Sep. 1, 2007


by Louis Jenkins

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Poem: "Seagulls" by Louis Jenkins, from North of the Cities. © Will o' the Wisp Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission.
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There were no seagulls in the harbor, none at the marina. I saw none in the air. There were no seagulls at Canal Park, or McDonalds, or at Russ Kendall's smokehouse, or at the Kmart parking lot, or any of their favorite hangouts. It's winter and snow is falling, but I don't believe seagulls fly south. I've often seen them standing around on the ice all day, as if they were waiting for a big bus to come and take them to a casino. Where are all the seagulls? This is not a question I ever thought I'd ask myself. You get used to someone being around and if they go away you miss them. That's how life is. But seagulls are primarily a nuisance, and if you can't count on that, what can you count on?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1939 that Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. There has recently been some debate among historians about what happened next. The traditional view is that Hitler's forces completely overwhelmed the Polish defenses with dive-bombing planes and high-speed tanks. There is a famous story about a group of Polish cavalrymen who rode out on horseback with lances and swords to fight the German tanks, and they were slaughtered in minutes.

But even though that's the story in many textbooks, some historians now argue the Germans actually did not have an easy time conquering Poland. The Germans sustained fairly heavy losses, including about 40 percent of all their planes. And though the Polish army did have horse-mounted cavalry divisions, they never charged tanks. That was a story invented by the Nazis for propaganda. In fact, the invasion consisted of a month of hard fighting, mostly by infantry, and the Polish forces were spread too thinly to protect the borders. Hitler arrived in Warsaw for his victory parade on October 5, 1939. Some 50,000 Polish troops had been killed or wounded and 750,000 had become prisoners of war.

Back in Germany, people were not celebrating. Most Germans remembered the horrors of the First World War, and they didn't want to go through that again. Two days after the invasion began, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. American journalist William Shirer was in Berlin as a correspondent for CBS Radio, and he wrote in his diary that day, "It has been a lovely September day, the sun shining, the air balmy, the sort of day the Berliner loves to spend in the woods or on the lakes nearby. I walked the streets. On the faces of the people astonishment, depression. Stunned."

Back in New York City, the poet W.H. Auden was inspired by the news of war to write what became one of his most famous poems, "September 1, 1939" which begins,

"I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night."

It's the birthday of one of the most popular pulp fiction writers in American history, Edgar Rice Burroughs, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1875). He had read Darwin's book Descent of Man, and he was fascinated by the idea that human beings were related to apes. He began to wonder what might happen if a child from an excessively noble, well-bred family were somehow left in the jungle to be raised by apes. The result was his story "Tarzan of the Apes," which filled an entire issue of All-Story magazine in October of 1912. It was one of the most popular issues the magazine had ever published, and within six-months, Edgar Rice Burroughs was a full-time writer producing about 400,000 words of short stories every year.

Burroughs went on to write all kinds of stories, from science fiction to adventure, but Tarzan was his most popular character and one of the most widely recognized fictional characters of all time. When the first Tarzan movie came out in 1918, as a silent film, it was one of the first movies ever to gross more than $1 million. There have since been more than 40 Tarzan movies, as well as comic strips, radio serials, and TV shows. When asked why he though Tarzan was so popular, Burroughs said, "[Tarzan] provides escape from the narrow confines of the city streets ... from the restrictions of man-made laws, and the inhibitions that society has placed upon us. We would each like to be Tarzan. At least I would; I admit it."

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