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Smokin’ Rats

Smokin Rats

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[1]….” 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[2] 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

 

Refrain

 

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

And the rats left little trails of smoke

As they sailed across the yard

The man knew then full, good & well

Those rats won’t steal no more

 

Refrain

 

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

And you might be one of them

Just remember what is said

There’s some who think that eking out

A living is plumb wrong

But when the ground shakes and the flames fly out

You’d better be long gone

 

Refrain

 

Alt. Last verse:

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

Or you just might be one of them

Remember what is said

There’s some who think that stealin’s wrong

And those who just get by

When the ground shakes and the flames fly out

Your judgement day is here.

 

[1] John Prine, “Paradise.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vC65_cq0Js

[2] 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.

Whistling

I don’t usually tout stuff I’m doing on this blog. That’s for Facebook. But I go to Facebook about twice a year, get overwhelmed at the incredible time sink it can be, and flee.

However, this blog is about opening stuff to the rest of you that may not be in your normal circles of travel or the patterns of your lives. Hence, the posts about trees and forestry, faith, and the quirky side of life.

I like to whistle. Seriously, as in a serious way. I show up at a jam, and people look me up and down, looking for an instrument. They don’t see one, so they ask “what instrument do you play?” and I answer “I whistle,” which is more often than not met with a chortle or swallowed laugh and an “oh. That’s nice. Glad you’re here.” It’s hard (and rare) to be taken seriously.

Yet people often spontaneously tell me I’m pretty good. Mostly blues, but country & a little classical, too. So it was that in June, my kids were noodling around on the interwebs and stumbled on The International Whistling championships. They decided going to the competition was my birthday present. It’s in LA. Hollywood, actually. I live in central Pennsylvania.

I’m registered. I’m going. I’m competing. I’m looking forward to being among others who take whistling seriously. I’m looking forward to learning new skills & meeting new people.

I put in a little time in a recording studio a couple of years back, but it’s not in .mp3 format.I’ll try to get some of it updated, or maybe record a new bit to post.

I’ll let you know how it goes in Hollywood.

Parade

I think it’s safe to say that it’s unique, or at least unusual, among July 4th celebrations. It’s one parade among many, perhaps thousands, on Independence Day. This one is less formulaic, more freewheeling. At only 20 years old, the memories of it intermingle as streams of water do when they join.

Take, for instance, the story of its origin. One version would have it that the first parade came into being spontaneously when two cars got stuck behind Farmer Ralph’s tractor and manure spreader. Ralph had gone to spread the load on a field some distance from the farmstead. Our roads are sort of narrow: two cars can pass, but the bushes on the roadside will brush the mirrors. You get in the tractor with the radio going, bouncing rhythmically up and down as you drive, and you get in the zone. It’s easy to forget that you’re not going as fast as some people want to go, or even that someone or two someones might catch up and want to pass. And so you wind as the road winds on your way to do your work, thinking about how to get the hay in between the July thundershowers and whether the shoats you bought at the sale last week are gaining weight as they should, and the kids, and the warm embrace of your wife. Someone in one of the cars recognized the moment for what it was: a celebration of our nation’s glorious history and accomplishments. Two cars and a manure spreader (make of that what you will). A tradition was born. Next year, a hot rod, a bicycle with red, white and blue crepe paper woven through its spokes , a John Deere “A” tractor with a flag on it, and two cars (one with a cannon on the roof) spontaneously lined up down by the lake entrance.

One of the fun things about this little part of Pennsylvania is that our roads go around in loops. Before there were road signs and GPS and spoilers like that, people would get back in here and go around for hours, trying to get through the mountain the back way or back out to the main highway, either. The park might only be ten miles from you as the crow flies but fifty miles by road. Stop and ask directions, you’re likely to be greeted with a pensive look, maybe a seemingly blank stare, a shake of the head and a sincere “No. This is Pennsylvania. You can’t get there from here.” Confusing in those days, yes. But it makes for a great parade route. I digress.

There is another tale, some might call it a legend, concerning the parade’s origins. The editor of The Courier, that paragon of yellow journalism (motto: if we don’t have the facts, we’ll make some up), lived back here in the corner at the farm with the stone fence. One July fourth, he challenged some friends, allegedly saying “Let’s get on our four-wheelers and go house to house and see how many beers we can get.” So in this version, the first parade was a beer run (or perhaps more accurately, crawl).

There are certain facts that do indeed serve to corroborate (not corroborated cardboard, either) this version. In the early years, the parade remained untamed. The fire department tanker would wantonly drench parade-goers. Likewise, the parade-goers kept their garden hoses at the ready, just in case someone in the parade looked hot. Vodka Jello shots were freely available. Purveyors of fine alcoholic beverages (mostly Bud Light) continued to drive against the grain of the parade, offering libation to anyone in need of such.

But as is too often the case when too much fun is being had, the fun police showed up and quashed the whole thing. It is unclear whether the firehose or the alcohol was to blame, but Mary Jane took a tumble off the back of the hay wagon serving as parade float for the day. She incurred a closed head brain injury or some medical thing like that. And while she’s fine today, the fact that the ambulance had to be called resulted in a visit from the state police who, in their sternest, you-don’t-mess-with-Texas manner were about to haul the whole bunch of us lawless reprobates in for drublic punkenness and being generally, well, lawless and reprobate, even though none of us knew what any of that meant.

Fortunately for all of us, the judge got wind of these goings on. He was one of the parade organizers, and not afraid of a little fun. Unbeknownst to us, he was also practiced in Jedi mind tricks (or maybe it was more like police whispering). He managed to explain that these were not the paraders they (the staties) were after and while the staties were compliant, they used their own mind tricks and whispering to make it clear that things needed to change. The whole thing was like a subsonic growling match between dogs over a food dish. Nobody went to jail, and without any further words, the place of alcohol in the celebration was suddenly quietly minimized.

While it could be argued that the inhibition-lowering function of alcohol was responsible for some amount of the, um, creativity displayed in the parade floats, we all rose to the occasion and continued the nascent slightly wacky tradition. As mentioned with Mary Jane’s incident, hay wagons served as a popular (you might say) platform for floats. So when the Fish & Boat Commission drained the lake because they said the dam was leaking and that was unsafe, one popular motif was the kiddie pool with a fisherman or some other version of a lake-user sitting beside it. On the side of the wagon was a banner to the effect of “Save Colyer Lake.”

There was a guy who drove his log skidder one year, an otherwise white horse painted as a flag, a guy on a recumbent bike. There was social commentary (via float) on the richness of rural life: guns and hunting, motor heads, beer, hard work, family. Because we’re a short distance east of a large university, there was commentary on the absurdity of academia. There’s this odd intermixing of who we used to be (a farming community) and who we’re becoming (a bedroom community for said large university). Usually the fire truck joined the festivities. Several years, there was a Civil War reenactment group. They’d stuff their cannon (mounted on a hay wagon, what else?) with black powder and the proverbial wad (about to be shot) and give us all a loud ba-woom! and a cloud of smoke. There also was always room for a good play on words. Such was the case with the drill team.

Bridgette was a drum major in high school. Batons and such, shiny, high boots with pom-poms you know? She rounded up some young (and not so young) ladies. They all scrounged cordless drills. They took tinker toy bits and chucked them up in the drills. Bridgette showed them how to take a Tinker Toy hub piece and stick little American flags into the holes around the rim of the hub to make a spinny pinwheel. When she hit the drill’s trigger, the flags spun around. The whole bunch of them got dressed up in shiny leotards and marched the parade route, drills in hand, flags spinning. They had the whole thing choreographed to patriotic music, with Bridgette as drum major. They practiced. When she blew her whistle or twirled her baton, the team responded to the cues with classic cheer moves. At one point when the parade came to a standstill (which it did with some frequency), they formed a pyramid. In formation, they whirled their tinker toy flags with a squeeze of their drill’s triggers, dismantled the pyramid, and moved on. Behind Bridgette, two women carried a banner: Colyer Drill Team.

In the early years, when the parade finished the route circuit, we all milled around at the end like there should be something more. The answer was a picnic. In the best patriotic tradition of such things, a committee was formed. Tom B. agreed to take care of the beer (top priority). Tom W. procured memorabilia: hats and t-shirts commemorating the parade and its legacy (at less than 5 years old, the parade already claimed “legacy.”) Tom P[1]., a lawyer, said he’d take on negotiations with the Fish Commission so we could gather at the lake, and get a permit from the township so we could clog up the local roads for a couple of hours. It used to be that you didn’t need a permit to do anything. Those days are gone. When people move here, they want it to be like where they came from. They expect paved, pothole-free roads and then complain when people drive “too fast” (more than twenty miles per hour). They want, as one wag noted, streetlights and sidewalks. They want zoning and rules so they can make their neighbors behave. You could see the effects of their encroachment. Everything had to be organized, I’s dotted and T’s crossed. A little randomness in life is a good thing. On the other hand, some battles are not worth fighting, and organization is not inherently bad. Just so it doesn’t crimp creativity.

Tom P. was successful in his negotiations with the fish folk, so the next year the picnic was held at the boat launch (the lake was still a lake). But the fish guys ordained “no alcohol on the premises,” in direct conflict with the parade’s axiom “beer is good,” and the fish wardens have broader power here than the staties who, as noted above, have their own mind tricks and are not to be trifled with. The upshot, in the best tradition of civil noncompliance, was the covert consumption of the beer. There were cozies and flasks. There was the London Fog with the interior breast pocket suitable for holding the beer. There was the Camelbak with mouth tube (usually for mountain biking, you know) filled with beer. All allowed for discrete consumption. Even at that, though, there were those who were uncomfortable with the necessary deception. So the next year, the whole affair moved across the road like a swarm of honey bees to Braun’s cattail swamp which, in a show of generosity, he had mowed. But it was stubbly and swampy and had prickly dewberries growing down in amongst the stubble. While the site did allow for the consumption of beer, it was deemed unsuitable for other reasons. The search resumed.

Fortunately for us, Jonesey came forward and said we could use his manicured field next year. He lives up at the top of the hill amongst a group whose highest priority in life is maintaining a minimum of five acres of weedless ecological desert known as “lawn.” It is a nice place for a picnic. Its only shortcoming is a complete lack of trees for shade, trees and perfect lawn being largely incompatible. The committee rented a tent for the covered dish food line to compensate for the lack of shade. Several of the rest of us had canopies and tents. Nevin borrowed a bunch of tables from the VFW. Cloyd came up with chairs from the Bretheren church. Now when the parade is over, we all have the chance to share a meal and catch up with our neighbors.

For a couple of years, there was an awards committee, but there were accusations of favoritism (covered in full color by The Courier) and they just laid the whole thing down as not being worth the fuss and aggravation. To raise money for the food tent and beer and ice (life’s true priorities) they cut holes in the top of five gallon spackle buckets that say “Dryvit” on the side and posted signs above the buckets with “Donations” and an arrow pointing down to the bucket. There’s a trash committee, and a set up committee and a tear down committee and a food committee. The parade has “grown up,” some would say. The crazy wild hare-ness has mellowed. It’s still a good time. It’s just more like a block party than a trappers’ roundup.

[1] It has been documented that we have a statistically significant population of Toms here.