Ring of Fire

“I dreamed we were doing
Ring of Fire
with Mexican Trumpets!” Johnny Cash

Down
& coming up
For air
Then down
& I went down once more
To swim along the red coral reef
Then emerged to snorkel on top
& see what I could see,
I was in the Red Sea,
Five miles north of Masawa, Eritrea
January 1970, yellow & striped
Blue butterfly fish,
Clownfish,
Dotty backs, mine own this day
Aquarium, bathtub warm aqua-blue water
Morning, we had a beach
w/ iced down beer
In twenty gallon shining galvanized trash cans
In a U.S. Army deuce & a half & our shift at operations had four days off
& I got to the strange place somehow strangely by volunteering
For Vietnam, in 1968 and found myself instead in Africa
& this reef was the most amazing
Thing an Oregon farm boy had ever seen,
Apart from baboons that threw rocks & mostly missed & this
Alive swimming Technicolor, waving
Fans of red coral white & light yellow corral & turquoise blue
The patch reef was on the other side
Of a sand plain & as I swam the reef gave way &
Dropped off to a dark blue to become a fringe reef & fish were
Bigger, & the reef humped over more & I continued going
Down the reef where water was a little deeper
& off it then dropped down into darkness
I’m on the comfort of the reef, on the edge &
When I saw it to my right, & I saw it full on tip-to-tail,
My body had me over the top of the reef, swim fins moving
Like instinct moves things fast, my mind had no time to say “Shark!”
Much less cognate “Tiger shark, approaching 20 feet,” but it was the biggest
Damn thing I’d ever seen come out of darkness &
Over the top of the reef the sand plain turned to
Chest deep water in thirty feet & I had fins off
& was running back to beach, & I remembered my friend
100 feet away from me & could see his snorkel & started yelling
& when his head came up and he heard “Shark!” as I yelled,
& we saw a replay of myself, & after the breathlessness
We got back, & the Sargent First Class had drunkenly
Driven the deuce & a half into a sea grass meadow
& got it stuck on an African low tide
When we got there the SFC was drunkenly
Digging out the deuce & a half
We grabbed beers & went up
The beach to see an Italian film company
Making a movie about a boy in a raft, & they had cameras rolling
& were shouting in Italian from a bullhorn
In a larger boat & fake shark fins on floats were in the water &
We looked closely at Italian actresses in bikinis &
Drank our beer & shook our heads
Ourselves swimming w/ man-eaters
While these cameras rolled that morning &
Others in our outfit were in
Phu Bai, taking North Vietnamese rockets,
Getting addicted to heroin, & we drunkenly kept
East Africa, that year & none of us knew 120 miles
To the south of the beach we were on— Bab-el-Mandeb
Was the land bridge for humanity’s walk out of Africa
When ice age waters receded & oceans & man were purposed
To begin the long walk from an Eden to the ends of the earth
& twelve years later I heard Mexican trumpets
Still belting it out during Semana Santa in
Lo de Marco, after I’d returned from the jungle
Where parakeets & Jaguars were home
& before I took my evening
Ramble down the beach I thought of this African beach,
& the meal I might have been & now since then,
Sometimes softer but no less dangerous things
Have come out of darkness — but that day in Mexico
Pelicans in formations flew above the beach palapa
That sold beer & you could see the three
Islands of Tres Marias in the setting sun,
& this world aflame did deposit
Close peril at my doorstep of
The magnanimity of a shark attack
More than once, & still
Blessings & beauty continue
To arrive & the wind moves these
Oaks outside my door & the Sacramento River
Flows grace constant, & my sons have become men
& my sweet wife brings me cantaloupe
In bite size morsels to eat when I finish this poem,
I’ve even been heralded by Mexican trumpets,
& even before Bab-el-Mandeb this long walk has been good &
I listen for the voice every evening.

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