Sunday, March 05, 2006


It is rather cynical for me to put this cheesy 80s pic up for the content matter of the following blog. But who cares? I don't have a jpeg of the rodents involved, and RATT still has two tracks in my MP3 player.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. - Heinlein

This and train an animal.

You ever dealt with a possum? My old boss had this staircase up to his house that I used to have to trudge every morning to wake his sleepy ass up. His wife was always awake and cheerful, and she would hook it up with a cup of coffee as my employer pulled himself together. It was a wholesome atmosphere. His daughter would come out (she was barely 2 at the time) and she would hang out. My godson was just an infant, but he was in the mix too. Wholesome setup. It really had a profound effect on me. One morning, as I was trudging up the staircase, I looked to the side into his trashcan. There in the bottom was a possum. A big one. Small dog sized. Oh, and she was pissed. She looked up at me with those rodent black eyes and hissed. That ugly-ass grey hair and their exposed wrinkled skin underneath. Their faces are perma-sneer and there isn't a nice thing that can be said about them. Who said that possum play dead? This girl wanted to kill me. If she could have gotten her dirty fangs on me, she would have taken a chunk out of me. I was creeped out by the hatred that this thing had for me. I wanted to just see it leave.

My boss' trashcan was bungee corded to his banister. I was fumbling with the cords, taking hiss-shots from the possum when he came out at the top stair. I explained what I was up to. He barreled down a few stairs to take a look. Then he went inside to get his rifle. I got the can free, and dumped it on its side. The pissed off possum wasn't coming out. I went behind the can and kicked it. That animal was cornered and was holding its ground. Stupid. Too stupid to get the hell out.

My boss came out with his rifle, I tilted the can mouth-up, and he opened fire. Automatic rifle fire, I should add. He emptied a clip into that thing. What we did with the corpse is a different, sillier story. The point is that there was no way I was going to negotiate with that cornered beast. She really wasn't happy with me, and if I'd flipped the can over, I am pretty sure she would have gone on the attack.

So, a few years ago, my daughter's class had a pet rat. They needed someone to take care of the rat over the summer.
"Hell no." Was my initial response. But through some sort of default and clerical error, our house became the rat's domicile for the summer.

I was very standoffish with her. I watched at a distance. I wasn't into the rodent at all. But the kids were. They would pick her up and she would play with them. She would climb over them and hang out with them. She wasn't a biter, and she seemed genuinely interested in what was going on. The little thing was intelligent.

Then I got in there. I picked her up and messed with her a few times. She was obliging. She had a spirit about her that was warm. She was happy to kick back. She was happy to have a treat. She would take a light taste of my scotch. Soon, she was on my shoulder perpetually. The kids called her Rufus. That was her "Christian name" but when I was dealing with her, she was the a gatlin gun.

I would get up in the morning and go to the gym. I would shower, get dressed and put the rat on my shoulder. She would hang out there and I would flow her treats in the morning. I would let her hop onto the fridge and hang out when I was doing things that would cause her to fall. She did fall. She did scrabble up my arm drawing blood a few times. But the spirit of the animal was peaceful. I could whisper in her ear. I had a confidant. The little furball grew into my heart.

The next school year, the rat was dismissed from the school because someone in the class was allergic to her. We adopted her. Rufus became a part of the family. We even took her camping with us, twice. She was out and about in the living room when we were all watching a movie. She had her ball that she rolled around in at all times during the day. She was IN.

Then she started to look old. Tired. She started to carry herself in a painful way. Her back looked sore. Fur started to fall out. But she was still there, peaceful of spirit. She would wince when you picked her up. She was in pain.
I didn't pull her out in the morning as often, and she didn't seem to mind. I just didn't want to hurt her. I know rats get cancerous, but I really wasn't ready to lose my little friend yet.

Then she died.

I was torn up about it. I actually shed a tear for that rodent. My friend, my morning confidant: GONE. One morning in the microwave room at work, I was brewing some coffee. Annie came up and asked how I was doing. I almost broke down and cried on the spot. I told her of my loss. I think she understood. I also think that she sort of stays out of my way now.

In a bazillion years, I would have never thought that a little rodent could have worked her way into my heart. A big part of this was her intelligence. She knew EXACTLY who I was. She knew how to deal with me. She knew who other people were, and she dealt with them accordingly. But, to use a teacher-term, we "connected". There was a relationship there. I would walk by the cage and she would jump up and hang on to the side, hoping that I would liberate her. Good times.

I needed a few months to heal. I am not going to lie; there was pain. But now I am back.

So, four weeks ago, Eyeball and I went to the pet store and picked up a young rat for eight bucks. The woman at the pet store was a little timid, but I reached in and grabbed her. I wanted a female because males, although calmer in nature, stink. We boxed her and took her home. We dressed the cage and put her in. Then it was hands off.

I looked it up online. I learned what one must do, and I put the rat on a daily schedule. I would put my hand in there and pet her head. I would bring her the food she liked. ME ME ME. I had to earn her trust. Let me tell you something though, this rat is nothing like the classroom rat that we had before. This is one skittish little thing. She is not even full grown yet. She jumps at the slightest sound. She is scared to death of the clacking of this keyboard right now.

But I have been working on her. Daily regimen. Reaching in and scratching her neck. Picking her up. Holding her. Letting her "test bite" me in order for her to understand that I am not the food, just the bringer of it.

This was the weekend I was waiting for. She is now open game. Anyone in the house can reach in and mess with her. It is time for her to get handled on the regular. We took a community vote and named her Fontina. After the cheese. Gorgonzola was the runner-up name. Fontina is harder though and you know it.

F-Uh-F-Uh-Figgety-FON-F-Uh-TINA. And many more twists on the name are to come.

Here is what I know: She has a trust for me. Today she broke away from me and got under some furniture that had to be tilted in order for her to be reached. I put her cage in front, with the gate open and a FAT chunk of dice. I gave her about an hour. Then it was on. The furniture needed to be tipped and I needed to get her out. So as the furniture was tipping, I reached in. The flash in my head was that of Bill Murray reaching in at Mr. Gopher. I could see her. I was closing in. She flattened down. I put my hand around her, bracing for the chomp. She pulled back and buried herself into the corner. I had to reach over her and prod her. I was tempted to pull her tail, but I respected her. She turned and faced me. I reached in again, she came out, and made a beeline for her cage. She missed the opening though, and stressed out. She took off back into her corner. This time I went in with force and picked her up. She allowed herself to be taken. I dropped her into her cage, and she went underneath the shredded newspaper that I gave her yesterday to process her stressful afternoon. She had been cornered, and she'd had every right to take a chomp out of me and she did not. I do believe that I have earned her.

I have this under my belt simply because my daughter needed a place for the classroom rat to stay. It is getting out of hand though. Eyeball brought home his classroom chicks that had just hatched last weekend. Six teenagers. One of them was the rooster. He just stepped over the rest. Upshot is that chickens aren't so intelligent. They didn't really like being picked up. They also fall asleep wherever their beak lands. Their eyelids blink from the bottom to the top, not like the human top to the bottom. They knock their food over. They poo on everything. They get their poo stuck in their little bladelike nails and it has to be picked out with wet fingers. Our house sounded like a freaking barn last Saturday night. Peeping and scratching and squawking. I think that they can barely keep the relationship going with their mother the heat lamp. Furthermore, I don't think I would want to corner one of those chicks. I am pretty sure I would catch a good pecking. I was happy to see the chickens go on Monday. I don't know if it is possible to earn a chicken the way I have earned Fontina. I am going to convince myself of this, because I do not want any more animals in the house. My heart simply can't take it.


My loud friend Alex has a father who served in Vietnam. His father has a pretty serious gun collection. Alex put it to me months ago that I should go out to the range with he and his father and his live in exchange student named Tim and fire some rounds. We set it up for March the 4th. That was yesterday. But in order to put my trepidation with guns into order, I need to tell you a story of self forgiveness and woe.

Years ago, when I lived in the dirty south, I had a work truck which was a '67 Chevy pickup. In the back, behind the seat was a .22 rifle which I was to use on varmits and stray dogs. The reason I was to use it on stray dogs was because the ranch that I worked had a lot of purebred bitches. The strays would smell the collective heat of the bitches and come around. We would lose if we found one of these mutts tied to one of the purebreeds. It was that simple. Fortunately, it was just dog logic, because if the logic was human, I probably shoulda blasted my own damn self.

I struggled with it. So much so, that my hands shook every time I put a dog down. I would rationalize the whole thing. I hadn't gotten up on the animal and yanked its throat out. No, I had shot it at a distance. There had been an explosion within the gun and a projectile had launched and done the deed. My hands were more or less clean of the crime.

I wrestled with this stuff. I had to overcome it. In the process, I became a pretty damn good shot with that .22. I could hit a running dog at a good distance. I couldn't hit him from a moving vehicle as my boss could, but I was coming up. My hands still shook however. This rifle only held one shot at a time, so that shot needed to count. You were given one shot and one shot only to handle your business. The target was too far out if you missed.

In order to triumph over it all, I did a variety of different things. One of the most morbid was to jump onto the corpse of a fresh kill and pull its upper fang out with a pair of pliers. The first fang shattered under the pressure of the pliers, enamel and nerve was all that the plier grips held. The other fang came out with some persuasion, and I drilled a hole into it, and hung it on a hoop earring. I wore that thing for a few years. People would ask me what it was, and when I told them, they would wrinkle their noses in disgust.

One day, there was a dog running full tilt into the area with the penned bitches. I fired the gun in the air and stomped the gas, attempting to intercept. This guy wasn't stopping. He was focused on his goal, and I was focused on mine. I swerved the truck to the side in the dirt and jumped out with the rifle and sighted the dog up on the front hood. I squeezed the shot off and tagged him. He bucked and yelped and changed directions, squealing as he bolted. I got behind the wheel and tore after him. I am not into the suffrage of animals. He led me to a barbed wire fence on one side of the property. He blasted through and I was stuck. I knew he was going somewhere to suffer and die. Case closed.

Not quite.

The next day, some people who I had never seen before came to the property. They were looking for their family dog. I was in the vicinity when they described the dog. Then and there I realized exactly what I had shot the day before. I told my boss after they had left. He told me that because I had voiced this, it was now my responsibility to handle this. I had to man up.

And I did.

I found the property where these people lived, I knocked on their door, and I told them the story. The kid and the mother cried on the spot. The father was weakened and more pissed than anything. They had demands, they had issues. I let them spout off. I asked for their forgiveness. I took half of the day off at work to drag the area and find their dog. I found him dead by a stream, the internal bleeding had caused a serious bloating where the bullet had entered in his stomach. He had a subtle collar, with a tag explaining where he lived. These were things that I couldn't see while he was running his horny clip at the bitches. I pulled him into the back of the truck and went back to the owners.

They told me where they wanted him buried and I dug the deepest grave I have ever dug in my life and dumped the body in. I buried it and left them to do whatever they needed to do.

Part of my processing of all of this stuff was the swearing off of guns. I knew that I was the wrong person to handle weapons. I beat myself up for it. I requested formally that I not be required to use guns on the job anymore. I distanced myself from the handling of guns. On some levels, I thought I would never forgive myself for the deaths of those dogs, or the affect that I had on that poor family. I resigned myself to watching them in movies with a morbid fascination, knowing that they weren't for me.

I don't tell my dog shooting story much, but with the Alex firing range episode looming, I have been thinking of it more and more.

So I went out yesterday. I took my eldest son. We fired a .45 automatic. We fired a .38 revolver. We fired a .44 Magnum (that thing is a fakking CANNON) and also the smaller .22 Woodsman pistol and a .25. It was all a fascinating experience. My Time Crisis skills paid off let me tell you. But all the while there, I wrestled with the thoughts of the thing that had made me swear off gunfire almost twenty years prior.

There is no pleasant way to end this other than to say that I was glad I was in a controlled firing range and not out shooting something live. Furthermore, it was a good thing I believe to dispel the mythology of the magic of guns with my son. There was one point when the .25 jammed and he turned with the barrel aimed at Tim's head asking what the problem was. These are gun safety issues that should be addressed at an early age.

The entire session was somber for me. I did my best not to revel in the testosterone of it all. I had to remain cool and sane about the whole thing. Yes, it is fun to watch things explode, and there is an exhilaration that comes when you blow the bullseye off of the target with the Dirty Harry gun, but overall it was sobering.

I suppose that if there was a way for me to spend time with guns, yesterday was it. I suppose that if I could go back in time and have a talk with myself after I had gone through that hellish grave-digging afternoon; I would have understood. I think that I would have placed my blessing on the respectful way I handled the artillery yesterday. After all of this time, I think I can safely say that I have forgiven myself for that gunfire so long ago. I think that after all of this time, I have finally come to some form of closure in regards to that episode way back then in Lindale Texas.