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Facing It
Walt McDonald

I suppose you turn on the horizon,
expecting me, both of you on tiptoe,
others bumping past like pilgrims.
That time when I was five at the Royal Gorge
comes back to haunt me, wandering off
across that swaying bridge a thousand feet
over the fast, white-water Arkansas.

While my father checked the oil and water
and Mother spread sandwiches in the shade
and made my brothers help, I leaned
and spat at that deep drop-off,
watched the white foam arc and shine
until gone. Cars chugged behind me, old cars
that would have to last four years more

during World War II. Don’t fall,
some mother called, and I heard my mother
also calling Walt, don’t fall!
from back on the canyon rim, helpless
as if afraid her weight might snap the cables
with me precarious and trapped.
Two decades later, I banked an Air Force jet

at 20,000’ and snapped the camera at that bridge
an inch long at an arm’s length to show you
it was nothing. I held the wingtips vertical,
spiraled down to 500’ above the crowd,
nudged the throttle and climbed
until the bridge was an inch, a quarter inch.
I hummed and held ten thousand pounds of power

in my fist. I flew to Saigon a decade later
and came back to the scramble of surviving,
to children running and tumbling
over dangerous bridges I’d never crossed,
and to my aging father and mother almost gone,
the drawbridge rising while I stood
helpless and waving a few yards away.

1 Who is the speaker? What kind of person is the speaker?

The speaker of the poem is the poet, Walt McDonald. As a young man, McDonald served as an Air Force pilot and taught at the Air Force Academy. He was greatly inspired by his pilot days and they were his reason to begin writing poetry. In the poem, Walt feels nostalgia for his childhood days when his parents were very involved and caring, but also, as he looks back on his life, he is saddened by the thought that he has grown so far apart from his aging parents.

2 Is there an identifiable audience for the speaker? What can we know about it?

The audience of the speaker changes during the poem. In the first and fourth stanzas, the speaker addresses two people, most likely his father and mother, directly, but throughout the rest of the poem, he talks of them in the third person, making the general reader the audience. However, throughout the poem the audience of the speaker, the general reader, can be both parents and children at the same time because each can learn much about the importance of relationships. Even though McDonald presents his memory to the reader, he himself is his own audience, telling a story to and for himself in a moment of personal recollection.

3 What is the occasion?

The speaker remembers a time when he ventures out on a bridge high above a fast flowing river, careless and at ease. His parents called from the bank for him not to fall, helpless and worried for one of their sons. Twenty years later, he flies an Air Force jet over that same bridge and takes a picture of it, showing his parents that it was “nothing,” at least compared to such a perilous stunt as flying a jet. More than ten years after that, he comes back from Vietnam to his aging parents, separated from them by yet another, this time metaphorical bridge.

4 What is the setting in time?

The speaker makes reference to cars driving by, when he is on the bridge as a small child, that would have to last through four more years of World War II; therefore it is approximately 1940. When he flies over the bridge as a young adult, two decades have past, making it about 1960. He then goes to Vietnam and comes back about a decade later, making it roughly 1970 at the end of the poem.

5 What is the setting in place?

When the speaker ventures out onto the bridge above the fast, white-water Arkansas, his family is on the canyon rim having a picnic at the Royal Gorge, which allows one to assume they are near Canyon City, Colorado, about an hour from Colorado Springs.

6 What is the central purpose of the poem?

The poem conveys the progression of a relationship over time – the relationship between a son and his parents. In the beginning of the relationship, when the speaker is five years old, the mother expresses her maternal affection for her son when he walks out on to a dangerous bridge. She calls to him, feeling helpless, not wanting him to fall into the river. Twenty years later, she cannot be as protective of her son as before, now that he is a fighter pilot for the Air Force, a dangerous job indeed. The speaker even goes off to war in Vietnam, and, like the physical distance that separates him from his parents, their relationship has lessened in strength. By the time he returns from the war, his parents are almost gone and he now feels helplessly separated from them by the rising drawbridge. This central purpose is achieved by the contrast between the speaker’s experience as a child and the extremity of his dangerous occupation.

7 State the central idea or theme of the poem in a sentence.

Although one feels the need to escape the protectiveness of his parents at a young age, once he achieves this independence and increases the division, time will have gone by faster than he expected and he will regret that the strong relationship no longer exists.

8 Paraphrase the poem.

I assume that you are waiting for my return. I remember that time at the Royal Gorge when I was five years old and I walked out onto the bridge that was high above the Arkansas River.

I spat into the river as my mom and dad were preoccupied on the canyon rim. I could hear cars behind me and I remember that World War II was going on then.

I heard a woman call to me not to fall and so did my mother. She was very scared that I would fall and she didn’t want to break the bridge by walking out onto it.

Twenty years after that, I flew an Air Force jet above the same bridge and took a picture of the miniscule thing to show you that it was not a big deal. As I flew over that bridge I felt very powerful.

Ten years after that, I went to fight in Vietnam, and when I came back I saw children that were less connected to their parents than I was to my parents. I also came back to my dying mother and father and then I felt helpless.

9 Discuss the diction of the poem.

Helpless, in both uses of the word in the poem, is a particularly well-chosen word. In the first occurrence, the mother feels helpless as her child wanders on the precarious bridge. The second time the word shows up is when the speaker himself feels helpless as he realizes the size of the separation between him and his parents. In both cases, the word “helpless” actually helps the reader feel the emotions of the speaker and his mother.

10 Discuss the imagery of the poem.

When the speaker describes the bridge that he as a five year old walked on, he creates a terrifying image. A little child on a “swaying” bridge, “a thousand feet over the fast, white-water” river. When reading this segment, one almost feels queasy. When the speaker flies over the bridge in the Air Force Jet, he takes a picture of it and it is only an inch long and gets smaller as he flies further away. This image is meant to convey the speaker's message that the instance on the bridge when he was a child, represented by the diminishing bridge itself, is "nothing," unimportant now that the speaker has "flown away." A third instance of imagery in the poem is of another bridge. When the speaker comes home from the war in Vietnam, he feels himself separated by a drawbridge. This bridge is significant because the drawbridge is rising, representative of the unbridgeable gap that has grown between the speaker and his parents as he has grown into adulthood.

11 Point out examples of figurative language.

In line three of the poem, simile is used: “others bumping past like pilgrims.” This use of figurative language is appropriate because it creates the carefree and indifferent attitude of the people walking past, making the people awaiting the speaker seem to stand out in the image created in the reader’s mind. Furthermore, the speaker labels the other people that are bumping past as pilgrims because they are intent on moving from where they are, either unsatisfied with their current location, or just wanting to escape something they have to live with. In this way, the two people that stand out from this crowd want to do the opposite, stay where they are and "face it." This image also ties in with the title of the poem, "Facing It." Simile is also used in the third stanza: “helpless as if afraid her weight might snap the cables.” This use is effective because it emphasizes the emotion of the speaker’s mother when he is out on the unsteady bridge. A metaphor used in this poem is “I…held ten thousand pounds of power in my fist.” This is very appropriate because, even though he is not really holding that much in his hands, it accentuates the control that he has over the jet. This is also an example of metonymy because the power that he holds in his fists represents the entire Air Force plane in general, not just the actual joystick that he grasps. Another metaphor is when the speaker says, “children running and tumbling/over dangerous bridges I’d never crossed.” Although he most likely did not actually see kids traversing more dangerous bridges than the one he went on over the Royal Gorge, the metaphor shows that three decades after his childhood, children are even more disconnected from their parents than he was as a kid.

12 Point out and explain symbols.

The drawbridge at the end of the poem symbolized the separation that the speaker feels from his parents, who are on the opposite side of the bridge, now that he has grown up and they are older. It is also not a coincidence that a bridge is what separated him from his parents when he was only five years old.

13 Point out and explain examples of paradox, overstatement, understatement, and irony. What is their function?

One instance of overstatement is when the speaker says, “I…held ten thousand pounds of power in my fist.” As the pilot of the jet, he didn’t actually hold five tons in his hands; instead he controlled all of that weight with the joystick he was holding. In this way, the overstatement functions to emphasize how dangerous and important his role as the pilot of such a powerful plane really was. It also shows the increasing separation between him and his mother who, at one point, was afraid of her son walking on a bridge, and who now has to accept that her son has such a dangerous job. One instance of paradox is in the last stanza when the speaker states, “the scramble of surviving.” One does not usually consider surviving a particularly difficult activity to carry out, but in this case the speaker finds life back at home to be more challenging than fighting a war in Southeast Asia.

14 Point out and explain any allusions.

In the final stanza of the poem the speaker says that he “flew to Saigon a decade later.” Even though he might have in fact flown to Saigon, what the speaker really means is that he went to fight in Vietnam.

15 What is the tone of the poem? How is it achieved?

The tone of the poem is of both pride and nostalgia. The speaker is very proud that he has grown up and is able to fly fighter jets, becoming more independent from his mother. But, at the same time, he reminisces about the separation that has grown between him and his aging parents. The tone of pride and independence is achieved when the speaker explains the power and control he has while flying the jet over the bridge. Also, the speaker takes a picture of the tiny bridge from the plane to show that “it was nothing.” The tone of nostalgia is conveyed at the end of the poem when he stands on the opposite side of the drawbridge as his parents. At this point, he is the helpless one, waving to his father and mother who are almost gone.

16 Describe the form, pattern, or meter of the poem.

The poem consists of five stanzas of seven lines each. Other than this basic structure, the poem is formless free verse. The poem is not a rhyming poem and does not have a specific meter. While the ideas established in the last lines of stanzas two, three, and four all carry into the next stanza, this does not occur in stanza one. The poet did this intentionally in order for the poem to flow in a way that is congruous with the content of the poem. In the first stanza, the speaker talks of an event occurring in the present, when his connection with his parents is already distant. In the following three stanzas, the content is primarily a recollection of how this connection gradually became distant. Therefore, the transitions at the end of the second, third, and fourth stanzas flow into the following stanza because this separation grew with each successive event, while the first stanza stands alone as an introduction to the despair felt by the speaker.

17 Explain the poem's significance to you.

"Facing It," by Walt McDonald, is very significant to me because of the message that I receive from it. The poem is about a man who looks back on his life and realizes that his relationship with his parents has thinned over the years. I can associate with this feeling because, even though I am significantly younger than the man in the poem, I still feel that I am constantly moving farther away from my parents, both figuratively and in reality. As I grow older, I do things farther away from home, and it continually becomes harder to maintain the extremely strong relationship that I once had with my mother and father.

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