I was lying on my bunk half-asleep when my wife shook me and whispered, "There's a lion outside the tent."
I sat up slowly and stared at her, running the notion through my head. There's a lion outside the tent.
"That's an interesting idea," I said upon careful reflection.
"We're not talking theory here," she said. "We're talking teeth and claws."
She had seen him through a tent window. I didn't look because I avoid anything I am not familiar with. We didn't have lions in East Oakland.
If I closed my eyes, however, I could imagine the beast sniffing through the heavy thicket around our campsite. He had never smelled an American before and was wondering if we tasted anything like gazelle.
I could not answer that because, while I have smelled Americans from New York to San Francisco, I have never eaten one. I have also never tasted gazelle.
But I was certain that Simba was going to give entree Americana a try. I had visions of him bounding across the Masai Mara with me in his teeth, and an editor at the L.A. By God Times saying, "He was what? Eaten by a lion? Did he say anything about a Thursday column?"
It all began at cocktail time.
We were on safari in Kenya, which, for the benefit of those who attended public school, is in East Africa about two inches below Europe and just across the Big Water from Ronald Reagan's America.
It was the vacation of a lifetime. Africa spread out before us under a blazing red sunset in almost surrealistic beauty. Wildebeests thundered past in huge billows of amber dust. Brilliantly colored birds flashed rainbows to the twilight.
We were sitting around a campfire watching the sun go down. Actually, I guess, we were watching the Earth go up. I was sipping a strawberry martini. The reason I was sipping a strawberry martini is that the native bartender, whose name was Wilson, had purchased sweet vermouth instead of dry vermouth.
What the hell. I'm adaptable. Hold the cherry.
We were enjoying the moment with other members of the safari, two of whom were named Bud and Molly. The pleasantry of my manner, never so serene, even impressed my wife. Under normal circumstances, I would never drink with anyone named Bud and Molly.
African safaris abound with Buds and Mollys, a good number of them from the San Fernando Valley. Because I am obligated to confine my essays to Valley-related subjects, I employ every device possible to find a connection wherever I am and whatever I'm doing.
Desperation fosters strange techniques. In Kenya, I called: "Is anybody here from Chatsworth?"
The best that emerged in our particular group was a middle-aged lady with blue hair from Van Nuys and a playful old man from Laurel Canyon.
I find playful old men annoying. Old men ought to shuffle and drool and walk around with their flies unzipped. They should not bounce and giggle.
But the lady with blue hair fascinated me. She was pale-skinned and wore white. In certain lights, she appeared transparent. The Semi-Invisible Woman.
Midway through cocktails, Patrick Pape, who ran the camp, called me aside.
"Look," he said, flashing his light toward a clump of bushes. Yellow pinpricks glowed in the shadows.
"Fireflies?" I asked.
"Lions' eyes," he said.
"Wilson!" I called. "Bring me another sweet martini."
Patrick assured us, however, that there was nothing to worry about.
"No one I know has ever been eaten by a lion," he said cheerfully, then added, "although a friend was once bitten in two by a hippo."
The playful old man bounced and roared, animal-like. The lady with blue hair turned toward the campfire and vanished before my very eyes.
That night, the lions came. Fifteen of them. They prowled through camp, snorting and coughing.
"I didn't know they coughed like that," my wife whispered, fascinated.
Bright people have an interesting way of facing danger. They analyze it. I tend to scream and run. It's an ethnic trait. Raw emotion.
We hollered for Patrick.
"Stay in your tents!" he called back.
"I have to use the can," Molly shouted.
One of the lions roared loudly.
"Maybe not," she said.
Patrick chased the lions with his Land Rover half the night. They kept coming back. It was more African than I ever expected, but, then, Africa is the land of the unexpected.
"Don't worry," my wife said. "I'll protect you."
Thus comforted, I rolled over to try sleeping again when she suddenly yelled. I thought a lion had entered the tent.
"A spider!" she said, pointing.
Spiders are ugly as hell, but they are smaller than me and they are not carnivorous. I smashed it with a People magazine.
"I can take lions," she said, "but not spiders."
I went to sleep and dreamed about someone being bitten in two by a hippo. I believe it was Molly. She had moved to Chatsworth.
Next: T-Shirts, Rafiki?