The Way It Was – Sam McGee


Editor’s note: This is another column in Bill Boyd’s new series, “The Way It Was,” about growing up in Marysville. Bill continues to work with the Union County Historical Society to obtain information for his stories. With Marysville and Union County celebrating Bicentennial anniversaries in 2019 and 2020, respectively, these articles help depict what life was like in those early years.

It was some time in 1944 when I was 12 years old, and one of my sisters brought home a book of poems by a man named Robert Service. Both of my sisters really liked his poetry, and they talked about it as we sat around the dinner table at night.
I had never really cared much about poetry, but they made the book sound so good that I picked it up one evening and started to read it. Oh boy, I couldn’t believe how good it was. I had never before read anything quite like it.
There were poems about gold prospectors in the Yukon, sled dogs, and how those men fought the bitter cold. On top of that, some of the poems were really funny. They were just the kind of thing I liked to read. My sisters and I sometimes took that book into a room by ourselves, and we took turns reading the poems aloud to each other. I loved it.
Of all the poems in the book, my favorite was one called “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I read it so often that I eventually memorized the whole thing, maybe 70 or 80 lines. I recited it aloud as I walked to school and as I rode my bike to the swimming pool.
During my senior year in high school, I took a speech course, in which we all had to read a poem in front of the class. I chose that same poem, but I didn’t read it. I recited it from memory. That’s how well I knew it. Our teacher, Mr. Wagner, said he was impressed by my memorization, but my delivery needed work. He said I needed to express more “feeling” when I recited it.
During the next few years, I occasionally recited that poem just for the fun of it. Then, in 1958, our son was born. While I waited for his arrival, a lady put me in a small waiting room with two other expectant fathers. It was pretty nerve-racking just to sit there, so I recited the poem to myself, over and over. And, by golly, I think it helped.
Over time, I pretty much forgot about the poem. I hardly ever recited it. Then, maybe a year ago, I tried to recite it aloud. It went smoothly for the first part, but then I hit a snag. There were a couple parts that I just couldn’t remember no matter how hard I tried. That was disappointing, for I didn’t think I would ever forget those lines.
To refresh my memory, I listened to a wonderful version of the poem by Johnny Cash. Of course, he was a seasoned performer, so he probably sounded a lot better than I did. But I bet he was reading it. He wasn’t reciting it from memory, the way I did in that speech class 70 years ago.
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