Scene From My Childhood

I don't remember much from grammar school:
the time I slashed my wrist, the stagnant pool
below the hill with stickleback and trout
to tempt our truant hearts, the high-pitched shout
of triumph when Red Rover reached the wall
in safety. Years have passed since then, and all
I did and saw has faded save a few
dim memories. But one man that I knew
I think of still in Spring, when swallows soar
and build their nests. He was a janitor.

His name was Herman Shunk. We called him 'skunk,'
and whispered to each other that he stunk
of sweat and gin. We jeered him to his face,
and those of us who dared his wrath
would lace his boots together as he slept beside
the furnace, ring the fire-alarm, and hide.

Perhaps we did him wrong to treat him so --
the man was old and bent, and seemed our foe
more than he really was. But he would curse
our pranks and kick our playful dogs, and nurse
resentment on a fifth of gin. In time
we came to hate him: without cause, he'd lime
the baseball diamond all askew and wait
for our young jibes. We traded hate for hate.

If this were all, I'd say the fault was ours:
the man bore many years of bitter scars
from children like ourselves, who spilled his paint
and scattered glass beneath his car. A saint,
perhaps, might hold no store of piled-up hurt,
but Shunk was just a man, and barked a curt
reply when some child dared to say hello.
If he was ever kind, we did not know.

But there was better reason for our hate
than his dull cursing and his drunken gait.
The man was more than bitter: he was cruel.
He showed it most in Spring. Our stucco school
had tiles upon the roof, which overhung
old yellowed walls where withered ivy clung
and formed great eaves. Each Spring the swallows came
to nest in them, and we would play a game
to find who'd guess the date when we'd first see
a mud-stained swallow building hopefully
and calling for a mate. We wagered gum
and comic-books, and watched for them to come.

By April all their nests were well begun,
and two weeks later almost all were done.
They looked like dusty wineskins set to dry
and filled the eaves with brown. The cloudy sky
was patterned by the swallows' curving flight
in search of mud and straw. At times they'd fight
in nest or air -- it made no difference which --
and one would take possession of a niche
and let the loser seek another nest.
By early May, a clear sky would attest
to weary swallows brooding speckled eggs.

Then Shunk would come around on drunken legs
and peer into the twittering eaves as though
he had not seen the swallows sweeping low
across the puddled fields for weeks before.
He'd shake his head and shuffle to the door
where fire-hoses lay in coils. And suddenly
our fights and games would stop, and we
would watch with frightened, fascinated eyes
as nests and fledglings tumbled down and cries
of angered swallows filled our ears. Bright stars
of egg would spot the mud; the eaves bore scars
where nests had clung. Old Shunk would aim his stream
till all the nests were down. He did not seem
to see the baby birds his feet would crush,
nor hear the angry cries that broke our hush.

Each Spring it was the same: one day in May
old Shunk would hose the swallows' nests away.
The boys would call him names, the girls would cry
and nurse the hungry fledglings till they'd die.

This happened years ago, and Shunk is dead.
The school is gone, and his slow drunken tread
no longer haunts my dreams. It's hard to write
on something that far back and do it right.
But I remember what I noticed then:
the swallows always came to nest again.


16 Nov 1958

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