Poetry | September 01, 1997

 

  If  you think ground squirrels are fun, 

                           wait till you see a coyote.

 

I’d never say that to grandsons,

but even coyotes have to eat. So what do I tell

their taped school project tomorrow?

What idealistic teacher makes historians of kids

in the second grade? With a flourish of her tongue

 

and simple Xeroxed lists of questions,

she’ll flick us back to Saigon or Da Nang,

memories static as paper weights with winter scenes.

What did you do in the war, Grandpa? Shake us

with cassette tapes and watch snow flurries swirl.

 

What do I say about native kids their age?

They were hungry but cute, with tangled hair and eyes.

Did they play? Yes, I think they ran a lot. No,

they didn’t believe in Santa Claus, but Halloween

was all year long. The tarmac track where I jogged

 

outside Saigon was hot. Yes, I sunburned

and others, most in jogging shorts and tennis shoes

or boots. No, I killed nobody on the track.

No, men jogged in the jungle with backpacks

and rifles. No, boys, I never saw tigers

 

eating people on the battlefield,

but if your teacher’s daddy was there,

I guess they did. No, I don’t have a gun to show you,

no enemy’s teeth or dried ears in my duffle bag.

Have I been back to Vietnam? Do I have nightmares

 

still? [What’s next on this teacher’s list?

Have you stopped beating Grandma?]

It was a long time ago, and boys, you know

what happens when you sleep. You never know

what might trot by inside your mind—a friend.

 

from school who moved away you’ll never see

again, a tiger in a Disney show, a coyote

gnawing on a bone. But that’s enough. Come,

hug me, both of you, then race me to the swing set

before your mother calls us to wash up.

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