We seem to have a President's Poet.
A recent White House entertainment for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had the president squirming like a kid in his front row seat in eager anticipation of a recital of the verse of Robert W. Service, the poet who immortalized the Yokon Gold Rush.
Indeed, while the president was recuperating from his gunshot wounds, he asked for his own private collection of Service's Klondike poems to refresh his memorized lines of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," his personal favorite. In fact, Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau lingered over the lines of Service during their meeting in Canada in March, disrupting the president's schedule. It could not be confirmed whether Service's verse has come up between the two leaders this week at the summit conference in Canada, but the fact of the two leaders' fandom was not in doubt.
The most famous of Service's first lines (known by many more people than would care to admit it) goes: "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon."
Aides said they couldn't remember when the president enjoyed himself so much at a White House entertainment as when Vincent Dowling did his one-man recital from the works of the poet who first captured Reagan's interest at the age of 8. He was on the edge of his seat when Dowling followed up that first line: The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jagtime tune; Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew, And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's knows as Lou.
(At this point both men were rolling with the rhymes, the president mouthing the words right along with Dowling.) When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare, There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear. He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse, Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
Well, it turns out that McGrew ("a hound of hell") had stolen Lou's affections from the unnamed stranger and the only way to settle things was to shoot it out. Two guns blazed in the dark. And a woman screamed, and the light went up, and two men lay stiff and stark. Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGraw, While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.
Now for the typical O. Henry surprise ending that marked the last lines of so many of Service's poems. Anticipating it, Reagan began squirming again and nudging Mrs. Reagan and grinning: I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two -- The woman that kissed him -- and pinched his poke -- was the lady that's known as Lou.
Another Dowling selection that is the second favorite among Service fans set the president to smiling even more on a night that was pure sentimental enjoyment for him. This voyage over the Dawson trail ("Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail") was to "the marge of Lake Lebarge" for "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Considering the weather, it was a good choice as Dowling rattled on about McGee, who was from Tennessee and so hated the cold "he'd often say in his homely way that 'he'd sooner live in hell.'"
In this rhyming exercise, McGee, who had a dread of an icy grave, made his campanion swear that he would cremate him. When the worst happened, our storyteller suddenly came across a derelict ship trapped in the ice. He tore up some planks, found some coal, lit the boiler fire and "stuffed in Sam McGee," walking away because he "didn't like to hear him sizzle so." He returned to "just take a peep inside./ I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked . . . then the door I opened wide."
At this point, Dowling observed, the president was really getting antsy. More nudging of Mrs. Reagan as the punch lines neared: 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.'
How many of us sat captivated as children while grandfathers, fathers, uncles or brothers paced the floor (sometimes a bit in their cups) and packed us off to the wild High North on the wings of Service's lyrics?
"Something there is about Service poems you've memorized in your youth that stays with you," says Dowling, 52, who himself became a Service "Cheechako" at the age of 6. "I don't know quite what it is. It was obvious to everyone that the president was having a wonderful time, especially me because I could see his lips moving with my words."
Dowling, now artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival near Cleveland, has been doing his one-man play (he does 39 different characters) since April of last year. He hopes to take the play on the road again this autumn, and would love to do the show here at Ford's Theatre.
And while Service loyalists (who also seem to have a yen for Kipling) know others of his cast, such as the bald Miss Chewed-Ear Jenkins, Gum-Boot Ben and One-Eyed Mike, few seem to know much personally about the former bank clerk who brought the adventures of the harsh Klondike into our youthful hearts and minds.
The fact is that he allowed the great Canadian gold rush that peaked in 1898 to pass him by while he was quite near. And, after spending only eight years in the Yukon, he left, never to return. Oh, he wrote a lot about returning ("O God! but I'm lonesome -- I wish I was back./ Up there in the land of the Pole"), but the British citizen, who grew up in Scotland and who many thought was Canadian or American, spent most of his years in the French Riviera as a "luxurious idler" tending his rose garden at "Dream Haven," his seaside estate in Brittany.
A shy, indolent youth with short-lived enthusiasms, whose upper-middle-class parents would not allow him to go off to sea, he dropped out of school at age 14 and became a bank clerk. "I hated figures and the problems of high finance inspired me with repulsion," he wrote. Ironically, most of his days in Yukon Territory were spent as a bank teller. That job enabled him to save enough money to publish his first volume of verse, and it became such an astonishing success that he soon was rich enough to quit the bank and eventually the Yukon itself and retire to write.
Forever dreaming, but with an aversion to "strenuous forms of toil," he came to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1896 as a youth of 22 with hopes of becoming a cowboy or a gold seeker. He did neither, bouncing from job to job until he went with a bank in Victoria in 1903. He was transferred to a branch in Yukon Territory in 1904, and wound up in a branch in Dawson in 1906.
A firm believer in "the romance of destiny," he was asked by a local newspaper editor who had heard him reciting "Casey at the Bat" to "give us something about our own piece of earth." That night, walking the streets of Dawson, he heard sounds of revelry coming from the local saloons. "The line popped into my mind: A bunch of the boys were whooping it up, and it stuck there," he wrote.
"It came so easily to me in my excited state that I was amazed at my faculty. It was as if someone was whispering in my ear. As I wrote stanza after stanza, the story seemed to evolve of itself. It was a marvelous experience. I did not think the work could have any literary value."
He put it away in a drawer, but soon after he met a big miner from Dawson who bragged of "a story that Jack London never got." And he spun the yarn of Sam McGee, although that name was later picked by Service out of one of his ledgers. "I had a feeling that here was a decisive moment of history," Service noted in his autobiography. "I still remember how great an excitement usurped me . . . It was one of those nights of brilliant moonlight that almost goad me to madness. I took the woodland trail, my mind seething with excitement and a strange ecstasy. I started in, "There are strange things done in the midnight sun.'" That poem, too, was completed in one and went in the drawer.
After receiving a Christmas bonus of $100, Service decided to publish 100 copies of his verse at his own expense and send them off to friends with this inscription: "Here is my final gesture of literary importance. It is my farewell to literature, a monument on the grave of my Misguided Muse. Now I am finished with poetic folly for good. I will study finance and become a stuffy little banker."
But before he sent it out he offered to sell a half interest for $50 to a fellow Scot, who said: "D'ye take me for daft? Who buys poetry in this blasted burg? Ye can jist stick yer poetry up yer bonnie wee behind!"
Well, the rest, as they say, is literary history.
"For God-sake don't call me a poet, for I've never been guilty of that," he wrote, later adding: "I have no doubt at all the Devil grins,? As seas of ink I spatter./ Ye gods, forgive my 'literary sins -- / The other kind don't matter." He called his work verses, ballads and rhymes as he wrote of the Yukon and its laws, spells, lures and songs. Today his verse is as popular as ever and is still being published by Dodd, Mead & Co.
A handsome, quiet white-haired gentleman, he was happily married, had a family, and died at age 84 at Dream Haven in September 1958. He was a romantic dreamer to the end of his days. Most people thought he'd been dead for decades.
As for suffering any guilt over not joining those wretched souls on the great trail of '98, well, he openly confessed that he'd rather not. Writing about it was enough for this man who had "energetically cultured laziness to the point of finesse. Dreamer and fumbler, I was the stuff of which failures are made," agreeing that it's "noble to sweat, pounds and dollars to get,/ But -- it's grand to do nothing at all."
But -- Give me the Great Uncertain, the Barren Land for a floor, The Milky Way for a roof- bean, splendour and space and strife: Something to fight and die for -- the limpid Lake of the Bear, The Empire of Empty Bellies, the dunes where the Dogribs dwell; Big things, real things, live things . . . here on my morris chair How I ache for the Northland! 'Dinner and servants' -- Hell!!