Knock on Wood
The silver transistor at Dunn’s feet blared
“If I do I would surely lose a lot.”
Dunn, a bear of a man, teased
staccato rhythms from the radio.
“I’m not superstitious..”
Camp Tien Sha was low white buildings,
a swath of trees, at the end
of an unpaved road Monkey Mountain
greener than Dunn’s fatigues as he
danced on the walk outside the barracks
that Sunday night in August.
“Think I better knock, knock..”
Dunn’s big dark body tiptoed, slid,
shuffled, swayed to the music. In Viet Nam
I paced in the dark, and sat
in a shack walled by sandbags
with an M 16 near at hand. I turned twenty.
People passed by: Dunn, the heavy dancer;
Tan, the guard we “caught” squatting,
his feet on the commode lid, his way
different from ours, we Americans;
Moore, the young Californian Rorie
and other New Yorkers wanted to smack,
because of where he was from.
I liked the motion of riding in an open Jeep,
hard yet soft, casual.
I saw the dull green of the Jeeps,
their sides filmed with dust;
wood slats of a barracks,
its balcony’s long wooden rail;
lines of men with silver trays
in the mess hall; faces:
Mai, the laundry girl’s round pale face,
her short permed hair; the long brown face
of Ackles, a GI from Pittsburgh.
An early Sunday night, mountains
behind us, Dunn, big and very dark,
danced on the walk
in front of our barracks, danced
in his light green fatigues.
His body moved gracefully.
He can dance, I thought.
I watched him all of thirty seconds.
During the Cold War
between laundry, dusting, and vacuuming
my mother stopped to smoke a Chesterfield.
She took one from the pack, with its gold doodad
like a square lamppost on a street of off-white city snow.
They’re not made anymore, so to carry on the name
I’ll name myself Paul Chesterfield.
I’ll write essays readers will act on, for example,
one about a river you wouldn’t want to jump in
much less get thrown in. If someone says
to his friends, Let’s throw Paul in the river,
I’ll beg them not to. Rats, and gars with razor teeth
lurk under the surface. I wouldn’t want to be bitten,
slashed, or stung as I struggled to the sludgy shore.
I’ll write about the river and spur my readers to act
so in no time the water will be clear enough
to stand in shallows and see your feet,
because of my essay. Too bad my mother isn’t here
to witness what might be her son’s triumph.
She wasn’t a heavy smoker, a pack would last a week
and, in later years she switched to Salem lights
like smoking air for Pete’s sake, a pack might last
a month, through she herself didn’t last too long.
As Paul Chesterfield I wouldn’t write about death.
No death and dying, but I’d write about violence
in schools, not the metal detectors of today
or teachers armed with concealed 38’s, but Cold War
school violence. Scared to.., no, not the D word,
scared out of my wits I’d cringe. Teachers exploded
into flailing arms, grasping hands, their eyes, their voices!
None were like Mr. Rogers or Ward Cleaver.
Faces slapped, forearms bruised, hair pulled, shins kicked.
Cold War teachers, some of you, I’m sure, are still
among us. As Paul C. I’d write about school violence,
and Cold War gardening, and the morning
I threw a broom at Frank Baronowski, my foreman
at Star Meats. I was in my mid-twenties,
and the VP, Lloyd Siegel, who’s taking it all in,
pulls me aside. Paul, so out of character!
How I wanted to explain what led up to it!
But I stood there, with Lloyd’s eyes working me over,
as if he were Marciano and I, Paul C.
author of “The Broom,” just a sparring partner,
a few rounds of work before the real fight.
Peter Mladinic has published three books of poems: Lost in Lea, Dressed for Winter, and Falling Awake in Lovington, all with the Lea County Museum Press. He lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.