This is the first part of a two-part story. Check back tomorrow to read the conclusion. Copyright is held by the author.
SIXTY YEARS ago I drove for two days from Manhattan to the outskirts of a dingy little steel town on the Ohio River to meet Jake Driscol.
A man sat alone, half hidden in the shade of his porch. I called to him. He waited a while then got up and shuffled down to the road. He had a wiry, bent old body dressed in clean work clothes and scuffed work boots. His hair was thin and his face was sun-splotched with a noticeable scar across his left cheek.
“Mr. Driscol, my name’s Art Doyle. I’m a reporter, and I’d like to interview you about the pet gorilla you had a long time ago.”
“I don’t care, boy. You best go away.” His voice was a quavering, old man’s country drawl.
“I tried phoning, but you hung up, so I came in person. I read that your gorilla may have climbed the Empire State Building. That’s almost too, too—”
“Too difficult to believe. I’m a reporter. I’ve got to follow my leads. Just say the word. If it didn’t happen, I’ll go.”
The old man pinched the bridge of his nose for a minute, his brow furrowed. Then, his sternness faded.
“Call me Jake, son. I got a tale to tell, an’ it’s time it were told.” He led me to his porch and asked how I found out about him.
“Two years ago I did a story about the Empire State Building. I wanted some personal interest material so I searched the Times archives from around when they built it. There was a small article, just a few lines, about a gorilla named Cong who helped fix a construction problem. It was from a few years before the King Kong movie, but I made the connection. I kept looking, but I couldn’t find anything else, so I left it out. Figured it was probably a hoax.”
“Weren’t no hoax.”
I sank into the cushions of a white wicker chair. “Two months ago, I was working on a story about Ohio River floods. I drove around the Ohio Valley looking for personal interest material like I always do. I stopped in Steubenville and checked out the Herald archives from around the great 1913 flood. Strange thing, the word ‘Cong’ popped right out from one of the articles, and so here I am.”
“Reporter from the Herald came here after the flood were over,” Jake said. “Did the story ’bout Cong an’ us. Took a picture too. I still got the clipping.”
“So you had a pet gorilla, and he climbed the Empire State Building?”
“Went up it all right. Jes’ didn’ climb it.”
“Okay. Let me get my bearings. First, what he was like?”
Jake threw his hands up and down and across. “Full grown, was way o’er eight foot. Maybe a thousand pounds. Brown hair an’ big black eyes, kind’a sorrowful lookin’. Mostly walked on all fours like a regular gorilla, but he were good using his legs, straight up like us.”
“The article in the Herald said you were an experienced guide in the Belgian Congo, and that’s where you found him.”
“Yeah. Lived here, in this house, till I were 15. Then me Pa kicked me out ’cause I were gettin’ too wild. Went ta Boston. Got on as apprentice carpenter on a English ship, the Torrens. Sailed all over, but I got in trouble in Matadi in the Belgian Congo. Shacked up with this Belgian woman, an’ I were drunk for a week. The Torrens left without me, an’ the woman took off with all me money.
“No work. Had ta beg for food. An’ couldn’ get another ship. I was gettin’ real nervous, then heard some Yanks needed a guide an’ I told ’em I could do it. After that, learned me some French, an’ got more guidin’. Then these Belgians hired me. Said they were scientists. Wanted ta take pictures of some giant gorillas in the Eastern Highlands. I got a real good crew together an’ took ’em. If we didn’ die I was gonna get enough dough to get me home.
“Didn’ like that bush much. Were wet an’ murky and kinda’ spooky, a tough month til we got to the gorillas. Hard ta believe. Giant gorillas sittin’ back, talkin’ back an’ forth, eatin’ all kinds of plants, kids playing. Didn’ even care ’bout us being there.
“Head Belgian guy waves us back a mile, an’ we set up camp. Said they were really ‘chasseurs trophy’. Friggin’ trophy hunters. They were friggin’ liars an’ I were pissed.”
“Why did it matter? I’m guessing you hunted big game before,” I said.
“Never liked it. Anyway, I says ‘They is like people. Can’t let you do it. We’re goin’ back tamorrow. If you don’ wan’a die, ya haf’ta come with us.’ They were eight of em with guns. Me an’ the crew only had me gun. So, they tied us up an’ put a guard on us. They all took off jes’ after sunrise. We got outa our ropes an’ went after ’em. Wasn’t long till we heard the shootin’.
“When we got there, some gorillas were still alive, screamin’ an’ rollin’ in the bloody muck. I seen this baby gorilla hangin’ on ta its dead ma, an’ grabbed it. The friggin’ Belgians were sawin’ up the dead ones, an’ didn’ see it till I got ’em in me arms. This guy were holdin’ out his hands, like for me to give ’em over. Had this big knife, an’ went for the baby. I turned an’ he sliced me.” Jake rubbed a finger down his facial scar.
“That were it. Blood were flowin’, the baby were howlin’, I were screamin’. I said ‘Take this baby, an’ youse all gonna die.’”
As he told it, the scene played out in my mind. Blood, savage death and a doleful-eyed baby gorilla. Every once and a while, I replay that horrid sequence in a nightmare of gorillas being hacked to pieces, grasping at blood-red mud and a baby gorilla reaching out. He’s too far for me to save him.
“I ain’t no pansy city slicker, but it were me heart actin’. That guy, he turned and walked away.”
“How did you manage to get the baby home?”
“Me an’ the crew carried ’em. Kept him away from the Belgians. Coaxed ’em to drink milk, mixed from powder. Took a month an’ got back to Matadi. Tried to unload the baby, but I could see what were gonna happen. So I kept ’em an’ gave him a name. Cong. We made the Belgian bastards pay up an’ had enough dough to get back home.
“The ocean were rough, an’ Cong cried the whole way. A couple o’ women helped me out. Made diapers for ’em. Told me to put ’em in a zoo. I were gonna check it out, but I figured he needed some good carin’ first.”
“So, you came to Steubenville.”
“Me Ma were here, but she weren’t well. Me Pa died two years before. Didn’ even know. She let me and Cong stay in the shed. We had two bunks and a stove.”
“What about the zoo?”
“I got kinda attached to ’em. An’ then there were Annie. She were so beautiful. She knew Ma from the church, and most days she came with her horse and buggy to look in on her. She loved animals, an’ helped me with Cong. I were workin’ at the foundry an’ with lookin’ after me Ma an’ the baby, I couldn’a done it without her. We got ta liken each other. Ma died after a bit, an’ then Cong an’ me moved inta the house. Then me an’ Annie got hitched. Were together for 47 years.”
“That’s wonderful. You and Annie must have had some challenges raising Cong. Like feeding him.”
“He were a good eater, but it were no problem. We had two cows an’ a big garden, a orchard, a pasture an’ 20 acres of bush. Good thing he liked apples. Brushed his teeth regular.”
“Did he understand when you talked, like a dog obeys commands?”
“Annie taught ’em some sign language, an’ he could talk a bit too. An’ write some. I got some of Cong’s writin’ an’ pictures. Back in a sec.”
Jake returned with a thick scrap book, and pulled out four folded sheets of yellowed newsprint. On the first sheet scrawled like a grade-one kid’s enlarged crayon scribble, were the words, “CONG” and “MAMA PAPA.”
The last sheet was a crude, crayon picture full of what I guessed to be trees and sky, and a brown gorilla, really a brown splotch with four appendages, and a yellow splotch that could have been a bunch of bananas.
“Jake, do you think Cong remembered anything about the Congo?”
“That’s what them pictures were about I guess. He looked kinda sad when he were doin’ ’em. Mind you, he looked sad most times.”
Jake wouldn’t let me borrow even one. I’d have to return with a camera. I asked Jake if Cong was difficult to manage.
“He were always trying to please. Never showed no inclinations ’bout fightin’. Maybe that’s why they went extinct. Now, us humans, we never gonna go extinct cause we is the nastiest sons of bitches on the whole friggin’ planet.”
“You got it right, Jake. I was a reporter in the War. Saw it all.” I glanced through the scrap book, and saw photos of Cong in pants with suspenders, on a tire swing, laying on a crushed bed, playing in the snow, always bare foot.
“You know, even with the scrap book, it’s still hard to believe. A gorilla the size of a grizzly bear and as gentle as a bunny. What happened when he got older? Did he get randy?”
“We had ’em fixed. The vet told us what were goin’ ta happen when he got ta 10 or 12. So we took ’em in. He were two and a half, an’ he weren’t scared. Put ’em under, an’ took his nuts.”
“Weren’t like there were any women gorillas aroun’. An’ God help us if he tried somethin’ on a human woman.”
“How was Cong after that? His family was massacred, he was ripped away from his natural home and he was fixed. And he had no-one his own age to play with. You’d think there would’ve been some psychological scars.”
“I guess.” Jake looked down. I saw he didn’t want to talk about this part of Cong’s life any more.
“When he got ta 12, he was gettin’ too big for the house. We had to find ’em somewhere to live. Zoos were out; like being in jail. Circuses were different. In’erestin’, gettin’ round to different parts of the country. Cong said he kind’a liked that.
“We heard ’bout the Julius Smegi Circus. Seems they had a good reputation with other circus folks, an’ the SPCA were okay with ’em. So when the circus came ta Pittsburgh, we went an’ talked to Mr. Smegi. He offered fifty bucks a week, an’ a nice cage with his own bathroom jes’ behind. An’ lots o’ bananas an’ regular stuff like carrots, lettuce an’ such. So, we took it.”
“How did that work out?”
“Real good. Cong were with them for 16 years before he died.”
“I’m sorry. An accident?”
“Maybe. The circus went to New York every December. It were 1930, an’ the Empire State Building were almost finished. But they hit some kind of snag at the 97th floor. Somethin’ ’bout some beams put in wrong, an’ had to be taken out. They tried every which way, an’ figured it’d take a lot’a months to fix. An’ that were gonna cost ’em big time.
“Mr. Al Smith were president of the company that were building it. So happens he took his grand kids to the circus, an’ he gets this idea maybe Cong can help. He talked to Mr. Smegi right after the show, an’ asked if Cong could help get the bad beams out. Cong said he’d do it. They settled on 20 grand.”
“Why did Cong even care about the money?” I said. “He was doing fine wasn’t he?”
“Thought ’bout it a thousan’ times. Maybe cause he were always trying to please.”
“So what happened with the beams?”
“It were cold an’ rainy, an’ a stiff breeze. It were gonna get worse, turn ta snow. They put ’em on an elevator on the outside an’ hauled ’em up to the top with a pulley, real slow like. He worked on it for three days. Got the beams out all right, but he caught a cold. Cold turned inta pneumonia.
“They called us an’ we went to his cage. Cong were coughin’ real bad, an’ had a fever. The last night, we tried talkin’ with ’em, but he couldn’t talk back. Three in the mornin’, the coughin’ stopped. Second o’ January, 1931. He were only 32.”
“It must have been difficult for you and Annie.”
“The circus folks were bawlin’. Annie were bawlin’. But I weren’t. I were too pissed. I kind’a got over it after a couple of months, but not really. The way I figure it, it weren’t right he went like that, jes’ so people could make money. The whole circus were at his wake. Mr. Smegi buried ’em on some farm. Told us where, but we could never find it.”
“So what happened next?”
“Coupl’a things. There were the money from the Empire State job. An’ Mr. Smith tossed in another ten grand on top of that. He gave some dough to Mr. Smegi too. An’ we found o’er 30 grand in this big wood an’ iron box Cong used for sittin’ on. An’ there were kind’a like a will. Big sheet of paper and crayon printin’. Gave all his money to me an’ Annie. Said we should use some of it ta protect animals. So, we set up the Endangered Animal Conservation Society in the Congo in ’38.”
“When did the movie came into play?”
“A couple of months after the funeral, this young guy comes here. Talked ta us for a couple a hours. Gave us some money to use Cong’s name.”
“That would’ve been Merian Caldwell Cooper.”
“Friend of Mr. Smith. He called his movie King Kong. Good picture, but it weren’t much about our Cong. Can’t really complain. He named the hero after me, an’ the good lookin’ girl after Annie.”
“You should’ve been interviewed a thousand times, been on all the radio shows,” I said.
“When we got the extra 10 grand, Mr. Smith said he didn’ want the publicity from Cong’s death to besmirch the reputation of the Empire State Building. That’s what he said. Besmirch. We had to sign somethin’.”
“A non-disclosure agreement,” I said.
“That’s it. Mr. Smith said it were okay to talk to Mr. Cooper. Y’er the first reporter, ever, I talked to. Mr. Smith’s long gone. So what’re ya gonna do with it?”
“Write, that’s what I do.”
The conclusion of this story will be posted tomorrow.