Another America

Remembering Stranger And Better Times

One night in high school in late fall of 1963, me and this other fool set out for the Colonial Beach dump to shoot rats. It was a fair match-up. Rusty and I were bigger than the rats, but probably dumber, and didn't have the sense God give a one-eyed Dixie-fried possum.

I was sixteen. Rusty was an older man, maybe even eighteen. King George County was wooded and dark, and a full moon hung over the chill and frost like a huge headlight in outer space. I was driving my 1953 Chevy six-cylinder that was the color of two-tone dirt and didn't have any compression at all on three cylinders. It probably had suction. I loved that rusting catastrophe. Nothing on it worked quite right. It mostly always started, though. You could park with girls on back roads in it, or drink beer. And it had things wrong with it--sticking lifters, burnt valves, things that let you know who it was. These new cars that always work are like a sissy cousin who goes to Sunday school on purpose and never scuffs his shoes. There's nothing to know about a car like that.

I picked up Rusty at his place in the country.

"Gonna be big killin' tonight," he said somberly. "Big killin.'"

He would have said the same thing if we'd been planning to spray ants or watch a bug-zapper. Rusty was cornpone handsome, like Elvis, and had a flair for the dramatic. The adolescent male need for the ominous and portentous was hard upon us.

In those days we had lots of guns, but ammunition cost money. I had my Marlin .22 lever-action. Rusty came out with a .357 pistol and six rounds and a .22/.410 over-and-under with half a box of .410s. Then he went back and returned with a .22 automatic rifle in one hand and a double-barreled twelve gauge in the other. "Ain't got but five shells," he said sorrowfully.

The astute reader may point out that twelve-gauge is ambitious for rats. In fact, a small rat could have crawled up the barrel and made a home. Yes, but we had the twelve-gauge. If we'd had naval mines and a torpedo, we would have used them.

Off we went into the night, talking about cars and lying about all the poontang we hadn't come close to getting because the girls in the country understood boys pretty well. Like every generation that ever lived, we had just invented sex, which our parents didn't know about and wouldn't have understood if we had told them.

The dump, which is now a subdivision, was down a left turn into the woods, off a narrow road stretching into forested nowhere. There was no traffic. The moon bathed everything in eerie clarity and it was cold. We stopped to plan. The head gasket leaked chuffawadda chuffawudda and the lifters stuck and the car shuddered because sometimes it forgot to fire on all cylinders. Sound traveled clear and sharp in the cold.

The plan was to take the enemy by surprise. Rusty broke the twelve and loaded it. Then he got out and sat on the right front fender. I turned the headlights off and started slowly down the pitted dirt track to the dump. The car bucked and rolled and Rusty swayed on the fender like a drunken sailor hunting ducks. Puddles of water had frozen over in low spots and then drained. They broke loud in the night like shattering glass.

A dump truck would have had hard going on that track. However, it is a scientific fact that a 1953 Chevy in the hands of a KG County boy will go places that would swallow a mechanized army. I had driven that wheezing bucket through swamps that would have intimidated a moose, and up hillsides that should have rolled it. When nothing works right on a car to begin with, it's hard for anything to break. You surge up onto the high spots, aiming so the oil pan drags over the softer rocks and then drops down, the springs bottom out, the frame scrapes and the door pops open. Surge. Crash. Clunk. Close the door. It's a rhythm.

Suddenly the dimness opened out and row after row of piled garbage lay before us like frozen breakers lost inland. (I could get arrested for a metaphor like that.) I turned on the headlights. A carpet of rats fled everywhere. The twelve-gauge flashed up. Boom! Boom! Sparkling flame erupted into the blackness. I saw a rat explode as Rusty fell backward off the fender onto his head. A twelve has a pretty good recoil.

Hearing nothing from him for a while, I got out to see whether he had been killed. Normally a blow to the head didn't mean much with Rusty, but he could have gotten sensitive in his old age. He was sitting on the ground, reloading.

Southern boy.

Now, the way you hunt rats normally, assuming you believe that it's normal to hunt rats, is to hold a flashlight under the barrel with your left hand and the gun to your shoulder with the sights already lined up. Then you stand there and listen. The rats scuffle and fight and squeal and tin cans and bottles get knocked loose and roll down the garbage walls. Then you hit the light switch and snap-shoot. You had to be good, but we were. I figure it was genetic, from days when our mountain ancestors used to plink Revenue agents who came where they had no business being.

It was spooky. We knew those rats probably weren't going to organize and rush us, but we knew they could. Then, having tasted human blood, they'd set out in a vast hunting pack, attacking isolated farms and eating people alive. They might mutate and get huge. The mind runs in strange paths when you're surrounded by hungry rats.

The last thing I remember that night was Rusty running after a stray rat, firing with the automatic as he ran, until the ammo was gone. Then he tried to club the beast, but I don't think he succeeded. I thought it showed dedication, though.