Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service and Ted Harrison

My Dad had a thing for Robert Service. Probably because he lived in Alaska in the 1970's. He told us there was a diner there where there were giant bowls of food on a long table and you paid your bit and sat down to eat until you were full. Every Friday night, they would read Robert Service out loud. 

Although, I am pretty sure Dad liked Robert Service before he was in Alaska. I think Service poems may have been one of the northward motivators in his life. 

As I write all these things, I realize I should probably confirm all these details with Dad. But that seems like work, so I will just assume I am right. 

Because when am I ever wrong?!?

I got this book from a library book sale last fall. 

Do you know this poem?

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. 


I heard this poem a thousand times as a kid. As a parent, picking up an illustrated copy of the poem, I was a little surprised. Because who really needs to illustrate a poem of a man dying and being burned by his friend for children? I have yet to read this to my kids, but it sort of delights me in the absurdity of it. And I kind of love the pictures. 

As a kid, the weirdness of this poem never really struck me. I think kids often accept as commonplace things that adults think are too utterly too too for innocent children's ears. 

The gist of this poem is that Sam McGee was from Tennessee and he never acclimated to the Alaskan temperatures. As he lay dying, he made his friend promise to cremate him, not leave him to freeze. 

Sam was dying, so what could he do? He promised. But he hated the idea of it all. 

A promise made is a debt unpaid...

I love that line.

He does the deed in the boiler of a ship washed up on the marge of Lake Labarge. When he looks in to see how the cremating is getting along, 

(Yes, we have an illustration of the "cremation")

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 he said
"Please close that door.
It's fin in hear,
but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm--
Since I left Plaintree, down in Tennessee, 
It's the first time I've been warm." 

It is a crazy poem. But I kind of love all its weirdness. Alaska is weird. And I miss that place sometimes. 

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