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Robert Service Kept Me Company During My Adolescent Years

posted on: Apr 19, 2017

photo: Robert Service

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer       

The cold south Saskatchewan winter wind, like a razor-sharp knife stung my cheeks as I urged my old mare on. Through a blowing snowstorm, I was making my weekly round along a five-mile long trap-line. Yet, I felt content. What I earned from the skins of rabbits and weasels was the only spending money I would see during my early teens.

To forget the searing cold, as my horse struggled through the blowing snow, I recited out loud into an empty expanse of space the poems of Robert Service, through the years, my favourite bard. All during that day, the world around me became a land of fantasy and I lived with Service on the frozen landscape of the Yukon.

With not a soul for miles around, at times, I could hear my voice echoing through the piercing wind as I paraphrased the words of Service, describing Canada’s North:

         “This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:

Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane-

Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore;…”

By the time I came to the conclusion of the poem, I had become almost as one with Service and his world as the gripping words of his poem The Law of the Yukon fell from my lips:


         “This is the law of the Yukon, that only the strong shall thrive;

That surely the weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive.

Dissolute, dammed and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,

This is the will of the Yukon- Lo, how she makes it plain!…”

Near the end of the trap-line, the storm became a gentle breeze. On every side, the landscape appeared to be like a large ocean covered with endless waves of snow. The atmosphere had become crystal clear, but the bitter cold, seemingly had intensified. It was truly a living scene from the Arctic frozen terrain.

With two long-dead weasels tied behind me to the saddle, I made my way back through the deep snow. Of course, at that time, the suffering of these animals in the jaws of my traps and their subsequent cruel death, did not bring a pang of regret. Like most of my fellow teen trappers, I was only thinking of the few cents the weasel skins would bring.

As my old mare plodded along, the winter scene around me, tailor-made for an artist’s brush – that is if an artist was sitting in the warm indoors and surveying the snow-covered landscape – did not entrance me. My thoughts were still with Service and his poems. Wiping the icicles formed from the steam of my breath along the edges of the parka hood, I thought of the words in his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee:

“Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we  couldn’t see…”

I could literally hear Service speak as he continues:

“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through the bone…”

That night as I slept near the coal and wood stove which, during the long winter months, barely kept our home warm, I fell asleep, repeating again and again:

         “There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales that make your blood run cold…”

Yet, it was not only on the trap-line or reminiscing in my bed that I remembered the verses of Robert Service. The first time I walked into the Neville Hotel beer parlour – of course I was under age and told to depart – the atmosphere brought to my mind The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Walking out of the door, a bearded farmer on an edging table snickered as we passed. “What you doing here boy?” His looks, the bar room scene and my love of Service’s poems seemed to combine as I walked down the town’s unpaved streets remembering the words of that poem:

         “There’s men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;

And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;

With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,

As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one…”

I was near sixteen when the Second World War began. After applying to take a machinist course offered to young men who desired to work in the war factories, I was accepted and, in a few weeks, found myself in the city of Moose Jaw. During the day I attended classes, but when school finished, I walked the town’s streets, enthralled by the sights and sounds of the largest city I had ever seen. To a farm boy who never left his parent’s farm, it was a world of splendour and excitement.

Still, there was the loneliness of a strange city. However, my forlorn days were alleviated by Service’s poems. To every incident and in every nook, I would see a connection with Service’s verses.

Walking one day into a church, I was intrigued with a painting of an innocent-looking Madonna. Immediately, these lines by Service in his poem My Madonna came to mind:

         “I hailed me a woman from the street,

Shameless, but, oh, so fair!

I bade her sit on the model’s seat

And painted her sitting there.


I hid all trace of her heart unclean;

I painted a babe at her breast;

I painted her as she might have been

If the Worst had been the Best…”

Sometime later, during an evening stroll in the heart of town where the ladies of the night plied their trade, a young woman, enticingly dressed, smiled, inviting me into a doorway. Never having been exposed to this aspect of city life until that day, I quickly moved on. Nevertheless, her alluring image would not fade away.   For days I was haunted by Service’s words in his verse The Harpy:

“I paint my cheeks, for they are white, and cheeks of chalk men hate;

Mine eyes with wine I make them shine, that man may seek and sate;

With overhead a lamp of red I sit me down and wait…”

Subsequently, I have roamed the four corners of the world, from the snows of northern Canada to the deserts of Africa and the jungles of South America and the Far East. Yet, I have never forgotten Service’s poetry. His mesmerizing ballads still captivate me. At times, I fantasize that perhaps these lines of his poem The Men Who Don’t Fit In were written especially for me:

         “There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,

A race that can’t stay still;

So they break the hearts of kith and kin,

And they roam the world at will.

They range the field and they rove the flood,

And they climb the mountain’s crest;

Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,

And they don’t know how to rest…”


Habeeb Salloum