My father departed this world via Lake Michigan, during a salmon fishing jamboree sponsored by his camping club. He and my mother had pulled an Airstream travel trailer from their home in St Louis, and shortly after arrival met a man carrying an impressive catch. The fellow camper pointed out the pier where he had been fishing, and my father immediately grabbed his gear and headed to the site.
Witnesses said he either slipped or was knocked into the water by a wave. But there was no sign of him for a full week, and during this period my sisters and I imagined our father, who always carried a pocket knife, drifting to another shore, disoriented and perhaps living in the woods as a bearded wild man. Or floating out of Lake Michigan through the canals and other Great Lakes to the St Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic, which seemed a fitting end for a man afflicted with a bad case of wanderlust. His body was eventually discovered on the lake shore some distance from the campsite, blessed by a priest, cremated and his ashes sent back to St Louis.
A few months before his death I gave my father a copy of the Collected Poems of Robert Service, a British-Canadian poet whose long ballads he had discovered in his younger, single days while working on building sites in Alaska and Canada. He spoke often of his favourite, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, about a gold miner in the Yukon who honours his dying fellow prospector’s request for cremation rather than interment in a frozen grave. Hauling Sam McGee’s body for days on a dog sled, the narrator eventually finds a wrecked boat along a lake shore and uses it as a makeshift crematorium.
My father had never owned a copy of the book but remembered the story and could recall lines from the poem, recited to him by other construction workers he met in those northern territories. The narrator opens the cabin of the boat to check on the cremation’s progress, only to discover Sam basking in the heat, ‘an
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