I was driving home last night listening to CommieLiberalRadio (NPR), when the announcer said that the actor Johnny Sheffield had died the day before.
I would suppose that name is not exactly household, but I listened to the finish of the short synopsis on CLR after I had parked at the house. You see, I was best friends with “Boy” for a day.
It was late summer 1978. I had been employed for a half-year as a “Field Engineer” for an oilfield services company, and had just spent a week at a company training session/morale-raiser/“group hoot” at the corporate offices in Houston. I would have flown directly from home to there and back, but I asked if I could, instead, fly partway home and rent a car in Denver, so I could attend the wedding of some friends. I couldn’t rent the expected sub-compact for a oneway trip, and instead ended up with a large cruise-mobile (I think it was a Ford Thunderbird). Many other wedding attendees noted the car and said I “must be doing well” at work.
I drove home the following day. I did something I never do anymore, but was still in the habit of doing back then. I picked up two young hitchhikers outside of Denver and dropped them off in Glenwood Springs. Leaving Glenwood, into the intensifying west Colorado desert heat, I spotted a lonely bedraggled figure 10 or so miles down the road. I stopped and let him in.
He appeared to be at least 20 years older than I, and, as you’d expect, not very presentable. Many hard years. He was parched and asked if I had anything to drink. Having just been in Texas, and not being the beer-snob I now pretend to be, I had a couple very warm six-packs of such carbonated delights as Lone Star and Pearl in the back seat. It was obvious that he was extremely thirsty when he drained the first can in a few seconds, then lingered perhaps a minute over the second. His mood brightened and we talked the rest of the way to where I let him off near my home.
He was on his way from New Jersey and was going to move in with his daughter in California. Obviously, he had no money to get there and was “going to start life over.” We talked about this, and that, and he was interested in what I was doing and aspired to in this life.
Midway through our drive, after a measured intense pause, he said, “Look at me.” My hands gripped the wheel a bit tighter, and I managed a sideways glance at his expectant face.
You recognize me, don’t you?” he asked. I was a little nervous at the “lookat- me” remark, and I worried a little more as to how this encounter might turn. I humored him, taking a slightly longer sideways glance. “Why, yes,” I replied. “You do look somewhat familiar.”
A short but intense pause. His next words, softly spoken, nevertheless were like gunshots. (Gunshots through a silencer). “I’m Boy.”
I was stunned. I had been off-balance since the look-at-me request, and things were spinning more and more off-kilter. “Boy,” I wondered to myself. This could be esoteric, maybe it’s a test, uh …
“From Tarzan,” he explained.
Oh … Well, this really was weird. A pantheon of unremembered almost-famous people and heroes and villains and almost-somebodies presented themselves in my mind, and “Boy” was certainly one of them.
I relaxed some, and he told me of his life with the other Johnny (Weissmuller, who played Tarzan), who “was like a second father to” him. I didn’t ask what had happened in the intervening years, but here he was, out on the road, living life, such as it was, and our paths intertwined for part of a day.
I let him off on the interstate exchange nearest my house and we, as friendlily as our short-term relationship warranted, said our good-byes.
I told Betty of this when I came through the door. She summarized that “he really had to be ‘Boy’ — what skid-row bum would make up a story like that?”
Except that, I don’t think he was a “skid-row bum” for much longer. After hearing yesterday’s news (he died Oct. 15), I checked his bio on IMDB and read the L.A. Times obituary. He must have re-connected with his family. He died at home, suffering a heart attack while up in a tree (how appropriate!) trying to trim some branches.
Rosco Betunada lives and writes in the stinking desert of far-western Colorado.