Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Rick Johnson

A father's tale to a young daughter of a past encounter with Jasoomian pagans met in the Arizona desert and their trip to fabulous Barsoom!

Iím a single father. I told my daughter Cerridwen early on I could either afford to feed her well or see to it that she was well read--her choice. She chose books, for a body can exist on potatoes but will die if you starve the mind and soul. So we read and talked and discussed everything from the probability of White Sharks (aka Great White) being matriarchal open sea pack hunters to the survival of Megolodon in deep trenches to arguments about Bigfoot being either a Hominid or unknown gorilloid to the possibility of silicon life in the atmosphere of a gas giant to the Supreme Court decisions that re-defined the Constitution toÖ. You get the idea.

One day I brought her a book from my special shelf.

"Edgar Rice Burroughs was a man who turned to writing shortly after the turn of the century simply because he was a failure at everything else he tried. This book was his first work. He was so afraid of being sent to a mental asylum after writing it that he used the pen-name 'Normal Bean' to imply that he was sane. The publisher thought it was a typo and published Under the Moons of Mars under the name 'Norman Bean.'" I laughed. "Burroughs should not have worried because this work started him on a career that spanned decades and brought pleasure to millions.

"When you read this book consider many things. He wrote in a style and from a culture from the turn of the last century America, and thus so many of his thoughts are alien to modern society. Bear in mind not only do you read this as an excellent adventure story that redefined the genre, but also pay attention to how he wrote. The sentence structure, his use of alliteration and metaphor, the fluidity of style. But, also remember that just as half the experience of writing a letter is using a comfortable pen and paper, half the experience of reading is the book itself.

"This isnít a First Edition but it's very close. This particular book is older than your grandfather who, incidently, was born within sight of what I believe are the mountains described in the early pages of this work. So as you read, feel the cover, the contrast of the ink with the paper from trees older than you can imagine. Imagine the dozens of people who held this particular work and what thoughts and emotions went through their souls as they held and read this novel."

The next evening she returned, demanding the sequel. And so, to our discussions of politics and geography and nature, we added questions of "could the Mangani described by Burroughs be A. Robustus as we believe Bigfoot to be or another form of gorilloid?" "How can a human mammal mate and produce viable and fertile young with an alien non-mammal when human and chimp share 96% genetic material but cannot?" Wouldn't Soviet experiments in long term space flight prove that within a few months, John Carter's bones would loose calcium and his muscles adapt and weaken due to lack of exercise in earth's gravity and so cause him to loose his Earthly advantage on Mars" and so on.

One day we were driving to Arizona's Canyon Lake to go kayaking. As we approached the Superstition Mountains my daughter commented that if they would dig a tunnel north from Florence Junction to the Lake, we wouldn't have to go around the mountains and it would reduce our drive time.

I commented that if they had the money to do so they may very well accidently discover either the lost Dutchman Mine or John Carter's cave.

This, of course sparked another discussion on the improbability of the Dutchman actually discovering his legendary mine to the media reports of finding a totally imaginary portal to another world. I then said "How do you know it's imaginary?"

"Because", said she, the Mariner voyages have proven that Mars is totally unlike the Barsoom of Burroughs!"

"Would you like to hear a true story?" I replied.

* * * * * * * *

It was some 35 years ago when I was younger than you are now. Being poor with an absent father and a mentally ill mother I spent most of my time alone, in the desert, searching for myself. And so I would grab my war-surplus gear (which was all I could afford), hop on my motorcycle and spend days in the Superstitions searching for the Dutchman's mine. It's only an hour north of Tucson and a pleasant bike-ride so why not?

Yes, I know it was a long shot. The Dutchman had a history of discovering gold but he spent it as fast as he found it so why change his pattern for one mine? But I wasn't there for the vain hope of getting rich, I was there to get away from my family. And so I would choose a canyon, park my bike and hike in, camp out, and explore. One evening I was camped in one such canyon when three men approached. All with heavy backpacks and all armed with handguns, rifles and, strangely enough, swords.

You have to remember that this was a different time. Back then it wasn't unusual to see people armed in the desert or even in town. Today, you grab your cell-phone and call for the police, but back then you invited them to share your fire and so I did. Besides, I was carrying a carbine and Enfield bayonet myself so why worry.

I recall that the leader was called Brian something... perhaps Brian Hewett? But I don't remember the names of his companions. I also noticed that Brian wore a Pentagram around his neck which back then was also very rare. Remember, in the early 70's you could count the number of Witches in Arizona on your fingers and have fingers left over. Today we have almost 5,000 pagans in Tucson alone. So, while the firearms were not unusual the Pentagram and swords were. And back then if you saw another pagan you chased them down and immediately became friends simply because there were so few of us. Such is the way the world changes--the unusual exchanges places with the accepted.

When he asked what I was doing here, I told him about my casual search for the Lost Dutchman Mine and asked him about his Pentagram.

"Well," he replied, "I'm a Witch from Los Angeles and a few years ago I was exploring these very same mountains with some companions. Larry here (That was his name!) and a couple others. We never found the mine."

We talked for an hour, discussing the Legend of the mine and where to look, then I finally asked why they were back and armed to the teeth, especially with swords. Brian laughed and said "We're going to Barsoom." At which his companions laughed as if at some inside joke.

"Barsoom?" I asked, "as in Edgar Rice Burroughs, Princess of Mars Barsoom?"


"I don't know how to tell you this but all that pot you put into your incense in L.A. has scrambled your brains. Barsoom is fiction. This rock is real."

You see, Cerridwen, you could talk like that to people in the good old days before road rage became common.

Then Brian said "Are you familiar with H. P. Lovecraft?"

I nodded the affirmative.

"Lovecraft had nightmares. Lots of nightmares. His way of dealing with them was to write them down. And among his nightmares was a mythology of Cthulhu who spoke to certain receptive men in their dreams. Suppose, just for a moment, that Lovecraft possessed some mild telepathic ability and he was able to tune into some Elder God's mind, and that Elder God sent him messages or images or such. Now Lovecraft, being both human and a writer, would interpret these 'visions' in the manner he could handle. He may have been writing down not his fevered imagination but actual messages scrambled by his own interpretation."

Now I was getting interested. "Sort of like when the Roman Emperor Constantine and his generals had a vision before a battle. Constantine saw Jesus but his generals saw Mithras? They each saw what they wanted to see?"

"Exactly" replied Brian. "So suppose that Burroughs also had some minor telepathic ability and somehow tuned into the minds of an interplanetary adventurer and observed what he was doing, either here or in a parallel universe. Burroughs, being a story writer, would write down what he 'saw' in these visions or dreams and then simply think that he had a good yarn that may make him money."

"OK," I offered. "Assuming that this is true or could be true, what makes you think that John Carter was in these mountains and that his cave even exists? Arizona, after all, is a big state."

Brian smiled and said, "Because I found it!" He paused as I pondered that revelation. "Think of it," he said, "You can find silver and copper almost everywhere in Arizona but gold in any amount is found only in the Superstitions. And the Apaches that lived around here also match Burroughs' description. A few years ago, with some friends on school vacation, we decided to hunt down the Lost Dutchman. Most of us were history students so knew a lot about the old legends. Even if we didn't find the mine we were guaranteed a good grade on our term papers.

"However, what we acutally found a week into our trip was a cave with an Indian mummy inside. Dried by the arid atmosphere and overlooked by scavengers the mummy was surrounded by a few artifacts--some bells and such with fragments of string and almost no spiders. Not long after we entered the cave to look around, I noticed that I began to get dizzy. When I turned around everyone else was unconscious. Before I could get to the door I passed out myself.

"Later we woke up but no longer in that cave. We were clothed but cold even though it was daylight. The ground was rocky and covered with reddish-yellow moss but the sky was pink! Not blue or black but pink! Maybe it was dust from the red dirt or maybe it was light bent by the atmosphere but it was really strange. Also the Sun was smaller than normal, maybe half as large as it should be. And there were two moons in the sky, one of which moved backwards. When I stood up, I fell over but it took forever to hit the ground. The gravity was less than on Earth.

"By the time we were all awake, I saw a ship floating in the sky in the distance. It was too far away to attract attention but I could see banners and such flying from the short masts. The ship flew across the sky and vanished over a horizon that seemed so close I felt like I was at the edge of the world.

"Also Fred was having an asthma attack. The air was so thin he couldn't breathe. We were in a vast depression but it also seemed like we were in Denver, the air was that thin, but far colder than Colorado in winter. We didn't move around too much and, though we were there all day and that night our exploring was limited to finding a way home. Finally, we found a shallow cave nearby formed by a pile of rocks and marks inside as if something had been dragged out. We entered, passed out again, and woke up back in that indian's cave.

"Larry here was an astronomy student and tried to figure out where we had been. All we could think of was that we had been on Mars. Between the size of the Sun, the double moons, the thin air and low gravity, the moss and the airship, I'm convinced we found a way to Barsoom."

"Ok," I asked. "If true, why didn't Burroughs mention the pink sky or the backward motion of the moon? You'd think that these would be striking enough to warrant notice. Plus, John Carter arrived naked while his body remained on Earth."

Cerridwen, remember that this event was years before the first color photos came in from Mars. The scientists examining those pictures thought the camera was faulty when it showed a pink sky. They eventually found a picture with part of the lander visible and a US flag in sight. The scientists adjusted the photograph's colors until the flag was correct and discovered that the sky of Mars really was pink! But let me continue my meeting with Brian, who had offered some interesting speculations:

"We don't know how astral projection works or even if that was what happened. Maybe Carter arrived on Barsoom naked because he believed that he had to? Christian mythology suggests that the soul is naked so if John Carter believed himself to be dead, then he would also believe that he should be naked and so was. I, being a Witch and not having that philosophy, believe that when you astral project, you take on the form and clothing that you wish. Belief makes reality. So we arrived there clothed. And that's why we are ready this time. Weapons, food, medical supplies, cameras--everything we need to survive."

"And the sky and motion of the moon?" I asked again.

"Burroughs was a story teller. No one would believe a pink sky. He was also terrified that they'd lock him in an asylum for writing Under the Moons of Mars. Mentioning a pink sky and reverse lunar motion would just add to his fears."

"Look at it like this," Larry chimed in, holding his fists up. "The Earth rotates slowly but the moon revolves even slower." He slowly turned his left fist over and held the finger of his right hand far away and moved it around the fist even more slowly.

"Notice how the moon appears to rise in the east and move to the west when it is really moving in the opposite direction? It's an illusion created by perspective. Sort of like when you drive a car really fast, the sign posts next to the street whiz by but the trees in the background seem to crawl past and the mountains in the distance don't move at all. None of them are moving at all, you are, but the illusion of perspective makes it look like everything around you is moving, and moving at different speeds.

"Now, suppose the moon were closer and, according to Keppler's laws of motion, this satellite would be moving much faster." He demonstrated by bringing his finger closer to his fist and moving it faster. Even though it is moving in the same direction, because it is revolving faster than the planet is rotating, it shows true motion but looks like it's going backwards. And that's exactly what happens on Mars. The closer moon, Diemos, moves so fast it overtakes the motion of Mars and appears to move from west to east but Phobos, being further out and thus moving slower, is seen to move from east to west. It's all very simple really."

"And why go there?" I asked, knowing the answer before they spoke up.

"Because this world is screwed up!" broke in one of the others.

Ok, Cerridwen, he didn't say 'screwed' but you know how I feel about that kind of language.

"The Vietnam War has been going on since before 1940 and shows no signs of ending, yet we draft and send thousands of men to kill and be killed in a useless war. We are murdering hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women and children with napalm and bullets and for what? So some president can get re-elected on the blood of the innocent. The air and water are polluted. Taxes are rising and if you don't pay for the war, they throw you in jail. Why stay here?"

"Because you'd rather be killed by a Green Man or a Banth?" I suggested.

Brian spoke up. "We all die someday. It'll be in a car crash on the L.A. Freeway or a bullet in Vietnam or even by a rattlesnake tonight. If we are lucky we die of old age in bed, but probably not. At least this way I can choose the manner of my death and it'll be my choice, not someone else's. Besides, you want to adventure yourself. Why else would you be in a desert canyon looking for a mine that doesn't exist--if not for the excitement?"

Well, we all went to sleep shortly after that. When I woke up, they were gone. I had really wanted to go with them, Cerridwen. I don't know why I didn't, though if I had we might not be having this conversation. Still, truth be told, maybe I was a little scared. Maybe I was afraid that it was true. Maybe it was that even though my life here wasn't all that good I knew I could deal with it. I never found out which canyon they entered or where that cave was and later, simply stopped looking. But even today I carry a kit in the trunk and backpack just in case--those things you laugh at me for carrying.

Let this be a lesson, daughter. The Gods offer rare opportunities. If you ignore the knock at the door, they give it to someone else--and you may regret your decision forever. Should I ever find that cave, should the chance happen again, I'm going.