Aunt Gladys was ten years older than my mother. Mom looked up to her, idolized her, and at times tried to emulate her. This was not always easy. My mother was just a girl when Gladys was already out of the house and living the exciting and envious life of a flapper. That’s how my mother always described her.
Gladys’s husband, Irv, was considered handsome—especially by my mother, who often likened him to Cesar Romero. He had great hair, but that’s another story.
Gladys and Irv Sperry (the name used to be something else) were married for many years and had two sons, Gil and Howard. Howie, as he was then known, was just a few years older than I. On the rare occasions I got to spend time with him I followed him around like a puppy, even into the bathroom where I sat on the floor (and he on the throne), listening in awe to the fantastical stories he’d narrate.
The Sperrys lived in Kingston, Pennsylvania, and were comfortable, perhaps even well-to-do. As a result, they owned a summer home at Harveys Lake, a large lake less than an hour drive from their residence. This lovely glacial lake, surrounded by steep hills on all sides, was a wonderful destination, and didn’t develop serious environmental issues until the 1960s.
My first trip to the lake with my family for a week-long vacation was made memorable by several firsts. Howie took me out on a wooden, single engine motor boat and taught me how to water ski. In the evenings we went to Sandy Beach, located on the other side of the lake, where there was a small arcade and some rides. I was too young to drive in the bumper cars alone, but my cousin let me sit next to him as we attempted to smash other cars driven by his friends. This was very cool. He was very cool. Much cooler than his friends.
But perhaps most memorable was the Tarzan swing. Everyone called it a swing, but it was actually a vine, not unlike the type Tarzan himself actually used. I knew this to be the case because my cousin told me there were unconfirmed rumors that Johnny Weissmuller had once actually visited Harveys Lake and scouted out the vine himself to use as practice before playing Tarzan in one of his films. Or maybe it was Buster Crabbe. (This was long before I knew what an unconfirmed rumor was.)
I was introduced to the Tarzan swing one afternoon when Howie led me up the hillside behind the Sperry home to a densely wooded area. Nestled within the trees was a moderately-sloped clearing. A large tree had fallen, creating a platform on which several kids were standing waiting their turn. I watched as one kid took hold of a thick vine hanging from the sky. He tucked the curved end of the vine between his legs and pushed himself off from the platform out into the middle of nowhere, made an impressive arc, and successfully returned to the point of departure.
I was simultaneously excited and scared to death as I waited to try it myself. This was indeed the very coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
When it was our turn, I stood next to my cousin Howie and he carefully and patiently instructed me on what to do and what not to do. For a teenager he was incredibly careful and patient. (If anything happened to me, he was screwed, but I didn’t know that then.)
“The most important thing is to push off hard so that you’ll swing back to where we’re standing,” he instructed. “If you don’t push off hard, you won’t have enough momentum to get you back.” He gave me a serious look. “And whatever you do, don’t let go!”
He repeated the instructions while reminding me to watch how he pushed off. Then he executed a perfect swing into the unknown. Lo and behold, after swinging out into the vastness of the clearing, he deftly returned and landed on the log beside me.
Now it was my turn. I pushed off hard. I can still remember the thrill of the momentum and being aloft in space. I did not let go. And when I swung back to the log I felt Howard’s arms around me. I handed the vine over to the next kid, and we circled back to the end of the line. I was able to take one or two more swings before it was time to go back to the house for lunch. I must add that as they swung, the more experienced ape-men in our cohort each executed a loud Tarzan yell, which I tried to emulate as best I could. (It’s an art form.)
Each day at the lake included swimming (I had a face mask, snorkel, and fins). This was followed by water skiing. Water skiing was followed by me falling off my skis and being dragged along by the tow rope until my cousin decided to circle around and pick me up. This was followed by a visit to the Tarzan swing. After dinner, there were trips to the arcade shooting gallery, a ride in the tunnel of horrors, and then bumper cars. How great is that?
The following year—I was probably around nine—was much the same. Another great visit to Harveys Lake!
Not so for the third summer. Soon after arriving I told my cousin Howie that I couldn’t wait to go on the Tarzan swing. He looked at me with a pained and irritated look on his face.
“They cut down the Tarzan swing.”
I couldn’t believe it. “You’re kidding! Who would cut it down?”
“After the Gutstein kid let go of the vine and broke his leg they decided it was too dangerous.”
I didn’t know the Gutstein kid, but I hated him. He’d ruined my life.
There were other visits to Harveys Lake, including one years later when I drove with my friend Jim in the $50 Alfa Romeo that my father bought when I was a senior in high school. (We eventually sold that piece-of-junk car for five dollars after my father refused to spend $350 on a new muffler. There was always something going wrong with that stupid car, and he’d gotten tired of waiting for extortion-priced replacement parts to be shipped from Milano.)
And now, years later, I was an optometrist, living in Oakland and working in Berkeley, California, with vacations to Hawaii, Mexico, and other destinations easier to arrange than a visit to Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania.
Each year I was required to complete 25 hours of continuing education. Fortunately, I’d found a great course in Maui organized by the Pacific University School of Optometry. Lectures were scheduled from 7 a.m. until noon over five days. During the afternoons you were on your own. A perfect set-up.
On one particular day, my wife and I attended a luau-style meet-and-greet luncheon after class. After getting our tray of Hawaiian-like food, we sat down at a table with some other optometrists and their spouses. Each of us wore an “Aloha! My name is…” tag with our first name in large letters and our last name below that in much smaller typeface, along with our home city and state.
“Robert, Aloha! Where are you from?” asked the guy sitting next to me as he peered at my name tag. “I see you’re from Oakland. I live in San Jose.”
I saw that his name was Leo as we shook hands. He was a pleasant looking, plus-sized guy.
“I’m fine, thanks. Where do you work?” I asked.
“I’m one of the chief optometrists at Kaiser in the South Bay, currently in charge of recruiting. Think you might be interested in a change?”
I might have been interested in the job, but I wasn’t interested in traveling to the South Bay. I currently had an easy 15 minute commute to Berkeley. He understood.
We chatted about this and that, and I asked him if he’d grown up in California. He laughed.
“Actually, I’m from a small city in Pennsylvania.”
“Kingston. I’ll bet you never heard of it.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “Actually, I know it well! My cousins grew up there.”
“Really?” He was surprised.
“Do you know the Sperrys?”
“Oh sure. I went to Hebrew school with Howard.”
“Incredible! My family used to visit them pretty much every year when I was a kid. But mostly we’d go to their summer place at Harveys Lake.”
“I loved Harveys Lake!” Leo said. “We had a house there too, just like the Sperrys. It was great!”
“Yeah. I loved the lake and the bumper cars, and I learned how to water ski. But my favorite thing was the Tarzan swing.”
In that instant a change came over Leo’s face that was hard to describe. I thought I saw pain. My glance dropped from his face to his name tag. Leo Gutstein. I couldn’t believe it.
“Gutstein! You’re the kid who fell off the Tarzan swing and ruined my life!” I don’t think I was smiling when I blurted this out.
He looked at me with sadness and shame, and I was immediately sorry I’d expressed the ruination of my life as mean-spiritedly as I did.
“Yeah, that was me. And maybe yours wasn’t the only life that was ruined.”
When I returned home from my week in Maui I called my cousin Howard (now an MD in practice in Buffalo, NY) and asked if he remembered Leo Gutstein.
“Are you kidding? The kid who fell off the Tarzan swing?”
I recently did a Google search for Dr. Leo Gutstein and discovered he died in 2009. He’d had a successful career, was a beloved family man, sang in a choir, and performed in musical theater.
And whenever the name Tarzan is mentioned, I think of him.