Ten years ago this month, reporters descended upon the small town of Danville, New Hampshire, population 3500, in the southeastern portion of the state midway between Manchester and the seacoast. They came to cover the search for a giant monkey that had been spotted prowling the forests and stealing food from terrified residents. The creature's origins were a mystery. Nobody had caught its image on camera. The elusive monkey foiled all attempts to capture it.
It was a perfect story for a time when the media, and television news in particular, had plunged fully into a careless, anything-for-eyeballs menu of car chases, foiled robberies, trapped babies — anything caught on video or offering a daily-vigil story arc.
As the coverage peaked, Boston TV reporters filed daily live reports from the forest's edge. Wire services took it national. And the ultimate apex in media glorification arrived: a Today production crew put together a story on the Danville monkey.
The morning that piece was to air was September 11, 2001. The new Danville celebrities watched the Twin Towers footage in the monitor while waiting — made up and wearing microphones — for an interview that never happened.
The giant monkey of Danville was my symbol, back then, of the fin-de-siècle nadir in media fluffery, thankfully obsolesced in one grim morning. News reporting was important again, to be taken seriously. The media, and its audience, were reminded that journalism is too precious to waste on simian nonsense.
But over time, I began to think differently about the Danville monkey. Yes, it was a simple story, but a real one. News since 9/11 has meant Iraq War, Katrina, financial collapse, oil spill . . . incomprehensibly huge, horrible stories of conflict and ruin.
Sometimes I want to go back to the little oddities and challenges that a community goes through, via their news media.
I want to know what happened to the Danville monkey.
NOT SO GIANT
Turns out, it was not giant, after all. That widely used appellation stemmed from an over-exuberant description of an eight-foot creature; in reality, witnesses and experts agreed that it was a Humboldt's woolly monkey, roughly two feet tall.
Nor were Danville residents terrified of the little fellow. One child had even supposedly been sneaking it peanut-butter cookies. The search was not to save the town, but to rescue the Amazon-native monkey before it succumbed to the harsh New Hampshire winter.
Danville Fire Chief David Kimball was the first to spy the monkey — or, more accurately, the first to publicly admit seeing it.
His declaration unloosed the tongues of others, who had doubted their own eyes, or feared being disbelieved and mocked. Kimball's son, who runs a tree-removal business in town, can understand that; not only did his father take some ribbing over the monkey incident, the younger David Kimball told me, he himself never reported the UFO he and two friends once spotted, for much the same reasons.
Kimball Sr. retired from the Danville Fire Department in 2004, after an all-American small-town career that began in 1941. At age 10, he and his buddies were recruited to fill in while the able-bodied men of Danville were off fighting to save the world.