Our names weren’t really Tim and Woody. When we were little, my cousin Jim and I occupied ourselves by pretending that we were lost in the jungle or that we were detectives on the trail of a criminal mastermind or that we were cowboys ridin’ across the prairie chasing the dirty varmints that held up the Wells Fargo stagecoach.

It was the mid-1950s. In our free time, we read the adventures of Frank and Joe, the Hardy Boys. Every day at 5:30, we watched “The Adventures of Spin and Marty” on The Mickey Mouse Club.  We knew in our souls that “Jimmy” and “Jonny” just weren’t the right names for explorers or detectives or cowboys or astronauts. So we became Tim and Woody.

One summer night in the mid-1950s, Jim and I went on a field trip with the Junior Civic Orchestra to see our first opera. It was at the Cincinnati Zoo, where for over 50 years the Cincinnati Opera had been held in an outdoor pavilion, where the voices of international stars like Roberta Peters, Placido Domingo, Norman Treigle, and Beverly Sills competed with the trumpeting of elephants, the barking of seals, and the screeching of peacocks.

We saw Verdi’s Il Trovatore, which my father had told us was a thriller, full of soldiers, gypsies, a child  kidnapped and thrown into a fire, hidden identities, a duel, violent deaths. And it might have been, had the performers spoken English rather than Italian, had they spoken rather than sung everything, and had it not lasted what seemed like 37 hours.

After the curtain finally fell, the audience applauded and we all moved toward the pavilion’s exits. Jim and I raced down the hill and out the zoo’s gates, hoping to be the first ones back on the bus. A few minutes later, when we heard applause off in the distance, followed by music, we realized that (1) that had only been intermission, and (2) the zoo was closed, the entry turnstiles were locked, and we were locked out.

I thought about this recently, not because of the opera, but because of what followed.

As we sat anxiously that night on a bench in a seedy Cincinnati neighborhood waiting for the opera to end and the buses to arrive, an old man wearing stained pants and a ripped t-shirt, who needed a shave and seemed to not have any teeth and reeked of whiskey and who knows what else asked us for change or at least a smoke. Three African-American teenagers walking past glanced at us and pointed. “Hey, white boys,” one of them yelled, “you lost or somethin’?” They laughed, slapped each other’s hands, and kept walking.

As we sat outside the zoo, the wailing ambulances and police cars in the distance merged with the screeches of the zoo’s peacocks, the growling of the big cats, and the occasional barking of the seals, carrying us from the corner of Erkenbrecker and Vine to the jungles of deepest, darkest Africa. There we huddled, Tim and Woody, fashioning in our imaginations knives from sharpened stones, bows from vines and green branches, shelter from palm fronds and animal skins. We imagined the crackling of the fire we’d build to keep the wild animals at bay and the screams of blood-thirsty cannibals off in the distance.

 

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It wasn’t fire and screaming cannibals they heard, Tim and Woody realized, but sustained applause and cheering. By the time their minds had returned from darkest Africa to artificially lighted Erkenbrecker and Vine, crowds of people were striding down the walk from the opera pavilion to the entrance, groups of aspiring young musicians racing to see who would get to the buses first. Tim and Woody were at the front of the line.

It was a few sentences back where the trouble began, the one about darkest Africa, about the screams of blood-thirsty cannibals off in the distance.  When I told this story to a couple of my friends, recently, they both thought that the juxtaposition of the Black teens and the African jungle fantasy seemed racist.

I reacted defensively, of course.  First, I wasn’t being racist; I was just recounting something that happened. And second, my cousin Jim and I weren’t being racist; we were just going into a make-believe land that grew out of the Tarzan movies and the Saturday morning jungle adventure kids shows that we watched during that period of our lives.

Nesting Nightmare Illustration by Seth Williams

And then I started thinking about those make-believe adventures within the context of the MeToo Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement and racism and civil rights and Confederate monuments and on and on.

And then I started to feel guilty.

And then I started to get mad at whoever or whatever it was in the culture that was making me feel guilty about having been a kid in the 50s that bought into a culture without questioning its values until years later.

And then I started thinking about assumptions and cultural contexts.

One Christmas season several years ago when my four-year old granddaughter and I were walking around Harborplace in downtown Baltimore looking at holiday lights and displays, a group of revelers wandered past us wearing felt reindeer antler headbands. My granddaughter looked at them for a minute and then asked, “Are them people dressed up like reindeer, or are them reindeer dressed up like people?”  She was pretty sure she knew the answer, but there was just that hint of doubt.

That’s kind of the way I’m feeling. Were Jim and I pretending to be Tim and Woody lost in the jungle? Were we pretending to be Tim and Woody pretending to be lost in the jungle? Were we pretending to be in a “Spin and Marty” world that existed only in the pretend context of entertainment television? Did we think that the jungle cannibals that we watched on Saturday morning TV shows like Tarzan and Ramar of the Jungle and Gunga Ram were the same as or different from or scarier than or not as scary as the Black teenagers that walked past us that night outside the Cincinnati Zoo?  Did we think that the Indians that the cowboys fought on The Lone Ranger and Cheyenne and Cimarron City and Rawhide still existed?

Did we know deep down that the cowboys weren’t protecting their land and culture from the Indians but that the Indians were protecting their land and culture from the cowboys, from us? Did we know that the reason that those Black people and those Indians lived the way they did in the 1950s—and now—was because of the way the dominant White culture treated, mistreated and created social, civic, and economic structures that controlled them then—and now? Were we living in the real world or only in another world of make-believe that the adults had created for us?

Not to digress, but here I am, a social liberal in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, wondering what the heck’s going on.  She was such a shoo-in, Hilary Clinton, for some because she was so competent and experienced, for some because she was a woman, for some simply because she wasn’t that joke of a non-candidate Donald Trump. Here I am thinking about that and the upcoming election, thinking “How could all those working class people vote for him? Don’t they realize that he cares nothing about them, that the Democrats have worked for decades to build safety nets for people living in less than ideal circumstances?” and “He cares about nothing but his own ego, and he’s systematically destroying the institutions of American government—public education, the press, the legislative and judicial branches, the two-party system, not to mention America’s credibility around the world—simply to show that he and he alone can make the right decisions, along the way finding ways to reduce criticism of him.”

But then, I think, “What if he’s right, what if that is the reality, that whatever assumptions we built this country on 250 years ago are no longer valid, that we’ve been deluding ourselves all these decades, seeing the world through a lens that no longer makes sense, if it ever did? I know that as a country we’ve rethought certain earlier assumptions: “all men are created equal” and the “three-fifths” clause, for example. But what others? What if the Democrats weren’t really helping working class people, what if voting rights legislation really did open the election system to massive corruption, what if those immigrants we’ve been embracing and inviting to join our great democratic experiment aren’t the “good” immigrants from whom we descended but “bad” immigrants who intentionally or unintentionally are going to take over and ruin America?”

Were Jim and I deluding ourselves back then?  Was mainstream middle class White American culture deluding itself? Are those Trump followers deluding themselves now, or are we?

I’m starting to feel like I’m in a Twilight Zone episode in which I wake up from my dream, thinking I’m back in reality, only to find that I’m still in a dream, from which I eventually wake, only to find out that I’m in a dream…

I really want to think that shifts in the culture reflect evolved, more inclusive perspectives, not devolved, more exclusive ones.

I’m almost positive that the United States has been on the right trajectory all these years and that the current president not only has completely hijacked our sense of normalcy and right, but also is only a short-term aberration.

I’m almost positive that neither Jim and I, nor Tim and Woody were being racist that night at the Zoo.

I’m almost positive that them were people dressed up like reindeer.

–end–