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Essay: Briefly, everyone thinks of Greenland



For the Valley News
Monday, August 19, 2019

I bet you’ve been thinking of Greenland lately.

I sure have.

But then, I’ve been thinking of Greenland for years. I started my writing career thinking of Greenland. And thinking of not thinking of Greenland.

My first published novel is called No One Thinks of Greenland.

Now, it seems, we’re all thinking of Greenland because Someone Very Important started thinking of Greenland. Our president. No doubt you’ve heard he recently floated the idea of buying Greenland.

Think about that.

Greenland sure has been thinking about it. Greenland wants nothing to do with it. “Greenland is not for sale and cannot be sold,” says Greenland’s premier, Kim Kielsen.

The country has enough on its mind without adding the stress of a real estate closing.

Greenland is at the leading edge of global warming. The glaciers are melting faster than ever, and Greenlanders are coping with radical disruptions in their way of life. The changes are so severe that social scientists say the population shows signs of suffering from “ecological grief.”

But, hey, there’s lots of waterfront property, untold mineral and petroleum wealth, and we’d have a lock on a good chunk of arctic property as the planet heats up.

Trump admits he can’t stop looking at property. “Even as president,” he recently told an assembly of real estate agents, “I ride down streets and I say, ‘Wow, is that place nice. Wow, what could you do with that? Look at that site.’”

And it’s not like Greenland hasn’t been on the American shopping list before. As recently as 1946, President Truman’s administration offered $100 million in gold for Greenland.

Gold! Trump loves gold. Gold the color. Gold the metal.

Gold, hotels, casinos, countries. Keep the inventory moving.

Since we’re thinking of Greenland in this way, let me say my first novel has nothing to do with real estate. A reviewer called it “a military screw-up novel.” He meant that in a nice way.

The novel is about a secret U.S. military hospital I’d read about in books on the Arctic. Supposedly, there was a hospital in Greenland that housed the most horribly wounded and disfigured vets of the Korean War. In these accounts, our country secretly warehoused the soldiers there until they died, then they were cremated and their ashes strewn out by the glaciers.

The title, No One Thinks of Greenland, wasn’t my idea. My brilliant idea was to call my book Qangatarssa, an Inuit word that I understood to mean something like, “Let us fly out of here.” It made sense in the context of the story.

My editor saved me from that ticket to oblivion.

I wasn’t sure I liked the title he suggested, but it came from something a character says in the story, and it seemed to work. The book did OK.

Several years after the novel came out, I finally got to visit Greenland. It was for a magazine assignment. The editor wanted me to go to the site of the hospital and report on what it felt like to confront my “muse.”

There was only one flight in and out of the settlement each week. A U.S. military air base and hospital had been there. It had long since been dismantled and was now nothing but a rubble field with old footings for barracks foundations, shards of construction materials and rusted oil drums, all strewn across several hundred acres of a caldera ringed by jagged mountains. It was a spooky place.

I talked to local residents — especially to village elders who’d been alive back the ’50s and had been all through the hospital, had even been treated there — and they all swore there were no hidden wards with disfigured veterans.

I looked through local records and photos from the ’50s. I can say that, yes, there was a U.S. military hospital that dated back to World War II, but that it never warehoused American soldiers from the Korean conflict with no legs, no arms, and no faces.

The nonfiction accounts of the hospital I’d read, and that had inspired me, seemed to have gotten it wrong. They’d repeated some story that evidently a local municipal official concocted to bring tourists to his settlement. A bizarre lure for tourists, for sure, but eventually it got me there.

And while there I discovered something odd.

The locals, for all their disavowals of the mangled-veteran stories, for all their insistence that it was just a hospital to treat personnel at the air base, these same residents couldn’t help but refer to the ghosts that haunted “Hospital Valley.” They called them the spirits of the “Basket Babies” — the local term for the men whom war had blasted down to nothing more than torsos and who vegetated up there in the valley until they died.

I soon realized these Greenlanders lived in two worlds of “facts” simultaneously.

But not in the kind of angry, paranoid, miasmic, fake-news, QAnon whirl we see around us and read about daily in presidential tweets.

Theirs was a kind of knowing, calm acceptance: the world is a strange place, stranger than we can know, stranger than you Americans will ever understand.

Think of Greenland all you want, they seemed to say. It would take more than a very stable genius to comprehend this place, this Greenland.

There’s mounting evidence that our president isn’t the billionaire he says he is, isn’t the deal-maker he says he is and especially isn’t the stable genius he says he is.

But there is evidence he’s got passable chops as a brand-maker, Trump Steaks and Trump University notwithstanding.

But if Trump were to go ahead and buy Greenland, he’d be rubbing shoulders, historically speaking, with one of the greatest branders of all time.

As every schoolboy knows — maybe even as little Donny Trump knew when he was a schoolboy — in 981, Eric the Red, Viking of Iceland and accused murderer, decamped for a giant, glacier-covered island to the north.

To make a go of it, he needed to lure other settlers to his remote and cold piece of real estate. Something to make other Vikings want in on the action and lust after a piece of the dream. He needed a brand.

So he called the place Greenland.

Someday, when the world gets warm enough, it might even be a good name for a golf course.

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John Griesemer is a writer, actor and director. He lives in Lyme.