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.