The Glacier Knocks in the Cupboard
My earliest memory is of a shaft of light filled with shining motes, and the sight and sound of a six–inch silver dollar (fake) rolling on its rim across our nursery floor, and of my older sister holding her hands over her ears. She is screaming a high, piercing scream. Mother has come to the doorway.
The year was 1926. Mother was early–on pregnant with my sister Joyce, her third child. I was not quite three. Anne was two years older than I. Pale and feverish, with deep circles under her eyes, she had been in hospital much of her life. With no benefit from antibiotics, she had undergone three mastoid operations. She often suffered excruciating pains in her head and behind her ears. In all innocence I had rummaged in the toy box, had found the souvenir of San Francisco’s United States Mint, and had sent the silver disc on its reverberating course along the path of sunlight. What was music of the spheres for me was agony for Anne.
If I were going to caption the picture I would have a balloon coming out of my mother’s mouth: Now look at what you’ve done! I looked. I saw. I woke from my dream–time. From that moment on I continue to remember. The moment just before is the moment I seek to recapture.
Susan K. Langer, in her book Feeling and Form, discusses that time–space in life when a child is about to cross the threshold into language. Langer contends that a pre–verbal child lives in a world where, for example, the feelings of “heaviness” and “permanence” may be articulated by the presence of the bureau across from his crib. Light coming through a window may speak volumes not only to him but for him.
The sculptures of Claes Oldenburg are, to me, voices from that same anteroom. Oldenburg says that his inspiration for enormous soft typewriters and gargantuan kitchen objects came from a scrapbook given to him by an aunt when he was very young and ill with fever. Immersed in those pages, he took it for granted that an orange could be as big as a house. When I behold his works I feel the tug of intimations.
Maurice Sendak, in his picture book In the Night Kitchen, shows a dream–like urban skyline composed of architectural salt–shakers, egg–beaters, and pop–art packaging, all in the style of the late 1920s, or early 1930s. The back of my neck prickles. The same sensation occurs when I come across a book I knew then. Or, at the flea market, when I happen upon a relic washed up from my personal Lyonesse, a landscape lost forty fathoms deep beneath the waves.
Langer stresses how important it is that the child have the chance to go back and back to explore the same objects in the same environment in order to check out the reality of her personal landscape. Myth emerges from landscape. Parents know, or are soon taught, how important it is to tell the same story in the same way, to look at the same pictures we looked at yesterday, and to provide the same blanket, the same toy. Because of my father’s job in the United States Coast Guard, our family moved frequently. When my parents were young we often lived in rented apartments with rented furniture, but wherever we went the books and toys traveled with us. The toy box in which I rummaged was our sacred Ark of the Covenant, carried at the forefront of our tribal procession.
In the morning of the world we were living in a second–storey flat on a hill in San Francisco, overlooking the Presidio and the Golden Gate beyond. The Presidio was the original Spanish fort, built in 1776; in 1926 it was a U.S. Army base. There was a government hospital there, where Anne was taken when she was sick. In those days there was no bridge across the Golden Gate, only a circle of bare tawny hills and the strait where the Pacific Ocean broke through to form San Francisco Bay. On clear days we could watch the ferries, each trailed by a wake of white stitches, chugging their way from San Francisco to Oakland or Sausalito, and back to San Francisco again. In late afternoon we stood at the window, with Mother’s reassuring presence beside us, and watched the mysterious fog roll in.
Father was second in command of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bear, a unique and famous ship that had been built in the 1870s especially for Arctic exploration. A striding polar bear served as its figurehead. The double wooden hull was uniquely designed to bend but not break under the pressure of the ice closing in all about it. The Bear had three masts and a smokestack and could proceed under sail or steam. Father had no romantic ideas about sail. It was dangerous and hard on the men who had to swarm into the icy rigging. Nor did he admire the primitive steam engine on the Bear. To him, a diesel engine was tribute to the intellect and aspirations of mankind. A diesel engine represented progress. In the early 1920s, all progress was romantic.
The old–fashioned boilers that pushed the Bear’s propeller screw consumed huge amounts of coal. To save fuel for the final lap from Nome to the Arctic Circle, the captain had to order the crew to break out the canvas. Sometimes the ship was deliberately trapped for months so it could swing with the ice pack. Then the officers, the crew, and the visitors aboard needed the coal to keep themselves warm and to cook their meals.
The Bear’s home dock was in Oakland. One day Father took me (just me!) across the Bay on the ferry to see the animals that lived on the deck of his ship. Deep–freeze refrigeration was not perfected yet. The only way to insure a supply of milk, fresh eggs, and meat was to take live animals along. I remember the straw and the barnyard smells, which I liked. I saw a sow with piglets buttoned to her row of teats; I saw strutting chickens, a duck, a duck egg. I patted a goat. I doubt whether I had ever been up close to farm animals before. That such creatures were on the deck of a ship bound for the Arctic did not seem any more strange to me than the impression that I had walked into the pages of my nursery–rhyme book. My myth–maker was Mother Goose; my image–makers, the illustrators of children’s books – Leslie Brooke and Randolph Caldecott. Language was my mother’s voice. Myth, image, word, enhanced by feeling and experience, culminated in epiphany that magic day.
When we went shopping with Mother, Anne and I wore navy–blue sailor coats with brass buttons. Mother always bought boys’ coats for us because they were better tailored and cost less than coats made for little girls. Anne had a real quartermaster’s rating, I had a signalman’s; they were sewn onto the left sleeves of our coats. We wore round flat sailor hats, navy blue. A ribbon spelled out U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER BEAR in gold letters across my brow. People would stop us on the street and talk to Mother about the Bear, her whereabouts and well–being. In those days Arctic exploration was the equivalent of space exploration today.
Few people now remember the excitement and desperate competition of early twentieth–century polar expeditions. In 1908 the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, had purchased Fridtjof Nansen’sFram with the intention of drifting towards the North Pole and then racing to the Pole by sledge. The news that Robert E. Peary had anticipated him and had reached the Pole first made Amundsen turn his thoughts to Antarctica. He arrived just thirty–five days before Robert F. Scott, the fastidious British explorer, who insisted on hauling his personal sterling silverware with him and who died of starvation rather than eat his dogs.
By 1926, just as I was coming to conscious awareness, Amundsen, the American millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth, and the Italian airship designer, Umberto Nobile, set out to fly from Europe to North America in the dirigible Norge, crossing the Pole on the way. The Norge was bound for Nome, where a welcoming party stood ready. During the flight the radio failed. The whole world seemed to hold its breath as it waited for news. Meanwhile, the Norge was so depleted by ice and wind that the expedition came down at Teller, a village ninety miles off target. The airship was dismembered and packed onto dog sleds, while the Bear sailed into the perilous fringe at the edge of the ice pack to pick up crew and cargo. Newspapers worldwide had followed, or attempted to follow, the voyage of the Norgenauts. Bathed in the afterglow of adventure and romance, I was led to believe that my father was a hero who sailed on a fabled ship to fabulous lands. For better and for worse, I was imbued with the notion that I was involved in something larger than everyday life. I was part of the Cosmic Story.
The Bear went farther north than any other ship and took with her artists and scientists as well as the regular crew. Sometimes it brought back dangerous criminals or madmen who had fled to the Arctic. When Father came home, in the middle of summer, he brought with him special gifts from Santa Claus: beaded moccasins lined with white fur; a chunk of ice from an iceberg to cool our watermelon; crayons and coloring books that looked suspiciously like those that Mother bought at Woolworth’s. The other treat was Eskimo Pies, new on the market in the 1920s, which could be purchased in the ship’s galley. The coldness of them made a pain right in the middle of my forehead.
Father had hoped to bring us a polar-bear rug. There were photos of him stalking the bear, pictures of him with rifle to shoulder, pictures of him with foot on slain bear. However, neither he nor anyone on the ship had any idea how to cure the skin once it had been flayed. As long as the ship remained in latitudes where the temperature stayed well below freezing no one complained, but once the ship headed south, the crew approached the captain and said that either Father or the bloody fleece must go.
We did not, however, lack permanent reminder of Father’s Arctic voyages. Roald Amundsen had given Father the steering wheel of the Norge and a section of the catwalk, the keel or backbone of the ship. The wheel was surprisingly small, smaller than an automobile’s steering wheel. Its rim was of oak. The catwalk section, a little more than a foot long, was a hollow block made out of some kind of reinforced fibre, the cutting edge of technology. These relics, used as playthings, later as bookend and doorstop, were constants of my childhood, always there when we moved from one house to another.
The consequences of my growing up with the Norge’s keel and wheel so close at hand are inestimable. According to Greek mythology, when the Argonauts built their ship, the Argo, the keel and rudder were fashioned from Zeus’s oak, the divine tree of Dodona. One of its attributes is that it can foretell the future. More important, it represents one of a number of manifestations of the Great World Tree: Yggdrasil, from Norse mythology; the huluppu-tree of Inanna; Eve’s apple tree; the Christian cross; pillars and arrows; maypoles and magic mountains innumerable. Each in turn, along with hundreds of other variants, is construed in stories to be the Axis Mundi, the Pole that skewers the earth. Each is the pestle that grinds the heavens and swirls the starry meal into orderly precession.
Dimly I perceive that the direction of my course has been influenced by alignment with the World Tree. My life is based on an even keel. Although great harm has come to me, no harm has come to me. As in the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, I have descended into the Great Maelstrom, into the Maw, the Gullet, and I have been spat out. My seaworthiness I attribute to an awareness, perceived in my earliest childhood, that I am playing in a shaft of sunlight filled with cosmic dust, and that my playthings are bits and pieces of myth.
Copyright Joan Bodger, 2000. Reprinted with permission.