Sunday, August 1, 2010

Returning to the trenches

Today I am flying home, while Mrs. Grumpy finishes her family visits. So while I travel, I leave you with one of my favorite poems.

The Cremation of Sam McGee

by Robert Service

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely way that "he'd sooner live in hell."

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold, till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead — it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you, to cremate these last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows — Oh God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared — such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear, you'll let in the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.


Angela said...

ha! I love that Poem, my mom used to read it to me when I was a kid!!!


Maha said...

Cremation of Sam McGee is one of my favourites as well! When I was a kid, the parental units bought me a giant picture book of this poem and I've loved it ever since!

The Good Cook said...

One of my favorites!

Deb said...

This is my father's favourite poem. He used to recite it to us on long trips. That and the song "the 12 days after Christmas". Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I thought only us kids from Anchorage knew Robert Service's works, (though, his background was probably more Canadian.)

Wayne Conrad said...

It is my, and my father's, favorite. We're from Seattle, though--not Alaska.

Alpine, R.N. said...

That was the first poem my dad taught me when I was three!!! I LOVE IT!!! (yes, my dad was a bit odd)

The Mother said...

Abandoning the Mrs. with the kids, for that long drive home.

Hubby has done that to me before. I got even by stopping at Emeril's with the kids on the way.

ToniG said...

Now this is the kind of poetry I understand and appreciate. Just a simple creature!

Heather said...

Heh - I'm a TN native. I know a man who swears he doesn't make his own heat and uses no a/c in the summer unless he's expecting guests. I don't *think* his name is Sam....

In looking at schools I have to admit that part of my search questions include "Does it have a real winter? With snow and everything?"

mcgee said...

Love that poem.

First time I heard it was at summer camp. We were all sitting around a near-out camp fire, on top of a bluff overlooking the lake. The guy reading it was near the edge of the bluff with the night sky behind him. A storm was rolling in, so we had thunder and lightning for special effects. The storm held off 'til the very end of the story, then the sky opened up and we got drenched running through the woods back to camp. It was memorable.

Brit said...

Margaret/Heather - ugh! One of my requests in a school is that it is someplace warm. I've spent my life in the islands of Alaska and then Northern Utah, a mile up in elevation and 50 miles from the coldest spot is Utah. Ugh! I'm so sick of being cold, of biting winds, having to walk through a foot of snow, falling on ice, and I'm most sick of it snowing in May!

Dr. Grumpy - On your previous posts I think your son Craig is a wuss who must live somewhere warmer than me. I've been up camping in those "chilly" mountains, and right now I think they are perfectly fine, nice warm and beautiful. And by camping I mean a tent, not a fancyschmancy trailer with heating. Also I'm curious where MiddleofNoWhere Utah is, sounds close to my hometown.

I momentarily panicked for a while when I realized that I was also on a family reunion in a MiddleofNoWhere (which is actually most of Utah). Then I realized that, thankfully I have no neurologists in the family with 3 kids, and your family vacation sounds drastically different from mine. Fry sauce is ketchup, ranch (or mayonnaise if ranch isn't available) and a dash of mustard. Trust me, in high school the kids would make their own fry sauce.

Anonymous said...

A lovely old chestnut that reminds me of my Dad. It was a favorite poem always read aloud after dinner on Thanksgiving day with a wee dram of his favorite "beverage". Thanks for the memory bump.

Yankee Gal

Anonymous said...

My fifth grade English teacher used to read this to my class. She is 97 now and still reads poetry

Anonymous said...

I just got home from Alaska (my mother lives there) and while I was there, I introduced her to this poem. Great coincidence to see it here, I didn't know anyone else appreciated it! An absolute jewel.

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