Take me home, El Capitan!
Me, My Dad, and Johnny: A Tale of Two Heroes

This write up may or may not be of interest to some. It's not motorcycle related. I wrote this primarily for my daughter and grandsons and.. myself.

The father of my youth was a tough, emotionally lean man.  In the 17 years that I lived with my parents, I never saw him dance with my mother.. hug her.. kiss her, or even hold her hand. Not once. My sister and I fared a little better. I was told that he wasn't like that before he went off to fight in WW2. He came back changed. The army took a few years of his life and gave him back a chest full of medals and a scarred psyche from seeing things that shouldn't be seen and doing things that I can not imagine. For reasons only known to himself and his God, instead of displaying his medals for all to see, he kept them in a shoe box high in the closet as if they held little importance in his post-war life. He didn't need to talk about them. He expected no accolades. He had just done what needed to be done. I guess that's what real heroes do.

It's been 31 years since he passed and I still miss him every single day. In fact, for some reason I find myself missing him more the older I get. Sadly I only have a handful of pictures of us together. Perhaps as I approach the age that he died, I have a clearer understanding of the man, what he must have went through in the war, and the pressures of supporting a family of four. Just last week I found myself in tears at the thought that I'll never see him again in this life or hear his voice. I wonder if he'd be proud of me. The fact that this ever-present melancholy is probably common to anyone who has lost a father offers little respite.

He was raised old school.. Taught that the man worked.. the wife raised the kids. Period.  That's how his father was raised and his father before him. He wasn't the archetypal father we see in Hallmark specials, but then how many really are? While I know my father loved me, I have few memories of father/son activities. I do remember him taking me fishing a few times.. Having a catch now and then.. Him teaching me how to make home-made ice-cream in one of those hand crank machines that was required of every household in the 60s. And of course, the few times he took me for rides on his motorcycle changed me forever. I now wish I had thanked him for the effort he put into fatherhood... and the memories.  My guess is.. a simple "thank you" would have meant a lot to him. Just another regret I have to live with. We all have to live with.

There is one memory with my father that stands out above the rest that I'd like to share. I treasure this one...........

I'd like to think I was a quasi-normal child although virtually everyone says I was not. My mother tells me I was a loner and explorer from the moment I cleared the birth canal. My favorite pastime? When I wasn't riding my bicycle, I was exploring "the woods" behind our house in east Nashville. This totally undeveloped, forested area was maybe a football field wide and a mile long with a creek running right through the middle of it. My own personal jungle in the middle of an ever expanding suburbia. Almost every day after school I'd pack the essentials for surviving in the wilds.. ie.. a bologna sandwich and RC cola in my trusty army-issue backpack and head out. My mom would simply say.."when the street lights come on.. I want you back in this house.." and with that.. I'd be gone.

James D Finley... My Dad somewhere in Belgium

Within minutes I was alone in a world full of of deer, squirrels, chipmunks, turtles, snakes, frogs, and a myriad of colorful birds. For the most part, the creatures of the forest seemed collectively indifferent to my daily intrusions, but wisely they kept a wary eye on the bipedal outsider. I spent endless hours alone in the woods building forts and tree houses, swinging on grape vines, and enjoying the freedom and independence that only wilderness solitude brings.

In hindsight, it's clear now that I was trying to live like my hero, Tarzan..  Before I became obsessed with pirates a few years later, and then young ladies a few years after that, I was a Tarzan fanatic. Specifically.. THE Tarzan.. Johnny Weismuller.. Any time I'd see one of his movies listed in the TV Guide I'd wait impatiently until it was on then sit transfixed watching the ape-man's adventures and lifestyle. I wanted to be Tarzan. I wanted a chimp. I wanted Jane. I tried to yell like him. I remember taking off my shoes and shirt and running the various wooded trails as fast as I could with my opened pocket knife in my hand because I'd seen my hero do it..

Thursday 2/21/1963 It was a chilly, but sunny day. I can't remember exactly what I was doing, but for some reason my dad, who was supposed to be at work, walked through the door.  He never took days off of work so something was up. It was near lunch time. He said.. "Are you hungry?..Lets go get something to eat".. or something innocuous like that. Minutes later, this 8 year old was cruising down Gallatin road with my dad. Off to the right I see a new Shoney's Restaurant was having a grand opening and we pulled in.  This would be only the second Shoneys in Nashville and my dad knew I loved their "Big Boy" burgers as on rare occasions he took our family to the Madison location after church on Wednesday nights. Wow!! This was really gonna be a treat...

There were balloons and banners all over the building, typical of any grand opening, but also.. there was a large crowd in the parking lot.. Not in line to get in..They were flocked around something. Must have been at least hundred people.. My dad parked and rather than go in to get some burgers, we joined the crowd and slowly but surely moved closer to whatever it was at the center. When I asked what we were doing all I got was. "You'll see.." but I couldn't see a thing except for belts and belt buckles as I was a small kid for my age and everyone in the crowd seemed to be an adult.

Finally daylight appeared in front of us, the crowd parted, and standing in front of us was the one.. the only.. Johnny Weismuller. My idol. He was wearing a dark suit with a white turtle neck sweater and was the tallest man I'd ever seen. Apparently he was making appearances at Shoney's restaurant openings that year.. Easy money I suppose for the actor on the backside of his career. He was 59 on this day and looked young with thick dark hair and broad shoulders. Still an athlete. The air seemed to be filled with electricity. My dad walked over to him, put an arm over the legend's  shoulder like they were old friends, and whispered something in his ear. Immediately Weismuller turned and looked down at me, leaned over, stuck out his hand and said.. "Nice to meet you, little man. I'm Johnny." I was so star-struck that I didn't say a word although I am sure the ear to ear smile on my face spoke volumes. I shook his massive hand. It was a damn fine handshake. One I'd never forget.

I don't remember much after that except for me and my dad eating a couple of the best triple-decker "Big Boy" hamburgers I've ever had in my life then later telling my mom about our epic encounter with the king of the jungle. Looking back after all these years I now realize that my dad had planned it from the start. Probably days or weeks in advance. He had taken off work specifically to take me to see my hero. This is the stuff a little boy's dreams are made of. A memory for all time.

While my father didn't tell me he loved me very often.. I never doubted it. He was always there for me and now and then .. like on days like this one... the words weren't even necessary..

Postscript.. So how did I remember the exact date we met Weismuller? I didn't.. I only had a vague idea. I contacted Shoney's, Inc and they have an aging "historian" on staff who has been with the company since day one. She researched the opening at that particular location and within a few hours.. she had it.. February 21st, 1963.  I was 8. My dad was 42. Weismuller was 59.


I recently read a wonderful book called.. Twice the Hero by David Fury.  It's the story of Weismuller's life. The book documents his historic swimming career from 1921-29 (he was never beaten) including winning an unprecedented five Olympic gold medals, his 12 Tarzan movies, the 16 Jungle Jim series adventures, and countless anecdotes about his life. At one time he was one of the most famous men on the planet. I highly recommend it to anyone who's a Weismuller fan.

One incident revealed in the book was particularly telling of the man. In 1927, Weismuller was pleasure boating in Lake Michigan when a nearby tour boat capsized due to heavy waves trapping the tourists inside the cabin. Weismuller radioed the Coast Guard then accessed the situation. There was no time. People were going to die if he didn't act. He motored over to the capsized boat then personally rescued 11 of them one by one by swimming underneath the boat and bringing them back to the surface and onto his boat. Afterwards he took them to shore where reporters and paparazzi were waiting and didn't even stick around to enjoy the accolades. He had just done what needed to be done.. As I learned from my father..that's what real heroes do.

And that's all I've got to say about that....
Jerry D. Finley
Captain / Pirates' Lair