Thomas R. McGurk, 82, on How Edgar Rice Burroughs Inspired one man’s long and colorful life

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A few months back a random comment appeared on a back article and caught my attention to the extent that I blogged about it.  The commenter was Thomas R. McGurk, then 81 years old, and that first comment resonated for me in the way it described the impact Edgar Rice Burroughs had had on Mr. McGurk’s life.  In that first comment Mr. McGurk wrote:

My father read ERB’s books as a kid. I took over at 9. Still read Priincess of Mars at 81. Especially like that scene where Carter fights to the death with that Thark and later tells Sola to run with Dejah as the Warhoons come down on them. She says, “Fly Sola, Dejah Thoris stays to die with the man she loves.” It’s got it, Man. Spent my life searching for Dejah Thoris. That John Carter was a lucky guy. Saw the movie twice and watch it every time it’s on Cable. Taped it so I can watch it when it’s not on Cable. Only bad thing is I was almost killed a few times trying to be him. Only other hero is Gen George Armstrong Custer. Course, I’m a dreamer. Waited 60 years for that movie to show. You have to have dreams in this world to appreciate it.  THOMAS MCGURK.

Yesterday in my email inbox was a message from Thomas, which he says I can share and I certainly do want to share it.  I think it speaks for itself, eloquently and clearly from the heart about something that means a lot to me — and that’s the myriad ways that Edgar Rice Burroughs touched so many of us, and affected the choices we made in our lives.   We’re now reaching sunset for the generation who discovered ERB when he was still alive, before the revival of the 60’s.  In reading Thomas’s story, it almost feels like reading the frame story for the beginning of an ERB tale — maybe The Mucker?

Anyway, this is much appreciated on many levels:

To Michael D. Sellers and the John Carter File

Just got back to your File on John Carter. I didn’t realize that my comment was so enjoyed and I thank you. I forgot to mention last time that I read almost all of ERB’s books in my young days and liked all of them. He had a great knack for keeping the reader’s interest, especially in the Mars books, as we yearn for him to find the heroine, Dejah. The first book I ever read was Pellucidar (I especially like the picture of that cave bear above him on the cliff) I think that picture alone turned me into a hunter, though I always was a gun lover and even now have two big game guns in my collection, a .375 H & H Magnum amd a 458 Win Mag, even though I never needed them for deer. When firing one of those, you know you’re firing a gun, (also a 45-70 Springfield carbine and a Winchester 73 of ERB’s cavalry days)

I guess David Innes made that imperative by mentioning he was thankfull to have his Express Rifle. Next came “The Land That Time Forgot” which long was my favorite along with “A Princess of Mars” the latter finally climbing to the top. JC and Dejah had to take number one in the long run ofmy 70 years reading and now, the long awaited movie added a different twist, but just as favorable. I read one and watch the other. I thought the trailers great, but then, I know JC. My Dejah was a bit more delicately feminine then Collins portrayed but when I split the versions, the book has one and the movie the other, both just as luscious, and Collins does have it.

As to the effect they had on me, I notice to this day, when I take one of my swords (which I also collect) in my hand, I get a feeling that I once wielded one not just for the beauty of it– it seems a part of me, and when I rode a motorcycle, at times, I had a weird urge to rev it up and drive into a group of imagined enemy, with it, the words, “Here, I come, right at you!”. Was JC, the cavalryman nudging me again, turning the bike into a charging horse? And the helmet, that most bikers don’t want, I love pulling onto my head, Watching Spartacus on Encore the other night, seeing those boys slide on theirs for battle as did the boys on Mars, reminds me why Way to go.

Once I thought, when I die how could I except it best, I’m certainly in bed or my sleep did not appeal to me, yet I never could get an answer to make it as pleasureable as possible until one day at Gettysburg, I was crossing the fields of Pickett’s charge, and as I strode uphill on the final rise where men were torn to shreds by cannister and mass rifle fire, I suddenly had it. Here is the place. Here I could take my end and be happy with it. Why of all places should I find the answer then and there–my thoughts not on it at the time?

Was it the mists of all those who died so violently there telling me something. Maybe I once did die there back in 1863 and I recalled it, or maybe it was the JC of my early days leading me to wistful imagination that I once had been brave as he was, always. (by the way, I do hunt the ghosts of the long heroic dead at Gettysburg–with a scientific approach. Oddly,I didn’t know I was dying slowly of cancer at that time and I noticed I was getting Deja-vu a few times around then.

As for my hopeless quest for Dejah Thoris, how could it be anything but that? She was a princess of Mars, a goddess of beauty thought up by ERB, and most likely, the one of his own dreams as well as ours. I often wonder what my father thought of her. but I’m sure it was the same, yet he had my mother, to me, most perfect of all, and I had a wife, a very pretty one and like my mother, very kind. How lucky we both were, yet still my dream girl and maybe his, was always just there beyond us in our minds, (though my father never talked about the books to me)

At times I sought her in strange places, even the dangerous streets of NYC in the Times Square upper area, that was, as the NY Times noted in 1971, in places especially near 8th Ave and 53rd Street, so bad to traverse that no other place on Earth beat it. But I found beautiful females at times all too close to there and had to pass through the bad to get to the good. I guess the adventure and the excitement was a little like what JC felt, at times, on the swards of the dying red planet as he quested for his princess.

Actually it was two girls that I went with before my wife that nearly got me killed as a young man. skinny, 5′-8 1/2″ tall, a shade of my hero that brought out the tough Newarker that I wasn’t, really, when. others desired my girlfriends in my young jealous days, bigger and older men, the JC firey temper helped me chase them off, saving me from trouble and injury. With that quick temper, I began to lift weights and started boxing for my own safety. Trying to be JC called for work, but a potential Dejah slowed that down and it wasn’t until later years, I joined a couple of Judo clubs and there in Randori and contests I saw judokai often hurt but JC kept me going despite it. Judo taught to avoid trouble if at all possible.
No, I never even came close to my boy. The battles he fought with the Tharks and Warhoons or the White Apes on Mars was far beyond my little matches on the Judo mats with the others of my sport for 5 years, but it did build courage and pride and, by luck, I was never badly hurt, though I drew credit for aggressiveness–I mean, I had to try to be JC as best I could..

In 2004 at 74, they found the cancer that was eating away at me finally, just in time, and I found it an oppurtunity to do real battle and my chance to face almighty death for real as he had and I loved it at times, espcially showing the doctors I had no fear of it though it was a tough road to handle the treatments administered. Yet, I could honestly say I could almost be my hero since that was his destiny always to face, and when the bright lights were overhead and I felt number one on center stage and the surgeon was ready, and the anaethesiologist was going to do his turn, I asked. “Is this it?” and the surgeon (one of the best at HUP in Philadelphia) said. “Yes,” and I laughed and said, “Goodnight” and then I let the laugh turn into the JC smile as he did when he went into battle to look at death.

When I became interested in Gen George Armstrong Custer after many years out of curiousity, and into his life story, I suddeny thought, I’ve found the real John Carter, or at least a young man worthy of him in ways (despite all the lies about him at the Little Big Horn). America’s real JC. war lover and swordsman, One of the real heroes of the Civil War, What proof? He was the pet of Gen Sheridan, the toughest, no-nonsense, hard-nose that ever lived. With him, you
produced big or you went home discraced. ERB was a cavalryman and here is an interesting thought. All cavalry men, except those trying to out do him in fame, had to admire him. Was Custer who ERB had in mind when he invented this great hero, John Carter?

By the way, Custer thought he was the reincarnation of Murat, Napoleon’s flamboyant cavalry general, and Gen. Patton thought himself, once, Custer. Is it ego or really a link there? I was always a ham, myself, and would risk breaking my neck gladly catching a long belt in softball if I could get some cheers from the crowd.

I added a few pages from my book, “Custer the Magnificent.” I’m fooling with. complete but needing some typing and editing that I keep putting off. I’m 82 next month, so I guess I better start hopping soon– even if not, it was fun). I chose that title to puzzle potential readers if it ever goes, since many today believe the lies about this great soldier. Thought you might like it to see a few pages of battle from it though you already may have read others similar. I’m competing here with Michael Blake’s “Marching to Valhalla” which would have made a great movie if it wasn’t shelved. Fiction from historical fact. Pass it on to The Forum if you want. He might be John Carter, and the beauty who was his wife. Libbie, might be Dejah. I wish I could ask ERB about that. When interviewed much later, Sitting Bull claimed Custer fired his last bullet at the Sioux, then laughed and died. Bull was not there but his warriors said it so. The JC response to death? Sounds like something both would do, though many versions exist on this final moment. John Carter, Custer and Spartacus–what would this world have been without them and ERB.

I never did accomplish much in the fame department, though a young fellow, years later, walked up to me and said, he’d heard about my wild escapades with the girls at my first job and wanted to shake my hand, The pay was lousey, but the benefits terrific. Even met my wife there. Was called a genuis once by a boss for my artistic renditions of robotic assembly lines though I never thought I was that good. Just a machine designer/artist, and other bosses saw me as a radical and a day dreamer. I was never a company man and a rebel at heart. Well, you mentioned you’d like to hear about me a little and I hope I didn’t overdo it–must be the JC exuberance transformed to me at early age.

As for my outlook on life, I think no man should pass through life without a legal gun in his belt, and I left NJ mostly because PA gave me a carry permit. Work yet as a security guard and hope to die like Custer and while still alive, live as best as I can like John Carter–wish I could carry my long sword, though at 82 next month, don’t know if I could still swing it without breaking my wrist even if it was legal.

Anyway, I’ll email you a few pages from my book. OK to put them on the Files if you’d like. You can let me know if I’m right about the cmparison and the possibility that ERB thought the same.

Just think, if Custer could have jumped around like JC, those Sioux might have thought him a god and given up.

Yours truly.
Thomas R McGurk


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