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A New Voice at the Robert Service Cabin

by Dan Davidson

    There's a new voice at the Robert Service Cabin this summer, a voice that's been haunted by the notion of "strange things done in the midnight sun" since he heard the words fall from his parents' lips when he was just a lad. He doubts if they knew exactly where they got the phrase, but he was an enlisted man in the Korean War in 1952 before he found out.

    "While I was over there, I went down to a British rest camp and I picked a book off the shelf - and, lo and behold, 'strange things done in the midnight sun'... It was a copy of Robert Service's work."

    He took "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and wrote it out in longhand, wanting to memorize the words he had known for so long. In the process he began to recite it and later found that people still liked to hear it .

    Robert Service must have gone through something like the same process in his early days when he used to recite "Gunga Din" and "The Face on the Bar Room Floor", works whose rhymes and rhythms are embedded in his own verses.

    Charlie kept on reciting, kept on reading, kept on committing the work of his favorite poet to memory. He's has been a Service booster ever since.

    "I've got about four hours of Robert Service put to memory," he tells me on the slightly smoky day in July. He's just finished delivering a half dozen of them to a small group of about 20 people on an afternoon when tourists have begun to worry if Dawson is the right place to be this summer.

    Generally there are about two and a half times that number, but the smoke and rumours of fires have taken their toll.

    "Back home (in New Brunswick) I've got programs set up in the schools. I'm trying to get the kids to memorize these poems. I've got programs going in the libraries. I have a television program that I do through the radio months and I do different radio clips."

    He's a believer in the oral tradition, and his own experience has told him that work like Service's can live on even with people who haven't read his books.

    Charlie put the poems to work in his later life. After twenty years in the military and a stint in the New Brunswick forestry service he and his wife ran a bed and breakfast establishment - eight rooms and a dining room. Charlie was the cook, but one of his daily chores was to recite Service as part of the evening's entertainment.

    "I'll bet you," he says, "that there's not a senior citizens group in the Maritimes that I haven't done Robert Service before - and Lions and Rotary clubs, too.

    "Down home there's not a lot of competition. You do a few television shows and then they know who to call, and it's 'Would you come or could you come?'

    "I don't generally get paid for this. Sometimes it's my gas or a meal or two."

    Now, mostly he wasn't looking for money, because he sees this mainly as a hobby.

    "Some people like to work at wood when they retire, and I just decided I'd like to do Robert Service's poetry."

    In all those 40 years of reciting the works of Robert Service, Charlie's still seldom been as tickled as he is this summer to be sitting in the big rocker on the lawn, talking about his literary hero, telling about his life, reciting the standard works and having a ball.

    It's hardly like work for him, though his wife Diane is somewhat more businesslike at the ticket booth.

    "I knew about this tender package and that it's been tendered before, so I decided to bid."

    Charlie has had a bit of a rough ride from people who assume that he had something to do with ousting his predecessor, Tom Byrne, but Charlie says it's just not so. By the time he'd decided to bid on the job, Byrne had already made it clear he wasn't bidding. Besides, Charlie likes the deal he's won from Klondike National Historic Sites and is full of praise for the way they're maintained the site over the years.

    He doesn't see going past the three year span of his present contract, and at age 65 is already hoping that someone a bit younger will come along to take in over when he moves on.

    "I hope to God that there's always someone that will come here to recite the poetry - not just read it but to recite it.

    "There was a guy here three or four days ago who loves to do Robert Service and has five or six poems put to memory. I told him that I'm here for three years, but why doesn't he come up next year and sit in the chair as a guest of mine and see it he likes it. I told him, 'if you do then you could qualify for a tender package.'

    "I would love to help someone come along that could take this over."

    As for Byrne, Charlie won't say a word against his performance.

    "He done a great job here, I heard him several times. He should gloat over what he's done here, how well he got it set up and made it known."

This article originally appeared in The Klondike Sun on Friday, July 23, 1999.

Robert W. Service: Bard of the Yukon