From The Old House by Curt Iles
“Coco” Harper Lives
Recently, they built a new Post Office in Dry Creek. It’s a large modular building complete with glass doors and modern conveniences. Out in front of it, the Postal Service poured a large concrete paving area. However, it just doesn’t look like it fits in Dry Creek.
On the night after they poured the slab for the parking lot, someone slipped in and wrote in the wet concrete. On the southeast corner of the slab, someone scratched, “Coco Harper lives.”
Therefore, it is my duty as an official Dry Creek historian to fill you in on the most mischievous resident to ever live in Dry Creek—Coco Harper. First of all, Coco Harper was not a person, but rather a spider monkey. He belonged to the Ryan Harper family who ran the grocery store where Foreman’s Meat Market now stands.
Ryan Harper was a unique person in Dry Creek. Known by practically everyone because of his country store, he was rough, crude, and very kind—all rolled into a larger-than-life man. Most of all, to me he was my friend. An adult who takes the time to listen to a child will always be held in high esteem by that child. Ryan Harper always had time for me when I went into his store. I never remember his being impatient with me as I visited at his store, and that is why he will always hold a special place in my heart.
I don’t know what possessed Ryan and his wife, Iris, to buy a spider monkey. I guess it was to add to his collection of animals. Ryan lived across Highway 394 from the store, and there was a steady stream of peacocks, chickens, and Doberman dogs roaming his yard and the store area. I believe the monkey was probably the idea of one of his two daughters, Ramona or Wynona.
The first time I saw Coco was sometime during the late 1960’s. As I sat outside the store drinking a soda, Ryan’s old two-tone blue Chevrolet Impala came driving up. I saw an unforgettable sight—there scampering back and forth on the front of the car was a skinny spider monkey. It was as if the car had a live hood ornament. This was my first encounter with this infamous monkey.
Wherever Coco was, he seemed to take over, and when he was inside the store, it was no exception. Now I want to say this tactfully—Ryan’s store was not well-kept. I’ll always remember venturing into the back room to get a case of Coca-Colas in the returnable glass bottles, and half expecting a bear to jump out of the piled-up junk and empty boxes that filled up the room.
My Uncle Bill, always quick with a quip, called it “Ryan’s Rusty Restaurant.” To me, Ryan’s was a second home. Our Post Office was located at this time inside the store. Our Postmaster, Mrs. Kat King, would let me look through the FBI wanted posters on the wall. In my fertile young imagination, I half expected one of the criminals on the posters to come into the store door.
Ryan’s store was a place where a young boy, by just sitting quietly and listening, could learn a great deal about our area—from the price of calves at the sale barn to the inside scoop as to why a deputy was called in to referee a spat between two neighbors.
I always felt at home at Harper’s store. We had a charge account, and I loved the thrill of getting a snack and saying, “Ryan, put it on our bill.” My younger sister, Colleen, once exclaimed, “Momma, let’s go get it at Ryan’s, it doesn’t cost us anything there.”
However, when I selected my snacks, there was one area of the store I did not buy from, and that was the cookie jar. Rumor had it that Ryan would sometimes let Coco stick his paw into the cookie jar and pick out its own cookie. I’m not too picky, but I didn’t want a cookie that had been handled or smelled on by a monkey. Anyway, as I remember it, those cookies were so stale, probably nothing but a monkey would have eaten them.
Coco Harper, as monkeys go, was pretty excitable. This led to a wild experience one day when my childhood friend Paul Young and I were in the store. Coco was sitting there on the faded green recliner that was the fashion statement of Harper’s Store. Neither Ryan nor the customers were watching, so Paul and I lunged at the monkey. Coco immediately went into a cataclysmic fit and scampered through the open rafters of the store. Customers ducked for cover as the screeching monkey raced around.
Coco finally ended up going into the adjacent Post Office. Mrs. King, the most proper lady in Dry Creek, came running out as Coco became the resident postal monkey for the United States Postal Service. (The fit that Coco threw, and also how Mrs. King reacted, would today be called “going postal!”) Finally, after a while, Ryan corralled the chattering monkey, and a semblance of calm was restored. For some reason, no one looked at Paul or me to ask what had set off this escapade.
Before you begin to feel too sorry for Coco, let me tell you what a thief he was. L.D. Spears told of leaving his preschool son Greg and nephew Sean in the truck while he went inside the store to check his mail. When he came back out, there were the two young boys, petrified as they huddled together on the seat of the truck. There sat Coco, on the dashboard, eating the ice cream sandwich he had snatched from one of the boys.
Being a thief, Coco Harper was good at getting into vehicles and taking food. People never locked their car doors in this time before A/C was standard in cars, and most folks left their car windows rolled down. This enterprising spider monkey needed to stay fed.
Legend has it that Coco’s favorite food was bread. He could rifle a loaf of bread and be gone with it quicker than you could believe. Bread was what led to Coco’s most memorable adventure. Some members of Ryan’s family were visiting at the Harper home. They parked their Lincoln convertible in the yard, and carefully put the ragtag convertible roof, up. They were returning from shopping at Piggly Wiggly in DeRidder, so their vehicle was loaded with groceries. Being aware of Coco’s thieving ways, they wisely put up the convertible top.
Much to their chagrin when they came back outside, they found the monkey inside the car, enjoying a loaf of bread. The worst part was the long tear in the convertible fabric that Coco the burglar had ripped open to gain entrance to the groceries.
It wasn’t long after that episode that Coco Harper disappeared from Dry Creek. I don’t know what happened to him, but rumors abounded as to his demise. My friend, Eddy Spears, who loved to tell a good whopper, told how a near-sighted squirrel hunter sent Coco to the Promised Land. Another story was that he was electrocuted while running along on a high-line wire. Someone else said one of Ryan’s Dobermans got him.
I never got around to asking Ryan what happened to his monkey. I’ve always suspected the man with the convertible was a prime suspect for the end of a memorable monkey named Coco Harper.
Yes, Coco Harper lives, but only in the memories of guys like me.