“Damn you,” cried the practically naked Charlton Heston as he fell to his knees on the beach in front of the half-buried Statue of Liberty. “God damn you all to hell.”
Summer, 1968: the hottest film in our world was the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes, where three astronauts crash-land on a seemingly deserted planet, only to discover that in this topsy-turvy world, the apes can talk, read, write, ride horses, and shoot guns, while the mute humans are beasts, herded and captured, enslaved and oppressed. The film had just hit drive-in theatres, where kids got in free. We went to see the movie with our parents, with our friends and their parents, with the kids we ignored in school and their parents. We went with absolutely anyone to see Planet of the Apes. Again and again and again.
All the neighborhood children were so enamored of the film that we’d memorized the dialogue and played Planet of the Apes every day at an abandoned construction site on the other side of the railroad tracks. Since the site was vast and filled with gigantic concrete culverts and miscellaneous construction materials, it really was like we’d landed on another planet. It was the perfect setting for our Planet of the Apes games.
The first thing we did each day was draw straws to see who’d get to be the apes and who’d be the humans. We had very strict rules on our Planet of the Apes. Only the apes were allowed to talk. The humans were allowed to grunt, point, and use sign language. Sometimes the humans would huddle together in a corner of the site and whisper, but if the apes caught them doing that, they got mad and hit the humans really hard. The apes got to be up on top of the concrete culverts, and the humans’ goal was to get all the apes off the culverts so the humans could be on top. It was a Planet of the Apes King of the Hill.
The apes were allowed to use pieces of board as weapons, but only if the wood didn’t have any nails in it. Sometimes the apes would pretend the boards were guns and make shooting noises, but none of the humans ever fell down when they did that, so the shooting was just gratuitous sound effects. Given their naturally less evolved status on this planet, the humans were only allowed to use rocks as weapons. More like pebbles, actually. The apes had only agreed to pebble-sized rocks after one of the apes hit a human hard enough to break open the skin on his knee and he threatened to tell his parents what had really happened and which ape had done it. The humans had to be extremely careful about how hard they threw the rocks at the apes, however, and on which part of the apes’ bodies the rocks landed. The apes got really violent if the rocks hurt too much.
Neither apes nor humans were allowed to hit someone on the head or face: our parents would know we’d been playing Planet of the Apes at the construction site, and they’d all forbidden it. The apes could hit the human with their stick-guns on the back or butt. The humans could throw the rocks at the apes’ legs, arms, and backs.
The most important rule in our world was that nobody had to be a human two days in a row. It was only fair.
One day, one of the apes found a long section of rope and decided that each of the humans needed to have a choke-collar and leash, similar to the leather collars with leashes the humans wore in the film when the apes were transporting their captives from one place to another. The rope choke-collar and leash worked fine for a while, though the apes got yelled at a few times for pulling too hard or wrapping the rope too tightly.
Then Bobby Webster, who was human at the time and who fancied himself a young Charlton Heston, decided that humans had evolved sufficiently to develop speech and to have an intelligible language. In fact, according to Bobby, humans had become so evolved, they understood English, which was known to be the apes’ language.
“Take your dirty, stinking paws off of me, you damned dirty ape,” said Bobby as he ripped off his choke-collar and leash, shoved his ape-guard down, and raced up on the few apes already on the culverts.
The rest of us humans got so excited that we immediately learned to speak English and pretty soon had all the apes defeated. We shouted a thundering victory song as we stomp-danced on top of the culverts.
The apes were furious.
They insisted that humans weren’t allowed to talk on this planet. Ever.
Bobby Webster pointed out that Charlton-Heston had talked partway through the real movie, so we, too, should be able to talk. Sometimes. Of course, the rest of us humans agreed.
The apes didn’t.
That day, the fighting on the Planet of the Apes was real.
When we got home, cut and bruised, bleeding and crying, our mother was livid.
“You’ve been playing Planet of the Apes again, haven’t you?” she said as she knocked us each on the side the head. “How many times have I told you to stop playing that? Somebody’s going to get hurt.”
None of us was allowed to eat any supper that night — or for several nights after — and she refused to let us clean our cuts with anything but our own saliva, saying that’s all we’d have on our Ape-planet. Two days later, when my little sister Amy cried and begged not to be forced to go to our father’s house for her scheduled weekend visit, complaining that she didn’t like sleeping in his bed with him, our mother said Amy had to go: it was her punishment for playing Apes. After my little brother Jimmy Lee tried to hide from his own father — Amy’s and my new stepfather — in the basement one afternoon, Jimmy Lee came up to dinner with bruises on his face and neck, worse than anything he got on the Ape-planet. When my stepfather crept into our bedroom that night and hurt me more than usual, I wanted to say, “Take your stinking paws off me,” but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said it was all my fault, for playing Planet of the Apes when we weren’t supposed to.
Of course, none of that stopped us from playing Planet of the Apes.
After all, on that planet, sometimes we got to be the apes.
read an excerpt (chapters 1-6) from my memoir
and related chapters that are not in final, published version
© 2019 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. All rights reserved.
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Though this chapter was in the early drafts of my true crime memoir,
M is for Munchers: The Serial Killers Next Door, it is not in the final version of the book.