Sep. 1, 2008
I have a ticket in my pocket that will take me from Lynchburg
to New York in nine hours, from the Blue Ridge to Stuy Town,
from blue jays wrangling over sunflower seeds to my alarm
clock and startled pigeons. If I had a daughter I'd take her
with me. She'd sit by the window wearing the blue dress
with the stars and sickle moons, counting houses and cemeteries,
watching the knotted rope of fence posts slip by while I sat
beside her pretending to read, but unable to stop studying
her in disbelief. Her name would tell her that she's beautiful.
Belle. Or something strong, biblical. Sarah. She would tolerate
the blue jay and weep for the pigeon; she would have all the music
she wanted and always the seat by the window. If I had a daughter
she would know who her father is and he would be home writing letters
or playing the banjo, waiting for us, and I would be her mother.
We'd have a dog, a mutt, a stray we took in from the rain one night
in November, the only stray we ever had to take in, one night in our
cabin in the Catskills. It would be impossibly simple: two train tickets;
a man, a dog, waiting; and a girl with her nose pressed to the window.
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 back in 1899, 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.
He 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. Tarzan was also one of the first fictional characters to become an icon for mass-market merchandise. There were Tarzan bathing suits, Tarzan chewing gum, Tarzan ice cream, even Tarzan bread. There have since been more than forty Tarzan movies, as well as comic strips, radio serials, and TV shows.
For the first half of the twentieth century, Burroughs was the most widely read author in America. His novels have since sold more than 100 million copies.
It was on this day in 1939 that Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. The previous year, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had tried to prevent a war with Germany by allowing Hitler to take control of part of Czechoslovakia. But that compromise only encouraged Hitler to expand his power. He took control of all of Czechoslovakia, and then began to plan an invasion of Poland. He claimed that the only part of Poland he wanted was the city of Danzig, which he said was rightfully a German city.
And so, without making any formal declaration of war, Hitler ordered the invasion on this day in 1939. At the time, Poland had an army of 1.7 million men, and Hitler's invasion force consisted of only 800,000. But Hitler's army was the most advanced in the world. Whereas almost all of World War I had been fought on the ground, in the trenches, at a slow-motion pace, Hitler saw speed as the future of warfare. He began the invasion with dive-bombing planes, equipped with screaming sirens that would terrify the people on the ground. Then he sent in high-speed panzer tanks, which could drive over fences and destroy stone walls and buildings.
The Polish soldiers were completely outmaneuvered. In one of the battles, a group of Polish cavalrymen rode out on horseback with lances and swords to fight the German tanks, and they were slaughtered in minutes. The fighting lasted barely more than a month, and Hitler arrived in Warsaw for his victory parade on October 5, 1939. Fifty thousand Polish soldiers had been killed or wounded and 750,000 had become prisoners of war.
But 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."
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