My snow sculptures waltz Matilda

Harry Welty

Harry Welty’s latest sculpture in this snow-deprived winter is an homage to Harry’s favorite snow sculptors Calvin and Hobbes.

For better than 35 years I’ve made snow sculptures in my front yard in Duluth. I’m locally famous and can’t tell you the number of times people have told me that when they traveled out of town and told people they were from Duluth, people would ask them. “Do you know the guy that makes snow sculptures?”  

From the beginning I was hesitant enough about my skills that I took our voluminous snow and made very big sculptures of King Kong or dinosaurs or dragons or the Sphinx. I told everyone I offered quantity rather than quality. And I meant it. I still remember puzzling over which way a Triceratops’s knees should bend. 

I also had political motivations, especially as a Republican in a Democratic town. I did it to win skeptics over the way hulking black men bend over backward around white people to act friendly, like their mamas warned them to do.

When I first arrived in town after Watergate, everyone knew that Republicans were rich warmongers. Then to my chagrin, as the party changed, Republicans didn’t trust me, either.  

Until our youngest generation’s absorption with anime, most Americans had little training in the arts, so it's been easy to impress people. I’ve always been told how wonderful my sculptures were. I love hearing that, but I know it's not exactly true. I know this because even before the internet, people shared marvelous examples of snow art with me. It's often art that makes my hair stand on end, it’s so good like the monumental sculptures of Harbin, China Ice Festival.

No, my work is not particularly impressive. My work is like that Australian song "Waltzing Matilda." It ain’t Beethoven. It ain’t Tchaikovsky. It ain’t Bernstein. It’s catchy and nonsensical, like the song that’s been called the unofficial Australian National anthem.  

"Once a jolly swagman camped beside a billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me"

I fell in love with the song in junior high when I watched the Movie On the Beach about the end of the world. It's based on a novel of the same name by Australian writer Nevil Shute. A nuclear war has broken out but the fireworks all took place in the northern hemisphere, which has grown silent. In Sydney Harbor, an American submarine that was traveling under water incommunicado has just surfaced. Its captain, played by Gregory Peck,  and crew heard nothing about the war as they patrolled to keep the world safe.

Now they are in Australia, which being the Antipodes in the far southern hemisphere, was not a target of the nations blowing each other up far to the North.  

While the American crew is meeting Australians under these strange circumstances, everyone wonders about the great silence everywhere else. There is little doubt about the fate of Australia. In time radioactive fallout will disperse to the Southern hemisphere. As Australians contemplate this terrible end they meet their fate in many ways. Some close themselves off. Others cast off their inhibitions and party like its 1999. A quartet of husky men are always there to belt out the jovial "Waltzing Matilda," signaling Aussie good cheer. At first it's a joyous soundtrack, but the story progresses somber chords intrude a sign of foreboding.   

"Down came a jumbuck to drink from the Billabong
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee
And he sang as he stowed that jumbuck in his tucker bag
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me"

When I was a senior in high school a lovely Australian lass was one of our foreign exchange students. When I met her I asked her impishly if she could sing me Matilda. Of course, she was both embarrassed to be asked to sing a solo and possibly charmed to meet a fellow who knew a bit about her home. When she demurred, I sang the first verse for her with the confidence of having just joined the school choir. I think I knew all three verses.  

"Down came the Stockman mounted on his thorough-bred
Down came the troopers one, two, three
Where’s the jolly jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag?
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me"

In the movie, a strange signal is received from California and the Americans, hoping for the best, dive and head north to see if the unreadable signal is a sign of life.  In their absence, Australians grow frantic at prospect of radiation illness. Between parties they live recklessly, tempting fate and suicide or search, often uselessly, for scarce medications that will let them die quickly and painlessly.

The jaunty "Waltzing Matilda"  gives way to a somber instrumental strain. Had I not been a stoic young man, the fate of these people would have watered my eyes.  

After passing under the Golden Gate Bridge the Americans find a silent San Francisco whose streets are empty. There is a signal but it's an accident of wind. Sanctuary was never possible.  

"Up jumped the swagman and dived into the billabong
You'll never catch me alive, said he
And his ghost may be heard if you pass by that billabong
Who'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me?"

Before she returned to Australia, I had a date with my Olivia Newton John. It left me with instant crush and I wrote her a mushy goodbye letter that I’ve always regretted sending. I should have remained a stoic.  

"Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me
And his ghost may be heard if you pass by that billabong
You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me."  

Harry Welty will get back to 1972 next week. In the meantime,