My parents told me under no circumstances would I be allowed to have a pet hamster, guinea pig, rabbit, mouse, rat, cat, dog, snake or horse. I could have a turtle if I wanted one. I asked for other pets rather than a turtle many times but was turned down.
A friend at school was one of the group that walked home together. His house was on the way and we usually stopped there for at least a few minutes and sometimes for hours. He and his family raised rats.
There was a wall in their garage next to his dads workshop filled with cages. He and his brother raised the rats and sold them to a local pet shop for pets and feeders and they also sold them to a local university to the science department. Most of the rats were sold to the university.
My friends name was Jack. I watched the way the rats acted with his brother and father and sisters and our friends but they acted changed when Jack was there. Those rats loved Jack. Those rats acted very differently around Jack. The way they acted and sounded around him was like night and day. You could see it in their faces and eyes and hear it in their voices clear as a bell. His dad was always after him to spend as much time cleaning the cages as he did playing with all the rats. The rats were easy to understand. When they were happy all the litter and food stayed in their cages. When they were agitated or out of sorts they would kick all the stuff all over the floor. Jack thought it was funny and told me it was them shouting at him or somebody else about something the only way they knew how. I right then realized how grown up Jack was compared to myself. It made me think that maybe being with and taking care of a rat might be a good thing.
After school when we’d stop at Jacks house; we sometimes help clean cages, fill food dishes and top off water bottles. That was a blast. Before we knew it those rats were almost as happy to see us as to see Jack. It was one of the special times of my life. After chores we’d sit around a little card table in chairs and watch the rats watching us and talk about the rats and school and tell jokes. Jacks dad and his friends played cards there at night. Jack told me his mom didn’t want him and his loud friends in the house so they played out here to keep the peace. The garage was workbenches, refrigerators, washer, dryer, cardroom and rat farm. After school on weekdays it became a place where Jack, Dave and I and sometimes Jacks little brother played card games like hearts and spades and sometimes even jigsaw puzzles. The rats paid attention while we drank sodas, ate peanuts, and played cards. It was the best spot to spend a rainy afternoon. And all the time the rats were a part of everything. Those rats seemed to have a wild cycle that peaked at the full moon, or so Jack said. While we were playing cards, Jack would usually have a few of them on the table, walking around and checking things out. Each one of them went about exploring in different ways. Jack would hand feed them while he played cards.
The biggest rat there though he was not the oldest rat was white with one light gray spot. He had a long pink tail. He had big black eyes. Jack called him popper because he did this thing in his cage that made the whole cage move and go bang. Jack told me his dad didn’t like popper and his antics because he made too much noise when the men were there at night playing cards. He was always banging his cage and making a racket. Finally Jacks dad told him it was time to sell popper to one of his buyers or else. Jack asked me to please give him a home and we made a deal. I never got to hear popper pop his cage either there or at my house but maybe it was because the door on the cage was never closed again. I traded Jack a bag of marbles and handful of baseball cards for popper. I promptly renamed him poppa rat. I smuggled him into my house in my knapsack. I’d just drop a line from my window on the third floor to the back garden to pull his cage and litter and food in the window.
I remember walking into the house that day through the kitchen where nanny was cooking and sitting with three of my brothers while mother was down the hall in her project room with a few of her friends planning something. It was up two flights of stairs as quick as I could to my room. Poppa rat never made a sound. Since my parents had only been to my room once in two years I hoped and thought we’d probably be safe.
After I closed the door to my room; I opened the knapsack on my bed and poppa rat crawled out wiggling pink nose and white silver nose hairs. He blinked black eyes and dragged long pink tail behind. We pulled up the cage without bumping it on the side of the house and dryed all the evening dew off of it together. The bags of food and litter went in the closet up on the shelf. He watched every single thing I did. Jack had given me an idea of how to set up poppa rats quarters. He said up off the floor better because out of the draft. Jack had been to my house and had seen my bookshelves. He told me he had a rat in his room that never left the shelf before they set up all the cages in their garage. He thought poppa rat would like that shelf and I could put a ramp up to it so he could go there and get around the room when I wanted, or I could take the ramp down and he’d have his shelf. I cleared that shelf of all small things, left some books to sit on and hide behind and put his cage at one end with a tee shirt as bedding At the other end of the shelf went the tray Jack gave me for the litter. Poppa rats food dish was in the middle of the shelf against the wall. For the first time, I held poppa rat up and looked at him closely and he licked me. It was the first time he was that close to my nose and he smelled like cigars. Later he smelled like my undershirts or where ever he slept or like what he’d just eaten.
After inspection I put him in his tray with the shavings litter. He played around in it for a bit and did his thing and after he’d rooted around awhile I made little scratching noises that he heard and followed up and over a couple of the books that I’d left as perches mid shelf. In no time he was sniffing around and crawling in and out of things and over things and watching me while he wasn’t exploring. Where ever I went in the room he followed on the shelf. I was glad he liked me and his new home. When nanny called me for dinner he was sitting on my undershirt licking his feet.
When I got upstairs after dinner he was asleep right where I’d left him. He woke and we played around until it was time for bed. It wasn’t lonely up here any more. Good old poppa rat.
For the first few weeks I was worried about getting caught with him in my room but as weeks and weeks passed I finally stopped worrying. For the first few weeks I would hand transport him from the shelf when I came to the room. We’d play or do homework on the floor or in the bed or at the desk or we’d read. He’d be right there if I was building radios or models or painting and drawing or carving. He liked it all. We’d listen to stations all over the world on the short wave or crawl around on the floor like maniacs or sometimes just stare out one of the windows and watch the clouds.
One day I picked up a piece of wood that went from one end of the shelf to the floor where it met the other wall. It made a perfect angled ramp so that poppa rat could come and go as he pleased when I was home. When I was out poppa rat had his shelf penthouse. We were happy campers.
Any time I wanted poppa rat to visit I’d make little scratching noises and he’d instantly appear. When he wanted to play he would squeak to let me know. Sometimes I would feed him little amounts of molasses, lettuce and crimped oats and he’d go completely bonkers running around like a madman.
After poppa rat had been at my house for a few months something funny happened. Jack and Dave came over to trade some model parts and goof around. When they went over to say hi to poppa rat he made mad noises and acted like he’d bite them. Once he smelled them, he started acting himself again. Jack said, “Jimmy he’s got it so good here he’s gonna turn into a one man guard mouse”. Jack said it was also because I was feeding him so much real food and letting him sleep with me.
When they visited after that, he’d always be on guard at first until he smelled who they were. When the ramp was down while I was gone; he’d always meet me at the door of my room when I got home, just like my friend Dave’s dog would meet him at the front door.
As time went by even Jack and Dave finally started calling him poppa rat instead of popper. The first time they saw him sitting on the windowsill making noises through the windows at the birds they laughed and laughed. I told them about how poppa rat started doing it one spring morning with the window open and how now it was a habit. We’d lay there in bed with pillow on windowsill and listen to the birds all doing their morning salute. Orioles would line up on the lines that came to the house and on tree branches surrounding the house. If one of them got too close to the window on a branch or flying in the air; poppa rat would make those noises like he was warning them about something. I got to the point where I could make little kissing sounds with my lips that sounded just like him. Sometimes when I slept with the window open he would wake me up talking to the orioles. Those were good times.
Later I got an oriole ballcap from some guy who dropped it by mistake through a gap in a fence. I thought that it would make a perfect little bed for poppa rat if it had a tee shirt or something soft inside it for a mattress. Poppa rat would like the high sides and could curl up in it out of the drafts when I wasn’t around. Sure enough, he liked it fine right off the bat and always was in it when he napped during the day.
My parents never visited my room and never found out about poppa rat. Nanny knew but never told them even though she came up to the room all the time for sheets and laundry. We never talked about him. The only one in my family who met poppa rat was grandpop. Grandpop laughed and laughed and told me that if “Fritz” (my dad) knew I had a rat up here, I’d be in boiling hot water. Then he made a face and said, “and what about your mother? If she found him here you could hear her in the state capitol”. Poppa rat like grandpop right off from the get-go. Ran right over to him and jumped in his lap and crawled up his shirt. I told grandpop to smell him and he told me he smelled like clean sheets. Grandpop said he didn’t know rats smelled like that. grandpop was the first one poppa rat liked at first meeting and maybe it was partly because they both had white hair and big black eyes.
Poppa rat stayed with me for a few years. One day when I came home from school he was in his hat curled up and didn’t come over to say hi. He wasn’t warm anymore. I didn’t go down to dinner when they called me that night and went out before the sun came up the next morning with a pick and a shovel from the garage. I took him in his oriole baseball hat and put them deep in the ground under the place by the fences where I had first picked up the hat.
I think of him whenever I see orioles or the baseball team from Baltimore.
I can still hear him talking to the birds.