MELTWATER

My sophomore year of college, I took a very unusual English class: Environmental Poetry. We all had to take our fill of English classes, but I had had just about enough of them in high school: Advanced English 9, Advanced Composition, American Literature, English Literature, Advanced Creative Writing, World Literature, and Advanced Placement English. By any measure, that’s a lot of English to cram into four years of high school. Especially if you add competitive Debate and Forensics to the curriculum. At least with AP English I was able to place out of English 101 and English 102 at Michigan, but there were still a number of English credits required for graduation, and if I had to take more English, I wanted to choose classes that were different.

Environmental Poetry piqued my interest. I thought it would be a nice, relaxing class that I could coast through while I focused my attention on such heavyweights as Organic Chemistry, U.S. Governmental Structures, and Civil War History. In theory, I figured I could skip an EP class every now and then and study for an exam in one of the three heavyweights or spend extra time in the chem lab or the library working on a term paper. In practice, Environmental Poetry turned out to be the most challenging and intellectually stimulating class of my undergraduate career.

Environmental Poetry, on the very first day of class, revealed itself to be an in-depth study of the major literary works of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others; combined with an advanced creative writing course emphasizing imagery and precision of language to create poetry evoking the natural world while stimulating the senses. It was an amazing class. We studied great writers. We discussed ideas as big and enveloping as the Montana sky. And we learned to write with our senses. We learned to make words flow smoothly, like pure water coursing through an unnamed stream over an isolated plateau meadow. I just wrote those words, but the class was so effective that, in my mind’s eye, I see a black bear drinking at that stream. I feel the cool wind on my cheek. I smell the sweet perfume of wildflowers mixed with the scent of aspen. And I hear the electric buzz of insects and the wild cry of an eagle as it soars above the meadow.

Words are magical colors when they flow from an artist’s inkwell.

Part of the fun in Environmental Poetry was reading and discussing what the other students wrote. Some efforts were more successful than others, but with every poem we read and discussed—and all twenty-six of us had to write three a week—we learned more about our writing, our philosophies, the ways in which each of us viewed the world, and about our humanity.

One of the most discussed poems all term in EP was a poem by Derek Patzer. Derek was a character. He was tall, gangly, always cheerful, had shoulder-length blonde hair, and loved to drink beer and party. But he had a serious side too. Derek seemed to understand human nature and relationships. We often had interesting discussions about what motivated people. Anyway, in one exercise the second week of class, each of us had to come up with a poetic name for everyone else in the class. The name I wrote for Derek was: Wise Blonde Tree. It was one of the few that stuck. Good-bye Derek Patzer, hello Wise Blonde Tree. The poem that Derek wrote is called: Water Power.

Water Power

Regal ice-covered granite
landing pads for clouds
sparkle
like diamonds
in winter’s clear skies
and shatter
into sleek sharp shards
in spring.

Water Power is a highly compressed poem. Just twenty-three words, but it evokes so much. Of the more obvious images, there’s the one of a tall mountain reaching above the clouds. There’s the image of clouds racing by the mountain, like jets, some stopping to rest on the peak, some taking off again—like at a busy airport. There’s the image of blinding brilliance from diamonds sparkling—or sunlight reflecting off the glacial ice of the peak. And there’s the image of pieces of those glaciers calving, or breaking off, even…dropping into the sea when the weather warms.

Then there’s the title of the poem itself. Water Power. Erosion. Over time, by trickles or torrents, water has the power to turn a mighty granite peak to rubble, cutting it with icy diamond saws. David and Goliath. Slow and steady wins the race. This tiny poem says it all. When the ice begins to melt, meltwater begins its slow, imperceptible and inexorable destruction. The class loved Derek’s poem; I recall it and find new meaning in it now. When the ice inside a grief-stricken man’s heart begins to melt, meltwater begins its slow, imperceptible, and inexorable destruction.

Destruction is rarely a smooth, or pain-free, process. The same holds true for healing.

* * * * *

Pearl Harbor. My mood was solemn as Kip and I pulled into the parking lot across from the Arizona Memorial visitor center. The sun was shining intensely in the morning of our first day in Hawaii, but light gray clouds peppered the sky and collected around the inland mountains. A concrete sidewalk, lined with palm trees, led to the visitor center building. The park lawn was neatly manicured. As Kip and I walked towards the entrance, the sidewalk widened into a patio composed of earth-red stone tiles. On our right, a replica of the sculptured window design that adorned one end of the Arizona Memorial was carved into a twenty-foot high white concrete wall. One of the anchors, recovered from the Arizona, was also displayed on this wall.

Kip and I walked past the anchor and entered the visitor center, where we quickly got in line to receive our tour tickets. After receiving them, for Tour Number Five, and a park service brochure on the Arizona Memorial, Kip and I walked around the visitor center, past the museum, past the wall of tribute plaques to the men who died on the Arizona, and back to a bench to await the announcement of the beginning of our tour.

Although it was not quite eight-thirty on a Friday morning, the visitor center was active and loud. Literally hundreds of feet walked back and forth over the shiny tiled floor. Kip and I sat back against the wood wall of the theater and watched them as they passed. Not surprisingly, there was a large Japanese contingent, equipped with cameras, camera bags, and camcorders. But there were also Germans wearing Red Dirt T-shirts, Indians in saris, a group of nuns, a den mother with a pack of cub scouts, a young couple clinging together so tightly that their lips never seemed to separate, a pregnant woman trying to get her three children to stay close by while the man I assumed to be the father studied the displays in the museum, senior citizens in Hawaiian shirts and young people wearing backpacks. Soon, a young woman with red hair in a flowing white dress and two young men joined me and Kip on the bench to await the beginning of the tour. Others walked outside on the lawn to take photographs of themselves with the Arizona Memorial in the background.

A tone sounded and a heavily built Park Ranger picked up a hand-set and announced that Tour Five was about to begin. Everyone holding a Tour Five ticket should now enter the theater. Kip and I stood up, along with the fifteen or twenty other people seated on the bench and entered the theater. In a few minutes, everyone was seated and the Park Ranger walked up to the front of the theater, turned around, and addressed us.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Visitor Center. My name is Daniel Hardgrave, and I’m a Ranger for the National Park Service. This facility is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the U.S. Navy. Navy personnel will actually ferry you out to the Memorial. But before we can do that, it is necessary to orient you and prepare you for your visit to the Arizona.

“You must understand that the Arizona is not a tourist attraction. It is a tomb. For the 1,177 killed that fateful Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. When you go to Disneyland, you can run around and have fun. When you go to Yellowstone, you can marvel at the scenery. When you go to the Grand Canyon you can snap pictures of you and your friends acting like daredevils hanging over a rail that is the only thing protecting you from a five-thousand foot free-fall to your death. But when you go to the Arizona, you must be solemn and respectful. When you go to the Arizona, you will be standing on the grave of heroes who gave their lives to protect the liberties we cherish….”

Ranger Hardgrave continued to talk about liberty and patriotism and the tragedy of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I glanced over at Kip. Both of us were feeling the weight of this place, and we were still onshore. I looked around the theater and saw that the cub scouts were all sitting attentively. I smiled. This would be an incredible educational field trip for them. The young couple I earlier saw glued together were still groping each other, but at least they were facing forward. Most of the Japanese were paying attention as well, staring ahead, their faces expressionless.

But in several places around the theater, there were people who were not paying attention. They weren’t even being polite. Instead they were chatting away and covering their mouths with their hands to hide their giggles. Ranger Hardgrave might as well have been speaking Klingon for all they were getting out of his lecture.

I tapped Kip on his left shoulder and pointed. He looked over and frowned. I also frowned, completely disgusted.

“This film you are about to see,” Ranger Hardgrave continued, “is unlike any war movie you might have seen. Like the Zapruder Film, it is actual footage shot by a news crew from the Vestal, which was a repair ship moored to the Arizona the morning of December 7th. I’ll let the film speak for itself. After it ends, I’ll have some final instructions before you depart for the Arizona.”

Ranger Hardgrave walked towards the back of the theater. The house lights dimmed, and the film began. Kip and I sat back and watched as the horror of the Pearl Harbor attack sunk in. God, it’s one thing to read about it in a textbook, five thousand miles and fifty or sixty years distant. It’s another experience totally to be an eyewitness. To see the smiles on those sailors’ faces as they joked around, smoked their cigarettes, prepared to go to church. No, wait. These men weren’t sailors. They were eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year-old kids. They were somebody’s children. Somebody’s brothers. A few were even new fathers. They were all our sons.

The theater was dead quiet. I could even see tears on the face of the girl who had previously been glued to her lover. Her hands were still entwined in his, but probably for a different purpose then when they were sitting outside the theater. Near the front of the theater, it sounded like a few of the cub scouts were sniffling. Watching the bomb fall on the Arizona and the subsequent explosions as all the gunpowder stored in the ship’s armory erupted like a volcano was…overwhelming. But then, another sound caught my attention. A few rows up and to the left, a group of people were giggling away. Other people around the theater heard them too and looked over with stern expressions on their faces, but the people continued to laugh. I clenched my fists.

The film ended. The house lights came on, and Ranger Hardgrave returned to the front of the theater.

“In a few moments, you will exit the theater to my left and U.S. Navy personnel will ferry you to the Arizona. Remember that you are visiting the tomb of almost twelve-hundred men. Keep your voices low and remain respectful.

“When you return, I will be available to answer any questions you might have about the Arizona. Feel free to approach me or any other Park Ranger.”

Ranger Hardgrave walked over to the other side of the theater and opened a set of double doors. Outside were navy personnel dressed in white uniforms. Kip and I stood up and joined the crowd of about a hundred and fifty people moving towards the doors. Outside the double doors was a grassy park and boat dock. A boat full of passengers was about to disembark. Kip and I stood in line waiting to board the boat with almost everyone else on the tour. But several Japanese walked over to the grassy park and started taking photographs and filming with their camcorders.

I just stared at the Arizona across the harbor. The U.S. flag, flying from the mast anchored to the ship itself, slowly flapped in the light morning breeze. Suddenly I recalled the Brady Bunch Hawaiian episodes. Somehow, the Brady’s on the Arizona disturbed me almost as much as the people laughing in the theater. For God’s sake! This wasn’t television. This wasn’t an amusement park. This was history! Linda would have understood, and she would have been just as incensed as I was.

Kip put his broad left hand on my back between my shoulder blades. “C’mon Buddy, the line’s moving,” he said quietly.

I turned away from the Memorial and walked towards the boat. Two navy personnel in whites stood by each of the two boarding ramps as people filed onto the boat. Kip and I sat down near the bow on the starboard side so we could see the quays of Battleship Row. The water was almost calm and the color of slate, reflecting the color of the light gray clouds above. As the boat neared the Arizona, a Park Service Ranger played an old message from George Bush, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Former President Bush made the point that the Japanese were now allied with the United States. That the two nations had both suffered terrible losses and that our differences had been put aside so that both nations could enjoy peace, favorable relations, and economic benefits.

The water turned from slate to slate-blue to blue as the clouds passed by and we docked next to the Arizona. A line of people waited by the boarding ramp for us to disembark so that they could return to the visitor center. The navy officer piloting the boat informed us we would have a half-hour on the Arizona before another boat arrived with new passengers and we would have to leave. She asked us not to take pictures as we stepped onto the Arizona so that everyone could get off the boat quickly and those waiting could return to shore. Kip and I were eager to comply, but a heavyset Japanese man with a camcorder wasn’t going anywhere until he had his panorama shots of entering the Memorial.

“Maybe he doesn’t understand English,” Kip said.

I turned and faced my friend. My jaw dropped. That thought had never occurred to me. Suddenly I felt a little guilty. Maybe that’s why those people in the theater were talking and giggling and laughing. They didn’t understand the language, so they didn’t understand what was being said. But they had to know what the Arizona was, didn’t they? Or why else would they be there?

Kip tapped the Japanese man on his shoulder. He turned and smiled, bowed his head, and said “So sorry.” Then he walked aboard the Arizona. Kip and I were right behind him.

The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial is divided into three sections: the bell room, where one bell is mounted (the second bell is in the state of Arizona); the shrine room, wherein the names of those killed aboard the Arizona during the attack are engraved; and the assembly area, which is used for ceremonies and as a viewing platform.

Upon entering the bell room, the first thing I noticed was the Arizona state flag hanging in the middle of the tent-shaped entrance way to the assembly area. Flanking the Arizona state flag are the state flags from the other ships represented on Battleship Row when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Moving into the assembly section, Kip and I walked over to a window. Buoys marked the bow and stern of the Arizona. Pearl Harbor was clear enough that the ship itself was visible just below the surface. Rusted parts of the Arizona actually broke the surface of the water in some places. Looking back towards the bell room, the Arizona state flag dominated the entrance way. Displays were mounted in several locations in the long room. One had a model of the Arizona. Another illustrated the various parts of the ship visible below the water’s surface.

A white railing enclosed a square section of the floor in front of the shrine room. Kip and I walked over to the railing. I was surprised to see that the floor was cut away to reveal the ship just below the surface.

“Oh Mommy look! Fish!” A child yelled excitedly a few feet from Kip and me.

And sure enough, black and yellow striped tropical fish were darting through the water just below the surface. The Arizona was turning into an artificial reef, harboring life in a place where so many lives had been extinguished.

Kip and I stepped away from the aquarium viewing area and turned towards the shrine. Upon passing through another tent-shaped doorway we were confronted with a white marble wall covered with names. In the middle of the marble wall, the words: “To the memory of the gallant men here entombed and their shipmates who gave their lives in action on December 7, 1941 on the U.S.S. Arizona” were inscribed.

Rope and stanchions about three feet from the wall prevented people from touching it like they can at the Vietnam Memorial, but floral displays with American Flags still rested against the wall and stanchions. I took the time to read the names. G.E. Harris, H.D. Harris, J.W. Harris, N.B. Harris, P.J. Harris, A. Hartley…D.A. Johnson Jr., E.R. Johnson, J.R. Johnson, S.C. Johnson, S.E. Johnson…C.J. Miller, D.A. Miller, F.N. Miller, G.S. Miller, J.D. Miller, J.Z. Miller, W.O. Miller…E. Robertson Jr., J.M. Robertson, H.T. Robinson, J.J. Robinson, J.W. Robinson, R.W. Robinson…. Don’t tell me that brothers didn’t die together on the Arizona. I won’t believe you.

I sniffled and wiped my eyes.

After a few more minutes staring at the marble wall, Kip and I walked back into the assembly section. I could not believe what I was seeing. Cameras were flashing everywhere. People were literally running across the Memorial, talking loudly and squealing with laughter. Kids were shoving each other out of the way to get a look at the tropical fish swimming below the Memorial. One Japanese man in a tan raffia hat and Internet Explorer T-shirt was loudly directing his family into a pose by a window and shooing others out of the way so he could take his picture. I couldn’t take it anymore.

“What is wrong with you people!” I screamed.

“Steve—” Kip said.

“This isn’t a party! We are standing on the tomb of twelve-hundred men! Didn’t you listen to the Park Ranger? Didn’t you watch the film in the theater? Didn’t you read the names on the wall? Show some respect for these men! They were our children!”

A stunned silence followed my outburst. I dropped to my knees with my hands covering my eyes. I felt Kip put his arm around my shoulders. I imagined I could see the crew of the Arizona applauding. I heard them applauding in my mind.

“Sir, I have to ask you to leave the Arizona,” a naval officer said above me.

I put my hands on my knees, Kip helped me stand, and we followed the officer off the ship.

“Do you hear that, Steve?” Kip whispered to me. “Half of them are applauding.”

Kip was beaming as we boarded the ferry boat and took seats in the front row. But I didn’t feel any pride. I just felt heartsick.