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'The Tarzan Boys'

In spring 1937, two Rogue Valley boys from the Dark Hollow side of Phoenix said "phooey" to their schoolwork and took to the hills, quickly becoming as famous as Wild West outlaws.

But Robert Harris, 14, and his younger brother, David, 10, weren't bad boys. They just preferred the freedom of the great outdoors.

"There were many, many things of interest to us out there," Robert Harris, now 86, recently recalled from his Oregon City home. "Things to do and things to explore."

He said surviving outdoors was easy for the boys because they loved to read and the Medford librarians knew it.

"They allowed you to check out four books," said Harris, "but for us, they allowed eight books each. They even let us check out adult books.

"Naturally, we read every durn thing there was about frontier life, mountain men and all the rest of it," he said. "So there was no great problem there."

The problem was they didn't like school.

"We started playing hooky about one day a week and running around the country, exploring," he said. "Pretty soon we decided not to go at all."

After they were absent for two weeks, their teacher approached their mother and asked why the boys hadn't been in school.

"My mother was surprised and furious, of course," said Harris. "She promised the teacher to personally escort us back."

But, early the next morning, while she was out milking the cows, Harris grabbed his .22 rifle.

"David and I took what we considered necessities and, as the saying goes, we hit to the hills," he said. "We planned to stay until it snowed the next winter."

They built a camp and pitched a tent, hidden from view in a large patch of tightly packed manzanita.

"We moved around a lot, but we camped in the same location," he said. "We explored the country and in good weather we didn't even need a tent. We could lie down and go to sleep wherever we wanted. Boy, we had a ball!"

Early on, Harris intercepted a classmate, Bernard Sauer, who was on his way to school.

"I asked him to drop off some vinegar so we could eat some of the vegetation," Harris said. "He started leaving news clippings from the Tribune and we got a big kick out of what the reporters were saying about us — most of it wrong."

The hide-and-seek adventures of Robert and David, dubbed the "Tarzan Boys" by the Mail Tribune, turned an affectionate nationwide media spotlight on these self-reliant truants.

"I don't know why they called us 'Tarzan Boys'," said Harris. "Your reporter did that. I thought it was ridiculous, but that's what he did. We were more like Tom Sawyer than Tarzan."

It may have been because newspapers that April were full of Tarzan news. Olympic Decathlon winner Glenn Morris was signing to play Tarzan for 20th Century Fox, while Johnny Weissmuller, the first Tarzan to talk in a movie, and his wife, Lupe Velez, had once again announced plans to divorce.

Stories said the boys were living entirely off the land, but Harris said that wasn't true.

"There was an old bachelor named Wicklein living out there," he said. "He worked for Fluhrer's Bakery in Medford and he hauled used bread and stuff home to feed to his chickens."

The boys broke into Wicklein's unlocked storage shed and took some of the bread to eat and used some as bait for their traps. They gathered Wicklein's eggs and took some of his chickens. The eggs they boiled in tin cans and the chickens they roasted.

"I shot a small deer and we trapped some pheasant and quail," said Harris. "It wasn't exactly like gourmet food when we were through with it. It usually was half burned and half raw — it was just awful."

Captured in the middle of the night on their 13th day of freedom, the boys were taken to jail at the Medford courthouse.

"We were like mascots or pets for two weeks," he said. "Our cell wasn't even locked and we could go anywhere we wanted in the office."

They read books on the courthouse roof and discovered the "Li'l Abner" comic strip.

"We were addicted," he said. "It was the first time we'd ever seen it."

It also was the first time the boys had tasted Coca-Cola, said David Harris' widow, Katherine Harris. "It fizzled up David's nose and he thought he was dying. That's about all he ever said about running away from home."

She said Robert started telling the boys' story last September at David's funeral and that was the first time the family had ever heard so much of the 71-year-old adventure.

After talking to a "lady psychologist" who thought the boys were of "exceptional mental keenness," an innocent looking Harris promised he and David would return to school. They did — for two weeks before hitting the hills again.

"We took off for another two days, but finally decided to come back on our own," he said.

"If today's kids did that, who knows what would happen?" said Katherine Harris.

David and Robert quickly caught up on their missed school assignments and caused no more trouble.

"David was promoted to the fifth grade and I graduated on schedule," said a chuckling Robert Harris. "They probably just wanted to get rid of me."

Harris said he's been plunking on his word processor and thinks he'll be able to finish a book of his stories that he promised to write for the family.

"Life was different then. It really was," he said. "That was in the Great Depression.

"We were poor, but we had dairy goats and some cows, a tremendous garden and chickens to put out all the eggs we needed. Only money was short. But, boy we sure had a lot of fun."

Thanks to Jan Wright (talenthistory.org) and Ben Truwe (medfordhistory.com) for helping to facilitate this story.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

Robert Harris sits in front of his Oregon City home Thursday. After his brother, David, died in 2008, Robert began telling his family stories about the Harris boys’ adventures on the lam from school in Phoenix during the Great Depression. - Craig Mitchelldyer