A Season for Miraculous Breakthroughs

In 1988, Operation Breakthrough would free three ice-bound gray whales

In 1988, Operation Breakthrough would free three ice-bound gray whales


Christmas is that time of year when, despite both the literal and the metaphorical darkness, we acknowledge the possibility of miracles. The Paris climate accord may be 2015’s candidate for miraculous breakthrough, a moment when every country in the world came together to talk about solving a menace threatening us all.

My father, who loved Christmas and composed a Christmas poem every year for the family Christmas card, wrote about a comparable moment. The year was 1988 and three gray whales were trapped in arctic ice. Two inveterate enemies, the United States and the Soviet Union, collaborated to rescue them in what was known as Operation Breakthrough.

“The Great Whale Rap” is supposedly written by Aurora Borealis—a.k.a., Mrs. Santa Claus—as are many of my father’s environmentally-themed Christmas poems. In her version, she and Nick intervened to help the whales after the initial breakthrough. (It is not not known what happened to them after they were liberated.)

The poem includes a stanza from a song by Pete Seeger, who was a friend of my father. It concludes with a (slightly-altered) popular Christmas carol.

I’m very sorry my father was not around to witness the recent Paris accord. It might well have appeared in this year’s Christmas poem.

The Great Whale Rap

By Scott Bates

(To be accompanied by drums spoons pencils hands finger thumbs flutes you name it)

Remember back in nineteen
when the whole world went
   on a big whale date
with some Great Gray Whales
   in a northern clime
well now is the time
now is the time
now is the time
   to get it straight
what really took place
   on that great whale date

It was late October
   when Nick and I
we suddenly decided
   we should give it a try
to help those Inupiat
(and Canadians
   and Commissars
      and G. I. Joes)
to rescue those whales
   from the freezing floes

”I heard the song
   of the world’s last whale
as I rocked in the moonlight
   and furled the sail
it’ll happen to you
   also without fail
if it happened to me
   sang the world’s last whale”

So we flew down one night
   by the light of the moon
and arrived at Barrow
   not a moment too soon
for Crossbeak and Bonnet
   who had been set free
were stuck in a channel
   in the Beaufort Sea

(in the thick polar ice
   they had gone astray)
So we turned them around
   and set them on their way
and hurried back
   to airlift Bone
who was failing fast
   in a hole alone
and hauled him up
   in a sling on the sleigh
and dropped him off
   down in Bristol Bay

We three whales we traverse afar
   Bering Strait to California
Southward speeding still proceeding
   On to the Bay of Baja

a wonderful time
   was had by all
when the Capitalists and Communists
   had a ball
and forgot about the Libyans
   and the Cubans and the Poles
and saved three whales
   from the cold ice holes

It was a holey time
   They leaped and flowed
Like liberated dolphins
   Down the great whale road

So I’m sending you this rap
   with a maritime rhyme
to celebrate their freedom
   and the special time
when the nations found
   they could work together
and do something useful
   in the Cold War Weather
when they learned that a little bit of
might save us all from

That’s the maritime message
   that I’m here to stress
let’s work together
   for the wilderness
let’s clean up the ocean
   for the Gray Whale Fleet
and rock the world
   with a Big Whale Beat
let’s beat pollution
   and the ozone rap
let’s shake the smog
   and the garbage trap
Let’s get out of this hole
   (say I and Alice)
      and save the world
       A. Borealis

I saw three whales come sailing in
   On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three whales come sailing in
   On Christmas Day in the morning.


Other Christmas Poems by Scott Bates

The Divine Enters through Imagination’s Holes 

The Quest of the Marvelous Tree 

Christmas Bird Count from Santa’s Sleigh

Where are the Games of Yesteryear 

Moving towards Death’s Doorway 

No Room for Them in the (Holiday) Inn 

A Solution to Nativity Scene Battles

Holly & Ivy Dance to the Music of the Moon

Night before Christmas on the Moon

Move with the Wind, Sleep under the Snow

Midwinter Transformation: A Poem

An ABC of Children’s Books

The Divine Comedy, Doggerel Version

Books Unleashed in Christmas Carrels

Epiphany Sunday and the Arabian Nights

Epiphany from a Camel’s Point of View

A Roc for Christmas (Annual Bird Count) 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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