REAL LIFE, NEW PERSPECTIVES: A Series of Vignettes
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1999
Portions of this article appeared at Tangor's ERBList
Edgar Rice Burroughs Listserver August 1999.
As a long time fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a sometimes scholar and provider of information on that subject, I have a curiosity regarding the impact of ERB's works on the real world. The following vignettes are completely fictional (all except one) and were written to explore the possible influence Edgar Rice Burroughs' works may have had among the ordinary citizens of Planet Earth at various times and eras. The vignettes are not presented in chronological order (real world). The earliest supposition is from the early 1900's and the last is from Yesterday. Please read these vignettes for amusement or conjecture—and if you have one of your own you'd like to forward, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
"Hey, Pop, what's that?"
The broad shouldered man with a dark complexion shifted the box of books with effortless ease. His 10 year-old daughter leaned forward, bright eyes curious at the contents. He offered a wry grin. "Just some books I read as a kid," he said.
"Can I see?" the girl asked. "Please let me look!"
The man sighed. "I really don't have time, honey. We've got to pack things up before I go."
The child lowered her head. "Are you going to kill Japs, Daddy?"
He set the books down on the dingy basement table and sat down on a crate. Pulling the girl into his lap he said, "I don't want to kill anybody. I'm just going to do my job."
"When does your ship sail, Daddy?"
"Tomorrow." He kissed the girl's forehead, holding her close. Suddenly he reached into the box and drew forth a tattered volume of A PRINCESS OF MARS. "I read this when I wasn't much older than you. It's about a hero and princess."
"Read it to me Daddy!"
"I wouldn't have time to finish it, kitten, I have to leave tomorrow."
The young girl threw her arms about her father's neck. "Read a little of it to me," she pleaded. "I will read the rest of it while you're away!"
For a moment he thought of all the things left undone, all the things he had to do before taking up his duffle and reporting to his ship in the harbor. Hugging his daughter he said, "I will read you chapter one, but you must write me every time you finish the remaining chapters. Will you do that for me?"
"Oh, yes, Daddy!"
"Pinky swear?" he asked, offering his little finger.
"I promise!" the girl said, linking her tiny hand with his.
He opened the cover of the book. Settling his daughter more comfortably, he began, "'I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality."
"Daddy—you're not going to die, are you?"
He looked into her wide eyes, her open heart. "I still live," he said in solemn tones. "I will come back to you just like John Carter came back to his princess."
"Johnny, not so loud. You'll disturb your father."
The eight year-old scowled as mightily as only an eight year-old can. His "But mom..." was greeted with a stern glance that silenced the young boy.
Mother resumed cooking the evening meal.
Johnny angrily picked up his red fire truck and stomped into the hallway transecting the one story ranch house. As he passed his father's room, he heard a weak voice.
"Got a minute?"
Johnny stopped in mid-stride. His father did not speak often. He wasn't all that comfortable entering the little bedroom where his father lay inside an iron lung. "Uh—whatcha need, Pop?"
The sallow-faced man turned his head with effort. "Come here, son."
Johnny cradled the fire truck in his arms and gingerly approached.
Gasping for breath, his father asked, "Do me a favor?"
The boy lowered his eyes, then looked directly at his father.
"I know I haven't been much of a father and I hate to ask this of you."
Johnny waited for a long moment. "Dad?"
"You see those books over there?"
"There's a lot of books, Dad. Which ones?" Johnny was a little impatient. He didn't like the mechanical clicks and wheezes from the pumps.
"Third shelf. Pick one."
Johnny scowled yet again, but he went to the shelf and looked. Tipping the books by the top, he looked at the covers. If Mom came in he could truthfully say Dad told him to look...
What was this? A guy riding on the back of an enormous bird! Johnny pulled the book from the shelf and looked at the cover with intense curiosity. The pumps and wheezes seemed to vanish to his hearing.
"Find one, Johnny?" his father's whisper cut into the young boy's mind.
"Have you ever read this one, Pop?" Johnny took the book to his father's side and showed the cover.
"That's 'Synthetic Men of Mars'," the strained voice replied. "You picked a good one!"
"What's it about?" the boy asked.
"Oh, it is adventure and romance and heroes and villains. How would you like to read it together? I can help you with the hard words..."
"I don't like to read."
"Humor me for a page, son. Read a little of it to me."
Johnny looked at the man in the iron lung. He felt uncomfortable around the THING what was so unlike his friends' fathers. "I dunno, Dad. I don't read so good."
"Together," the man wheezed. "We'll do it together. Pull up a chair, son."
Johnny dragged a three-legged stool closer, then sat down and cracked the cover. "From... from..."
"Phundahl..." his father supplied.
Johnny took a deep breath and started again. "From Phundahl at their western ex...ex..."
"Extremity, east to Toonol, the great Tonnolian Marshes strecht across the dying planet for eighteen hundred earth miles like some unclean, venomous, Gar... gar..."
"Gargantuan—it means 'large' or 'huge,' son..."
"Gargantuan reptile—that's a snake, right?"
"You got it!" the weak voice responded with a smile.
"An oozy—what's that mean, Dad?"
"Oh! Like some unclean, venomous, Gargantuane repitle—and oozy marchland through which win narrow watercourses. Watercourses?"
"Okay...connecting o...o... what's that word, Dad?" Johnny stood beside the iron lung and held the book close. A dirty little fingernail pointed to the text.
"'Occasional.' Know what the means?"
"You're a bright fellow, Johnny. That's right! What's next?" The man's eyes closed as he struggled for breath.
Johnny bent over the book as he sat down. "...bodies of open water, little lakes, the largest o which covers but a few..."
"This monotony of marsh and jungle and water is occasionally broken by rocky islands, themselves usually clothed in jungle ve...ven... Hey, Dad, what is v-e-n-d-u-r-e mean?"
Johnny's mother, investigating the silence of her child, stood at the doorway of the small room. She raised a hand to her lips to hold back the sob that threatened. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she turned away to put Johnny's dinner on the back burner.
"Nancy, you're an idiot!" Susan lifted a superior chin and added, "You're wrong."
Nancy rolled over on the bed, her pajamas whispering across the bedcovers, and said, "Nobody can travel through the trees. Only monkeys can do that."
In the background the TV news at 10:00 p.m.—well past their bedtime—repeated what that old fuddy duddy Kronkite had said at six: "Man has landed on the Moon!" but the two girls were not interested in that.
Susan shoved the book toward her sleepover guest. "He's handsome and he travels through the trees. Take a look."
Nancy looked at the lurid cover of the paperback novel. "That's silly!"
Susan rolled her eyes. "Look at those muscles!"
The guest studied the cover of the cheap novel for a long moment. "She's almost naked," Nancy whispered. There was a flutter of pre-puberty interest. "What's this about?"
A hurried conversation, punctuated by giggles and arguments, brought a parent in a skirt to the bedroom door. "It's late, girls. Time for bed."
"Mom!" Susan pleaded from the bed covered with cheap paperback adventure novels. "Nancy doesn't believe Tarzan can..."
Susan's mother quickly glanced toward the living room where Jack Paar was offering yet another show her husband found amusing. With a wink she came into the bedroom and closed the door. Sitting on the bed mother said, "Nancy, it's all true." She picked up a book and gazed at it fondly. "Here's the man that all women long to find..."
He tried to keep his eyes away from the girl in the short mini skirt. Jim Boney was her man. All legs and mascara and sex dripping like summer to come and Boney the baddest dude around...
Boney glared at the fat boy holding a book before his face. "You lookin' at my woman?"
The reply was choked off as Boney's strong hands encircled the youngster's throat. Feeling his strength and his power as BMOC, Boney relished his eminence as he slowly choked the nerd's wind. He growled. "Whatya reading, punk?"
The fat boy raised the book recently purchased through the Activities Club at lunchtime.
Boney let up enough to receive an answer.
"John Carter of Mars."
Boney leaned closer, his face grim. "I'll let you live if you like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Keep it under your hat, you little shit. And keep your eyes off my bitch."
"I do. I won't."
"You won't what?"
"I won't look at... I never looked... I—"
Boney released his grip. Leaning over the cowed youth he said, "Meet me after school. Keep me amused with John Carter and I'll let you live."
Mother went to the back door and shouted. "Young lady, inside! It's time for dinner!" Stepping into the back yard the apron bedecked woman looked around for her child.
The grass, recently cut, was emerald green from a rain two days ago. The wind blew gently from the south and the leaves of the gum and box elder trees rustled softly in the evening breeze. "Where are you, girl?"
The sun was near the horizon, the shadows long. Father would be home soon.
Mother frowned. She walked into the back yard, Moving left around the weathered picnic table she said sternly, "I am not amused." Brushing a loose strand from her tight-wrapped blond bun back from her forehead she looked behind the garage. A pink bicycle was parked where it should be. A baseball glove lay in the dirt. She picked it up. Dusting the glove with impatient strokes mother walked back into the yard. Scanning the fence line, ignoring the smelly dog she did not like but which her daughter loved, her eyes traveled full circle. Exasperated, the woman folded the glove in half and started back to the house. Passing under the gum tree she heard a high pitched shriek. Turning suddenly, heart pounding, she saw her daughter launch herself from the branch!
Mother and child rolled on the ground, the latter springing erect to plant a foot on her parent's heaving stomach. The girl raised her head to the leaves overhead and voiced a strange cry, beating her thin chest at the same time. Nearby a book had fallen—Tarzan of the Apes—through which the wind playfully turned pages.
"I am Tarzan! Mighty hunter! Mighty killer!" the child cried.
Mother, hand pressed to her breast, sat up. Catching her breath the woman suddenly laughed. She captured the child in the yellow sun-suit and then tickled savagely, unrelentingly, as the pair rolled on the summer grass.
Later, arms laced in heartfelt hugs, mother sternly admonished: "No more jumping out of trees! Promise me! You could get hurt!"
"I knew you'd catch me," the child replied. In a softer conspiratorial tone she added, "I like the book! You could be Jane! Look at your hair!"
Mother smiled, her eyes misting with fond memory. "One of these days I'll tell you how I ended up with the book and how I had to fight your uncles for it. But I got it—and now you have it. And maybe you have the wonder of it, too."
The child kissed her mother's cheek. "Let's not tell daddy!"
Swatting her child's bottom affectionately the woman agreed. "I won't tell if you won't! Now go wash up for supper."
Her heart softened as the child raced through the back door. Picking up the worn volume and the glove, mother followed, basking in memories.
"Buck up, sport!" the corporal joshed.
He was apparently the only man in the trench who still retained a sense of humor. The new replacement, all of seventeen years old, crouched low in the slit in the earth as Jerry's dawn artillery pounded the high ground behind their position.
The corporal dropped down and lit a cigarette. "Want one?"
"Don't smoke," was the shaky answer.
"You'll get used to it, bucko. A lot of frightful noise but the buggers can't hit the broadside of a barn at twenty paces."
"When will it stop?"
"I suppose when they get tired of loading those big guns. Usually an hour or two. Just get your mind off it. As long as those guns are firing, there's no troops moving up. Think of it that way."
The words seemed to have little effect on the young man. Grinning, the twenty year-old corporal reached inside his tunic and pulled out a book.
"Read this. And take care of it while I check the line."
For several minutes the boy stared blankly at the earthen wall opposite—shuddering with each explosion. His hands trembled. In one hand the heavy rifle he had not yet fired, in the other a sweat-stained book. He eventually did as the corporal ordered. He opened the book and began reading.
A liner, a countess, an evil fellow, a plot, an attempted murder...
"What?" the boy responded with some irritation to the hard fist poking his shoulder. The corporal nudged the replacement yet again to make sure he had the youth's undivided attention.
The trench was silent. Taking note of the corporal's grim expression and the efficient way he mounted the bayonet to his rifle, the young man abruptly closed the book.
The corporal's easy grin suddenly returned. "Stow the book and get ready. And," he winked, "if you want to live long enough to read the end of it, you best fight like hell!"
The mosquitoes were thick as ants and twice as annoying. No wind moved through the night-shrouded palms along the beach of an unnamed island, well, it probably had a name but the platoon of Marines in shallow foxholes dug into the gritty sand were not aware of it. Cutter and Bird shared the second from left flank—the only one that was in the open where the tropical moonlight beamed the brightest.
Bird held a book close, the pages turned to take advantage of both moon and starlight.
Cutter—named for his unfortunate flatulence—scowled at Bird—so named because he never seemed to eat anything. "You're supposed to be sleeping."
"I'll sleep when the war's over. This is good stuff, Cutter!"
Both whispers could not have been heard more than five feet from the foxhole. The Japanese line was at least fifty yards away.
"Yeah? I though it was too predictable."
"I didn't see you put it down except to shoot at something."
"Yeah?" Cutter wanted a cigarette in the worst way, but striking a match would be insane.
"Wait a minute...just one more page..."
Cutter's eyes never left the denser blacks which was the jungle interior. Shifting his eyes constantly to improve his night vision, he saw nothing moving. The day had been hell and tomorrow was going to be worse.
Bird folded the ratty pulp in half then stuffed it under his web belt. Rolling over, he noiselessly wiggled up until his eyes and the tip of his blackened M-1 rose above the foxhole's rim. The moon was descending, placing palm shadows over their position.
Cutter suddenly froze as Bird's hand gave silent warning. Fighting down the adrenal rush, he nearly panicked when Bird vanished. Nothing happened for several minutes then Cutter heard what he thought was a sigh to the front and left about ten yards. The seconds passed as eternities; sweat dripped into Cutter's eyes but he let it drip, desiring to make no movement greater than an eyelash blink.
"Psst!" came the near silent voice. "It's me. Hold your fire, Cutter, I'm coming in."
"Move and I'll shoot you. What did you just read?"
"'The Living Dead'."
"Get your ass in here!"
Cutter did not relax even after Bird rolled into the foxhole. There was just enough starlight to see the dark stain on Bird's knife. His companion cleaned the blade by shoving it into the sand several times. Bird shouldered his weapon. "Get ready, Cutter. I think they are coming."
The one room hut had been hit by a shell at one time or another and the east wall was missing. The patrol ducked inside to get out of the blizzard which had swept down from the north like an express train. Larry, Curly and Mo—the three clowns in the outfit—took positions at the windows and door. Sergeant Harper leaned against a wall, dragging out his field map. Stiller and Gant watched the white expanse to the east.
"Boys," Harper scratched his head, "I think we're lost."
"Hell, Sarge, we've been lost ever since we came to Korea."
"That ain't funny, Mo!" Larry said, his teeth chattering.
"We're just like Tarzan in Pellucidar. We can't tell one direction from another and everything looks the same. And there's bad guys out there that want to kill us."
Curly growled, "Spare us the Tarzan shit."
"Knock it off," Harper barked, though the howl of the wind blunted the sharp reprimand.
Stiller, his Browning well-positioned, calmly remarked, "That Tarzan fellow—the one in the books, not that fool swimmer—was a pretty smart guy. Always seemed to figure a way out of things."
Harper jammed his steel pot back on his head. "I'm game for anything, boys. Mo, what would Tarzan do?"
Mo chewed his tobacco several times then spat, carefully, into the snow. "Don't rightly know what he'd do, but I figure he'd pick a logical direction and stick to it. Way I see it, we came up the slope, so we gotta go down the slope to find our lines."
Harper laughed—the logic inescapable. "Hell, son, let's make you the sergeant! Pack it up, boys, let's give it a try."
Five hours later, warming their near frost-bitten hands by a kerosene stove, Harper brought a pot of hot coffee from the mess tent into the shelter. No man had to be asked twice to produce his canteen cup. The sergeant grinned at Mo, slapping the soldier on the back. "If it weren't for Tarzan, we'd still be on that hill."
"I don't see it that way, Sarge," Mo replied. "You been good to us and never let us down. I figure you're our Tarzan—and you were just a little out of your element like Tarzan was in Pellucidar. Just needed a little help."
Harper arched a stern eyebrow. Mo and the others waited to see where the sergeant was headed. Harper suddenly laughed at his own expense, the others joining in.
Somebody's radio was playing "With a Little Help From My Friends" in a nearby hooch. The smell of maryjane was strong in the jungle air. Compared to last night's mortar attack the evening was almost pleasant; if enduring heat, humidity, insects, mold, mildew, fungus—whatever—while hunkered down inside a sandbag reinforced hole-in-the-ground could be termed "pleasant."
Bing entered without knocking. He was broad-shouldered, heavily muscled, dirty, and pissed. The bloody bandage bound around his forehead and the larger one across his bare right ribs added to the menace of his frightful scowl. In the man's right hand was clenched a dull length of combat knife. "Who took my latest Tarzan?"
The men in the hooch looked up, startled. Last they heard Bing's patrol was wiped out—at least that was what the two survivors claimed when the evac helio pulled them out day before yesterday.
Franklin, one of three blacks in the hooch, slowly rose from his bug-infested cot. He was bigger than Bing by 30 pounds, but his hand shook when he closed the cover on the paperback novel he had been reading. "No offense, Bing," Franklin said. "We thought you was dead."
"Well, I ain't!" Bing spat. He crossed the floor and snatched at the book. Jamming the knife into the worn scabbard at his side, Bing swayed a bit as he hurriedly turned to the last few pages. Without a word, he bent his head, eyes scanning the printed lines swiftly. Moments later he closed the book and stood for a moment with his eyes closed.
Then he smiled.
"While I was out in the boonies dodging Charlie all I could think of was living long enough to finish that book." Bing tossed the volume to Franklin. "It's an odd Tarzan tale, bubba. Good blacks and bad blacks. Guess your people aren't so different from us honkys after all."
Franklin's white teeth gleamed in his dark face as he laughed. "Hell, if you white boys were all like Tarzan we'd all get along!"
Bing scratched the thick stubble on his chin, suddenly looking weary. "Maybe we don't do so well back home, but here in country we sure try. If there ever were Waziri warriors they are sure here with us now." The ex-ghost suddenly sat on the floor. "Who's got a joint?"
The computer screen faintly illuminated the Abrams' interior. The tank commander glanced at his crew sleeping at their stations. He looked at his watch—three hours to go. Outside the tank the Iraqi border lay in darkness, still cooling after the heat of the day.
The tank commander turned his eyes back to the screen. The simple text from the Internet site scrolled as he hurriedly read.
"What a noble and unselfish love yours has been," she murmured. "You have even tried to hide it that my position might be the easier to bear, and now that it may be too late I learn that I love you—that I have always loved you. Oh, Bulan, my Bulan, what a cruel fate that permitted us to find one another only to die together!"
He continued to scroll, reading hungrily. If there were no interruptions he just might finish before they moved out.
The old man narrowed his eyes as he roughly toweled the squirming seven year-old. "Hold still or I'll swat you," he said.
Pouting, the boy stood as rigid as a statue as the gray-haired man efficiently passed a towel over the boy's body. The child then dutifully stepped into cotton pajamas and waited at the bathroom door until it was opened.
The grandfather followed, stoop-shouldered, as his grandson grimly marched to the small bedroom on the second floor of the clapboard sided home. Climbing into the bed, the youngster paused, the bed sheets gripped in defiant little fists. "What's wrong? Mommy has been crying all day since the army man came to see her."
Indecision gripped the old man. He thought of his son, dead, somewhere in Korea.
"Do you remember the story we read last week?"
"Tarzan the Untamed?"
"Yes, that's the one. We talked about war, remember?"
"Yes, sir," was the boy's quiet reply.
"We talked about killing and death and all the bad things that happen. Remember?"
Wide-eyed, the boy nodded.
"Well," the old man took a deep breath and let it out slowly, "your father fought the war as well as Tarzan."
For a long moment the child stared at his grandfather. "Dad isn't coming home?"
"He was one of the good guys," the old man said, a sob caught before it was audible. "He fell in battle."
The boy, half-afraid of what this meant, half-uncertain of what it meant, pounded the pillow then made himself comfortable. His large eyes glared the old man. "Tarzan can't die. Dad isn't dead."
The old man, fighting tears, nodded. "Tarzan lives in the books. Like Tarzan your father lives in your heart. He's not dead, here," he said, placing his hand over the boy's chest. Unable to go further, the old man said, "I found a new Burroughs book yesterday. Would you like me to read from it tonight?" He showed the cover of "Llana of Gathol" to the child.
The .270 weighed heavy in the boy's hands. It was cold in the pre-dawn light. The brush below the hilltop was bare of leaf or green. Red mittens over his hands did little to offset the November chill. Sitting on the cold rock and clay his father leaned forward; Stetson pulled down tight against the brisk breeze.
"Wonder what Mom's doing right now?" the eleven year old whispered.
"Probably fixing your sister's breakfast," the man replied sotto voce. "Safety on?"
The boy checked the rifle for the hundredth time. "Yes, sir."
"You don't have to shoot, son. You know that, right?"
The boy swallowed tightly, the weapon heavy in his hands. "Yes, sir." Dawn was ten minutes away. The forest and hills were shadows upon shadows. The man's cigarette glowed as he drew a breath.
"Food, son. We're hunting food. This is something we have to do."
"Yes, sir," the boy replied. His hands shook.
"Hunters," the father continued. "We aren't killers, though we have to kill to eat. Remember that story we read last month?"
"Tarzan and the Foreign Legion?"
"Tarzan killed animals to feed his body and to feed his friends. Sshhh... Look over there... to the right. See it?"
A six-point buck stepped into the clearing below. For a moment the animal's head was held sharply erect. Hesitantly, the creature stepped into the clearing. The deer began to browse. The father silently thumbed the safety off on his .30-30.
"You have the first shot, if you want it," the man said. "Some of us hunt, some do not."
The boy took a deep breath. "Mama would like some venison," he whispered. "Tarzan would hunt..."
Raising the rifle to his cheek, the boy aligned his sights where the neck joined the body and slowly squeezed the trigger.
Isaac glanced toward the barracks door, the edges of which were dimly illuminated by the bright sunlight without. None of the April day's freshness entered into the tightly packed confines of the room. A constant palsy twitched his emaciated left arm and there was little flesh between his bones and the dirty floor. The smell of many bodies held in close quarters for too long was not sufficient to allay the stench of the ovens.
He knew his skeletal appearance must frighten the children, but there was nothing he could do about it. He avoided smiles as that exposed broken teeth and bleeding gums. His left leg was broken when the Gestapo took him and his family. It had healed badly. His family, mercifully, were now beyond this horror. But the children here, solemn-faced and starving, gathered closely to hear the man's weak voice.
Isaac read from a much-tattered volume of Tarzan the Untamed—or rather he recited it from memory because his rheumy eyes could no longer see the words. "And Tarzan killed the Germans," Isaac whispered. "Killed the Germans!"
The door slammed open. A squad of hard faced men shod in shiny black boots entered. With rifle butts and kicks they moved through the miserable souls shouting "Schnell! Schnell!" to herd their selections toward the door.
Isaac's head, unsteady on the bare column of muscle surrounding his neck, suddenly felt a quiet calm. Before the guards came for him he closed the cover and pushed the book toward little Abraham. "It is yours, now. Read it to the others..."
"I can't believe you took them to see that movie!" The black man sat at the dinner table glaring at his wife. She firmed her lips, biting back a response, then put the warmed over plate before her husband.
"It was just a movie," she quietly stated.
"Just a movie? What will our children think? That there's a white lord of the jungle in Africa?"
"It wasn't like that," the woman replied. "There were no blacks in the movie. Just cute apes and..."
"No blacks? Now what will they think?"
Folding her arms, the woman leaned against the stove. "I think you're taking this black ethnicity thing too far. Our families have been Americans for over 200 years."
"I can't believe you took them to see Tarzan!"
"Have you ever watched a Tarzan movie?"
"Have you?" he challenged.
"As a matter of fact I have. One of my college courses showed three Tarzan films and we read two of the books. Burroughs wrote adventure stories. Some of it," she paused, "might look to be racist today but if one remembers when the stories were written he was pretty liberal in his viewpoints."
"Liberal? He made a white man superior to blacks in their own country!"
"Where'd you hear that? All Burroughs did was write about a superior man. Tarzan's race isn't important!"
John Clayton rose from the table, towering over his wife. "If I didn't love you so much I'd smack you, Jane."
She suddenly laughed. Coming forward, she placed her arms about the perplexed man. "I love you, too. You are my Tarzan!"