Thursday, May 8, 2008


I volunteer at my local hospital on my days off. One of the gentlemen that I have had the pleasure to visit and spend time with is quite up there in years. I adore listening to stories of days gone by, of simpler, less hasty times. I like hearing how his family immigrated here, the hardships faced and joys realized. It was during one of these visits that we discussed literature.

I mentioned that one of my all time favorite pieces was the following:
~~Cremation of Sam McGee~~

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

Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a
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
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

And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead were dancing heel and
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 'taint 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

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
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in
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-

With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise
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
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 - O 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
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
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
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

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace

And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he 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.

~~Robert W Service ~~
~January 16, 1874 - September 11, 1958

This gentleman sat there in his chair and began to recite this in it's entirety. He never stumbled, he never waivered. Not once did he need to pause to search his memory. If I hadn't been sitting there in person I'd have wondered if he was reading it, so fluent was his recital.

I have never had a man recite poetry of any type to me. This was a very special moment, one that I shall cherish forever.

This was recited to me not for personal gain , certainly not to show off, it was done for pure pleasure. It was done because I mentioned that it was one of my favorite pieces. It was done as a gift, given freely from the heart.

I love my volunteering, it is so rewarding in more ways than one. I have found many treasures on my volunteering travels, but I don't think any have touched me in quite the way this one did.

The next time someone passes off an elderly person as just being old, remember this ...remember this man reciting a long ballad from memory, fluently and completely. The elderly are a treasure trove of information, but rarely is it accessed as the young are too busy. I feel blessed to have found the time.

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