Monday, July 18, 2011
Make Ice, Not War
Across the U.S. this year, July has been a grim torment. But Washington State goes blithely on, troubled not by hellish heat but by persistent grey clouds and rain. For us it's been uncommonly cold or unusually muggy, but tiny irritations, of course, compared to the weirdness of weather and brainless political posturing going on in the other Washington and various states.
In July of 1986, a quarter century ago now, I was zipping around Europe thanks to a Eurail pass, sleeping on trains or in youth hostels--six months into what would become a 20-month, around-the-world adventure. Back then, most terrorism was still centered in the Middle East; but there was that plane at Lockerbie... and as a result Reagan had been bombing Libya (and 25 years on, plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose!) and I had been quizzed and harangued about "our cowboy President" everywhere I went, Fiji to Frankfurt, Auckland to Austria, Koh Samui to Copenhagen, Bali to Burma to Basel.
One hot day, I sought to escape all the polite disapproval of American policies and policing by holing up in an air-conditioned McDonald's. I was thirsty anyway, and Mickey D's always had ice, even in Switzerland. Sitting there, I started writing a quirky little poem about frozen water--any cold warfare reference was purely coinci-dental--and like glacial melt it just grew:
From the press and rush, the crowd of quick and lucrid,
I have come to these familiar golden arches,
misplaced on a platz in Basel’s merchant core.
I’m thousands of miles from the nearest Boeing plant
yet less than a hundred from warheads and bombers,
weary of Pax Americana and accusations.
But this is not that poem.
Instead of fear or shame, just now I feel
relief. Drinking-in the culture of Coca-Cola,
I’m “Yankee Going Home,” for the moment.
Among these neutral burghers I can sit
simply breaking the ice, my mouth making small talk
and chipped bits smaller still--all the while remembering:
“Chewing ice will ruin your teeth.”
Dentists have threatened that for 40 years at least,
but I have always reckoned on the inevitable
less-than-perfect dentures in a glass...
Ice is my connection.
To lemonade I sold in summers long ago,
each penny cup with its separate cube melting,
in some postwar, G.I. loan development in upstate New York,
or the shadetree road near Arlington’s dragon’s-teeth graves…
To the domed, grey metal crusher in some kitchen of the past,
its scimitar blades chewing over and over,
shredding and shaving each cube to crystalline gravel…
To the thousand brain-spearing pains I cursed,
shooting them up through the roof of my mouth and away.
I think of ice in the South:
of pre-Cold War trucks and horsedrawn wagons
hauling the great, cloudy blocks, the massive sweating men,
their claw tongs delivering burlapped relief, icebox salvation,
from that ramshackle icehouse down by the river,
whose strangeness of brine and shade
was a magnet drawing local boys like iron filings.
We’d drift in arcs of electromagnetic force
from one clanking hulk of machinery
to another: ammonia-dazed coils, brute forms chopping and grinding,
unnatural devices transforming water to mystery--
cold technology shaping all our futures,
taunting us with the promise of mastery over the earth.
I went seeking ice and silence;
I brought back the chilly, controlling ways
it seems now I may never lose…
Or was it earlier still, in the belly of my mother,
whose craving all that scorching summer and fall
on the San Antonio airbase was pieces of ice?
Chunks she held to her swollen sides,
cubes that cooled her cheeks and soothed her forehead,
chipped ice she chewed for company while my father
taught his fledgling fliers how to get aloft
and stay there, how to fight on the wind and air
and target their tons of fire,
how to never ever lose
a combat pilot’s cool and leather-jacketed smile.