It was about this time of year and I was seven years old.
Inside, my friend Chip and I were swapping comic books, pondering the deeper philosophical questions posed by our favorite superheroes (A constant topic — “If God and Superman got into a fight, who would win?” This one would rage for months until the revelation that would strike us with the same power and clarity that led St. Augustine of Hippo to pen his magnificent “City of God” : “They’d be on the Same Side!”)
Anyway, we were plowing through our collections when I turned to the page that would energize my childhood. If you were a boy in the 1960s, you knew this page — ads for X-Ray Specs jammed cheek to jowl with irresistible come-ons for Joy Buzzers, Hot Pepper Chewing Gum, a Polaris Submarine that could seat two, a complete set of Roman Soldiers, blueprints for a Build-Your-Own-Earth-To-The-Moon Spacecraft. (Over the years, I’d order the X-Ray Specs, Polaris Submarine, and Spacecraft Blueprints. In case you’re wondering, I never saw my teacher in her underpants, went hunting for a giant squid, or left earth orbit.)
But here’s the ad that would change my worldview in a profound way: “Hey Kids! How’d You Like Your Own Pet Monkey?”
Is there a kid anywhere in this world who can resist that question?
In breathless prose, the ad outlined how a spider monkey, with its “appealing heart-shaped face and winsome manner,” would be the perfect pet.
I couldn’t agree more. In a previous post, I described how the dogs in my life have always been loveable but kind of dim.
But a monkey? My mind quickly tabulated the benefits. It could no doubt be taught to make my bed and, assuming it was a bright monkey, could probably learn to add and subtract for my arithmetic homework.
Though I loved my dog Rebel with all my heart, it’d be great if my monkey could take over the feeding and watering chores. Heck, with a little practice he could probably take Rebel out for walks, racing around the neighborhood like a jockey on a thoroughbred.
And a monkey would certainly boost my classroom status. Kids would have to be nice to me if they wanted to see him. And it’d be great to tell the kids who’d been mean to me that no matter how hard they tried to be my friend, there’d be no way they’d be able to come over to play with him.
It being so close to Christmas, it seemed natural that Santa could deliver a monkey to me in a few weeks.
Of course, I’d have to get my parents on my side. That should be pretty easy, once I explained how my monkey could make their lives easier.
A Three Stooges short I’d seen featured a monkey that could flip flapjacks, so I was pretty sure my Mom could relax and let the monkey prepare our meals for us. What would she do with all her free time?
My Dad being in the Army, he spent a ridiculous amount of time shining shoes and polishing boots. A monkey would love taking over the job!
But amazingly, they failed to grasp the obvious benefits.
“That sounds like it could be dangerous,” said my Mom. “And didn’t you already send your Wish List to Santa?”
Well, she had me there. I’d already told Santa that I wanted some plastic dinosaurs, an emergency flashlight that could shine in green or red, and a geology set.
It’s hard to discern the protocol for altering your Wish List, but I realized I was going to have to really improve my behavior if I wanted to score a present as wonderful as a monkey.
I began helping some of the slower kids in my class with their schoolwork, sometimes forfeiting recess in the process. I donated $8 of my own money to my Sunday School’s Hungry Children fund. And, most painful of all, I played the part of “Baby” when my sisters played House.
Naturally, I trumpeted these good deeds to my teacher Mrs. Hendricks, and Father William and my parents at every opportunity. My Mom still seemed skeptical, but Santa was bound to catch wind of my Exemplary Behavior!
But Christmas arrived and there wasn’t a monkey under the tree. I peered into the branches, certain that the cheerful little guy was hiding in the shadows waiting to be found by his new Master. Nothing.
Santa came through on the other things — the dinosaurs, the flashlight, and the geology set — but I couldn’t shake the vague yet inescapable sense of disappointment. Hadn’t I followed the rules? Hadn’t Santa seen me playing “Baby” — “Baby!” — with my sisters?
By the end of that Christmas, I’d had plenty of fun with my presents but the sense of being gypped just wouldn’t go away.
As it stands, the Missing Monkey Incident was good practice for the disappointments and indignities that would be regularly visited upon me throughout my life.
And here’s the thing — decades later I’d be friends with a vet who worked at the Golden Gate Zoo in San Francisco.
In the course of a random conversation, she asked me to guess which animal is the worst for zookeepers to deal with.
Naturally, I guessed “crocodile” and “tiger” and “anaconda.”
Nope, she said, it’s monkeys. She went on to explain that if a monkey was sick or frightened or even for no discernible reason, it could turn on its human handlers in the blink of an eye. A 30-pound creature imbued with the strength of a man could transform into a savage berserker whose first instinct was to launch itself at a person’s head, lock on with arms and legs and dig into the eyes and face with its fangs!
Holy Smoke! And I’d wanted to bring this creature into my home.
I thanked my friend for liberating me from a regret that had lingered for decades. I no longer dreamt of little furry friends anxious to do my bidding, replacing them with nightmares of grasping limbs and switchblade fangs.
If you want to know how I imagined life with a monkey would be, well, you needn’t look further than those glorious Curious George adventures — a sweet-natured monkey gets into all sorts of mischief and his wise and patient master saves him just in time, unfolding with all the timing and grace of a Buster Keaton movie. I had no doubt that whatever trouble my little buddy would get into, we’d all be able to laugh about it before we hit the hay at night.
I’m guessing my Mom imagined things a little differently — check out King Kong and his rampage through Skull Island and across Manhattan. It hurts me to say it, but her vision is probably closer to reality.
And, if you’re curious about the creatures that haunt my sleep in the wake of the Zookeeper Revelation, you’ll want to track down a copy of Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, the second title in her marvelous Hunger Games trilogy. There’s a monkey attack in there that’ll make your socks go up and down.
Please know that I’m wishing you a blessed holiday season, loaded with love and friends and at least a surprise or two.
And remember, no matter what disappointments may come your way this season, try not to be unhappy that you didn’t get the monkey. It may turn out that the Universe is simply keeping the monkey from getting you.