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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.”
The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service
From “Songs of a Sourdough

There is no Lake Lebarge anywhere in Canada. There is, however, a Lake Laberge. Robert Service used poetic license in order for it to rhyme.

It was in late April of 1973 when my friend Larry and I camped in the campground at Lake Laberge.

labergeAlamy Stock Photo

The Northern Lights

Have you ever seen them? “Those bright dancing lights that are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.” (Northern Lights Centre)

I had first seen them in Anchorage, and then in Fairbanks. But here, with the sound-absorbing three-foot layer of snow, I could actually hear them crackling and popping. I had always thought them to be silent, but “there on the marge of Lake Lebarge” I learned otherwise.

Larry, sound sleeper that he was, slept through the whole show. When I woke up the following morning, he was gone! Sleeping bag, back pack—everything. He had packed all of his gear into the car and left a note on the windshield saying we was restless and decided to hike along the (Haines Highway) road we were following.

So I packed my gear, collapsed the tent, and headed down the road. I caught up with Larry after about 5 miles. I’ve never seen anyone so glad to get in out of the cold!

We continued on into Haines (Alaska), only to find that the border crossing was closed. No barricade or anything, just a big sign that we would be committing a felony if we entered our own country without checking in with Customs. Even back then, it was harder for a U.S. citizen to re-enter her own country than it was to enter a foreign country. So after weighing the pros and cons, we decided not to take any chances. We parked and waited the 2 hours it took for the Customs dude to show up.

I don’t know what his problem was, but he wanted to know just about everything about me. Where I was going, where I was coming from, why had I been in Canada, did I have a job in the US, and just about everything but my shoe size. Larry (who was a Canadian citizen), just had to show his driver’s license and was waved in. I wondered if the fact that both Larry and the Custom guy both had short hair and smoked a pipe had something to do with it while I, a citizen by birth—and with long hair, a beard, and smoking a cigarette—was put through the wringer.

So On To The Ferry

Once you enter Haines, the highways end. There are no connecting roads to the rest of Southeast Alaska. The only way to go any further is by boat or by airplane. And that meant the Alaska Marine Highway System. You’ll forgive, I’m sure, when I admit that as I write this, some 45 years later, I can’t remember which ferry we took.

After a stop at Juneau, we continued down to Petersburg, our destination. Larry later left to go commercial fishing, while I found a job, got married, and had my first daughter.

I never saw the Northern Lights in Petersburg, but I do remember snowshoeing across the muskeg by the light of a full moon reflecting off the snow.

Thanks for reading!

Friday Nights At Ed’s

Yes, it’s been a while. The Dementors had a hold on me for far too long, but I’ve shaken them off.

A large part of shaking them off was Friday Nights at Ed’s. And therein lies a tale.

I first met Ed near the middle of August. I needed to find a place to live and I found Ed’s post on Craig’s List. He had a room to rent, and I answered. A week and an interview later, I moved in.

Ed hosted a small gathering of friends on Friday night. It was a potluck, with Ed providing the main course, and everybody chipping in with side dishes and desserts.

The first time I went, I hadn’t planned on attending. I went downstairs to the kitchen to fix myself a sandwich, and somebody—I think it was L.—told me to grab a plate and join in.

That was at the beginning of September, and I haven’t missed a night since. It took me a while to feel comfortable, but I managed to overcome my Social Anxiety Disorder and fit in.

It helped that I wasn’t the only one with emotional or mental issues. E., L., and J. suffer the Dementors, so they understand.

S. enjoys philosophical issues, as do I, so we have that in common. We both also are wrestling with weight issues, as we are both Persons of Size.

D. always serves as the bartender, and he mixes some wicked-cool drinks, which also help me relax. But let’s be clear: I know my limits, and only got drunk once. The rest of the time I’m a Good Girl™.

G. is always good for the herbal blessings; sometimes I participate, but most of the time I don’t. He’s also the permanent Dessert Queen, and his choices are always scrumdiddlyumptious. Just as some people have a knack for pairing foods with wines, G. is a master at matching for the munchies.

Other people drop by from time to time, and they always are a welcome presence.

Oh…one other thing: many of us are gay or lesbian, so I blend right in.

The point of All This

The Dementors feed on your loneliness. They strike while you’re at your lowest ebb, because that’s when you’re most vulnerable.

There are various ways to fight them: professional help—whether a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other form of counselor—is always at the top of my list of recommendations. Group therapy can also help you cope by putting you in touch with others who can share their experiences and help you that way.

For me, my group therapy is Friday Nights at Ed’s.

The USA By Rail

It’s been a while since I posted on this subject, but this entry is all about a journey! Specifically, Stacey and I are moving back to Seattle. I’m going there first, to find an apartment., etc., and she’s going to follow later.

After analysis, I’ve determined that rail travel is the way to go. I can carry more luggage than I can on an airplane, and the Trusty Old SUV™ won’t last on a 10-mile trip, much less one across the USA. So I’ve booked my seat on the Lake Shore Limited from here to Chicago. From there, I’ll be on the Empire Builder to Seattle.

Well, actually to Everett. It’s actually cheaper to bypass Seattle and get off in Everett than it is to get off in Seattle. Weird.

It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I spent most of the day printing out train schedules and route guides before learning that the route guides are available—free—on the train. I also Googled® “rail travel USA” so I’d be aware of any “gotchas” and prepare for the ahead of time.

One of the first “gotchas” I found was that freight companies own the rails, so they have priority. An experienced rail traveler’s blog said that she usually gives an Amtrak train a 60-minute window before she considers it late.

Except for short subway rides in New York City, the last time I did any serious rail travel was in 1960. We had just returned from my dad’s 3-year assignment in Japan with the US Air Force, and he had made arrangements to pick up a new car at the Rambler factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We got off the ship (air travel was too expensive in those days) in San Francisco, took a taxi to Oakland, and got on the train to Kenosha.

All I remember about that trip (hey! it was 56 years ago!) is (1) it was long, and (2) I had a ham and cheese sandwich in Ogden, Utah.

But this trip will be well-documented. Between my laptop, my iPad (WordPress app, built-in camera), my cell phone (ditto), my Nikon Coolpix® and my Canon digital SLR, I plan on keeping a detailed account of the journey. After all, this may be my last cross-country trip, and possibly my last train ride.

Of course there’s always the possibility of a jaunt from Seattle up to Vancouver, BC…. But that will have to wait until my name change, which will lead to my getting a passport.

So according to my ticket, I’ll leave Rochester at 11 p.m., August 15, and will arrive in Chicago at 9:45 the next morning. I’ll have a layover in Chicago until 2:15 the same day, and I’ll arrive in Seattle at 8:40 a.m on the 18th. (Oh, dear…what have I gotten myself into?)

And now that that’s all settled, it’s time for all the fun things about moving. Packing. Deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. Cleaning the apartment.

So little time, so much to do!

Robyn Jane

Knockin’ on heaven’s door

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
”Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” Bob Dylan

I first heard that song in 1973, when I was saw the movie “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.” It was a simple tune, and quite easy for me to learn on the guitar.

Kelly St. Clair, Jr.

Kelly was my partner in the security business we bought and renamed “T & S Security.” The “T” was for his daughter Tanya, and the “S” was for my daughter Suzzanne. They were the same age, and both of them less than a year old.

Because Kelly and I were business novices, and hadn’t exercised what we would later know as “due diligence” when we bought the business, we soon realized that it wasn’t bringing in enough income for us both to live on. So I gave up my half of the business and found work elsewhere.

We drifted apart, and I didn’t hear from Kelly for another 4 or 5 years.

I knew how much Kelly loved his daughter; he had told me many times that she was his reason for living. I, too, loved my daughter, and had hoped that the girls would grow up to be friends.

In my late twenties, the clinical depression that runs in my family manifested itself and I ended up in the hospital. My roommate? Non other than Kelly! It turned out that he had shut down the business and moved his family back to their home village of Hoonah, where he was employed as the chief of police.

Over the next two or three days we caught up, sharing stories of what we had done in the intervening years.

Finally, Kelly was discharged, and returned home.

Mama, Take This Badge Off Of Me

The next day, the head nurse, who was also a friend, told me that Kelly was dead.

It developed that when he got home, his wife, with whom he had been arguing, told him that Tanya, the light of his life and sole reason for existing, was another man’s child.

I never knew the truth of the matter; all I knew was that upon hearing the words, Kelly Frank St. Clair, Jr., the closest friend I have ever had in my life, took his .357 magnum revolver, placed the muzzle against his chest, and pulled the trigger. The hollow-point round exploded his heart, and he died instantly.

Knockin’ on heaven’s door

A few years later, I had the opportunity to visit Hoonah on an unrelated subject. Before I came home, I hiked to the cemetery and found my dear friend’s grave. I had brought my guitar, and standing over the grave, I sang the song I had learned all those years ago:

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

Bob Dylan

 

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

 

Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door

 

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

 

Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door
Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door

Thanatopsis

Every Death Is Different

My parents died 32 years apart, and I’m finding it interesting how different their deaths are. Or, to be accurate, how different my reactions are.

Because they’re truly different. I’m sure most of the differences lie in the fact that I’m not the person I was three decades ago. Then, I was much you get and had little first-hand experience with death. Know I’m older, and have lost more friends and relatives than I can easily count. So I guess the biggest change is that death is no longer the shock it used to be.

Another difference is that I had time to prepare myself for my mother’s death. She had fought cancer for so long that when she died, it wasn’t unexpected. Painful, yes. Devastatingly so. But I had had so long to prepare myself that it wasn’t a shock. And in a way, since she had been in such pain for so long, it was a relief.

It was different with my father. We had been estranged for years, only reconciling the week before his death. I knew that he had had a stroke, but I hadn’t been aware of how much his health continued to deteriorate in the following year. And unlike with my mother, I hadn’t had the opportunity to tell him all the things I wanted to say. I never got the chance to tell him how much he meant to me, and what an honor it had been to be his daughter.

And Every Death Is The Same

Sadness. Anger. Disbelief. Numbness. I felt all of these following my parents’ deaths. What I feel now, as I am writing, is a dull ache for my mother, but a sharp, stabbing pain for my father. I know that over time this pain will become the same dull ache that I feel for my mother. And I also know that it will never go away. But that’s okay; I don’t want it to go away. I want it to remind me of the two people who loved me more than anyone ever did.

Because if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is this: no matter who else they meet in their lives, no one will ever love your children as much as you, their parent, does.