Oct. 4, 2003

Vietnam Scrapbook

by Jeffrey Harrison

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Poem: "Vietnam Scrapbook," by Jeffrey Harrison, from Feeding the Fire (Sarabande Books).

Vietnam Scrapbook

Midway through fourth grade, early 1968,
Mrs. Hackemeyer said it was time
we learned about the war in Vietnam,
where, she said, "American boys
are giving their lives to fight communism."
We were American boys, or half of us were,
and we already knew communism was bad,
how it spread like a rash across the map
that pulled down like an illustrated window shade.

The paper maps that Mrs. Hackemeyer passed out
were scented with her perfume and showed a country
shaped vaguely like a sea horse, its slender waist
adorned with a slim, candy-striped belt
we labeled DMZ. We added stars and dots
and printed in Saigon, Hanoi, Khe Sanh,
the Gulf of Tonkin, the Mekong River, Hue

names so strange they seemed to come
from an Asian version of The Hobbit,

which the librarian was reading aloud to us
in daily installments. Ho Chi Minh
might have been the leader of the evil goblins.
It was another world with its own vocabulary words—
"Charlie," chopper, napalm, punji
words we lobbed like make-believe hand grenades
during recess, among our screams
of phony agony, our diving death-sprawls.
POWs were thrown into the Jungle Gym.

But they all escaped as soon as the bell rang,
the dead sprang up and ran inside
where Mrs. Hackemeyer tried to teach us
"the horror of war." Horror meant Godzilla,
and Viet Cong, reminded us of King Kong.
Horror made you munch your popcorn faster.
Even after we started pasting photographs
from Time and Life into our notebooks—a task
that lasted weeks—it never broke through.

We clipped the jungle's blooming fireballs
with safety scissors, smeared minty paste
on the screaming napalm victim's back,
pressed the blood- and mud-spattered soldiers
into clean white pages, a little ink
smudging off on our soft, sticky fingertips,
as Mrs. Hackemeyer leaned over us
in her thick, invisible cloud of perfume,
smoke from bombed cities rising up in black plumes.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of sculptor, artist, and adventure writer Frederic Remington, born in Canton, New York (1861). Remington is famous for his realistic and exciting paintings and bronze sculptures of the American West. He first became fascinated by the West after he left home as a young man. Like many young men, he headed out West to find an exciting career and a new life, but he soon lost all of his money to a con-man. He suddenly had to earn a living, and tried out lots of different jobs. He was a storekeeper, a shepherd, a cook on a ranch, a cow puncher and a stock man. The whole time that he was working, he was also drawing pictures. Eventually, Remington returned back East and began to publish his drawings. He suggested to his editor that someone should write stories about the West for him to illustrate. His editor told him that was a great idea, and then told Remington to write the stories himself. So Remington began to write stories about life in the West to go along with his own drawings. He found the West beautiful and heroic, but he also saw that it was disappearing. He wrote, "I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever ... and the more I considered the subject, the bigger the forever loomed. Without knowing how to do it, I began to record some facts around me, and the more I looked the more the panorama unfolded."

It's the birthday of journalist Brendan Gill, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1914). He wrote novels, plays, and essays, and he was a popular columnist for The New Yorker for over fifty years. Gill's career at The New Yorker was long and varied. He wrote fiction and essays. He was a film, theater, and architecture critic. He also wrote books on architecture, and he wrote biographies of Charles Lindbergh, Tallulah Bankhead, Cole Porter, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Gill loved his job and he loved New York. He said, "You feel, in New York City, the energy coming up out of the sidewalks, you know that you are in the midst of something tremendous, and if something tremendous hasn't yet happened, it's just about to happen."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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