The Second Sunrise

Illustration from Razorcake #67 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #67 by Brad Beshaw

It doesn’t really matter why I was in that bar just past noon on a weekday. Whatever reason I give will just be an excuse for living out a self-destructive life. I don’t know what that guy was doing in the same bar at the same time. He probably had a different excuse.

We were more or less the only two in the joint. There was a bartender. She sat as far away from us as possible, reading some glossy magazine full of celebrity gossip. There was a television, too. It flashed lights and people on it talked about something we were supposed to care about—sports or politics or something. At least the volume was low enough to ignore.

I’m not sure what that guy said to get us started talking, but I was okay with it. I like talking to strangers. I like hearing their stories. I didn’t expect much out of a skinny, middle-aged, white dude nursing beer in a bar called Bunhuggers. But what the hell? I might as well listen to something.

The guy told me a story that I’ve carried with me ever since. It’s like a lucky stone in my pocket. The oil from my fingers seeps into the pores of it. I’ve long since rubbed it smooth.


The guy was in the National Guard in the seventies, he told me. His father had known some people and pulled some strings so that, when his time came to serve, he didn’t have to go Vietnam. Instead, he signed on with a crew of medics stationed somewhere in the northeastern United States. It was an easy gig until they got sent to Iceland.

This was in late 1972. The navies of Iceland and Great Britain were perched on the edge of open hostilities, about to start shooting each other over cod. See, Iceland is an island mostly composed of volcanic rock. The soil is far from fertile. Winters are long. Farming is tough. The rest of the island isn’t exactly overflowing with natural resources. There are a lot of fish around the island, though. A lot of Icelanders make their living as fisherman. A lot of Icelanders’ diets are seafood heavy.

In the early seventies, that fishing industry was threatened, mostly by fleets coming over from the Soviet Union. Russian trawlers were dropping big nets into the ocean near Iceland, scraping up everything in their path—fish, vegetation, rocks, entire ecosystems—and dumping the whole catch into the freezers of their factory ships. It was devastating Iceland’s way of life. In response, the Icelandic government declared that the ocean within a fifty-mile radius around Iceland was an “exclusion zone.” No one could fish in it except Icelanders.

The Icelandic navy attacked anyone who violated this exclusion zone, but their attacks were non-violent (unless you’re one of those people who interpret the destruction of property as violence). The navy would charge fishing boats and cut their nets with sharpened grappling hooks. The nets would drift harmlessly to the bottom of the ocean. The crews would turn and head back to their home port. Fishing nets were expensive. Fleets were likely to continue losing the nets on subsequent trips, so most fisherman recognized Iceland’s exclusion zone and went somewhere else to catch their cod. The only fishing boats that kept coming were British fleets.

It was all about fish and chips. It’s a British staple, part of the whole cultural identity. They had to get the cod for the fish and chips somewhere. Iceland was that somewhere. So Great Britain sent a couple of battleships into the exclusion zone to protect the fishing fleets. The Icelandic navy responded by cutting the nets off the fishing boats. Great Britain threatened to attack with their battleships. The Icelandic navy—which, keep in mind, was not a heavily-funded navy; it was mostly just little fishing boats rigged with whatever guns were handy—fired a warning shot across the bow of the battleship. It was David showing his slingshot to Goliath. NATO stepped in before things escalated.

The dude from the bar was part of the NATO forces. He flew into Reykjavik with the rest of his unit. They sat around eating cod for a few weeks while the British battleship and Icelandic gunboats looked down their scopes at each other and diplomats tried to find a way to keep them from shooting.

This was wartime for the privileged white sons of upper-middle-class America.

Then things exploded. Or, to be more specific, Helgafell and Eldfell exploded.

Helgafell and Eldfell were volcanoes thought to be dormant. They sat on the little island of Heimaey, just off the southern coast of the main island of Iceland. A seam had developed on the edge of the volcanoes, running through both of their cores. Lava and ash began to actively flow. The problem with this was the little fishing village of Vestmannaeyjer, which sat about a mile away from this now-active volcano. About five thousand people lived in Vestmannaeyjer. The dude and his National Guard unit were sent in by helicopter to evacuate them.

The dude flew in at daybreak. What he took at first to be the sunrise was actually the volcanic seam erupting. The sun crept up minutes later, farther south. The helicopter flew between the two sunrises, into Vestmannaeyjer. Only, when they got to the town, many of the locals refused to evacuate. This was a remote village on a remote island in a remote country. If the villagers got on the helicopters, they would leave behind everything. Their homes, all their possessions, their whole village, would be swallowed by the volcano. There’d be nothing left. And where would they go, then? The same lava and ash would have the same effect on the homes and possessions of all of their families and friends. So it wouldn’t just be a case of individuals losing everything. It would be a case of individuals and everyone they knew losing everything. So they decided to stay and fight the volcano.

Of course, they had no established plan to fight the eruption. How do you put out a volcano? Spray water on it?

Well, this is exactly what the villagers did. They rigged up water pumps and hoses and pipes—all told 43 pumps and over 19 miles of pipes and hose—starting at the harbor and stretching into town. They dipped one end of their fire hoses into the Atlantic and pumped that water through the pipes and hoses. Some crazy villagers stared down the lava flows, spraying water on them. Of course, they knew they couldn’t put out the volcano the way you put out a fire. The idea was to cool enough lava to build a rock barrier at the edge of town. This way, the lava would bank off the barrier and flow down into the uninhabited parts of the harbor.

The dude and his buddies in the National Guard thought this was madness. They took what evacuees they could back to Reykjavik, left them in makeshift shelters, and flew back into the sunrise that lasted all day. The villagers kept at it for days, working in the air thick with burning ash, turning lava into rock. They didn’t stop until they’d redirected the flows into the sea. It took them more than 8 million cubic yards of ocean water to do this. When they were done, about two-thirds of the town was saved.

The other third of the town was buried in what was by now rock. The dude walked down the street, past roof tops setting on the new ground. He tripped over the top of a stop sign, now only ankle high. He had no idea how to make sense of what he’d just seen.


This was the story the dude told me in Bunhuggers. He didn’t tell it the way I just did. It took a lot of time for me to get all the details. I wanted to believe him, but to do that, I had to ask dozens of questions, get him to fill in all the details of a standoff between Iceland and Great Britain, of rigged up fire hoses and the motivations that drove that courage or madness or whatever you want to call it. I was fascinated when he told the story. When he was done, though, I was mad and a little sick.


Years later, I told the story to Heela and Shahab from Geykido Comet Records. We were at a show in LA, chatting between bands. Heela wanted to know if the story was true, if there really was a standoff between little Icelandic fishing boats and a British battleship, if a village really did stand up to a volcano. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I never looked it up because I’d be too disappointed if that dude was lying.”

Heela was more courageous than me. She did a good ol’ Google search, then sent me an email that said, “I would have kept this a secret if it weren’t true.” And, sure enough, both events occurred in 1973. A dozen websites and a National Geographic article will attest to it.

Shahab took a more critical approach to the story. He said, “You should write that story, only take yourself out of it.”

My apologies, Shahab, but now I’ve written that story. I kept myself in it. I even dragged you in it with me.

See, carrying this story around as long as I have, it’s become mine. Not that I’ve ever been to Vestmannaeyjer and seen the chimney tops that could bruise my shin, not that I could have possibly been in Iceland in 1973 and been a part of this whole scene. But when that guy told me that story, it changed me a little. It forced me to consider what I really valued in this life. I knew then and know now that there’s nothing I would stand in the face of a battleship to protect. But what about my way of life? What about my life and village and family and friends and community? Could they possible be less valuable to me than they were to the people in Vestmannaeyjer? If they aren’t less valuable, then what was I doing drinking alone at noon in a shitty bar? Is there a constant threat of eruption above me, in places that I thought were dormant? Does metaphoric lava forever flow toward me? Does it mean anything?

I carry this story around with me not because I’ve found the answer to these questions, but because it forces me to ask them.

Author’s note: This is the second chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #67.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Same Thing We Do Every Day: Try to Take Over the World

Illustration from Razorcake #69 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #69 by Brad Beshaw

The Beatles song “Back in the USSR” played over the speakers at a gas station. Maybe because the car stereo was broken and we were taking this trip without tunes, I was susceptible. I can usually block out the music in public places. Even when I can’t, I keep certain catchy songs in my mind. This way, if I hear something I don’t like, I play the catchy song I do like in my head and get the other one out of it. It’s a good trick for fighting the tyranny of store stereos. But my defenses were down. “Back in the USSR” rode an earwig into my brain and got stuck on repeat there.

I’m not a Beatles fan. I could live a happy life without ever hearing another Beatles song. I doubt that I’ve ever listened to them voluntarily, though I know all the words to dozens of their songs. My parents were big Beatles fans. They played the hell out of a two-volume Greatest Hits album. They had it on eight-track, and because it was a double album, I spent much of the early eighties hearing all sixteen tracks of this collection. “Back in the USSR” was on it. Hearing it again after years of avoidance, getting it stuck in my head, sent my mind down a long-abandoned neural trail to a memory that came from another world.


Somewhere around 1981, I was in an elementary school program called “Gifted.” It was set up for kids who did well on an “intelligence” test. I put gifted and intelligence in quotes because something had to be wrong with that test. Only white kids tested into Gifted. Originally, only white boys tested in. After one year, a couple of girls passed the test and joined us. Us boys were not happy about this development, especially considering the cootie epidemic that had run rampant through our elementary school for years. We became more accepting of the girls, though, as we got older and closer to puberty.

Even though more than a third of the students at my elementary school were African American, no black kids were deemed gifted. This suggests to me that either there were no intelligent black kids at my elementary school or that the intelligence test was designed to privilege the experience of one race of kids while denying the experience of another race. You pick which option aligns more with your world view.

Us gifted kids were bussed to another school on Fridays. We took a variety of classes there. The class sizes were smaller. We got to choose what we studied. We were taught by teachers who had worked their way into the gifted program, who had paid their dues and won their awards and earned a spot teaching a small group of motivated, studious, well-behaved kids. It was the best part of the week for us.

In 1981, I signed up for a gifted course called “World War.” It was mostly a geography class. Our teacher explained on the first day that we would form groups of four. Each group would create our own country. We’d name our country, decide who in the group held which office, amass points based on the work we did over the course of the semester, and, at the end of the semester, battle other countries with our points. Whichever group won those battles ruled the world. I teamed up with three other white boys and ran for president of our little country. I won for a couple of reasons. Maybe the biggest reason was that I was the only kid in the class who had to learn how to fight growing up, so while I certainly wasn’t the toughest kid in my elementary school, I was the toughest kid on the gifted bus.

I know that being the toughest kid in Gifted is like being the smartest kid in the dumb class. Fuck it. I got to be president, anyway.

We wanted to name our country the USSR. Not because we were budding Bolsheviks. Because we grew up near Kennedy Space Center during the Cold War. For us, USSR would stand for the United States Space Race. We were reclaiming USSR for ourselves, for America. Our teacher, whose name wasn’t Mrs. Arrien but I’m going to call her that because it sounds just right if you read it out loud, told us we couldn’t do it. We dropped the “States” and became the United Space Race. One of us got cracking on the logo immediately.

Since it was essentially a geography class, our country earned points by doing projects on foreign countries. We’d have to write reports on where other countries were, how they made their money, who their leaders were, what their culture was like, and things like that. Luckily, we had one boy in our group who was really into that kind of thing. For some reason, he loved to write and research things. While most of the group goofed off in the library, this one kid actually read all about different countries and wrote a bunch of reports. He didn’t just use the encyclopedia, either. He asked the librarian for help and found a bunch of books. He read them and took notes. He wrote stories set in those countries for extra credit. Mrs. Arrien also gave him props because he was the only kid in the class who could answer the question, “What are the customs of Germany?” correctly. The rest of the class had just assumed that Mrs. Arrien had forgotten the “e” on costumes. They talked about lederhosen and shit.

Now, was this geeky kid who did all the work for the USR the same geeky guy writing this column?

You bet.

I’m still fascinated by geography. I often read books in translation, study the news of the world, and embarrass my wife when she introduces me to her Bulgarian friend and I start talking about Hristo Stoichkov and my desire to travel to Sofia someday. I can even tell you the names of the leaders of faraway, exotic places like Canada. It’s the Right Honourable Pierre Trudeau, right?

So anyway, as president of the USR, I pooled all my brainiac strength. Our country amassed a point arsenal that was nearly enough to overpower all the other groups in class at once. The day came for our world war—the whole point of the class. Mrs. Arrien explained the rules. Two countries would face off. Each country would bring enough points to the battle to win. Whichever country had the most points won the battle and kept all their points. Whichever country lost had to sit quietly and sulk like a bunch of losers. The residents of the USR were cocky. We knew we had way more points than the other groups. We brought all our points to the first battle. The other country, the Jedi, were quaking in their boots. We knew we’d destroy them because they weren’t even smart enough to name themselves something cooler, like the Rebel Alliance or something. We laid our heavy load of points down on the table and said, “Bring it on.”

Mrs. Arrien asked us if we were sure we wanted to do that.

As President of the USR, I said, “Of course.”

Mrs. Arrien said, “Countries can form alliances. They can team up, pool their points, and defeat more powerful countries. You know that, don’t you?”

No. We did not know that.

And now it was too late to change. All of the other countries had seen how many points we had. It was almost, but not quite, three times as many points as the other countries had. So the Jedi teamed up with the Islanders (named after Merritt Island, the town we all lived in) and Vader (named after the disposition of their evil leader). They found enough points to beat us. The USR, my presidency, ended there. My other group mates cursed me. The failure was all my fault. I pointed out to them that I was the one who earned all the points, anyway. “Fat lot of good they did us,” someone said. I was sunk.

Angela Whitman, the president of Vader, outplayed the other two countries. While they were pooling their points, she casually asked each group how many points they each had. The other kids hadn’t quite figured out that the key to winning the game was to not let anyone know how many points you had. They spilled the beans to Angela. After the three of them defeated the USR, Angela allied Vader with the weakest country (the Islanders). Together, the took over Jedi. As soon as they did, Vader turned on the Islanders and crushed them. For the rest of that class period, Angela Whitman ruled the world.

I sat in the corner and wore a funny hat. Maybe not literally, but that’s the way I remember it.


A few decades later, driving north up Highway 101 with “Back in the USSR” lodged in my brain the way a torn fingernail gets lodged between your teeth, I thought back to my old presidency. I’d like to say that Angela Whitman went on to become the corporate raider that World War taught her to be, but she didn’t. She got pregnant the summer after high school. Last I heard, she was still a stay-at-home mom. I didn’t use her real name in this story because I didn’t want anyone looking her up on Facebook and seeing the pictures of her youngest daughter graduating from high school. At least that’s what I assume you’d see. I don’t have a Facebook account. I can’t see who from my childhood got fat, who hates their job and always posts that it’s humpday on Wednesdays, who’s divorced and trolling, or who “likes” what. I’m in contact enough to know, though, that no one from the old gifted days amounted to much. Our training in taking over the world never really panned out. Just as, fifteen years ago, I came to terms with the fact that I’ll never be a professional athlete, I can now come to terms with the fact that I’m too old to start on a path toward dictatorship and world domination. It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be a pro athlete or a tyrant. I’m okay being who I am.

I wonder, though, about the long-term effects of my upbringing. Obviously, classes like World War and programs like Gifted taught some troubling values to me as a little kid. They instilled in me an ideology of tyranny and white supremacy before I was old enough to do much critical thinking. My defenses were down. I wonder how much of that ideology is still stuck in my mind like a silly Beatles song.

And, because my childhood wasn’t unique for a kid in America, I wonder how much the ideologies are stuck in all of our minds.

Author’s note: This is the first chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #69.  For more information about the collection, read this post.