couch for my daily helping of the Games. I was shocked by the sight of my mother sobbing in front of the TV set — great gushing sobs rocked her body as she held her head in her hands. I’d only ever seen her cry this hard when a relative passed away, so I was completely stunned to see her in this state. I eventually worked up the courage to ask her what’d happened, but this only served to coax another loud wailing sound from her which made me even more uncomfortable with the situation. Finally, she was able to compose herself enough to tell me the details, though what sense I was expected to make of them, I had no idea: hostages were taken in the Olympic Village during the night and several Israeli athletes had been killed.
I gaped at Jim McKay on the screen as my mom blubbered away. He spoke in the most solemn tones I’d heard during the first ten days of this transcendent event — a somberness unbefitting of the celebration of positivity that the Olympics had come to signify for me. How did this happen, I thought. Who would do such a thing? I needed to know who did this, and so I asked my mother.
“Jim McKay reported that it was a group of gorilla terrorists who broke into the Olympic Village, wearing masks and carrying guns. Then they kidnapped the…”
Mom’s answer went into more detail, but truthfully, I stopped listening when I heard the word gorilla. Christ, I almost stopped breathing when I heard the word gorilla.
Gorillas with weapons.
Gorillas with weapons had kidnapped and killed Olympic athletes.
DID YOU HEAR WHAT I SAID?! GORILLAS!
I remember thinking, this is it. It finally happened. The day I long feared finally dawned, and life on Earth would never be the same. The Planet of the Apes had come true. At the Summer Olympic Games, of all places. My head spun as I tried unsuccessfully to calculate the astronomical odds of my two obsessions colliding in mid-air like this, causing complete and utter chaos.
Okay. Collect yourself, kid. It’s not going to be easy, but you’re going to have to play it extremely cool if you wanna make it to the safety of the Forbidden Zone. Now think. What are your options?
Looking back, my thoughts probably weren’t that cool and calm. The Worrywart was a lot more scattered and frenzied in that moment than the above inner monologue lets on. Two things that I can recall thinking at that moment were: I have to pack and then I have to leave. So I slowly backed away, leaving my mother to her ramblings, and ran up to my room.
My mind raced as it mentally wrote the most bizarre to-do list of all time. Packing would prove tricky, but I knew I wouldn’t need any clothes where I was headed. The apes seemed to provide all their human subjects with a state-issued loincloth and leather choker ensemble set. Not very functional or comfortable, I grant you, but I came to regard this as a plus, as not packing clothes would leave me a ton more room for weapons. As it happened, however, being eight years old is not really conducive to having a very formidable cache of weapons. Or should I say, real weapons. I had no real weapons. But, boy, did I have some kickass fake weapons!
Like many a kid who grew up during that time, I had a veritable arsenal of plastic replica handguns, swords, knives, spears, cat o’ nine tails, maces, etc. You name it, I had it. But I needed to pack them in something. This was a no-brainer. I dumped the entire contents of my school knapsack onto my bed, feeling like a true revolutionary as those now-irrelevant textbooks spilled onto the floor. As bleak as an ape-controlled future might be, not having to go to school anymore was a nice consolation prize.
So I commenced packing my vast armaments into what was hereafter to be known as my Killing Sack, and was almost ready to leave when I spotted the pièce de résistance of my artillery. Leaning against a wall in the back of my closet was the Revolutionary War musket I’d gotten as a souvenir from the colonial village restoration at Old Williamsburg in Virginia. Realizing that this was as close to actual firepower as I was likely to come by, I slung it across my chest by its strap, envisioning myself firing it while riding on horseback, just like that iconic ape I’d so admired. Of course, being able to fire only one shot at a time might limit me a bit, but I figured that if I could get those murderous apes to stand really, really close together, and then also convince them not to rush at me so quickly, thereby affording me ample time to reload, then it was going to be a bloodbath in my favor. Humans 1, Apes 0.
As I turned to leave my room, perhaps forever (spine chill), I noticed for the first time that my older brother, Tony, was lounging on the bottom bunk, taking in the carnage that I’d wrought. I thought for a second about telling him what I’d unearthed downstairs — the cataclysmic doings I’d just stumbled onto, the unraveling of everything we held dear — but then I remembered who I was. I was the Worrywart. If I had any chance to redeem myself and carve out a new identity, a blood-soaked odyssey to the Forbidden Zone would be my best opportunity. Did I want to be known as the anonymous sidekick of the hero who bravely fought his way through Ape City, making it against all odds to the safe haven?
So I made up my mind not to say anything. I was ready to leave my brother in the path of marauding, power-mad apes who would undoubtedly put his suave athleticism to good use as slave labor in their new world order. I loved my brother, sure, but I was going to be the Charlton Heston in this new chapter of the story, and NOT that…that…whatever the second astronaut’s name was. Him. That guy.
My brother’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. “What are you doing?” he snarled, eyeballing me and then the pile of books at my feet.
I wanted to stick to my plan of not telling him anything, but I was suddenly gripped by the power of knowledge — the power of knowing something that he didn’t know, something big, something huge. This didn’t happen to me very often, so I was seized by this inexplicable urge to gloat, to celebrate this peacock moment in which I was the one telling him how things were and how they were going to be. Not to make too much of how seismic a shift this was in the natural order of things in my world, but I thought right then and there that this moment could very nearly make up for losing our planet to the apes.
“Didn’t you hear?” I asked, baiting him, hoping to draw this victory lap out as long as possible.
“Hear what?” The skeptical smirk on his face practically screamed, If you heard it and I didn’t, then it can’t be worth hearing.
“I can’t believe you didn’t hear it! The Olympics. It happened at the Olympics.”
“What happened at the Olympics?” he fired back, having had more than enough of this charade. “Spit it out already! What happened?!”
“Planet of the Apes.”
He sat up, confused. “What?”
“Planet of the Apes happened,” I said, trying but failing miserably to look menacing, “Planet of the Apes happened at the Olympics, Tony. I still can’t believe you haven’t heard!” Having the upper hand for the very first time was absolutely dizzying.
“Shut up! That didn’t happen. What’s wrong with you? Why do you make up stuff like that?”
“Oh, yes. It did happen,” I insisted.
And then I dropped the hammer on him.
“All right, I will! Let’s go!” he commanded, confident that his favorite arbiter would side with him again. My mom settled hundreds of our disputes, large and small, on a daily basis. Tony’s record in these contests was Muhammad Ali-like.
If I had the foresight, not to mention the physical capacity, to have grown a handlebar moustache at that moment, I would most certainly have been twirling it with dastardly glee as we stomped down the steps to have my mom weigh in on our great brotherly debate. I made sure to descend the stairs in front of Tony so as to set up what would be a most glorious reveal. It worked like a charm. When we could finally see my mother, still sobbing in front of the TV like a biblical weeping widow, my brother’s face turned a ghostly white. He wobbled like Goliath right before David dealt him death’s blow. But this wasn’t enough for me. I needed the full-on humiliation, with the oh-so-obvious ‘70s cop show exposition.
“See!” I gloated. “Told ya! You didn’t believe me, right? Planet of the Apes!”
The room got quieter all of a sudden, and I knew why in an instant: my mother stopped crying. On any other day, this would have been a great thing, but not today. As she turned to face me, wiping her tears, I could feel a sick sensation in my stomach.
“Honey, what did you say?”
I looked at her like a director wordlessly chastising an actress who’d fallen off script. Was she getting cold feet now, of all times? This was the gotcha moment! How could she falter here? I tried to urge her back on book.
“Mom, Tony doesn’t believe me,” I said, in what I hoped didn’t sound too desperate a tone, “about the Planet of the Apes thing you told me before. Tell him it’s true. Tell him!”
She looked quizzically at me and I could sense that the jig would soon be up.
“I’m sorry, Charles, but I’m confused. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“C’mon, Mom,” I pleaded now. “Tell Tony about the apes that shot those people at the Olympics. The gorilla terrorists you told me about…”
I saw the light go on in her head at the exact same moment that I noticed the color returning to Tony’s face and I knew something had gone horribly and irreversibly wrong.
“Oh, Charles, I’m sorry, I didn’t—I should’ve explained that to you. When they say gorilla terrorist, it’s spelled differently than the gorilla you see at the zoo. It’s g-u-e-r-i-l-l-a. Guerilla.”
Had I been undone by a homophone? Yes, I had.
Mom went on to explain that this word guerilla meant a kind of fighting style, or a type of warrior who fights clandestinely in places like the jungle. “Thanks, Mom,” I imagined myself saying to her, sarcastically. “Maybe next time, you might want to tell me this very significant difference before I prepare for the end of the world!”
She gave me a big squeezy hug to try to take the sting out of my embarrassment, but it hardly did the trick. I forgave her linguistic faux pas, that is, until she started to chuckle while repeating her misinterpreted gorilla terrorist line, each time her amusement growing louder and more giddy. This wasn’t lost on Tony either, who jumped in on the mirth, laughing a little harder each time they pondered how panicky I had become over something so silly.
“We should call your father at work,” she announced with a giggle. “He’ll love this story!”
While my mom and Tony took turns relating my blunder to my dad, I realized that I was still wearing my weapons-stuffed school bag (yes, much like Cinderella’s pumpkin, my Killing Sack had reverted back). It would be the ultimate insult to injury if they noticed this. Could I slink away without them noticing?
When their wheezy laughter turned to tears of hysteria, I made my move, only to be busted by my brother.
“Mom! Look!” sang Tony’s giddy voice. “Look at the Worrywart’s bag! He’s ready to kill gorillas!”
As I hung my head to their peals of screaming laughter, I thought, better to have had the courage to go it alone against a bloodthirsty race of killer monkeys than to have simply waited for our ape overlords to lobotomize us, right? I’m still trying to believe this rationalization today, especially any time someone asks me to tell my Planet of the Apes story. And they ask me to tell it a lot.
Last year, I went with my thirteen-year-old son to see the remake of the first Apes film, and we enjoyed it immensely. It was beautiful to close this loop by sharing the legacy of such a memorable moment from my childhood with my son, who seemed much better equipped than I’d been to deal with the questions of ape fact vs. ape fiction. When he expressed how real the apes looked, I told him my story. He laughed, but after I’d finished, he looked a little unsettled.
“But, Dad, seriously,” he asked, a hint of uncertainty in his voice, “none of that could ever really happen, right?”
I looked my son squarely in the eye and said, “Hey, y’never know, Worrywart.”