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Arshad's Father and Tarzan, Lord of the Apes

On Twitter, Shaula Evans (@shaulaevans) asked:

The first example I thought of was from second grade.

It was 1976. I'd gone to spend a weekend day at my friend Arshad Ahmad's house in Kansas City, Kansas. I think it was his birthday party but I might be remembering wrong.

Arshad and I and three other boys were wandering around the neighborhood. We cut through an alley separating two rows of suburban houses and encountered three young teenaged boys from the neighborhood who proceeded to taunt and terrorize us. One of them wore a little plastic ring, probably a bit of "Jaws" tie-in merchandise, that had a realistically shaped shark's head on it, the size of a strawberry. Its mouth was open and it had tiny pointed teeth. He pushed the shark ring at my face and made biting noises. I tried to duck him but he was taller and kept jabbing me in the chest.

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Arshad tried to intervene and the boy pushed him down. I tried to slap the boy but missed his face because he was too tall, and he and the others pinned me down and began jabbing me in the back with the nose of the shark ring. It was incredibly painful. I don't think they realized how painful. Or maybe they did. They were laughing.

Arshad's father came in and pulled the boys off of me. I was crying my eyes out and he embraced me. I don't think I'd ever been hugged by a grown man who wasn't related to me before. I was shocked at first because it was not something I was used to. Arshad's father took us all back to the house and made us lemonade, then took us to the mall.

We went into a bookstore. I wandered back to the comics section and my eye fell on a book of Tarzan cartoons by the great comics illustrator Burne Hogarth.

I stood there reading it, puffy-eyed. The illustrations were beautiful. I'd never seen comic art that gorgeously rendered before. In black and white, with flowery narration that sometimes dipped into Tarzan's thoughts.

I looked over and saw Arshad's father watching me read the book. He asked, "Do you want that book?" I said, "Yeah, but I don't have any money." He said, "Let me get it for you."

I brought it home with me and began reading the whole thing cover to cover. I stayed up most of the night reading it and continued night after night till I finished it, then began reading it again.

I asked my grandfather to take me back to that bookstore. There were more Burne Hogarth books there, including two books about how to draw comics, one of which was "Dynamic Anatomy," which inspired several generations of artists. I began trying to teach myself how to draw human faces and bodies, animals and trees "the Hogarth way."

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My drawing chops are for naught at the moment because I eventually concentrated on writing, but that one purchase by Arshad's father sparked an interest in visual art that not only led me to Arts Magnet High School in Dallas -- where I studied painting, printmaking, sculpture and life drawing, and qualified for scholarships to colleges of art and design -- but also eventually inspired my own approach to film and TV criticism, which perhaps more formally oriented than most.

I still have the book. It's dog-eared and ragged and yellow. The cracked spine has been taped many times.

Every time I look at that book I think of Arshad's father. I always think of him that way: not as Mr. Ahmad, but as Arshad's father, who for one day was my father, too.


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