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“O for a Beaker Full of the Warm South”:
Some Thoughts on
Naples, Keats, and the West Virginia Coal Miners

I, unlike so many other Americans, grew up without TV. A Navy pilot, my father toted us around Europe finally unpacking us among the vineyards and volcanoes of Naples, Italy. One of my earliest childhood memories, in fact, doesn’t involve Saturday morning cartoons at all but rather the stomping of grapes in a large wooden vat. Goodness, I can’t remember, but I hope we washed our feet.

The new neighborhood children, fresh from the States, moved in and chattered on about Happy Days incredulous that I had never heard of Fonzie and had no idea what his “ehhhhh” was all about. My days were spent hiking the ruins of Pompeii (my incredulity was reserved for the elaborate mosaics and frescoes so delicate yet somehow surviving lava, fire, smoke, ash). My nights admiring the fireworks of Mt. Vesuvius just west of where we lived. We had no TV, and I didn’t know to miss it.

I sipped orange Fanta, muscled up the courage to jump off the diving board at the neighborhood pool (not dive, just jump), and played kick the can in the streets at sunset with a dozen other American and Italian kids. I even scaled a fence and picked apricots off the neighbor’s tree. I relished those sweet fruit treasures as precious to me as rubies in a pirate’s chest.

We went to dinner – never before nine because the ovens needed time to warm up – and ate the most amazing pizzas, the crust bubbled and charred. I had gelato for desert – raspberry. Always, my father sipped espresso.

Our days and nights were spent with family, friends, outdoors, far from the seduction – and sadness I was to learn – of a television set.

After we moved back to the States, we bought a TV, and before long, we were as obsessed as the rest of the nation with Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, and the nightly news. Then came the cable explosion, and soon after – CNN, and on its heels – Fox News. Now we were watching the events of the world unfold in real time.

After years of war and genocide and rape and torture, the steady diet of an adult news watcher, I finally reached my breaking point a few weeks ago. You may not believe this, but I turned my television off.

What was the reason, the story, the straw?

The mining accident at Sago in West Virginia.

After the initial explosion was reported, I watched for two days, obsessed with every word, hoping, praying that the thirteen miners survived. Then finally, the news. They were okay. The first one had been rushed to the hospital. I was overjoyed, overwhelmed, so, so thankful.

Then came the fist in the face. A woman with two children ran out of the church meeting in which the mine executives told the relatives that there had been a miscommunication. There was a mistake she told Anderson Cooper. The story was wrong she said. Only one of the miners had survived. The other twelve were dead. Irreversibly, irretrievably dead.
Devastated, as if my own son had been in that dark shaft three miles under, I thought back to the days of youth, far from TV, far from the unbearable weight of tragedy. So overwhelmed was I, in fact, that I didn’t listen to the radio for those two days either, and I turned my head when I passed a newspaper.

Where were my frescoes, Fantas, apricots? In their stead, bone crushing reality. Suffocating and painful.

With the TV and the radio off, I turned to my books and found little solace in Keats, as forlorn then as I was feeling now. “O for a beaker full of the warm South,” he wrote in “Ode to a Nightingale,” “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stained mouth, / That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade into the forest dim – ”

Hemingway once said that life is basically a tragedy, and I have always been angry with him for saying that. I clung to the gelato and pizza cooked in a real woodfire oven, but as I get older I know he was right and I’m only resisting the grown up truth. I mean, how can we put a positive spin on the loss of a father, brother, son, perhaps the primary – if not the only – breadwinner in a family? We can’t. It’s truth. Brutal, unforgiving truth. But Keats, elsewhere, also told us truth is beauty. Beauty truth. Perhaps we can find something there to sooth the ravaged soul.

Perhaps we can also find something of a soothing in the fact the each of us, in each generation experiences the same realization, thus the same longing. Keats, me, all of us.

Is there at least some comfort in company?

February 2006

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