The Rat I Knew And Loved

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.


An Incident From Childhood

One of my first memories of interaction with the world of strangers was the testing of those unknown humans around me. My first prank wasn’t even original. I’d seen something like it on television, on Candid Camera probably. The only difference was that they’d used a wallet. Anyway, I decided on a womans handbag. One of my moms handbags that had been sitting in the basement was just the ticket. It looked good and would be a great decoy.

My best friend Jack and I found a good street corner. It had a nice thick hedge and an escape route handy in case there was someone who didn’t think that this was as funny as we did. I had a couple of dollar bills from my birthday money stash as bait, the leather handbag, a spool of fishing line and an inordinate amount of mischief. Before we even started to enact the ruse, Jack and I were laughing uncontrollably just thinking of the prank we’d play and the excitement we were about to share with total strangers.

We taped the dollar bills inside the handbag, so that they would stick out of the opening. Jack figured it would look better if we bent the bills in half, since this would make it look like there were twice as many of them sticking out of the handbag. They wouldn’t stick out as far he pointed out, but there would be more of them. We then poked a hole through the bottom of the bag, got a small piece of tree branch, threaded the clear fish line through the hole and tied it around the stick a few times with our best granny knots.

Making sure that we were not being watched; we placed the bag on the curb at the stop sign. We then made sure that the bills were easily seen and that the bag was hanging off the curb. That done, we retired to our hiding places in the hedge, to munch O’Henry bars and make noises in anticipation of high comedy to come. After a few, “this is going to be goods”, and other similar comments, our first customer appeared. The car slowed down at the stop sign, didn’t completely stop, then pulled away without even noticing or giving the bag a look. Jack said he thought we should have used a more brightly colored bag. I told him it would work and that some people didn’t see things on the sidewalk or even in the street, because that’s how dogs and cats got hit and our handbag wasn’t even moving.

After a couple more cars went by without a second look, Jack volunteered to go home and get a bright colored scarf, to give the trap some “hey, look at this”, he said. In no time at all he came back with the scarf, a bright red silk one with flowers all over it. We situated it under the bag so it was trailing out into the street like a flag. After that we returned to our hiding places.

The next car arrived almost immediately. An older man was behind the wheel. It was a large station wagon with the extra seat in the back like the country squire at home. As he pulled up to the stop sign, we saw him looking at the bag. We were laughing, holding our hands over our mouths. This was great. The man behind the wheel took his hat off and put it on the dash of his car, moved the shifter, and then looked in his rear view mirror and all around. Then looked all around again. After that he opened the door and as soon as he wasn’t looking as he was getting out of the car and walking around it to the curb, looking everywhere around him; we pulled the bag to safety under the hedge. He walked up to where the bag was supposed to be, but now there was only the scarf. He looked up and down the curb, over at the hedge where we were hiding and then picked up the scarf and looked under it. Suddenly he cursed, “God dammit, what the …..”. He wadded it up and put the scarf in his pocket, got in his car and took off. “What are we going to do?”, Jack asked. “Tape the scarf to the bag next time I said”. “Well, I can’t get another scarf until tomorrow”. We decided to go get a soda and plan our next handbag incident.

The next day, we figured we were ready for bear. Jack had donated 2 brightly colored silk kerchiefs, one orange and one yellow. I’d raided my cigar box, (the one I kept on the shelf next to poppa rat) for a couple more dollars to make the bait a little better. We taped the extra money to the other money, folding it all and kinking it to make it look like a sizable wad. We tied the orange kerchief to the bag. This kerchief looked like it was on fire except for the little balloons that were flying around bouncing into each other all over it. We poised it on the corner of the curb so that the scarf was in the street, and the bills were fluttering in the wind. We bent them a little so they would look good and would take up as much space as possible. Jack was convinced that for absolute realism, there should be some change scattered around in the gutter and the street, so we strategically positioned some pennies, nickles and dimes. We were ready.

The first car was driven by a young woman. She looked right at the handbag and then crept up to the stop sign taking years. She then did what we’d seen the man the day before do. She looked in her rear view mirror, across the street and the other way down the street. She looked in her rear view mirror again. Jack asked me, “do you think they look around to see if the owner is near, or just to check if anybody is watching?”. I admitted that I didn’t really know and that if he wanted to he could ask her. We both laughed, but quieted down suddenly as she got out of the car.

Jack pulled the bag with the kerchief trailing after it as quickly as he could. This time though, the bag was just barely sneaking its way under the hedge as the young woman rounded her car. She was looking right though the hedge at us moving her head back and forth trying to see who or what was on the other side. The scarf was trailing after the bag like a tail on fire. I couldn’t help it and was laughing so hard I could hardly breathe as Jack started barking like a dog. She was immediately smiling and asking us if we would bite. She came right up to the hedge as we were running for our lives barking back at us laughing and asking, “then I guess all the change in the street is mine, right?” That was the last we heard as we rounded the corner and kept running and laughing until we were blocks away. Jack said, “did you see that look on her face when she saw that the bag was crawling into the hedge?” “I thought she was going to scream until she started smiling at us”, I said. We agreed that this was almost as good as any game of baseball or marbles.

We went back after going to the local mom and pop store to pick up a couple of root beers and packages of peanuts. Sure enough, she had taken all the change. We scattered some more change around and set the bag up real pretty. Then we tossed the stick with the fishing line wrapped around it through the hedge and took our places. A little breeze came up and moved the money, and there was something about the money moving that made us look at each other at the same time and started us laughing again.

Another car with an older person went right by. Jack was worried that we hadn’t “set it up right”, and so he went out and made sure everything looked good. He was sure that the driver had been preoccupied because he said it looked the best it ever had. We ate peanuts, drank root beer and talked about Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. During a heated discussion about whether Mantle or Maris was the best home run king of all times (except for “the babe” of course) our next customer arrived.

In the next car was a guy with an Orioles cap on. We could hear the radio. He didn’t see the bag until right before he started slowing for the stop sign. He did the same thing they all did. Looked in the rear view mirror. Looked across the street, looked the other way down the street. Looked in his rearview mirror again. Got out of the car and lit a cigarette. As he was lighting the cigarette Jack was pulling the bag to us like the madman he was, laughing under his breath. This time though, it was all wrong. The guy heard the bag scratching its way along the concrete and turned to watch it sneak into the hedge. He threw his cigarette down and pulled his hat tight on his head almost in one motion. I thought, uh oh. As we were moving as fast as we could and getting up with the bag and choking on our laughter, we could hear him yelling, “hey you, hold it right the f__k there, HOLD IT!”, like we were going to listen to him. The chase was on. As we were moving as fast as we could, we knocked our bottles over in our scramble to get away and took off towards our escape route. We could hear him coming right through the hedge at us. He didn’t even take the time to go around it. I could hear Jack whimpering a little behind me as the sound of our running footsteps echoed between the houses of the yards we were running through. I heard a “hey, you can’t run through there!”, and that just drove me to move even faster. I could hear Jack right behind me like a little freight train each time his breath went in and out. I could also hear some other heavier footsteps getting closer and closer. Just as I thought that I was going to feel a big hand reach out and grab my neck, or feel Jack crash into me, we reached the place where the two fences met. They were two really tall fences that had a gap between them that we could just barely squeeze our way through. I hit that gap like greased lightning, tore my shirt and scratched my arm. Jack made one little squeal, but dove through right behind me. I heard clothes rip as he pushed me and then fell as he came through the gap.

The big stomping footsteps and the body that they were attached to hit the gap between the fences with a sound that was like thunder. Both fences jingled after his thud. One big hairy arm reached through the fence grabbing air and flailing as he screamed some things I’d never heard before. He kept ending all his screams with something and something and something else YOU LITTLE FREAKING BASTARDS, but the word he used wasn’t freaking. His speech was broken and he was thrashing at the gap in the fence, but he couldn’t get through. Jack and I were so scared that I just stood there and he sat there frozen watching him thrash at us. All of a sudden like a miracle his hat fell through the gap and landed right in front of me. I reached down, grabbed it, helped Jack up (who was sitting on the ground watching our new friend waving at us), and ran like the wind all the way home.

As I was sitting on the back porch, I found myself thinking that I’d never ever seen anyones eyes bugging out of their heads the way our new friends were when I picked up his hat and smiled at him just before I helped Jack get up. Jacks eyes were bugging out too. They looked like relatives or something. I was laughing so hard all the way to my house that my side started hurting. While I was laughing and Jack was still making the little weasing noises; he began to laugh as well. I turned the Oriole cap over and over in my hand thinking that now here was an unexpected treat. It was brand new and didn’t even have any sweat stains or dirt on it yet. I knew I’d never wear it, but it would make a nice little bed for poppa rat to sleep on. I took my Yankee hat off and held them side by side, wondering if we would ever try the handbag trick again.

I didn’t think so.

Jack and I saw his car around the neighborhood a few times that week, he was always driving around slow, like he wanted to play the game again.

We didn’t think so.

After that we made ourselves scarce, laughing about it from time to time and reminding each other of how our new friend had looked with his eyes bugging out of his head, the same color as the scarf and the Oriole cap.

Some weeks later we saw his car parked a couple of blocks away. We decided it was only fair to remind him of the fun we’d had. We went to our fort out behind Jacks house and got the handbag and the orange scarf, in case he didn’t recognize the handbag. We put a note, the orange scarf, and a couple of dollars in the handbag and threw it through the open window of his car as we bicycled by. We were laughing like hyenas. Jack kept asking me if I was going to give the Oriole hat back to him as well. I thought about how happy poppa rat looked while he was sleeping in it. I told Jack,

I didn’t think so.