Social Justice Poetry

The Hell of Agent Orange | A Social Justice Poem by Donal Mahoney

“Throw me down the stairs a sandwich, Ollie, I’m hungry,” said Dr.
Olga Sumvitch, hollering up to me from Hell again in her best
fractured English.

Although she had spent the last 30 years of her life in the United
States working for Monsanto, Dr. Sumvitch still speaks English with a
thick accent. I’m one of the few Americans who can always understand
her. She has trouble pronouncing my first name, Oliver. But she can
always say Ollie, and I have no problem answering to that.

Years ago, Dr. Sumvitch emigrated from Moldova to the United States
after being hired by Monsanto to fine-tune the formula for Agent
Orange. There were some problems in its effectiveness and she had the
expertise to work them out.

The day the government finally approved the formula for use in Viet
Nam, Dr. Sumvitch had gotten hit by a bus coming back to work after a
sumptuous lunch with her celebrating co-workers.

The injuries were bad. She suffered seizures in the hospital for
several days and foamed at the mouth intermittently. The night nurse
needed towels to sop it all up. She died at midnight on Good Friday
with a groan that woke everyone in her ward. After her last groan, a
deaf patient on her floor said that he could hear again on Easter

Dr. Sumvitch and I were chemists by trade. We became friends at
professional meetings. In the beginning I knew nothing about her work.
In fact, I had declined a job at Monsanto right after getting my
doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and I had
always wondered if I had made a mistake in turning that job down. The
pay and the benefits were excellent. And Monsanto had a great
reputation for quality in their products.

Dr. Sumvitch trusted me not to talk about her work, saying it was
top-secret, hush-hush by order of the government. It was the
government, after all, that had underwritten the years of research and
development that made Agent Orange possible.

Without millions in taxpayer money funneled through the government
back to Monsanto, Agent Orange might never have been produced. I
promised her I would never say a word about her work. That would have
been hard for me to do even if I had wanted to because I honestly
didn’t quite understand the true nature of the product at the time.

Even now, more than 40 years later, I have to ask myself why would our
government be interested in producing a product that would silently
decimate land and crops as well as the people who depend on both for
their livelihood.

It sounds a lot like chemical warfare to me, and I didn’t think my
country would ever engage in such a thing.

Right now, America is all worked up about what’s going on in
Syria–poisonous gases of one kind or other. I’m happy that I’m an
expert in formulating new toothpastes. It’s my job to make people
smile brighter and whiter–not kill them–over a period of time.

Dr. Sumvitch went to Hell immediately but stayed in touch with me
after she died. I was afraid to tell anybody about that for fear they
would think I was hallucinating after too many years experimenting
with toothpaste. Once a month or so, however, she hollers up from Hell
when she gets real hungry.

“Food is scarce down here,” she told me, “unless one has no objection
to cannibalism.”

On Earth, and in Moldova especially, she had developed a taste for
organ meats–gizzards and livers and hearts–provided they had been
harvested from beasts, not human beings.

Chicken gizzards piled on a mountain of rice were her favorite,
although turkey hearts, if they were big enough, were almost as good.

Whenever Dr. Sumvitch hollers, and lately she’s been doing it more
frequently, I wake up and get out of bed and head for the kitchen. I
always make her a fine sandwich. I stack beef or pork, whatever I have
in the fridge, on marble rye with a slice of onion and a dollop of
Tabasco sauce. I top it off with a slice of Kosher pickle, wrap it in
Saran Wrap and toss it down the stairs to Hell. It takes around an
hour for it to arrive so I hang around in the kitchen till I hear from

“Thank you,” she yells, when the sandwich finally gets there.

“Believe me, Ollie, I’d ask someone else for help but no one believes
in Hell any more except me and my co-workers down here. It’s like a
big Monsanto reunion from decades ago. There are thousands of us.

“Sandwiches like yours are impossible to come by. Eyeballs, armpits
and feet are plentiful, if you like your meat well done.

“You can always see what you’re eating because of the bright light,
and that can ruin one’s appetite. Agent Orange burns night and day.
It’s always High Noon down here. No one gets any sleep.”

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