The Cremation of Sam McGee; how to stay warm in winter

At an elegant formal state dinner, two icons of world statesmanship in the 20th century huddled at the head table. Ronald Reagan, and British Prime minister Margaret Thatcher were engrossed in deep conversation oblivious to others or the protocols of the occasion. Obviously they were working out solutions to the world’s problems, great issues and momentous decisions.

Or perhaps something even more gripping. They were quoting their favorite passages from Robert Service’s poetry; including his two classics, “The Cremation of Sam McGee, and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

Robert Services was never poet laurite, never won a Nobel Prize for literature, is never ranked with William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, or Emily Dickinson, rarely mentioned in university literary texts or classes. He is only memorized and quoted by the literary blue collar set including your occasional president, prime minister and perhaps king.

Robert Service can also be a thorn in the side of those of us who agonize over our phrases and remember Mark Twain’s sage observation, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug.”

Service would often saunter off on a stroll and come back casually with a pocketful of poems. It seemed he could exhale his verse as easily as exhaling his breath. He would see a scene or think a thought or remember a story and the words would practically leap up, organize themselves in ordered ranks and stand saluting him. It was unjust

He also enjoyed a rather pleasant and profitable stroll through life. He tromped over his boyhood home Scotland, then England, Canada, Alaska, and the American Southwest. He was a favorite of the Hollywood set during his sojourn there leaving other poets to exclaim unpoetically “Aaaargh, if only…”

I was filling an assignment for a speech class in high school, as usual plotting to do the least work for the most grade. I chose to read Sam McGee because it was shorter than many poems and had no hard words or subtle innuendos the teacher Mr. Williams would make me deal with. I read through the poem once, got hooked, memorized it and flabbergasted Mr. Williams and the speech class the next day (And got a rare “A”). The poem has been my companion since. I am here reprising my high school performance using the insight, experience and aged look I had to fake back then.

To maintain the literature motif, we might say this is a poem for all seasons. In the summer, chill out with the first part of the poem, in the winter warm up to the last part, and on gloomy days in any season chuckle with the story.

One word of caution, don’t try this at home.

The Christmas I don’t remember best

Every year I see newspapers and magazines printing accounts of peoples’ most unforgettable Christmas. This is mine. It is unforgettable because technically for something to be forgotten it must have happened. This Christmas never did.
As Christmas approached I was plying my way deep into the South Pacific. I was headed for a group of islands which on maps of the world are depicted as pen point dots. But this is an exaggeration. They are smaller than that. I had made my way from San Francisco to Suva Fiji aboard an 80,000 ton British liner named The Oranse, At Suva I transferred to a (slightly) modified tugboat the Tofua. This little workhorse and its sister ship the Hifofua were in those days the Tonga Islands’ connection with the outside world. Their bi-monthly visits brought food, mail, and the rather rare outsider.
I was too early out on this great adventure to be homesick, but it was Christmas Eve, and who knew what tomorrow would bring so I decided to open my present.
I went inside and down to my cramped quarters where the engine and propeller noise combined with diesel fumes and the yawing and lurching of the little ship against the rolling waves encouraged land lubbers to pop back on deck and head for the rail to feed the fishes. I had been out long enough to earn my sea legs by now and my sea stomach.
I climbed up to the bunk which I shared with two of my suitcases. I fished out of the bottom of one a longish flat box Christmas wrapped. The contents had slowly died during my three weeks at sea and layover waiting for the Tofua.
I had received the present from my panting mother in the Ogden, Utah train station. She realized at the last minutes that I would be gone for Christmas (and two more.) She couldn’t bear the thought of one of her children having no presents to open so she dashed to somewhere and returned with this box. My brother Gordon and I had become quite expert over the years at shaking and squeezing the presents under the tree to fathom what was in them.
But this long thin box that rattled was a no brainer. The only question was what the picture would be on the jig saw puzzle. But strangely it rattled less and less, then stopped altogether as we sailed between Hawaii and Fiji. An ant farm that suffocated? Exhausted Mexican jumping beans? A dead rattle snake? Only one way to find out. I tore open the paper and the box and extracted the world’s largest solid piece of peanut brittle. The moist sea air had welded the brittles together until it was one huge bar of caramel and peanuts. It was good for a laugh, and good for an all day and half the night sucker.
I tossed and was tossed in my bunk until I was tired enough to drop off (to sleep, not the bed). While I slept the International Date Line sneaked in like the Grinch and stole my Christmas.
When I awoke it was December 26, Boxing Day in the British Commonwealth of which Tonga was sort of an associate member. Boxing Day as everyone knows who has studied British culture in minute detail, is the day you go around and give gifts to the door man, the mail carrier, the butler, and others who have served you during the year.
It is also the day if you are Elder Hiatt you begin to serve others as a missionary to bring people to Christ. And hopefully in the process you learn a bit more about what Christmas is really about.
The years I spent in Tonga were one of the best investments in my life. But in the day trading I came out on the short end. On the way down I lost a Christmas. Coming back I picked up an extra Friday the thirteenth.

Sing For Joy

When the angels sang on that first Christmas night, I hope they didn’t have auditions for the choir. Maybe it’s not an issue up there. If everything is perfect, in heaven I suppose nobody ever sings flat or hits a clunker on the harp.

But then again, I’m thinking perfection is going to take some doing even in heaven. Their entry level choirs may well sound like many of the choirs I have sung in. Like everything else in a Mormon ward, the choir members and director are all volunteers. This means we are not often mistaken for the Tabernacle Choir. But we always deliver a spiritual message. Sometimes it is humility for us and endurance for the folks in the congregation. And we brethren are sometimes the musical rendition of the parable of the lost sheep. We also have our own home made proverbs:

“I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

“I can carry a tune. I just can’t unload it.”

“I sing tenor—ten or eleven notes off key.”

“I’m a bass, and that’s about as low as you can get.”

Actually in church choirs there are few true tenors or basses. Most of us are middle of the scale guys straining to get up to the high notes or groaning to get down to the low ones.

But apparently there is more to music than tones and pitches.

Alexander Schreiner a fine musician, in fact an organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was approached by a distraught choir director in their ward. She was artistically pained by a member of the choir who sang with more enthusiasm than ability. She said, “Brother Schreiner we simply must get brother so and so to leave the choir so we can achieve our potential to make beautiful inspiring music.”

Brother Schreiner replied, “Brother so and so is one of the most faithful members in our ward. He enthusiastically gives his best to serve the Lord and help others. He takes the same attitude to his singing in the choir. So don’t listen too carefully to the notes he sings, or you may miss the music.”

King David the psalmist put it this way, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” (Psalm 100)

I like to think that’s what the angels were doing that night shouting hallelujahs and hosannas to earth and outer space at the birth of the new king. I think it was open mike night in the skies over Bethlehem. That’s how it sounds in my Bible; not one virtuoso soloing while the rest applauded. It was a “a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and saying…Glory to God in the highest…” (Luke 2)

When somebody preaches or prays the rest of us respectfully listen. But when we join in song every person gets to sing out his or her own declaration of faith, hope, and gratitude. Often we do it in gentle blending, but sometimes like the angels that first Christmas night we can open our hearts and our voices with a shout of praise, a “joyful noise,” and a hallelujah. What a world this will be when some historian records of, “… multitude(s) of the earthly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace good will toward men.”.

What Child is This?

For a cineminute of Duane performing this weeks post, click here.


What child is this? In this beloved Christmas carol we place ourselves alongside the shepherds, and the wise men, who came later, as we worship and adore the newborn king even the Savior of all people, the Lord Jesus Christ. What child is this they asked in awestruck wonder.

With all due reverence to the Lord, we might ask the same of every newborn child. Each one is a miracle. This little princess is not yet one full day old, and already her mind and intellect are gathering and processing information at a speed that compared to adults is a race between an oxcart and a jet plane. She will learn as much in the first eight years as she will the rest of her life.

She will discern and fashion language, ideas, inspirations, and insight and she will sense the good and the beautiful by the Spirit of Christ in her heart and mind.

Her mouth will fashion words, and her heart will help her choose words that will lift and inspire those around her. She will sing for joy, and sometimes for sadness.

Her lips will kiss away sorrows and express her love.

Her ears already hear with delicate precision. They will revel in the call of birds, bubbling brooks, words of poetry and inspiration. She will love hearing truth and goodness spoken

Her feet and the rest of her body are miracles of engineering with delicate bones and joints that will monitor and adapt to smooth, slick, and uneven surfaces.

Tightly organized nerves in her toes will continuously send messages to her ears and brain to keep her balanced as she will run, and skip and dance.

Though she is tiny and delicate, pound for pound this little princess is literally as strong as an ox. Her tiny fingers possess a grip so strong that if they clench tight in her sleep, the fingers would break before they released if you tried to force them open..

These hands will grow, and become skilled. She may play music or baseball, paint portraits, dig or in the earth. More importantly, those hands will reach out to the downtrodden, wipe away the tears of the grieving, lift the hands of others who lack strength. They will be the hands of the Christ himself as they do his work. They will fold humbly in prayer to give thanks for his own pierced hands suffered for her and for us.

She will do these things because she will have watched her mother and others who love her. It will be natural for her to do the same. She is our new granddaughter. Our precious present from heaven.

For her and for every child, every person, each of us, the important question is not what child is this, but whose child is this. We are each children of God with a heavenly heritage, and as such, what is our potential? The Christ child grown to manhood said, “What manner of men (and women) ought ye to be? Verily I say even as I am.

Merry Christmas.