We were up in the big Oak tree in Tommy Joe's back yard. It was
maintenance time on our tree fort. Most tree houses I have seen looked like
wooden pallets that have blown up into the branches of trees. Our tree fort
looked like it came right out of Architectural Digest. We had an elevator,
screened windows, twelve-volt power, and an icebox. One Christmas Eve we
even had a working fireplace for about ten minutes. This was the same
Christmas Santa exchanged Tommy Joe's presents for a giant stump puller.
Mrs. Cauldwell called us down for a ten-minute break. She handed each of
us a frosty mayonnaise jar full of her famous Kool Aid. It was either Kool
Aid or ice cold deck stain, I have never been quite sure.
She always gave us our Kool Aid in jars with the lids on. We would shake
up her mixture of sugar and colored water and watch it swirl around like
those plastic souvenir bubbles filled with a little Christmas tree, water,
and glitter. Mrs. C. liked to use a blend of about sixty percent sugar.
After a round, our energy level would peak at about three in the morning.
Mrs. Cauldwell asked me if I was going on the big field trip next Monday.
I told her I knew the trip would help enrich my life experience and broaden
my appreciation for nature. She remembered she had something urgent to do
back in the house.
Long before Disney thought up his animal theme park in Orlando, or before
they opened Lion Country Safari in West Palm Beach, there was "Africa U
S A." Africa U S A was a one of a kind zoo amusement park. They had
lots of animals just like any other zoo. The animals were just different. If
a circus or zoo was having a problem with one of its animals they would
donate it to Africa U S A. Every anti social beast in the United states
would end up at Africa U S A. It was the Humane Society's version of Attica.
The one thing Africa U S A had going for it was their publicity
department. The Truth in Advertising Act must have been a direct result of
the AUSA boys. The Africa USA folks came by Robert E. Lee Jr. High to tell
us about the fantastic adventure we were going to enjoy Monday. Authentic
African warrior guides, wild free roaming animals, deadly boat rides up the
Amazon River. Our hearts were pounding!
We were all gathered around the flagpole out in front of the school. We
were just finishing the Pledge of Allegiance. The AUSA guys were about to
play their trump card. We jumped up, jerked around, and peered down the
street. Was that a giant lion roaring in the distance? Then we saw it...
"The Jungle Buggy!" It looked like a four-wheel drive truck with a
giant fiberglass gorilla standing in the bed.
When it pulled to a stop in front of the school, the driver hit a button
on the dash and a big inflatable jungle landscape blew up behind the
gorilla! There were trees with snakes hanging from the branches, a giraffe
looking down over the tree top, and a few lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
The loudspeakers on the roof blasted animal sounds for miles. There was
nothing on the road that could touch the Jungle Buggy. For sheer visual
impact, it was awesome; only the original Oscar Myer's Weinermobile could
I was sitting on a chair in the kitchen. My mom was in the middle of one
of her stand up routines; this one was about the value of a dollar. I
fumbled with the crumpled permission slip spreading it out on the table,
trying to remain awake as she droned on. Finally she reached in her purse
and extracted three one-dollar bills. She held them out and I reached up to
take them with the reverence one would observe while receiving Holy
Communion from the Pope.
Monday morning rolled around and so did Mrs. Murphy in her school bus.
Mrs. Murphy was the only driver the School Board could get to drive kids
from Robert E Lee Jr. High on field trips. She had a short fuse and loved to
mix it up with smart-assed junior high boys. She had a couple of rules that
applied to Tommy Joe and me. The first rule was that neither of us could sit
within six rows of the steering wheel. The second rule was that neither of
us could sit within six rows of each other. If we wanted to talk to each
other while riding in her vehicle, one of us was allowed to run along beside
the bus and shout through the window.
We sputtered and bounced along U. S. 1 north to Boca Raton. We turned
west and rounded a big man made hill. The pavement turned into a muddy dirt
road; the air smelled like snakes. WELCOME TO AFRICA U S A! Mrs. Murphy
tapped the brakes and every student in the bus whacked his head against the
seat in front of him. She lit up a Camel and took a long pull off her little
Thermos. "All Out!" She was a woman of few words.
A camouflaged jeep with a thatched roof coughed up to the parking lot. At
first, we thought it was the Beach Boys. A big man with a pair of fake tiger
skin shorts waddled over to us. "I am Zambeeko, African warrior. I have
been sent by the Chief to guide and protect you during your safari," he
stated. Zambeeko had an eerie resemblance to Leroy Thomas, the blues
guitarist who played at the Elbo Room in Fort Lauderdale during spring
break. He continued his speech, looking each terrified student in the
As his gaze fell on TJ and me, he twinged like he had a little touch of
indigestion. We fell in line behind Zambeeko and climbed aboard the three
waiting "Safari Cars." After a mud slinging, slip sliding ride we
were at the boat dock on the Amazon River. Zambeeko herded us up the creaky
gangplank and we boarded the African Queen. The African Queen was hand built
by African warriors using native materials and primitive hand tools. Tommy
lifted up the fake vines and branches, "Hey Gonz, I sure hope we get a
peek at that primitive welder they used on those pontoons."
We cruised up the Amazon taking in the scenery. Sammy "The Slide
Rule" Morgan had broken away from his exploring party and joined us.
"Pretty impressive the way the natives built those concrete sea walls
along the river huh?" he said. Zambeeko was at the wheel, shouting into
the overhead microphone. He was busy describing the animals and vegetation.
I was standing beside him. I whispered, "Zammy, I gotta tell you I
think you play Wham better than Lonnie Mack himself!" His voice became
agitated and he wiped sweat from his brow.
"Look! Look! See those silver fish right beside the boat?" he
screamed, "PIRANHA! Man Eaters!" We all ran to the rail, nearly
capsizing the Queen. I looked into the depths, "Hey, ain't
them...?" Tommy Joe had his face an inch off the water. He cut me off,
"Yeah, Gonz, them 'er shiners all right!" TJ and I had caught
thousands of shiners on uncooked oatmeal or little balls of bread. They were
fantastic bait for catching big bass. The only way a shiner was gonna attack
you was if you happened to be the Pillsbury Doughboy and you fell off the
I began to have my doubts about ol' Zambeeko. We searched the riverbanks
for more wild game. Sammy was over by Zambeeko pointing at the bank and
explaining to Zambeeko what the wildlife along the river really was. I wish
I had brought my camera. There they were, Sammy the Slide Rule, and Zammy
the Slide Guitar, side by side! The kids were shouting and pointing at some
more wild animals. A few Mockingbirds were dive bombing what looked like a
house cat. The Queen chugged up river to the camp.
"My brave little adventurers, prepare for a delicious traditional
African meal," Zambeeko said. We sat at hand hewn polyurethane picnic
tables and prepared for lunch. We filled ourselves with plenty of original
recipe, pressure cooked, secret spiced, nine piece boxes of white meat, and
gorged ourselves on that native favorite, RC Cola. We stuffed a few dozen
rock hard rolls into our pockets. We might never get the chance to chum up
Piranhas with dough again.
After lunch, we took a trip over to the Trading Post. Inside there were
all kinds of cool souvenirs. Shrunken heads, coconuts with faces carved in
them, bamboo spears, animal photos, everything African was stuffed onto the
shelves. The most popular souvenirs were outside though. Two machines
injected hot plastic into molds forming little animals. You could get a big
black gorilla, or a cool yellow giraffe. The gorilla took two quarters to
operate while the giraffe cost only twenty-five cents.
They had the giraffe at half price because the machine sometimes
malfunctioned and you took your chances. Being a gambler of sorts, and
always looking for a bargain, I chose the giraffe. I tossed my quarter down
the slot and watched the little molds slide out to the center of the
machine. The yellow plastic heated up and the molds started to close. There
was a small grinding noise and I noticed the molds were going to close
backwards with the giraffe hollows pointing to the outside. The molten
plastic squirted out and the flat surfaces of the mold backs closed against
This formed a perfect flat square surface on each side with a little
yellow plastic squirting out the inside edges. The molds stuck for a second
toasting the outside of the plastic a nice brown color. I watched it cool
and drop into the pick up chute. I was holding it up looking at it when
Sammy strolled up. "Hey Gonz, what you got there, a grilled cheese
sandwich?" he chuckled. We walked together over to the wild animal
TJ pointed out that Zambeeko's assistant was a perfect twin of the bass
player at the Elbo Room. Our spirits were high as we filled the open-air
stage. Zambeeko's assistant warrior informed us of the bad news. Most of the
wild animals scheduled for the afternoon show were AWOL. I pictured them
sitting in their cells smoking cigarettes and playing poker. We were bummed
out. Carl the gorilla was a no show; ditto for Gary the baboon. The jungle
staff sensed the riot that was brewing. We were told we could explore the
jungle in groups of three for an hour.
TJ, Sammy, and I headed down a pretty well beaten path. We walked about a
quarter mile; not a hint of tiger tracks on the mud. Then we got a sign. A
rusty metal sign. The sign was real clear in its intention. Maybe Mrs.
Murphy was moonlighting as a sign painter. "STAY OUT! Authorized
Personnel Only Beyond This Point." We headed down the path with renewed
vigor! We helped each other over and around the sharp barbed wire on top of
"Musta put it here to keep the critters out," TJ sputtered. We
came upon a long tall Quonset hut. The natives had outdone themselves; they
even pop riveted a sign saying "Maintenance Building" to the front
of the big steel structure. We rolled the heavy door back and couldn't
believe our eyes! There sitting over the grease pit sat The Jungle Buggy! We
climbed up on the running boards to get a closer look. Tommy Joe's eyes lit
up like a pin ball machine. "Gonz, guess what?" Tommy was behind
the wheel now: "Somebody left the keys in her!"
I took a second to make sure I was wearing clean underwear; this was some
of the soundest advice my mother ever gave me. Sammy and I slid into the cab
with TJ. Tommy Joe wanted to start the truck up and creep down the path with
it. I was trying to figure out how many detentions they gave you for grand
theft auto. Sammy was studying the buttons and switches on the dashboard.
Tommy turned the key and nothing happened. He flipped a couple of switches
and tried again. I could hear him mumbling and patting the gas pedal.
"There. That's gotta be the kill switch," he said. He turned
the key again and the wiper blade screeched across the windshield, leaving a
nice radius etched into the glass "Dang it!" TJ pounded the
steering wheel with his fist. There was a loud buzz and a few blue sparks
shot from under the hood. The Jungle Buggy fired up and we were off! He
pushed in the clutch and ground his way into either second or fourth. We
jerked out into sunlight. Our plan was to make a lap and then put the buggy
back over the grease pit.
With no African guide to point the way, TJ had to decide when to turn
down each path. I noticed the sounds of birds chirping in the trees had
changed to the sounds of people in motion. We lurched around a corner and
stared out the windshield at the four lane blacktop we were now riding on.
Tommy gave her a little gas and we eased in with the traffic. Sammy was
pretty impressed with the way TJ was handling the driving. He leaned close
to TJ and asked how often he had driven on a four lane highway. Tommy
glanced over at Sammy. "Counting today, once," Tommy said.
Tommy told us to try and look casual so we would blend in with the other
cars. Blend? We were around four feet tall. We were driving a four wheel
drive truck that was so tall the running boards were clipping off rearview
mirrors every time TJ lost his concentration. We had a twenty foot tall
gorilla standing up in the bed. Yeah, I doubted anyone was gonna notice us.
We had the Jungle Buggy cruising now; we relaxed and started to enjoy the
ride. I decided to turn on the radio. I turned it on and pushed one of the
little channel-selecting buttons. As soon as I pushed it, the sound of wild
animals blasted out of the big loud speakers mounted on the roof. Cars in
front of us yielded the right of way like we were a fire truck on a mission.
TJ decided to slow down and try to pull down a side road.
This was right about the time it occurred to Tommy as to why the Buggy
happened to be in the maintenance building. Tommy pumped the brake pedal and
stomped down on it with both feet. We seemed to actually gain a little
speed. Sammy shouted to TJ to pull the emergency brake. Tommy was steering
with one hand and searching around for the brake lever. Sammy told him it
was the little handle on the left. TJ yanked it for all he was worth. The
hood immediately opened, flipped back, and pinned itself against the
windshield. I thought to myself, at least the hood will slow us down when we
shoot out through the windshield.
Traffic was giving us a wide berth. TJ had his choice of all four lanes
in both directions. I was pushing all the radio buttons at the same time. It
sounded like a stampede at the old watering hole. TJ had his head sticking
out the window like a Golden Retriever on a car ride. We careened back and
forth down the freeway; the lanes were empty except for a couple of blue
haired ladies in a Buick. They seemed oblivious to the action around them.
Sammy came up with another brain storm. "Gonz, push the button and
inflate the jungle scene!" he shouted. I waited ‘til we were on a
nice straight stretch of pavement and hit the big red button. Whoosh! The
plastic landscape billowed out behind us! The wind resistance was so strong
it lifted the trucks front wheels up in the air. We rode along on the back
tires; every drag strip promoter in the country would have hired us on the
The ropes holding the big balloon unraveled a bit, sending the jungle
scene up into the air. The front tires came crashing down and we had the
world record parasail flying overhead. People had been lining the sides of
the interstate to watch us ride by. It looked like a scene right out of
Vanishing Point. Onlookers standing on the overpass got the biggest thrill
as we shot underneath them. The big balloon wedged in the concrete columns.
The plastic scene exploded like an A bomb, sending spectators tumbling down
the sides of the overpass. We were becoming a wee bit concerned about our
safety now. Just about the time we were preparing for the trip to the
emergency room, our Guardian Angel appeared!
I looked over and there was Mrs. Murphy. She was steering with one hand
and drinking from her Thermos with the other. She took a drag off her Camel
and motioned to TJ. The kids in the bus were going nuts. They usually had to
run up to the scene to see how banged up we were; this time they had
Mrs. Murphy pulled in front of us and eased on the brakes. After the
newspaper and police got done interviewing her, she said for everyone to get
in the bus. Almost everyone. After the day we had been through, jogging
along beside a school bus for twenty miles was a piece of cake.