From: Peter Rivard
Date: Sat Sep 21, 2002 12:48:40 AM Japan
To: Newsletter
Subject: More Mamushi

Hello, friends,

You may remember from a letter about suspect soup that my visiting school, Go-chu, is trying to kill me. Well, now, despite kind words and hundreds of sweet smiles, my base school, Manyo, has decided to join them in the effort. In the spirit of fairness, however, they're trying to off a few students, too.

Every year, the third years plant a crop of special red rice (at Go-chu it's watermelon). Not long after the fall term began, I was "invited" to join them for the harvest. On the theory that pretty much anything beats studying Japanese in the teachers' room, I gladly agreed. I switched into the sportswear I keep in my locker, smeared on the emergency sunblock, and jogged out to join in the fun. First, the kids were issued small hand-scythes to cut the rice (full text of safety lecture: "Be careful with the scythes"), then marched into the field, which had been drained some time ago. By harvest time, the weight of the grain has bent most of the plants low, so that instead of standing straight up, the rice is in broad mats a foot or so off the ground; to cut it, one reaches blindly under the mat, grabs a clump of stalks, and cuts them off 8" or so from the ground. Then, once one has piled up a good armload, one trudges it over to the combine and hands it to the principal, who feeds it into the thresher, which, having been designed to be fed automatically by the cutter, jams up and ignites all the rice in its bowels. A well thought-out procedure through and through.

So far, we have 140 largely spastic 14 year olds with knives, a burning thresher, and clouds of rice-and-lubricant smoke, but nothing truly threatening has arisen. We continue to harvest, piling up rice while the teachers who spent an hour and half that morning trying to figure out how to turn on the combine now try to take it apart, pull out the burning rice, and put it back together. Soon, the field is mostly cleared, so we turn to the time-honored childhood tradition of looking for wildlife and shrieking and dancing when we find it. As it turns out, much of the wildlife, aside from a bumper crop of mantises, is made up of snakes. Are they poisonous snakes? I couldn't tell--they looked a bit like some pictures of mamushi (a kind of viper) I'd seen when I tried to identify the one I'd stepped on during a hike earlier this year. The kids don't know. The teachers don't know. At any rate, no one died, and we got the school combine going again in time to thresh our rice (which we gave to the PTA, which sent part of it to a cookie company to make school cookies and kept part of it to make noodles for special "Manyo Udon," which will be served at the school festival tomorrow).

This windy morning, while setting up for the school festival, some of Takefu's best and brightest junior high school students decided that just outside the front door was a good place to store a pile of balloons, which immediately led to the traditional and universally-enjoyed "Catch-the-gerund-balloons" game. Some of our escapees managed to flee all the way to the surrounding rice paddies, and one of the teachers present, a man who's farmed some rice in his day, told the kids not to go after them, because the rice paddies were crawling with mamushi.

Of course, if the paddies on the right side of the school are crawling with poisonous snakes, it stands to reason that the ones on the left side of the school are crawling with them, too. Let's see, 140 kids, in a snake-infested swamp, blindly sticking their hands right down to snake level--and for good measure, let's give `em all knives. Sounds good to me. Apparently, there's no word for "liability litigation" in Japanese.

To be fair, there do seem to be a lot of people farming and few people dropping dead of snakebite around here, so maybe it isn't that bad (we do enjoy the occasional knife wound at my schools)--but maybe next week they'll send me out with the first years for the annual boar-neutering field trip (safety lecture: "Be careful with the spears").

O genki de

Peter

p.s.: I wonder if you get a refund if you find a dead teenager in your big bag of red rice.

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