Last night I attended the annual Wisconsin Review fall prose & poetry reading at UW-Oshkosh. Three English professors were reading their work. I’d had one of them, Ron Rindo, as a creative writing prof back in mumbletyhummina, and another I’d had as a father since 1979, the year in which he adopted me. (Or maybe it was 1980; I don’t know, I was like, five or something. I couldn’t even read yet.)
Anyway, my dad is a recently-minted English professor after many years in the criminal justice field. He read some of his autobiographical narrative poetry last night, kicking off with one of my favorites (reprinted with permission from the author Peter Martin, my pops):
The Summer I Was Seventeen
The summer I was seventeen I found a dead girl
in twelve feet of water in a stone quarry
in Waupun, Wisconsin.
I’d gone there early in the evening of a hot July day
after putting in a twelve-hour shift
for Green Giant Canning Company running blanchers for an
unending river of green beans,
Two men with a row boat were just pushing off in the quarry’s shallow end.
One of the men knew me and spoke to me.
“Pete, can you swim?”
I said that I could.
But I did not like the way this day was turning out.
The quarry was too small for boats, and I knew
there must be some terrible reason for theirs.
“We’re looking for a girl,” he said.
Scared, I swam alongside the aluminum boat
while one man rowed and the other stood looking down
Into the green quarry water.
I paddled along beside them while on shore I could see
a crowd beginning to gather. And a white
rescue truck with a red cross pulled up.
The man standing said quietly,
“I think I see her.”
My skin crawled but I dove down to find nothing.
Spring-fed currents moved across the quarry’s bottom
like cold black hands. I came back up
and we kept looking. While the small crowd watching grew.
“There she is,” said the standing man, pointing down.
I dove again, this time terrified because I knew I would find something.
Halfway down in the murky water
I saw her and had to fight the urge to swim back to the surface
where things like this didn’t happen in the summer I was seventeen.
But pride more than bravery pushed me deeper, and lying
on her back on the bottom I saw a very dead-looking
nine year-old girl.
Her lips and fingertips were purple, and her
frilly swimsuit, like her hair,
undulated in the cold current.
She was wearing tennis shoes against the sharp quarry stones.
I reached for one shoe and a wrist. Then pushed
off the bottom with my feet, looking up and away from the horror
in my hands. I broke surface and
heard at once a mother’s wail on the quarry cliff.
I handed her up to the men in the boat without looking at her.
They took her from me and tried to blow life into her mouth.
One man rowed and I
swam back toward shallow water and my parked
1953 Oldsmobile. I didn’t
feel like swimming anymore
that day in the
summer I was seventeen.
From this he segued into a few select poems about seeing—at age 15—a stripper shooting ping-pong balls from her vagina, the use of an Alka-Seltzer bottle as a sex toy, and the concept of human genitalia growing to epic proportions after exposure to weed killer.
So, you see where I get my classiness from. (Don’t worry, the poems were much more respectable than I make them sound, with redeeming themes about Coming of Age, Loss of Innocence, Determination to Succeed, and Mankind’s Sometimes Scary Urge to Mess with Nature.)
Bottom line: it’s always nice to sit in a roomful of people while your father talks about penises the size of Box Elder limbs.