Thursday, May 17, 2007

Yankee Go Home

A person with too much money and too little sense these days can easily book him/herself into some sort of Extreme Travel experience--distant places, dangerous terrain, questionable social mores, volatile governments, very little security. (Photo thanks to Trieste friend Adelberto Buzzin.) I suppose it's the same principal as climbing mountains; the challenge and the on-going adrenaline high outweigh the risks for such people.

Chacun a son gout. Growing up as a military dependent teaches one to be flexible, to forget about missing some non-existent hometown, to make the most of new places and situations, to enjoy the travel itself no matter where one is bound, but to keep a low profile too...

I got married at age 20 and was a parent by 21, a graduate student and then working stiff thereafter--which brought all my travel experiences to a screeching halt. For 25 years I worked and parented and pretty much stayed put. But the marriage ended around 1980, with me left raising the kids for the last few years. By the time they were grown, I was ready to hit the trail to the world.

I left the U.S. in January of 1986 with a big backpack and a vague plan, intending to be gone for maybe two years, travelling to the South Seas and Asia and then on to Europe. I spent a couple of weeks in Bali, for example, hanging out in the same areas where the terrorist bombs would kill so many 20 years later; in 1986, however, Bali was still beach peaceful and Hindu beatific.

But across the world, in North Africa, President Reagan was unleashing our air might on Libya, retaliating for the Lockerbie bombing (wasn't that the reason given)? Suddenly I was seen as maybe one more ugly American, or at least as a representative of our cowboy President, so I was questioned again and again, by Asian residents and European tourists alike, asked to explain what in the world America was up to or had become. I didn't have many answers for anyone then--or now, some 20 years later, when even worse situations have arisen and the U.S. just looks paranoid (terrornoid?) and far from democratic (the small D version), rife with torturers and warmongers, Christian fundamentalist crusaders unleashed.

Muslim terrorists are loathsome and inhuman. (May they all be sterile, die childless, and cry out for Allah in vain.) But I'm also worried about the Land of the Fee and the Home of abu-Grave--outsourcing jobs, sending our soldiers into battle ill-equipped, relying on civilian contractors who get paid better and have no laws to check their actions, neglecting the wounded veterans, destroying the old America that God blessed.

Okay, enough political proselytizing. Some of those thoughts, and further musings from the service brat experience, figure in the poem that follows. This one began when I was sitting in a McDonald's in Basel, Switzerland, in the summer of 1985, munching on ice and thinking about the warnings dentists always issue about ruining one's teeth; then I found myself pondering the then world situation and those first signs of global terrorism... and the result, eventually, was this poem called...

Chewing Ice

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 cubelets 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 piece melting,
on some postwar development street 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.