Note: no rats were harmed in the writing of either this story or the song. Some events in this story are actual. Others are fictional. I apologize if anyone is offended. The attempt is to bring into view the absurdity of daily life through humor.
Smokin’ Rats is the song. I’m no professional musician… still, I think it works. Through the miracle of technology, I can both whistle and accompany myself. Smokin Rats Story is an audio version of the following essay. Friends seem to enjoy hearing the stories.
It’s been many years at this point, since we bought our first house, just mom & dad, Elise and me, Jenny. It was over the mountain, in Milroy, an was an old grey farmhouse we bought from Matterns. I don’t think its goal in life was to be grey. It started out as a drafty plank-sided house insulated by old newspapers. Then I guess, in an attempt to reduce the draftiness, Matterns put blue aluminum siding on, but the blue oxidized to grey and that’s how it stands today.
The house had a dank basement with rows and rows of shelves for canned goods. The foundation wasn’t dry-laid, but there were more chinks between the stones than there was mortar. It was the sort of pace that was terrifying to my sister because, as John Prine sang, “The air smelled like snakes….” It wasn’t the cucumberiness of copperheads. It was more like the sleek blackness of rat snakes, an impression given all the more credibility by the 5-foot long pair seen slithering gracefully up the Keefer pear tree just off the corner of the back porch. Where there be rat snakes, there be rats. Equally terrifying for a six year-old sister. Fascinating for a nine year-old me. The imagined rats (for we knew of their presence only from the presence of the snakes. Everybody knows that the snakes are there because the food’s not far away) were the basis of little stories I made up about their families and how the daddy rats went off to work in the morning and how the mommy rats fed us kids breakfast and sent us off to rat school while they stayed home and watched rat TV and crocheted a new throw for the back of our ratty couch. There were other stories where the mommies went off to work and were moguls and stuff like that, too. They were an endless source of inspiration.
The upstairs walls were horsehair plaster, and I used to imagine the outlines of countries following the cracks in the walls and on the ceiling as I lay in bed on summer mornings, waiting for the alarm to go off. My sister, Elise, on the other hand, imagined armies of spiders emerging from the cracks. The steps creaked when no one was on them, and sometimes when the winter wind howled in the eaves the whole house seemed to moan. She was sure there were ghosts. Even if I thought I knew better, these were notions I did my best to bolster. After all, what are sisters for?
Dad always told us to treat each other as people, not sisters. It wasn’t until we became adults that we would have any inkling what he was driving at. We did understand, however, that he wanted us to quit digging and jabbing each other. For instance, we’d be going somewhere in the car. “Da-ad. She’s in my space. She’s touching me. She’s making faces at me.”
“So ask her to stop.” And some words were said to that effect in a sing-songy voice and the period at the end of the request was a stuck-out tongue. Ah, the subtleties of internecine warfare. Follow the form for peace-making while continuing the provocation. The tongue was returned by a kick to the shins, which in turn was rewarded with a bop on the head. Howls ensued. Dad gave a look to mom that said ungracefully “shut them up.” She turned around, burned a hole through the back seat with her gaze, and proceeded to calmly, in a measured voice, to inform us that we’d best behave or we’d find ourselves walking home. It was her most extreme version of the old saw “don’t make me stop this car or there’ll be hell to pay,” and usually it was sufficient to at least lower the level of poking and prodding to some liminal amount. There was, I have to admit, the time we united as sisters there in the back seat and escalated the conflict into a full-fledged nail scratching, hair-pulling full-howl brawl. The car stopped. We were ordered out. The car drove away. We looked at each other in disbelief. After some recrimination concerning whose fault the present situation was, we both had one of those moments of revelation. We knew on some level that mom & dad were not prone to making idle threats. Sometimes it is best not to play “poke the ogre,” or at least recognize when it’s time to quit. In the best played game of “poke the ogre,” the time to quit is while clemency is still available, just before they stop the car. We had found out what happens when we “made them stop the car.”
All that aside, I was (mostly) daddy’s girl and Elise was mommy’s. I loved the outdoors. I helped him with the firewood and building sheds and mowing the grass and the vegetable garden. There were rocks to flip over searching for newts. The compost pile was a great place to dig for worms to go fishing in Coffee Creek, a quarter-mile from our house.
There was the abandoned house next door. Sometimes Elise did play out doors. She was sure the house was haunted. The game was to demonstrate nerves of steel as follows: burrow under the bottom strand of the rusty barbed wire fence that separated our houses, sprint to the house and touch it, and be back on our side of the fence before you could say “boo!” or the ghost got you, whichever came first. Elise watched, but no amount of dare, double dare, double dog dare or any other kind of insinuation and character assassination was motivation enough for her to even burrow under the fence, much less touch the house. She was sure I would “get mine,” and was more than willing to let me take the risk. On some level, it was the nonchalant game of “kick the chick out of the nest,” with the intent of getting more devotion from the parental units. I wasn’t afraid of that old house.
You just never knew what sorts of adventures lay waiting on summer mornings. The rooster might be out. The goat might be standing on top of mom’s car. The pigs, well you can read about the pigs elsewhere. That’s a whole ‘nother story. The neighbors might be burning their trash which was a time-honored tradition and competition (competitive trash burning. Next Olympic sport), which doesn’t sound all that adventuresome, except they tended to include the aerosol cans with the trash. When the cans blew up (as the inevitably did) the formerly smoldering trash erupted into flame as it gasped enough air while soaring across their back yard. It was pretty harmless fun. I think the worst I ever saw come of it was when Jones caught his compost heap on fire.
Daddy told me that different animals have different ways of showing interest in what the news man would call current events. Horses put their ears forward. My aunt’s cockatoo raised its crest. So, one Saturday morning I was riding around on the lawn tractor with daddy when our ears went forward and our crests went up. Jeff Shockley, our other neighbor across the alley had a dog kennel that sat next to his garage. He worked at the fertilizer plant over in Burnham. He had a good beer belly going. If he’d have been a woman, we would have called him frumpy. But really, we were what you’d call “waving neighbors.” Dad knew Shockley enough to wave at him. I knew him less. I never knew the dog, never even saw it in the kennel. He’d take food out in the evening, and in the morning it’d be gone. This morning he was on some sort of mission. Apparently he had a rat problem, and not enough rat snakes.
What put our ears forward and raised our crests was this: He was walking around the outside of the kennel with a gallon can of gasoline. Every so often, he tilted the can and poured out some gas. What was he up to? Mot wishing to gawk too much, we mowed the same patch of grass about four times. His rats had burrowed in from the perimeter of the kennel. Sort of a reverse Hogan’s Heroes, where they burrow into prison instead of out. When he tilted the can, the gas went down their holes. We figured that he figured to “gas them out.” We were correct in a way. However, we misunderestimated his determination in the matter. His next step took us both (all?) by surprise. He lit a match. He tossed it. The fumes ignited. The holes, as we soon found out, emerged under cover of doghouse. Bawoom! The ground shook! The collective oomph from all those holes underneath, lifted it more than a foot off the ground. As the dog house returned to earth, the explosion vented itself in the other direction, around the edges of the kennel. We congratulated ourselves for our patience in mowing and re-mowing that patch of lawn for the reward of such a show. It paled next to the finale.
As mentioned, it was not uncommon to see flaming garbage sailing across a yard. This finale was both horrifying and entrancing. Like tracer rounds or contrails, a dozen or so smoke trails arced across his back yard. It took a moment to comprehend. We looked at each other quizzically. What was that? From whence cometh the smoke trails? Realization dawned. The human cannonball of circus fame, in multiple, rattine form. Smokin’ rats.
The lead story (memorialized in song) on rat TV News at 5: Explosion at Relief Mission Kills Twelve. Investigators have determined that a gas leak was responsible for the deadly explosion at the Dog House Kitchen….
The song…. Smokin’ Rats
There was a man
Who had a dog
That lived behind his house
And every day he’d take that dog
And bring him out some food
And every night them rats come out
And steal that doggie’s food
‘the man got mad and one day he said
I’m getting rid them rats
Smokin rats, O smokin rats
Shootin’ ‘cross the yard
Smokin’ rats them smokin’ rats
Life can be so hard
Smokin’ rats them smokin rats
All they’s tryin’ ‘do
Was eke them out a little livin’
Just like me and you
Well one day that man came from in his house
with gallon can of gas
He poured it down those rattie’s holes
And touched it with a match
The boom was a loud, and then the ground shook too
The flames flew out, the man just smiled
And out came smokin’ rats
Now the dog house leapt up off the ground
At least a foot or more
From that ‘splodin’ gas-o-line, like I said before
 Known as a “winter pear” because they could be stored for the winter. When they fall from the tree, they’re hard as rocks and not very sweet, but they get a little tastier as the winter goes on. Mostly they get raked up & fed to the livestock or thrown in the compost heap today.
This is the last of the bits I wrote for the Midrash class. I apologize for its length, 2,800 words. It was my final paper. The Biblical story tells us nothing about Jepthah’s daughter: not her name, nor her upbringing (Jepthah was an outlaw, remember?), nor what went on while she and her maiden friends were in the wilderness. I have to admit to liking happy endings. I’ll only say that she does not get sacrificed. Follow the link above to find out how that happened.
This morning I looked up the Rolling Stone interview with Pete Townshend. I found it revealing & illuminating. Who’d have thought such things of a rock musician? Connections to eastern religions are often acknowledged. But understood as god working to salve the pain of humanity and rectify injustice, the interview casts writing & lyrics in a whole new way:
Pete Townshend is a seminal figure on the rock & roll scene. His band, The Who, have been around since the mid-1960s. I heard on the radio that Townshend told the Rolling Stone Magazine the song “Love Will Open Your Heart,” was conceived as Jesus singing to us. Consider the lyrics “There’s only one thing that’s going to set you free. That’s My love.” Rock & roll was often depicted as “the devil’s music.” Words, lyrics, can open us to different ways of being. In the following excerpt, Townshend speaks of the spiritual connection, background, and origin of several songs:
“A lot of the songs on the album—well, “Let My Love Open the Door” is just a ditty—but particularly “A Little Is Enough” and a couple of the others—“I Am an Animal,” I think—are getting close to what I feel I want to be writing: in terms of somebody who’s thirty-five writing a rock song, but one which isn’t in the George Jones-Willie Nelson tradition—“I’m a smashed-up f***** standing at the bar…” “Empty Glass” is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz—he was a poet in the fourteenth century—used to talk about God’s love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God’s grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink—the barman being God. It’s also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can’t fill it up with his love —if it’s already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: “This ‘Empty Glass’—is that about you becoming an alcoholic?”
Poetry and song can allow us to address matters too far beyond the pale for society to swallow. This was true for the prophets, it is true today. Townshend continues:
“When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Bodies” and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening. This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion.
“It touches you, and it scares you—it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s like somebody saying, “The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ’em!” That’s one of the reasons: a lot of new music is harder to listen to. So you get a band like the Clash, and they come out with a nifty little song like “Clampdown,” and you can’t hear the words, and they’ll play it on the radio in L.A. You read the f****g words, they scare the s*** out of you.
“Or the Pretenders—Chrissie Hynde’s got a sweet voice, but she writes in double-speak: she’s talking about getting laid by Hell’s Angels on her latest record! And raped. The words are full of the most brutal head-on feminism that has ever come out of any band, anywhere!
“And yet it’s only because it’s disguised that it’s getting played, and getting appreciated.”
I don’t necessarily aim to scare the hell out of anybody. Much of what I have to say may make others uncomfortable. The softening effect of music, poetry, and lyrics is a form of accommodation. Writing is, and has always been, a powerful tool for social change. Accommodation, as Townshend observes, allows otherwise unpalatable realities to be heard.
I wrote this when I was in my late teens. Much of the stuff I wrote in that time seems to be lost, but Liz copied the poem & decorated the margins with fall leaves. It hung on the wall in my attic bedroom until recently. The ink faded. In places it was only a shadow on the paper. “Trapped in cold concrete” refers to the community college I was attending at the time. “Paint crew reds and greens and blues” is a reference to stage crew. I helped build sets for high school & summer theater plays. See if you remember what it was like to be a teenager in love.
It’s to be sung to a traditional blues tune. I don’t read music, but I do whistle & have a pretty good ear. I’ll see if i can do a recording of it & get that posted.
The Lizzo Blues (ca. 1975)
Well I’ve been runnin’ all the morning
I’ve been runnin’ all the night
And you know some people tell me
Such cavortin’ ain’t too bright
But I’ve got the blues
I’ve got those rotten stellar blues
They get down in your pocket
And you’ll spend your time a-wishin’
You’d see her once again
So you’re working all day
And talking all night
Your parents been away
You’ve never known such delight
I’ve got the blues
I’ve got those far out Lizzy blues
And just one free back scratch
Can take away those blues
Well you wonder how she does it
Now just how she stays so pure
‘cause once you’ve been trapped
There ain’t no man-made cure
I’ve got the blues
I’ve got the flea-bitten, Lizzy-lookin’ blues
And though I feel like shit
I just know I’ll never quit
So here I sit just writin’
Entrapped in cold concrete
The wind and snow a bightin’
But ol’ Lizzie makes me feel so neat
I’ve got the blues
Oh Lord, I’ve got the blues
I’s s’posed to go to sleep last night
But Lord I’ve got the Lizzy blues
I’ll sleep some more tomorrow
And I’ll stay inside tonight
A wonderin’ ‘bout ol’ Lizzy
I’ve got to figure what she likes
I’ve got the blues
I’ve got the paint crew reds and greens and blues
But I know that if I fall in love (heaven forfend)
My mind’s gone down the drain
Now I’ll write you one more verse, dear
I’ll write you one more line
‘Cause I know by now you must be
Feelin’ really fine
But I’ve got those blues
Those ? far out Lizzy blues
I can’t explain why I love you (reason to be found)
Your father will grow old and die, as will you and I.
And our children….
‘Tis best to make peace while peace can be made.
When he’s curmudgeonly, ornery, contrary or just plain cussed,
Picture a sign on a strand of hairy binder twine around his neck,
The sign laying against his chest
Jagged letters by infirm hand scrawled, that say:
Just keep in mind that it really means
“God, I need your love
now more than ever”
Hold me tenderly in your heart
Allow me dignity
As I sing my final song
No one knows the last line. ###
I’m not obsessed with death. This & “Back to Iowa” reflect what’s going on in my life. My in-laws come over for Sunday dinner. My wife was struggling with her dad. I wrote this for her on Christmas morning as I sat in the silence of Meeting for Worship.