Shivers in the cold remind me of Sam McGee


By Cindy Beamon
Albemarle Life Editor

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

I am reminded of my father on cold days like these.

He loved reciting "The Cremation of Sam McGee," a poem about a gold prospector who yearns for warmth while freezing to death in the Yukon province of Canada. The folk tale is mixed with humor that my dad appreciated in the rhymes of Robert William Service.

Here's how the poem describes the subzero cold:

"Talk of the 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."

The poem was especially meaningful to my father because of freezing days he spent climbing telephone poles as a repairman.

Dad never forgot those cold days even after he moved to a desk job. Each winter, he would crank up the heat in the car as hot as it would go. My mother would choke from the swelter while he and I basked in the warmth.

Finding warmth on a cold day still ranks high on my scale of comforts.

One of my happiest holiday moments this season was centered around the blaze in our fireplace. It brought instant joy one night after I arrived home from a cold, wet assignment outdoors. I felt its warmth inside even before my iced fingers felt heat on the outside.

Everyone has had a chance to shiver recently. Driving to work this morning, my car thermometer hit only 15 degrees. The water is frozen in the canal behind our house, so the ducks cannot get to the corn we've left them. I've seen another flock of ducks huddled together in a bunch, apparently to keep warm and stir the water so that it does not freeze. Our cats rarely venture from the heat on days like these.

This cold spurt is not the worst the area has experienced. Our newspaper reported that back in December 1917 and January 1918 (ten years after The Cremation of Sam McGee was published) the the Pasquotank River was frozen five inches thick in some places.

Our cold may not be that extreme, but it's extreme enough that we are taking some precautions. We've checked the oil in our tank to make sure our back-up heat supply doesn't run out. I am also more mindful about not locking myself out of the house. Getting locked out is always an inconvenience, but getting locked out in the cold is scary.

My fingers and toes have frozen numb, and painfully thawed later, on enough occasions to fear such calamities. One time, I trod through snow in lightweight shoes while waiting for a ride back to college after Christmas break. My feet throbbed for hours in the car.

In “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” the ill-fated prospector finally has a chance to warm up after his death. Sam McGee's friend promises to cremate his remains and heaps up a fire against the bitter cold around Lake Laberge. I will not spoil the ending for readers who may not have discovered the poem yet. Instead I will end close to where the poem begins:

"The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was the night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee"