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The Cremation of Sam McGee

January 23, 2013

Yesterday I came home for lunch, and while I was alone in the house with the four cats, there was a tremendous noise and then the sound of falling water. I ran into the kitchen and saw nothing, so then went down the stairs to the basement and found water in the utility room, all around the sump pump and the furnace. I didn’t know which one had caused it, so I called both service companies, and since it has been single-digit cold here, both were very busy with people who had a broken furnace or problems with their gas line. It was 7 pm before one of the plumbers from the company that put in the sump pump came out and discovered that the pipe they put in to run the water from our basement to outside had frozen outside the house. The pipe was put in wrong, he told us, to which we responded that it was his company who had dug up our front yard last March to achieve this result.

So it’s bone-chillingly cold and big, expensive things are breaking. For now, we have a sawed-off pipe spilling water out of the basement right next to the house.

This morning I woke up to find an e-mail from my firstborn that made me laugh:
“I need a poem to read in class Thursday and I have forgotten every single poem I have ever read. Which poems do I like?”
As I was replying, pointing her to poems available online, I realized that this seven-degree-Fahrenheit morning makes me think about a poem by Robert Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” My mother used to read this poem out loud, and she was particularly good at a spooky voice for the stanza in italics at beginning and end:

The 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 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 cursèd 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 those 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— 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 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 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.

Living here, in the northern town that made Daniel Decatur Emmet so homesick he created or stole the song Dixie about missing the south, I know how it is to have to go out in the cold that “stabs like a driven nail” even through an extra-insulated parka.

We’ve done what we can to cope with the cold; we brought a desk lamp with an incandescent bulb out to the garage and have left it on underneath the rabbit hutch overnight, to help keep the temperature in the garage above freezing. Now all we can do is huddle inside beside the gas logs and think about Sam McGee. How do you cope when it’s cold?

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2013 9:01 am

    I curl up under a blanket with a book and a cat and plan my vegetable garden. I drink. I nap. I wait.

    • January 24, 2013 7:13 pm

      I do all of those except substitute planning my beach vacation for planning a vegetable garden.

  2. January 23, 2013 9:17 am

    I forgot about that poem!! Love it . . . I layer clothes, even at home. And I just don’t go out as much . . .MDC

    • January 24, 2013 7:15 pm

      I have on two or three layers every day right now, and don’t go out any more than I have to. Putting gas in the car, in particular, is something I dread.

  3. January 23, 2013 9:55 am

    I LOVE this poem.

  4. January 23, 2013 10:00 am

    My dad had a bunch of service committed to memory, and he used to recite it to us all the time. Funny how now I see how you might relate when you first moved to Ohio….

  5. January 23, 2013 11:03 am

    We used to read this out loud regularly. It’s that kind of poem. One of my childhood favorites.

  6. January 23, 2013 2:26 pm

    I remember reading this one in high school, and sympathizing with poor Sam with all my heart – I lived in the snow belt then. Now I live in a drafty old house up on piers, and even the mild Louisiana winter is sometimes too cold for me; before we finally insulated the floors, my personal pilot light was constantly going out. My electric blanket is my dearest possession after my books.

    Sending suitcases full of sympathy to you Jeanne – this is just too much after what y’all went through last year. Ugh.

    • January 24, 2013 7:17 pm

      “My personal pilot light.” What a good phrase! Mine definitely goes out this time of year and doesn’t get lit good until June.
      Thanks for the suitcases…we’ll see what happens when the ground thaws and this slightly shady plumber makes his proposal.

  7. January 23, 2013 3:34 pm

    Big, expensive things should not be allowed to break down when it is this cold out!

    • January 24, 2013 7:19 pm

      Yeah, we were upset, but felt sorry for the plumber’s young assistant who had to tromp around outside the house figuring out what was the matter. It was all of 7 degrees out and it was dark already.

  8. January 24, 2013 1:44 pm

    Ha!
    I’m partial to silk long underwear, myself.

  9. January 24, 2013 8:51 pm

    I would be so amazingly angry at your plumber!!! I would want to cremate him!

    • January 25, 2013 8:09 am

      We’re past being angry at him. I didn’t recite the whole list of woes he brought when he came the first time, but somehow this turn of events does not seem wholly unexpected.

  10. January 25, 2013 1:55 am

    Painful memories of a fun poem: In English IV I had to help read the poem aloud in Mr. Berntson’s class. “…that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge/I created Sam McGee.”

    • January 25, 2013 8:08 am

      Just because it is good out loud does not mean a class should be forced to read it out loud.
      I think I never realized until this moment that one of the things I relished about being in your classes was the absence of required activities that only extroverts enjoy.

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