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One night only in Minneapolis: A poem

Saturday evening, as the sun went down and storm clouds hovered over Tin Fish at Lake Calhoun, I was making my way to the restaurant counter to pick up my beer when I saw the great poet Robert Bly sitting alone at a table.

I introduced myself and told him how much I’d gotten out of his reading with Galway Kinnel at Plymouth Congregational Church a few years ago. He was dressed in white slacks and a navy blue shirt, and, given the surroundings, the former Navy man looked mighty sea faring. I didn’t linger. An older woman, perhaps his wife, Ruth, joined him with their dog. I rejoined my wife, Jean, and our dog at our favorite bench that looks out onto the sailboat bay off Lake Street.

It was one of those nights you don’t take for granted this time of year. No mosquitoes, placid lake, peaceful breeze, State Fair and winter on the horizon. I bantered with some women behind us, whose unmistakable Kansas twang eventually revealed them to be fans of the Kansas State Wildcats — not the University Of Kansas Jayhawks, mind you. As we all munched on fish and chips and quaffed suds and iced tea, some action started churning in the water.

About 50 yards out, a couple of canoeists were flailing. The boat was halfway submerged, and the two novice boatmen were in the water, trying to push her to shore. The water lifted their life jackets up around their necks, making them look like overscarfed kids dressed for sledding. The boat was sinking.

Just as we noticed them, so did the crew at the canoe rental shack. Like a bad version of Baywatch, a half-dozen would-be rescuers jumped in kayaks and paddle boats and went off to rescue their boat, if not the boaters. It was a one-night-only comedy unfolding before our very eyes, so I went over and told Ruth and Robert that they might want to check out the play in the bay.

They got up and got a ringside seat: two stools overlooking the lake. They joined the rest of us wise-crackers and worriers and peered out onto the water. A small squadron of kayaks reached the boaters first and made a cursory rescue attempt. One of the paddle boats made it out there fast but seemed to adopt a hurry-up-and-wait mode of non-panic. Nobody seemed to know what they were doing, which was fine by everyone involved.

Finally, the boaters dragged themselves up onto a pontoon platform that someone had rowed out, and by now the people on the shore could see the faces of the people in the water that they’d been rooting for: A couple of Somali teenagers, who broke into huge smiles and waves when some of the shore people applauded the safe landing.

For all I know, though, they may not have ever made it to shore. I was too busy watching the great poet gaze out across the water, and wondering what he might have to say about it all.

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