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My Late Neanderthal Friend

A Nova program last night on PBS questioned if humans and Neanderthals might have ever mated in Europe, oh, some 40,000 years ago. Several anthropologists said it was doubtful. I said, to the television screen, ``Are you kidding?'' Sex is powerful, and someone having a different shaped brow is not necessarily going to put off another species (looking at it from both sides here) in a heated moment.

A question followed that, if there had, indeed, been sex between these two species, might there have been progreny, and if there had, might not those progeny be sterile and unable to reproduce, thus preventing any line of human-Neanderthal from carrying on. I said, again to the TV screen, ``Are you kidding? Part Neanderthal people are everywhere.''

Well, it turns out that according to DNA testing, I was right. Most humans carry a touch of Neanderthal DNA. That couldn't be without sex, and it couldn't be with sterile progeny.

I felt strongly and opinionated about the subject because of a friend I had in my youth I'll call Mike. Mike had a Neanderthal look, and a Neanderthal build, with powerful arms and hands and a rounded back, and a chest that sloped inward but resembled slabs of granite.

Mike was not unpleasant to look at. In fact, he was quite handsome and virile and women were continuously attracted to him. Men liked being around him. But they didn't want to anger him. The Nova special mentioned that, if there had been weight sets 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal men could probably have bench pressed 300 to 500 pounds. I once saw Mike, who never worked out, bench press 275 pounds. Several times. He probably weighed 180.

I wrestled in high schol and was somewhat ``famous'' for a hold called the Figure Four. Behind your opponent, you lock your legs around his middle in what resembles the number four, one leg bent, the other straight.  Once I applied this hold, I usually pinned my opponent.

I mentioned this once to Mike and he laughed. ``I'd get right out of it,'' he said. I said no way, so we got down on the floor, I applied the Figure Four and when Mike tried to stand I applied pressure to his back; most opponents buckle but with Mike it didn't help in the least. Mike stood straight up then threw himself backward, nearly breaking my tail bone. No wrestler had ever come close to doing that to me. Stupidly, I tried again, same result, more tail bone pain.

Mike's strength and courage probably saved my life at least twice. In one instance, we were to meet at a Los Angeles bar. Mike was late, some guy picked an argument with me and stupidly I followed him into the alley. It was a set up. two other guys were waiting there and the three wanted my wallet. I thought I'd had it when I heard a joyous war cry. It was Mike. He leveled all three, just scattered them like so much chaff and had a good time doing it, then mercifully let them run, which they did.

I think Mike got his Neanderthal genes from his mother, a handsome woman you could imagine in rawhide and fur crossing the Pyrenees with kids in tow 40,000 years ago. She, like Mike, was quite bright, and why wouldn't she be – Neanderthal brain capacity is equal to or surpasses humans.

Mike, by the way, had the heart of a poet, and we drove around Los Angeles many nights, many hours, and I would listen to him rhapsodize romantically about a young woman he loved dearly, let us call her Pam, but whose parents thought she should marry someone else, which Pam did, and Mike never got over that. From what I heard years later, the young woman didn't either.

Mike drove a motor scooter around LA when he wasn't driving a big chopper over the hilly roads that separate Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. One night, having fun, when he was looking the other way, I jumped on the scooter and zipped off. I headed down a Hollywood alley when a car came roaring at me from the other way. I only recall diving off the bike, then minutes later seated on the pavement, dazed, a woman kneeling by my side saying a ``Hail Mary,'' and blood pouring out of my head.

Mike rushed up, looked at me and laughed, righted his crumbled scooter, telling me to get on behind him, and, as I bled on him all the way, he weaved through Sunset Boulevard traffic at top speed to a Hollywood emergcy clinic where I got a shaved head – which made Mike laugh – and a dozen stitches. Mike helped tend my wound the next few days.

I heard recently that Mike has died. Of course I thought of him again last night watching the Nova special on Neanderthals. The special said most of us carry one to three percent Neanderthal DNA; I'd bet Mike had five or more, and I'm glad he did.