Poem a Day #4 – Southern Illinois Summer 1970

Lest you think I exaggerate, I grew up never eating rice. I don’t remember when I first learned what it was, but I didn’t grow up knowing. I think my Grandma Dorothy would sometimes eat minute rice with a lot of sugar and cream as desert, but I never tried it. Potatoes, almost daily. Egg noodles, macaroni, spaghetti, and lasagna, constantly. But never rice. And I didn’t see a bagel until high school when my bike-racing friends introduced me to them as a source of carbs you could stick in the back pocket of your jersey.

Southern Illinois, Summer 1970

Maxwell House coffee tins
rusted, scraped along the road side
until filled with small stones
and bits of black top tar
carried carefully by the hands
of seven year old girl
and her six year old cousin
only a few steps
to the ditch’s trickling stream
of water washed from a pasture
and field.

Each load of stone dumped on the last
pushed into a rough dam
cemented with one small handful of mud
after another, handful of stone, handful of mud
rising up and then across as the water
pushed past our determined construction.

At the top of the ditch we built one pebble dam,
below another and then another
and then another, then back to the top
again after each rain that rainy summer.
We built day after day, cans carried
across the street to Grandma Dorothy’s back porch
when called in for supper.

After, we watched our parents
watching the news on the tv. Somewhere
far away there was something bad
and the tv and the parents talked and talked
in voices we knew would not answer the questions
we knew from the voices not to ask.

Each next day we returned to our ditch
to build dams. We did not vary, we did not
play other games. The water had to be stopped,
the problem had to be fixed, the world
depended on the success of this project,
as it so often depends
on what children know they should not know.

We talked as we built, as children will,
dead serious and then laughing.

We called our dams rice paddies.

We didn’t know that rice was food.
We had heard that a paddy was something wet,
but were kept from knowing
what death lay in those waters.

We did know this—
every night the grownups said
something has to be done
so every day we built dams,
our fingers sometimes torn by asphalt pellets,
sometimes cut by broken glass buried in the mud,
all that summer, when rice paddies
demanded blood sacrifice
and children in two countries
had so little childhood.


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