My earliest memory of poetry: a small woman with cat-eye glasses, her
hair piled over her ears and hardened-with-hairspray, my mother, alone with
her five kids in near dark on a Salvation Army sofa, 5 children spaced in ages
within 8 years, in an Air Force on-base housing living room, bare walls
tacked-together by G.I.s and plastered white. My father was stationed in
Thailand to maintain the warplanes that were devastating Vietnam. Or
Goosebay Labrador. Or some less memorable place. In my memory, it was
Halloween, but I don’t remember costumes or candy or decorations. We were
poor. I remember bare white walls.
How old was I? Pre-kindergarten? No preschool in those days. But I
must have understood a lot of language. 4? I was the fourth of the five kids.
In the crowd and not the baby of the family, I listened and did not make
much noise. That night, in fact, I remember all five siblings listening and not
making much noise. Perhaps that is what makes the night memorable. Five
children listening to their mother.
Here is what I remember: The Cremation of Sam McGee. My mother read
it aloud to her children on that couch to celebrate Halloween. A story of
desperate prospectors who ran to Alaska during one of the last gold rushes of
the many in American history. How did I have that context? How did I get
it? The poet, Robert Service, gave five children the death’s cold of Alaska as
we sat, squeezing close to see the illustrations. And I remember the couch
vividly: tiny orange balls of polyester, an upholstery some 1960’s designer
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.
If I could quote it all by heart, the imagery of greed, the frozen corpse,
the living man happy and warm and consumed in flames. Without the poetry,
snippets of joy and horror remain for the child who lives in this adult’s
Two boys, three girls, a mother, a father, that’s seven. Seven mouths to
feed on an Air Force Sergeant’s paycheck. It did not occur to me how poor
we were because we lived under the protective aegis of what was then the
world’s most efficient socialist government: the United States Military.
Groceries and basic items were within reach in every sense at the commissary
& Base Exchange. The Stars & Stripes bookstore had all the important comic
books. Stars & Stripes radio played the top 40 Rhythm & Blues and later
Disco with the requisite white artists sneaking in, though the leftist political
& social criticism implied in most 60’s & 70’s rock kept them off the
military’s official air.
I was a teenager when I first noticed our poverty in a photograph of
what is, by coincidence, a snapshot of my richest Christmas memory. In the
black & white polaroid, three of us toddlers bouncing with blow-up plastic
Santa Clauses, our only gifts that year. We each got one. Five Santas, each
inflated by mouth, each bigger than the children. An oversized Christmas for
five toddlers. Huge smiles. All joy. Only joy.
As a teen with the reality of a memory staring back in stark black &
white, seeing bare walls and a skeletal fake tree, no furniture, with my teen’s
cognizance of price (a blow-up Santa Claus? At that time, maybe 25 cents
each? Christmas for 5 children, $1.25?) changed my memory. We were poor.
Who would have guessed?
I don’t remember my mother ever reading poetry before or since. Where
was the television? Did we not have one? Why wasn’t she silently smoking
alone at the kitchen table (which is how I remember her mostly)? Poetry was
never an assumed part of growing up a military brat.
Was it? Every base had a library. Every base had a Stars & Stripes
bookstore. I remember them all.