The death of Tacoma’s famous gorilla was too painful, too fresh, so Larry Johnston instead focuses on the pranks, the laughter, the rambunctious experiences he and Ivan shared in their youth.
“We did everything together,” Johnston recalled Tuesday. “We literally shared a youthful existence together.”
After news of Ivan’s death spread, Johnston spent the day fielding text messages, emails and Facebook notes from old friends wanting to reminiscence about when the primate lived with Johnston for three years.
Ivan was in diapers when he joined the family, which owned the pet store at the B&I shopping center.
Johnston, then 13, became the alpha male for Ivan and gained a fast friend. He even decided the gorilla would share his birthday – Feb. 5.
The pair played hide-and-seek together in the house on South 72nd Street. Johnston changed Ivan’s dirty diapers and protected the gorilla from his mother, who Ivan knew meant business when she raised her voice.
They rode motorcycles together, slept in the same bed and rough housed like young males are prone to do.
“He was full of energy like you cannot believe,” Johnston said. “The stories are just endless. You can’t imagine the time we had laughing with him. The stunts he pulled were over the top.”
There was the time Ivan dug Johnston’s bowling ball out of the bag and rolled it down the stairs and into the washing machine.
Or the time he jumped from the mantle to the couch and broke his toe.
He dismantled a dining room table, tore down drapes, gutted a couch and smacked holes in sheetrock – but always felt bad.
Johnston saw him angry only once in all the years they played together.
After months of being tormented by a neighbor chimpanzee who liked to pull the gorilla’s fur out, Ivan patiently waited until the chimp reached for him. Then he grabbed the chimp’s hand and yanked, wedging his shoulder in between the bars and glass. Ivan then proceeded to patiently bite, bend and pull the other creature’s fingers.
It wasn’t that he wanted to hurt the chimp, Johnston said, it’s that Ivan had reached his limit.
Johnston was devastated when the decision was made to put Ivan in a cage once he got too big and strong for five adult men to control. He continued to visit Ivan, but never got to Atlanta to see his old friend.
Ivan never left his thoughts, or his heart, though.
“You can’t imagine what a personality he was, and what a special animal,” Johnston said, fighting to compose himself.