Islands hold secrets. Indonesia is a nation of countless islands. Perhaps 17,000, perhaps more, perhaps less, for attempts to tally them rarely agree. The major islands—Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Bali, Sulawesi, Lombok, Flores—are home to Indonesians. Few of the others can support significant permanent human populations. But all are home to their own secrets. On Kotok, perhaps the smallest of the inhabited islands, I stumbled on the secret of Carl Denham.
Decades before my birth, Denham had been lionized in America for his bold expeditions to far-off lands, where he filmed acclaimed documentaries. On his last recorded exploit, in 1933, he returned to New York with a living specimen of what he found. It escaped, wreaked havoc across Manhattan until it was destroyed, and left Denham buried in lawsuits and criminal indictments. He fled, and his whereabouts since 1933 are unknown.
“Unknown” by the law, the courts, and the media, but whispers of his doings after 1933 spread among adventurers and explorers who shared Denham’s thirst to wrest from the natural world its darkest secrets. As I would learn directly from him, he had many fantastic adventures after 1933.
* * *
Some years ago, my wife, Linda, and I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia during my career as an engineer in the oil industry. One of the places we visited often was tiny Kotok Island. Kotok is probably the smallest of Indonesia’s islands to boast a resort. The accommodations and facilities are modest, but sportsmen can dive all day, and drink all night. I am neither a diver nor a drinker, but Linda and I found Kotok to be a quiet weekend getaway from crowded, bustling Jakarta. We went to Kotok about one weekend a month, until I discovered the island’s secret. Then I went as often as I could.
Kotok is shaped like your little finger, oriented southwest to northeast, about 3,000 feet long and 500 feet wide. The center of activity of the island is the southeastern beach where the divers and tourists arrive, eat, sleep in bungalows, and leave. On the northwest beach is a modest bird sanctuary where small cages hold large birds, which are released into the wild when their recovery is complete. Other than these clearings, the island is densely covered by trees, mangroves, and jungle growth. Monitor lizards—nose to tail six to eight feet long—roam the island. Unlike their larger cousins, the dragons of Komodo and Rinca islands, monitors are rarely aggressive, and ignore humans.
The secret of Kotok sat on the northeastern tip of the island. There stood Kotok’s largest structure. Kotok’s few permanent residents called it simply “Tempat” (Indonesian for “The Place”). It looked like a typical vacation home or lake house that one might see anywhere in America. One large room on the ground floor, a much smaller room above it, built of local hardwood and bamboo. A large water tank, and an electric generator sat next to the house. The bungalow where Linda and I usually stayed was not too far from The Place, and I could hear a slight hum when its generator ran. It was never turned on during the day, and as best as I could tell, electricity was only used for lighting at night.
Other than its size, the only unusual aspect of the home was its attempt to prevent anyone from approaching. At the time, buildings on Kotok were open to all. Most of the bungalows where visitors stayed had no locks on the doors, and sometimes no doors at all. The bungalow where Linda and I stayed might more properly be called a hut. It had three walls and a roof. The missing fourth wall gave us a fine view of the Java Sea.
The Place had a double, wooden rail fence around its onshore perimeter. The fence was imposing but could be breached by anyone determined to enter. The small gate on the fence was secured by a padlock and chain. Along the fence’s length were posted three “Keep Out” signs (each in three languages: Dutch, Indonesian, and English). At the fence’s north and south extremities, where it reached the beach, it extended into the water so anyone walking or wading could not easily get around it. Other than climbing the fence or unlocking the gate, The Place could only be reached from the water. A narrow wharf extended from the house, and it too had a locked gate on it. Any supplies came to The Place via that wharf. Along the wharf ran two pipes, which I assumed brought fresh water and fuel for the generators.
* * *
Indonesia’s small islands are formed of volcanic rock, with thin layers of topsoil. Tree roots cannot penetrate the rock, and thus spread out sometimes only inches below the surface. The trees grow tall and large but are easy prey to storms and heavy winds. Such storms are rare across Indonesia. On our sixth stay on Kotok, one such storm struck. It was the first that Kotok had seen in years. Through the night, I heard wood cracking and trees falling. With the rain, wind and dark of night, I could see nothing, but the sounds reminded me of the ice storms that occasionally plagued Dallas, Texas, where my home in America had been. The next morning, Kotok looked a bit like Dallas on the morning after an ice storm: broken branches and felled trees. About six tall trees had toppled over. No matter, for in the lush tropics, new growth would soon replace them.
The bright sunny morning was literally the calm after the storm. I marveled at the destruction the winds had caused. Trees in Dallas or anywhere that I had lived in America would have shrugged them off. On Kotok, a tree had fallen close to our hut, and I felt lucky that it had not affected us. The Place escaped damage, but a particularly tall tree had fallen across its fence and snapped a span of its rails. Pinned beneath the tree was a man struggling. There, in the early dawn, I first saw Carl Denham. I would not learn his name until the next day.
I climbed over the damaged fence to reach him. I later learned what had happened. When the tree first fell, the pinned man ran from the house to see the damage. The fence’s last resistance to the tree’s weight gave way and hit the ground just as the man reached it. A small branch speared his right arm, and there he lay helpless until assistance could arrive. The workers at the resort would have found him soon, but I was there first. Lifting the tree was impossible, but I could roll it a bit. I caused its prisoner some pain, but in a few seconds, I had him free.
He was not young. I later learned that he was almost 80, older than I would have guessed. He stood perhaps 5’5” and looked quite fit. He was almost bald, with a beard of curly gray hair. Less blood from his wound than I expected to see, but the branch had punctured his skin. To slow the bleeding, I held his arm high, and pressed on where I thought that vein was. I helped him into The Place. I asked him how he was, but he said nothing.
By Kotok standards, The Place was luxurious: wood paneled walls, fine wood furniture with leather cushions, and walls lined with books, which showed the ravages of tropical humidity. Framed photographs filled one wall, souvenirs of adventures past hung on two other walls. The fourth wall was a large window with a fine view of the Java Sea. The room pleasantly smelled of cinnamon and eucalyptus and was impressively illuminated by the rising sun’s reflections off the water.
The interior had an open floorplan, except for a small kitchen behind a curtain, and a small closet with a door and lock. Near the locked door was a fine desk and file cabinet, made—I believe—of teakwood. In the months to come, I would learn the secrets tucked away in their drawers. On the desk were two antique telephones. I noted these because Kotok had no telephone lines. I would learn that the phones were once connected to the restaurant and the landing dock, but they proved unreliable and the strung lines detracted from the beauty of the island. The lines were long gone, but Denham kept the phones on his desk as mementoes.
Near the window stood a large bird cage, housing a brilliantly colored macaw. The cage, mounted on wheels, would be moved about the room, as it often was to please both the bird’s owner and the cranky bird itself. The macaw squawked loudly when we entered. “Chavez! Shut up!” Those were the first words from my new acquaintance.
Skins of Javan leopards served as throws on the chairs. These looked new and unused, except for a chair where I presumed the owner sat and read. I steered him toward that chair, and he spoke again. “Put some towels down first. I don’t want blood on it. The towels are over there.” I did as asked, and then plopped him in the chair. “There’s a bottle of vodka in that cabinet.” He pointed to the far end of the room. I brought the bottle and a glass. He waved off the glass, took the bottle, and doused some liquor on his wound. Then he poured more on a towel and wrapped it around his arm.
“I don’t drink vodka. A friend gave me the bottle. Pour yourself a glass if you like. Please bring me that bottle of Scotch.”
I refused the vodka but poured two fingers of Scotch into the glass. My host shook the glass slightly in my direction. I knew that he wanted more. I filled the glass, and he took a long drink.
He stared at his ceiling without speaking again. I looked above him, and saw two tjik-tjaks bobbing their heads. Tjik-tjaks are tiny lizards that thrive in almost every home in Indonesia. They are often welcome members of the households, as they are quiet, clean, comical and aid in controlling insects. The two lizards seemed to return Denham’s stare. He then closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and said no more. After a few awkward minutes—awkward for me, but not for my sleeping host—I left.
* * *
The next afternoon at 2:00, Linda and I cued at Kotok’s main dock, waiting for the water taxi back to Jakarta. Not directly back, for the small inhabited islands off Java are connected by a network of water taxis, and we always had at least one transfer before reaching our home port.
From the jungle path emerged my new acquaintance. His arm was now properly bandaged, and I could see a blood spot soaking through the gauze. As he walked, he leaned on Rambo, one of the island workers. Rambo and his buddy Eka were the Indonesians on the island that I knew best. Denham approached me with a big smile.
“I never thanked you for helping me. My apologies. I have reasons for being suspicious of strangers.”
“No problem,” I said. “You seem to be recovering well.”
Then he noticed Linda. “Oh, look at the golden woman.” He laughed as he spoke, and winked at me. “Blondes are pretty scarce around here.”
The usual chit-chat followed. He asked lots of questions of us: what we were doing in Indonesia, what we were doing on Kotok, where were we from. Were we living in Indonesia, or passing through? His questions made me think that he was sizing me up. He was obviously an American. I told him that I was from New Jersey, and he said that he once lived in New York. Linda was raised in Fullerton, California, and he had lived in Los Angeles. So, the conversation flowed easily until Eka ran up to tell us that the water taxi was delayed. No way to tell how long. Eka addressed Denham as Bapak, Indonesian for “sir” or “mister,” and also “father.”
No great surprise about the taxis, for if any of the boats developed engine problems, the whole network would be thrown off.
“That’s a shame,” said our new friend. “Instead of waiting at the bar, please come to my house. I can turn on the air conditioning if it gets too warm for Linda.” He turned to her and bowed slightly. “It’s comfortable, and I can provide any refreshments that the bar can. Rambo will watch your bags, and Eka will come to fetch you in time for your boat.”
He turned his head to the two men, and both nodded.
We accepted, or maybe Linda accepted. He was charmed by her, and she was fascinated by his manners and command. I was a bit leery. Had the water taxi failed because he wanted it to? Had he known the answers to all his questions before we answered? Denham leaned on my shoulder as we walked to his home. He was still in some pain but seemed in very good spirits.
“I hurt this arm in exactly the same place once,” he said. He huffed and puffed a little as we walked. “A long time ago, though. It may have saved my life. A long story for another time.”
We were soon seated on the sofa in The Place’s great room. I noticed a stack of well-worn paperbacks next to his chair. They were all Shakespeare and looked from their cover art to be from the 1950s. Like the books on the shelves, they showed the decay that constant humidity wreaks on paper. I would later learn that our host read Shakespeare when alone. He also read books on the natural sciences. Such texts comprised the bulk of his library.
“Perhaps you’d like a glass of wine,” our host said to Linda. “Red, I assume.” He looked at me. “You don’t impress me as a drinker.” I asked for a Tab. He smiled, and soon we had our drinks as we sat and faced each other. Again, I had the impression that he knew more about us then he let on. He certainly knew what we ordered in Kotok’s only restaurant.
“Thank you again for yesterday. It might have been serious, but I have a few more things to do before I die. I think—well, I like to think—that as long as you have something ahead of you, you won’t die. The Grim Reaper might stay his hand just a little longer.”
Linda was uncomfortable discussing death with a man who thought he was so close to it. I tried to change the topic, but he changed it first.
“I’m Carl Denham. Ever hear of me?”
I answered as I would a lot of Denham’s questions, that it rang a bell, but I couldn’t place it.
“Ever hear of Kong?’
“Yes,” I said, “mythical god or something. I heard it mentioned in Jakarta last month.”
“No. That was probably Hyang that you heard mentioned. Have you ever heard of King Kong?”
* * *
With the mention of King Kong, memories from my childhood came flooding back to me: Denham’s Giant Monster, the Eighth Wonder of the World, the incredible beast that terrorized New York before it was killed. I first heard the story from my father when I was six. At our dinner table, I listened wide-eyed as Pop told me what he himself had seen. Pop was 13 in March 1933, during Kong’s one night of panic. Pop’s family lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, directly across from Manhattan. They heard on the radio that Kong had broken loose. From their bedroom window on Jefferson Street, my father and his brothers and sisters looked across the Hudson River. Nothing to see other than the Manhattan skyline until Kong scaled the Empire State Building. Kong climbed at night, but searchlights allowed the police below and my father’s family across the river to follow the monster. At dawn airplanes flew to battle him. Pop and my aunts and uncles were still watching. They saw Kong grab a plane and send it in flames to the ground. Kong, badly wounded by the planes’ machine gun fire, soon followed. My father saw him lose his grip and fall. Kong bounced off the tiers of the building before the long dive to 34th Street. Pop and his older brothers, my uncles Freddie and Andy, hopped on a train to Manhattan, and arrived in time to see Kong’s broken body in the street. Police soon pushed them and everyone else far back.
Over the years, Pop told me many stories about things that he had lived through, like World War II and The Great Depression, about Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds hoax, about things that he had personally seen, like Babe Ruth hitting a home run, and Joe Louis knocking out Tony Galento. None stayed with me as his story of King Kong. As a boy, when I walked from our apartment to Public School #9 every day, I could see the Empire State Building across the Hudson River. I imagined Kong climbing to its top for his death duel with the airplanes.
Now, I sat a few feet from an injured, elderly man who had been at the center of that wonderful, horrible night.
* * *
“Yes, yes,” I said, “and you brought Kong back to New York. You used to be really big.”
“I still am big. It’s the animals that got small.” He laughed. I would learn in time that nothing amused Denham so much as his private jokes.
I started to ask some questions about Kong, but Denham only slowly waved his hand.
“I don’t want to talk about that now. I have to be in the mood. It still depresses me, especially what happened after Kong died.” For the first time, I sensed a sadness in Denham, but he concealed it well. Suddenly, he smiled.
“But it’s good to have someone to talk to. I only mention Kong because I need to know how much you know. A lot of people sued me after that night, and the district attorney was after me. A very rich man who lost his wife to Kong kept after me for a long time. I imagine anyone who cared is dead now, or too old to give a damn. And what can they do to me now? Extradite me? The Indonesians won’t make that easy. Haul me into a court in New York? I’d be dead of old age before any trial ended. Seize my so-called assets? If anyone could, they would have found them long ago. But still I must be careful. Time is now on my side. Almost everyone who cares is dead.”
Linda shifted uneasily in her chair.
“It’s good to have someone to talk to. I used to have visitors. Not so much now. My buddy Steve comes here every now and then, but he can’t walk anymore. Eka and Rambo used to carry him in here, but he’s put on a lot of weight—that happens when you can’t walk—and they need help. But Steve will come again. I hope he visits soon.”
Eka entered The Place and told us that the water taxi would arrive in 20 minutes. Denham let out a soft sigh of disappointment.
“Listen. One of the things that I need to do before I go is to tell my story. I couldn’t do that until time was on my side. You said that you like weekends on here on Kotok. Whenever you come, Kid, visit me and hear what I have to say.”
Linda and I said brief goodbyes. Denham asked when we would return, and I said that I would try the next weekend. Linda smiled, for she loved weekends on Kotok.
* * *
Over the next two years, I would visit Kotok often, and would meet with Denham. In those sessions, he related the story of his life. Denham would hop from topic to topic, talk about his youth one day, and some recent adventures the next. Sometimes, I would ask him to fill in gaps, which he was glad to do.
In the chapters that follow, I have arranged what he told me in chronological order. I did this with Denham’s blessing. Not until he knew Linda and me well did he clearly say that he wanted me to make a permanent record of his recollections. Early on in our meetings, I asked him bluntly if he wanted me to write his biography. He smiled and said “Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, Kid.”
Denham almost never quoted Shakespeare directly. I cannot quite imagine iambic pentameter coming from his lips. He was referring to the Prince of Denmark’s dying words:
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.