To Work at Thirteen
By Paul Nebenzahl

Six foot at thirteen, the summer of 1968, sent to a hippie summer camp
Among the glacial hilled farms and lakes settled by the Dutch, in mid-Michigan

Dirt roads and outhouses behind gas stops, in tired tin roof towns
I spent nine weeks working using my hands, my heart and head

Digging a ditch to the Orchard Cabins, to build a bathhouse
At Circle Pines Center, only one of a handful a fifties/sixties retreats

Where interracial families, folksingers and gunslingers
Spent evenings under the glass harmonica of midwestern skies

Swaying, singing, throwing at the moon, telescoping freedom’s songs
Around great fires that seared your face, shining in the coal black night

Kellogg’s was down the road, through Kalamazoo to Battle Creek
That Kellogg’s truck appearing every Sunday morning, behind the old farmhouse

We’d swarm around, the rewards of Sunday kitchen duty, and get the good boxes
To go with the packaged milk and chocolate milk cartons for fuel

This a slightly different camp, let’s say, that music camp they sent my brother to
‘Round the campfire in Lake Placid, I don’t think they sang red songs of freedom/struggle

Songs all pounding in my head, weekday mornings of dew sleep, then bells ringing
Breakfast all but gone by 9:30 when I climbed down in the trench, with an old shovel

To dig until noon, and then again after lunch and swimming and early sex trying
Back in the trench again, to dig until dinner, and then to wash the dirt from our teeth

Settling down for a pass-the-meal sing-a-long in flowered shirts and flowered hair
Singing Danish folk songs, folk blues, Irish ballads, 50s camp songs

The corn, potatoes and chicken, in metal tubs, sandy water in red plastic cups
Sing for the cooks! Sing for Rosie! Sing-along under stained glass windows

I fell in love a million times under a million stars, my hair grew long and tangled
Shoulders broadened week by week, shovel steady, laughing with my best friend

Digging all day, under the volleyball field, the milkweed and cotton top flowers
Filled with buzzing bees and flies to follow you to the beach, sweat flies

They stayed with you, all the way down to the water, biting your head and back
Until you dove onto the cool sheen of Lake Stewart, under the rope and floats

Pulling up on an old dock, catapulting onto white painted sandy slats, sun stinging
I could feel the keel of work surge through muscle and capillary, raising me

That summer of ’68, with the Art Ensemble of Chicago as our final week counselors
With the bathhouse trench to the Orchard, the SDS, the Panthers and Blackstone Rangers

With first kisses and caresses in barn lofts/hay fields, with midnight swims to moonbeams
With books and poetry and music, we sang the body polemic

Work glued us, broke us, renewed us and changed us, a spirit built in our chests and hands
I arrived early summer a boy, and trained home to Chicago, folk dancing in the aisles, a man

IMAGE: “Shovel” by Aloysius Patrimonio. Prints available at

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem brought back such a rush of memories of early work ingrained into me at the cooperative summer camp I attended in Michigan in the sixties and seventies.  A hotbed of radical, labor, civil rights, folk music, blues (Big Bill Broonzy had been the cook there in the fifties), it was also a place where you had to work long hard days as a camper on work projects such as the one we tackled that summer, to bring water to a group a cabins near the center of camp. Today, when I visit Circle Pines, I can still see where we piled the dirt back in after laying the pipes out the Orchard all those years ago.


Paul Nebenzahl
is a writer, painter, and musician who lives in Evanston, Illinois. His drawings and paintings have been exhibited at Kubiak Gallery and at The Palette Gallery in Douglas, Michigan, at Frame Warehouse Gallery in Evanston, Illinois, and his photomontage has been exhibited at Aperture Gallery in New York City. His collection of 50 poems, Black Shroud With Rainbow Fringes, was published by Silver Birch Press in May, 2014, and his poems appear in three other Silver Birch collections, Bukowski, Summer,  and May.  His  poem,” Gusen Station” was published in English, Italian, and German in 2012 by the International Committee for Mauthausen and Gusen. As a performing multi-instrumentalist and composer, he has created Emmy-nominated works for film and television, and has performed extensively in theater, stage, and club settings.  He toured the United States in 1979 playing tenor sax with legendary blues artists Big Walter Horton and Homesick James –– and performed with Karen Finley from 2011-2015, including engagements at the Barbican Centre in London, the Museum of Modern Art and The Laurie Beechman Theater in New York City, the Richard and Karen Carpenter Theater in Long Beach, California, and at the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.