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.

--- From Feeding the Fire
Jeffrey Harrison
©2001, Sarabande Books

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