Posted by: trevormeers | December 3, 2010

Fiberglass Menagerie

One of the most memorable campfire legends from my childhood told of a man with a peculiar tree to care for. If the tree died, he died. I found that sobering enough, considering how many of my dad’s maples I’d seen wither into brown sticks. But the real catch was this tree’s demanding nature. It could survive only in the soil of the man’s hometown, and he had to personally water it every morning and every night. Miss any of these details, and they were both goners. I spent a lot of time thinking about this guy’s predicament, condemned to a life in which he could never travel more than 12 hours from home. Troubling stuff to a kid who lived for road trips. Sometimes, I’d figure out ways the tree guy could make the most of his daily window, maybe by having a jet on standby, so he could water the tree, then roar as far away as possible before turning around just in time to get back.

All that mental energy turned out to be a fairly good investment since my family now finds itself in a bit of the same pickle. There isn’t much of a waiting list for people eager to care for kids with a neck brace and a notebook full of daily of instructions. So if Teri and I want to get away for anything more than a day trip together, we can plan on two girls riding shotgun and Nancy Drew audio books on the car stereo.

All of which explains how we came to spend the most notable part of our 15th anniversary at the Omaha Children’s Museum. This, it turns out, is quite a bit more enchanting than you’d think. And for that, we can thank Zooland.

Almost any kid who grew up in a midsize city in the ‘70s near the central Missouri River Valley knows Zooland. It was the bright spot of any shopping trip that included one of the old Richman Gordman department stores. While your mom went looking for your next pair of burgundy Toughskin jeans or Spider-Man underoos, you headed straight for Zooland in the back of the store. It got started when Dan Gordman noticed a herd of fiberglass animals in a yard while he was motoring through New York on holiday. He stopped, met the artist and decided the critters were perfect for his stores back in the Heartland. He ordered an ark full and, in 1964, started installing Zoolands in his stores in Omaha, Lincoln, Des Moines, Topeka and elsewhere, ensuring his status as patron retailing saint of bored kids around the Midwest.

The Zooland lineup varied a bit by location, but the core cast was set. Blue elephant (slide down the trunk). Yellow kangaroo (slide down the tail). Green hippo (crawl through the mouth and side). Orange camel (crawl through the belly). The elephant was king, towering about seven feet high. You entered through a small opening between his front legs, squirmed up a tunnel through his belly, squeezed by the kid in corduroys with a runny nose and emerged at the top of the slide between the elephant’s eyes. I still remember the reassuring grit of the no-skid strips on the tunnel floor and the thudding sound of other kids banging around on the fiberglass outside.

All this was buried in my memory until I discovered that the Omaha Children’s Museum had laid hands on a set of Zooland animals and had them restored. Instantly, I knew what the four of us were doing on our romantic getaway to Omaha.

What I didn’t immediately recognize was how many points these animals would earn me with my wife. “Are you kidding?!” she said when I spun the computer around and showed her what we were going to see. This spun quickly into Allison asking what the fuss was all about and hearing our tales of Zooland.

When we reached the museum and walked up to the blue elephant, I could practically feel the Toughskins’ reinforced knees scraping my skin raw again. Allison and Katie jumped into action, diving through the hole in the hippo’s belly and clomping up into the elephant. My junior-high growth spurt long ago robbed me of any chance to squeeze inside the elephant again, and Teri decided not to attempt it either. “I think the elf will yell at me,” she said, eyeing the surly attendant in a velvet suit.

But she didn’t need a trip down the trunk slide to feel the old buzz. We just leaned on the animals’ shiny, rehabbed hides and watched our kids, living in a world of countless diversions invented since our disco-era youth, enjoying the 47-year-old playset just like we did. It was in all these connections that the real joy came for Teri. Zooland, she pointed out, was one of the few childhood memories we both share. We grew up in the same town, but in different worlds. While her family’s memories centered on the city’s restaurants, shops and civic activities, I built forts in the creek bottom and listened to my dad brag about how many days we could go without leaving the farmstead. But even we had shopping to do, so Zooland was where Teri and I crossed paths, maybe even on the same day in the early ’80s for all we knew. Maybe on the animals we were leaning on now.

The original plan for our 15th anniversary, back before we knew how our lives would go, was to get back to Hawaii for a second honeymoon. But instead of snorkeling in Kauai’s crystal waters, we spent the anniversary listening to kids thump their way through the innards of an orange camel in Omaha. And the only worry I had during the whole day was whether our kids would let us tag along with them someday when they plan a romantic Zooland getaway of their own.

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Responses

  1. Thanks, Trevor – that was sweet – Happy Anniversary!

  2. I really love reading your stories! Have you ever thought of putting these together in a book? Do this for your girls, anyway.


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