The legend of Tarzan (Brown, that is)

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“Tarzan” Brown, a Narragansett Indian, won the Boston Marathon twice. Courtesy of Boston Athletic Association.

It was a hot, sticky late-August day in 1975 and the Buckler-Johnston Funeral Home, in Westerly, R.I., was overflowing with Narragansett Indians – some in regalia – mingling with local members of the community. The parlor inside, the parking lot out back and the sidewalk out front were crammed. There must have been 1,000 people at the funeral of my mother’s uncle, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown.

I knew Uncle Tarzan – or thought I did. I couldn’t recall seeing him sober, or without a wide smile. He was 61, with gray hair and furrowed brow, but he was a hero to the children of the tribe. Uncle Tarzan always had time for the kids. He told jokes and tall tales; he paid attention to us.

One of the last times I saw him was the previous winter when we kids were playing outside Aunt Myra Perry’s house in Charlestown, R.I., and Tarzan came walking down the dirt driveway. Our games broke off as we flocked around Uncle Tarzan.

“I was walking through the woods when I got hungry,” Tarzan told us. “I saw a deer, but all I had was a knife, so I had to chase him. I ran so fast, I went past him and had to wait for him to catch up!”

I always laughed at that story, never thinking there might be some truth in it.

I thought of that story on that August day in 1975 as I looked around. Even the governor had come! It seemed like a lot of people paying their respects to a storytelling old man who had been the hero of many a fine bottle.

As I listened to the stories, I was amazed to realize I had not known Uncle Tarzan at all.

“He could be stubborn,” my grandmother Myra D. Brown once told me of her younger brother. “One time an old man in the neighborhood gave him a hard time, so Ellison waited behind a wall for him and shot the hat off of his head with a bow and arrow.”

It seemed that even as a young child, Tarzan was the stuff of legend.

He was born Ellison Myers Brown on Sept. 12, 1913, the fifth of eight children. His Narragansett name was Deerfoot, and he lived up to it at an early age. At that time there was another noted Narragansett runner, Horatio “Bunk” Stanton, well-regarded in local racing circles.

One day in 1926 Stanton was running from Westerly to a ballfield in Shannock, some 20 miles distant. Arriving in Shannock, Stanton told his manager – Thomas “Tippy” Salimeno – about “some young kid” that had followed him all the way.

About 10 minutes later a 12-year-old boy jogged onto the ballfield. He told Salimeno his name was Ellison Brown. Salimeno told Brown to come back when he was 16 and he’d manage his career.

Tarzan dropped out of school to learn stone masonry beside his father, Otis Brown. Tarzan, like many Narragansett men, became an exceptional mason and many of his works still stand today.

In 1931, the teenage Tarzan returned. Salimeno took him to the Arctic, an area around Warwick, R.I., where Tarzan handily topped the field in his first race, a 10-mile event.

Tarzan entered the arena at a time when foot racing was one of the more popular sports in America. In those days, three-time Boston Marathon victor Les Pawson said New England was “the long-distance runner’s capital of the world.”

Tarzan won often – though winning wasn’t always his goal.

Former Boston Globe sports editor Jerry Nason recalled that Tarzan would look over the prizes before a race and decide what place he wanted to finish in, based on what he would get. He wanted something he could sell to get money to support his family, Nason said.

If he could win a nice wristwatch or a radio, Tarzan would “run like crazy,” Nason recalled. And, if he could win two prizes, he “really let out!”

Pawson remembered one race when Tarzan was “fit to be tied” because he won and received a trophy, while runner-up Pawson got a watch!

My aunt, Faith Burrell, said Tarzan – her uncle – got his nickname from his Johnny Weismuller imitation and from leaping from tree to tree faster than most people could run. “They used to say he had million-dollar legs and a 10-cent head,” Burrell said.

In 1933 Tarzan was ready to test his skills against the best long-distance runners in the world, entering his first Boston Marathon.

Begun in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the oldest continuous marathon in the world, and was often used as an elimination race to select the U.S. Olympian marathoners.

Les Pawson set a course record in winning the 1933 Boston Marathon, and Tarzan finished a respectable 32nd. He finished 13th in the 1935 Boston Marathon – running barefoot! There were many tales of Tarzan winning races while barefoot. It wasn’t a gimmick; he often couldn’t afford shoes.

My mother, Rosalind (Brown) Hopkins, Tarzan’s niece, told me of arriving in Boston to cheer him on, only to discover he had no shoes. She bought him a pair before the race started, she said.

In 1936, Tarzan took his place among the pantheon of Boston Marathon legends.

The race started out routinely and the official press car, as usual, followed a group of runners thought to be leading the pack.

At the five-mile checkpoint an official timer asked the media representatives what they were doing. When they said they were following the leaders, he was shocked.

“That Indian from Rhode Island went through here five minutes ago!”

In fact Tarzan Brown had shattered the course record for the first five miles.

He ran “like a bat out of hell,” Nason said.

The press car sped up and caught the Indian and for 21 miles he burned up the course record. But then he slowed. Tarzan’s unorthodox racing style was to run as fast as he could for as long as he could. The wild style would cause the local press to dub him “Chief Crazy Horse.”

Tarzan did not pace himself, saying later in life that his career ended before he ever knew how to run a race or even train properly.

He had built up a huge lead in 1936 and then slowed, jogging along head-down. He might have lost except for an ill-advised display of sportsmanship that turned the race into legend – and gave a name to the most treacherous hill along the course.

With his own furious run, Boston legend Johnny A. Kelley – defending Boston Marathon champ – caught Tarzan at the foot of the hill that had defeated many a runner. Nason said that as he passed Tarzan, Kelley patted him on the butt “as if to say ‘nice run, pal’.”

Tarzan’s head came up; he had no idea anyone else was near. He lit out “as if someone had stuck a pin in his ass,” according to Nason. The hill was christened Heartbreak Hill.

The original Boston Marathon, called the “short course,” was 24 ½ miles, but the distance had been increased to its current 26 miles, 385 yards in 1926. Tarzan became the youngest to win it at the longer distance.

With his surprising victory in Boston, Tarzan Brown earned a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. He was going to Berlin, where Adolf Hitler hoped to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. But Jesse Owens smashed the Fuhrer’s dreams in record fashion – and Tarzan almost joined him.

Twenty-four years earlier another Indian, Jim Thorpe, won Olympic gold, only to have it taken away. Tarzan’s gold was taken away before he could earn it. What happened in Berlin? That was one of the biggest mysteries in the legend of Tarzan Brown.

One story says that on the ship to Berlin he was imitating the awkward style of the British long-distance walkers and pulled a muscle; another claimed he took a hot bath before the race, thinking it would help him relax, and it tired him. Nason said Tarzan told him he stopped due to a tremendous pain in his gut – and he did suffer a hernia later that year.

My father, John A. Hopkins, Sr., told me that Tarzan told him that he had gotten into a fight with “some of Hitler’s brown-shirts” and was thrown in jail, where he was warned he had better not win the marathon.

Tarzan was indeed arrested and bailed out in time to participate in the marathon, according to Nason.

Most of the reports about injuries lose luster when the race itself is considered.

Tarzan – in his typical style – burst out in front, leading for 13 miles. At 18 miles he had slowed, but was still a close second. Then he sat on the grass to catch his breath and a spectator approached to see if he was all right; at that point an official immediately disqualified him for receiving aid.

“I know in my heart I could have won that race,” Tarzan said later. But since he was disqualified, he didn’t bother to finish.

Tarzan ran the Olympic marathon as he did other races. He typically charged out to huge leads and then took a rest before continuing. Though Salimeno tried to train his protégée, the truth was that no one ever told Tarzan Brown what to do. Forget Sinatra, it was Tarzan who did it his way.

His usual regimen consisted of drinking beer and chopping wood. Nason once said Tarzan trained in barrooms and had “some terrific brawls.”

And things did not get more serious on race day. Tarzan would arrive and eat a half-dozen hot dogs, washed down by his favorite orange soda, said his nephew Keith Brown.

“He’d balance the hot dogs on his arm and wolf them down one after another – afraid somebody was going to take them away from him,” he laughed.

When Tarzan returned to Rhode Island after the 1936 Olympics, the champion, used to adulation, found himself the object of scorn. Critics were disappointed that Tarzan had quit the biggest race of his life.

He was determined to show the world “that Tarzan Brown ain’t no quitter!” He did it in a fashion unequaled in world history, by winning two full-length marathons on consecutive days in 1936.

He won the New York Championship at Portchester, then hitchhiked through the night to Manchester, N.H., arriving just before race time. There he drank orange soda for breakfast and went out and won the race!

Five days later he collapsed with a double hernia.

Everyone was praising Tarzan now, from seven-time Boston Marathon winner Clarence DeMar to Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi, one of the greatest runners ever.

Nurmi, who also trained distance runners, said the marathon was not Tarzan’s best event. He said Tarzan would have been unbeatable if he ran 10-milers.

In fact, in shorter races, Tarzan often set course marks, and once – in an unsanctioned race – broke the world record.

Now that he had shut his critics up, Tarzan decided to retire. But shortly before the 1937 Boston race he changed his mind. He showed up without any preparation and finished 37th.

But in 1938, he didn’t even finish the race.

Nason remembered 1938 as a steaming hot day. About halfway through the race the four leaders were close together.

“They were looking good, Tarzan looked the best,” Nason said. Suddenly, unpredictable as ever, Tarzan veered from the course and leaped off a bridge into the lake below.

Tarzan went back to his winning ways, finishing first more often than not. Suddenly, in 1939, he began to take running seriously. In Cranston, R.I., in a 10-mile race, Tarzan’s time of 50:15 equaled the record set by Nurmi.

It was only the beginning.

Tarzan broke the record for the Syracuse, N.Y., Marathon and won both the 15- and 20-kilometer National Championships. He competed in 25 races in 1939, having the best time in 20 of them.

It was a chilly April day in Boston, and nothing indicated it would be a memorable race. But Tarzan Brown had come to Boston again – and this time he had actually trained. His regimen included running 26 miles from Pawtucket, R.I., to Attleboro, Mass., and 17 miles several times. He ran twice a week.

It drizzled that day, but the only thunder was in the stride of Tarzan Brown. He paced himself, running evenly, smoothly, and there was no drama on Heartbreak Hill. “I just set a pace today today that would carry me along faster than I figured anyone else could run that distance,” Tarzan said.

With a time of 2:28:51, Tarzan won his second Boston Marathon, becoming the first to complete the longer course in under 2 1/2 hours. And he earned a spot on the 1940 Olympics, to be held in Amsterdam.

This is probably the year the Providence Journal writers had in mind when they wrote the headline for his eulogy: “Forty years ago he was, perhaps, the greatest long distance runner in the world.”

Tarzan hoped to redeem himself in the Olympics, but they were cancelled because of World War II. By then, his dash through life was slowly losing its lead to Father Time.

But his legend was established. He lost a national-championship race when he stopped to remove an offending shoe. He went to great lengths to win bets – biting a snake in half and eating glass, for example.

Hopkins, Sr., was astonished one winter morning when they had bet on who would get their morning fire started first.

There were no tracks near the woods, so, as he approached Tarzan’s home, Hopkins was sure he had won. But as he drew nearer he saw smoke curling from Tarzan’s chimney. “Rather than going out in the cold, Tarzan had chopped up the inside of his house for firewood,” Hopkins explained.

One story said Tarzan’s famous truck broke down, so he put it on the railroad tracks and dragged it home. The truck had no head or tail lights, no fenders, a cracked windshield, and no wipers, and the passenger door was held on by clothesline.

Tarzan had worked for the Westerly, R.I., Highway Department and, with Salimeno’s help, had been able to find a house in Westerly. But things weren’t always going his way.

“He had some hard old times,” his sister, Myra Brown, said. Then she chuckled, “But he loved my Johnnycakes and chowder.”

Finally, Tarzan hit on a difficult plan. If he could win once more in Boston – in record time – he might get financing to buy a truck so he could “make a good living.”

He prepared for the 1945 Boston Marathon, telling Nason he had trained 2 1/2 months for this final race. He had lost 15 pounds, now weighing 153 at 5-foot-7.

“I’ll tell you this much – if I’m up there at 20 miles, nobody’s gonna beat me!” he told Nason. But time had taken its toll; though the heart and will were there, the lightning once in his legs now refused to ignite.

With his racing over, life became a struggle. He lost his house in Westerly and moved to King’s Factory Road, in Charlestown, where he built a shack by nailing boards up to four trees he found in a square. His family bathed in a brook. There was no electricity. He took odd jobs – cutting wood, delivering coal, doing stone masonry and handyman chores.

When he was running, people couldn’t do enough for him, he complained. But after he stopped he couldn’t even get a haircut in Westerly. People would pay a “tree expert” $75 to remove a tree from their yard, but Tarzan was lucky if they’d pay him $20.

“I won 1,000 trophies, but sooner or later they all turn black,” Tarzan said.

His last race was in 1954. A young sailor doubted the old man’s story about once being a great runner and bet $5 he could beat Tarzan. After years of winning trophies and laurels, Tarzan took home $5 in his final race, which he ran in old work boots.

In 1975, Tarzan was at The Wreck bar in Misquamicut, R.I., with some other Narragansett tribal members. Some of them got into an argument with a 26-year-old Connecticut man. In the parking lot the man jumped in his van and sped off – running over Tarzan Brown.

The race was over.

But while mortal man must die, legends live forever. In 1973, Tarzan was elected to the National Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, in Lawrence, Kan.

So, I guess I can truthfully say that greatness runs in my family.

The author is the great-nephew of Ellison “Tarzan” Brown.

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From July 2014.