Johnny didn’t know.

This poem comes from the time when I was learning how to operate every part of the process in a sugar factory, enamoured with the false idea that knowledge was merely the ability to discover the unchangeable truth behind how things were.


Coke mixed to limestone
gave the heat that caused the split
the alkaline break to calcium oxide
and the gas, acidic carbon dioxide.

Johnny didn’t know,
he’d never worked the kiln.
The lime was cut with water
long before it reached him
doubling the oxide to hydroxide,
the menu sounding ‘Milk of Lime’.

Johnny’s operation was the Carbonatation Station
rejoining the parts back to Calcium Carbonate
admixing milky liquor to the thin juice flow
whilst bubbling stifling gas in the turbulent cocktail.
Johnny didn’t know he added CO2
within the vessels churning bowels
where it linked again with  Ca(OH) 2 –
nobody had ever told him, but nobody did it better,
and the resultant precipitation clarified the juice.

Johnny knew that four times every hour
the calibrated glass tube ordered his actions
by the speed of colour change in the small bowl –
Johnny called it ‘ the test’, not the pH titration,
because Johnny didn’t know.

Johnny opened and closed the massive gate valves
balancing the mixture for more than twenty years
treating thousands of  litres every juggling hour,
and nobody knew that Johnny didn’t know,
because Johnny was enlightened —
he’d devised his own science.
In a total reversal of the scientific norm,
still loyally adopting the commonplace terms –
his gas was alkaline and his lime was acid.
Two wrongs made a right and kept the system placid,
but Johnny never knew.

I was amused at the muddle when I first found it
then gradually realised the old man’s merit –
his original thinking had solved his task’s puzzle
and balanced the maelstrom within the steel vessel.
What more was there to know?

Back to Top