Michigan Sugar Beet Harvest, 1944

Michigan POW Work Camp, 1944

Poem by Mary Buchinger


November ninth,
four inches fresh snow — I’ll never forget
the white against the black.
It was a bad fall, awful late for harvesting.
Things were tense,
the beets, black, rotting,
then the snow.

They kept the men at the fairgrounds,
next to the sugar factory, barbed wire all around.
Army truck drove up our long lane at home,
twenty-five P.O.W.s piled out and one puny U.S. soldier 
holding a little pistol. He didn’t speak a word of German, 
shivered in his thin wool duffel.

The old soldiers, family men in their 40s and 50s, 
talked with Dad. Different dialects, but they understood 
each other, told where they were from, what they did 
before the war. The young ones, just a couple years older 
than me, were mean, high and mighty — Nazis, 
wouldn’t look at us, wouldn’t say a word.

My mother fixed potatoes and sauerkraut, 
huge chunks of homemade sausage. 
They could’ve made trouble for us — 
it was late to get those beets in. 
There were two brothers down the road, the Weisses — 
one fed the men well and got good work; 
the other, just a bucket of warm water, 
always regretted it.

Those beets had to get to the factory. 
Already lifted, winnowed into rows, 
they had to be knocked together hard, by hand, to get the dirt off, 
then each one topped with a topper — sharp, like a machete.

I was seventeen, worked beside them; snow falling on us all.


Michigan POW Work Camp, 1944

The 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical
FIRST PLACE

We are pleased to announce this piece as the First Place winner for the 2016 Charter Oak Award for Best Historical, honoring the independent press’ best writing on themes of historical people, places, events, objects, or ideas. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.


Mary Buchinger is the author of two collections of poetry, Aerialist and Roomful of Sparrows. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Salamander, Slice Magazine, The Cortland Review, The Massachusetts Review, as well as in journals in Canada, England, Ireland, France, The Netherlands, and elsewhere. She was invited to read at the Library of Congress and in The Netherlands, and received the Daniel Varoujan and Firman Houghton Awards, multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations, a Norton Island Residency, and the Charter Oak Award for Best Historical. Originally from Michigan, where she grew up on a small family farm, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and earned a doctorate in applied linguistics from Boston University. Currently, Mary is Co-President of the New England Poetry Club and Professor of English and Communication Studies at MCPHS University in Boston, Massachusetts; she lives in Cambridge with her husband, two sons, dog, and two cats. You can find her at her website.


Originally published on 1/28/16.

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