Paul Ruffin's Blog


by pauldruffin


Getting back to this washtub binness . . . .

Remember, you’re poor only if you know you’re poor, and I didn’t. I thought that every kid in America bathed in a washtub. I always had before the new dispensation. Now, before that big cast-iron white-porcelain bathtub came floating into our lives, all of us had to bathed in a galvanized washtub (number 3, maybe, though my knowledge of tub sizes has fogged a little), which we kept in the wellhouse, where in time an electric pump would be mounted to lift the water from the well a lot faster than we could with a rope and buckets or with that old hand pump.

In the summer we filled the tub outside or in the wellhouse, but in the winter we bathed in the kitchen, only fifteen feet or so from a gas heater, fueled by propane from the submarine-shaped tank out by the driveway, and hot water was a matter of heating it on the stove and turning and pouring.

Those washtubs were round, too, and less than three feet in diameter, which means that there was no stretching out and luxuriating in fragrant bubbles, the way you see cowboys do in movies after a long, dusty trail drive, just before they get out and dry off and go and pick a whore.

We’d step in, fold our legs, and ease down into the water, which through displacement would rise all the way to a our armpits or neck.

There were forced tub baths two or three times a week most of the year, maybe one a week during the winter. In the dead of summer, when there was no school, I could beg off if I’d just come out of the Cold Hole, a spring-fed swimming hole backed up behind a gravel dam on a nearby creek, or out of the river. Sometimes, when the water was too cold to tolerate without too much griping, I was permitted to stand up in the tub and swab down a little, what Mother called a spit bath or a whore’s bath. (She was sternly against swearing, but she had no aversion whatsoever to dragging whores into a conversation. Her favorite term for some floozy she didn’t like was “that two-bit whore.” I asked her once about it, and she said that she got it from the Bible: the reference to whores, that is, not to two-bit. If the Bible used the word, so could she.)

Once the new bathtub was in the room and situated in its permanent position, nothing would do but to use it, so Daddy and I would lug in buckets of water from the well and fill it by a third or so, then let it sit there and come to a bearable temperature. It was easy enough in summer, when the water was tolerable, though in the winter half of it would have to be heated on the stove to raise the temperature to the point that we could stay in there long enough to get wet. Toting water in those big galvanized buckets was a big chore, but, hey, we had a bathtub! Most of my friends had always had them, and they even had spouts with handles, and all a prospective bather had to do was turn a handle and the water came streaming in. Some kinda miracle, I’m telling you.

Whoever got to take a bath last (this would be me or my brother) had to bathe in the water the other three had bathed in, which meant that he came out about as clean as he would have slithering out of the coffee-colored Luxapalila. You didn’t notice it so much in the washtub, but that white porcelain disappeared pretty fast after a couple of people had bathed. Once we’d all finished, we’d yank the stopper and the water would run down a drain pipe and out into the side yard. You, know, until the septic tank came along . . . .

The soap I had to use, selected by Mother according to the degree of grime I was wearing, was either lye, which she or Grandmother made, or Ivory or Octagon, none of them what you’d call easy on the skin, but they weren’t easy on germs either. They would all get the most persistent dirt or grease off of you and kill every germ within two or three feet and leave you clean enough for church or school. You know how the soap people boast about their products killing 99.9% of the germs? Well, this soap got all of them and a lot of skin cells. The fragrance was what I’d call Le Strong Soap, and none of it came in a fancy wrapper, if it came in a wrapper at all.

Then the day came that Daddy announced proudly the water was about to come. Mother and my brother and I stood in the bathroom with all the faucets open and listened to the sighing of air from the pipes after he turned the main valve on, then gurgling, and finally a feeble stream began in the tub and lavatory, then built to strength and finally gushed. The commode filled and shut off, and I reached and flushed it. It worked just like the ones at school. My, what a brave new world that had such marvels in it.

I don’t often think about that aspect of my life these days, but sometimes it used to cross my mind when in that big old house up on N1/2 in Huntsville one of the kids would start yelling to me about a commode that was stopped up or one that wouldn’t quit running or a lavatory faucet or shower head that kept dripping. I wanted to scream, “Five commodes and three showers and five lavatories on this place! What the hell would you do if . . . .” But I generally didn’t say anything, knowing that they could never fathom that old world I came from. To them it was merely the Dark Ages, and they didn’t believe half of what I told them about it anyway. I just dutifully fixed what was broken and took it all for granted once again.


by pauldruffin


There are, I suppose, some advantages to growing up poor, though while you are in the process of doing it, you certainly are not aware of them. You take it one small step at a time and swear all along the way that if the Lord ever does deliver you into the land of plenty, not all the power of Satan and his minions will drag you back again.

Back four years ago when Rick Perry was running for President, he made the remark one time that when he was growing up he had to take a bath in a galvanized washtub, something Amber found very funny: “Wow, you and Rick Perry have something in common. You both bathed in a washtubs when you were kids.” She still sometimes makes references to my tub buddy.

Until I was in the eighth or ninth grade, we did not have running water in the house. We had a kitchen sink, which simply drained well water out onto the ground, and there was a small room designated THE BATHROOM, which it would actually become when the folks could afford fixtures and indoor plumbing and a septic tank.

Our water, for drinking and bathing and any other purpose for which it was needed, came from a well dug forty feet into sand and gravel by my father and a couple of helpers and lined with concrete well sections maybe three feet in diameter. In even the driest of years there was at least three or four feet of cold water down there, ours for the taking with a couple of buckets on a rope spooled on a shaft that we turned with a steel handle to raise and lower the buckets. As one bucket came up full and sloshing, the other was going down to get a load. After a year or two of cranking the water up that way, Daddy went high-tech and bought a hand pump, one of those red cast-iron ones with a big arm on it, and then all we had to do was prime it and jack the water up a gush at a time.

A year before they actually installed the plumbing, Mother decided to go ahead and buy a tub and lavatory and commode, which Daddy just set on the floor and secured with a couple of lag-bolts. The “bathroom” had been used pretty much as a junk room for six or seven years, though there was a slopjar (or chamber pot or whatever you prefer to call them) in the corner, to be used should someone, as the British say, be “taken short” and not be able to make it the hundred feet or so to the outhouse. Her theory was, obviously, that if she could afford to save part of her paltry salary from Banks Hardware and buy the fixtures, the least Daddy could do was to put in an electric pump and septic tank and route pipes from the well.

We would use the bathtub for bathing, then yank the stopper, and the water just ran down a drain pipe and out into the side yard.

Using the commode was out of the question, since Daddy had not even cut the hole for the drain pipe. If he had, we could have filled the tank and flushed it. It was one thing to run gray water onto the ground from the kitchen sink, quite another to . . . you get my point. The commode just sat there as a reminder of better times to come.

I recall that one day a female cousin of mine came running into the kitchen yelling, “Yer commode’s broke. It’s broke. It ain’t flushin’. And that sink don’t work.”

I was the only one in the house, so I went in to find out what she was talking about. I mean, if she broke something on that commode, somebody was in baaaaad trouble.

“Where’s it broke at?”

“It don’t work. It don’t flush. And the sink don’t work.”

“No, they don’t fool, because they ain’t got water, and there ain’t no drain pipes.”

“Then why have y’all got’m then?”

“For when the water comes,” I said. I pointed to the lowered lid. “Did you do anything in there?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Number One or Number Two?”

“What do them numbers mean?” Talk about backwards people. And kin at that.

“Number One means pee. What you figger Number Two is?”

“I done Number Three then.”

“What does that mean? There ain’t no Number Three.”

She put her hands on her hips the way she had seen her momma do. “What do you get when you add one and two together? You get three. You go to school, don’t you?”

I tried to answer, but I couldn’t. My mind was on how to clean out that commode before Daddy got home. This much I knew: I was not going to do it all by myself. It was her doing. So I told her to just sit down on the commode lid and wait until I got back.

I went out and got a bucket of water and carried it to the bathroom and set it down by the commode. Then I got some lye soap, a scrub brush, newspapers, an old dimpled dipper we used to scoop up chicken manure, and the slopjar and put those at her feet.

“Now, you gotta get down in there and clean out all that stuff. Put it in the slopjar and I’ll take it and dump it in the outhouse. Then . . . .”

I won’t go through the whole process with you. It’s not really all that savory, and chances are you’ll never have to put that particular talent to use. Let’s just say that she was one miserable little girl, and I was one scared little boy until we got everything cleaned up and squared away. I will say further that she never, to my knowledge, went near that bathroom again.

I know, I know: the washtub. I’ll get to that next week.


by pauldruffin


Though it is doubtful that anyone knows how long the mushroom has been about, I suspect it’s fair to say that it has clung to this earth a very long time. Doubtless ol’ Adam and Eve enjoyed an occasional gritty snack or boiled up a batch for soup. (Fortunately whichever one of them gathered the fungi made an acceptable choice, failure to do so meaning a really wild trip through the Garden or probable death.)

I have come in recent years to appreciate fully the potential in what I judge to be the King of Shrooms, the Portabella (Agaricus bisporus), which was first identified in print in the 18th century. Depending on its stage of growth and color and what all, it is known by many different names, including “the common mushroom,” but there’s certainly nothing common about the Portabella when you consider its culinary role.

For those of you who are not familiar with this delicacy, it’s typically easily identified by its size, shape, and color at your local grocery store. The mature Portabella looks a lot like the top half (topside up) of a browned hamburger bun, with a thick stem and gills beneath the umbrella. Oh, you can get Baby Bellas and such, and they come whole or sliced or chopped. You can even buy them canned. Doesn’t matter: I find them all just fine for cooking.

One of the best things about any edible mushroom is that it picks up the flavor of what it’s cooked in or with, so it’s about as flexible as you could ask an ingredient to be. It’s over 90% water, meaning that the calorie count is waaaay down, and it provides protein and a nice panorama of vitamins and minerals.

I use Portabellas in almost any savory dish that I cook for myself, since I worship them, but I use them sparingly in dishes I share with Amber, since she is not a fungus fan. She doesn’t like onions or mayonnaise either, so there are times when I wonder about her family background. This much I know: some of the ones she was instructed by ain’t Southern.

Given its shape, the full-grown Bella makes a fine sandwich filling. You just mayonnaise your bread or burns as if you were making an egg sandwich, cut that big old stem out (to be chopped up and eaten as well), and broil that sucker with butter and Whussisheresauce until it begins to shrivel and take on a little extra color. Plop it on that mayonnaised bread with some sliced tomatoes and onions and cheese, cap it with the other piece of bread, and you’ve got something just as tasty as any of the burger joints out there would serve. And it’s a lot better for you.

Chop them up and use them in almost any savory dish you might imagine, or fry slices of them with butter and your favorite cooking sauce and eat them straight or wrapped in a tortilla or laid in a latticework in a sandwich. Knock yo’ socks off good is whut.

One of my favorite ways of serving Bellas is with fried or scrambled eggs. Slice up one of those big old boys (or girls—when you look under a mushroom’s skirt, you still can’t tell) and fry it in butter and a bit of Worcestershire until the slices are nice and brown, and dump them on a plate.
Fix your eggs, and you’re ready for a trip to culinary heaven.

You know how some folks like to sop up the egg yolk with a piece of toast? Shoot, cut those Bella slices up into bite-size chunks and glide them through the yellow puddles. Oh, my, you talking gooooooood!

And with scrambled eggs . . . . Unh-hunhhhh. Sautee the slices of at least half one of the big Bellas and serve them with a couple of eggs mixed with heavy whipping cream and cheddar cheese, and you are in just another little corner of culinary heaven.

For simple, everyday cooking, cans of Bellas serve beautifully. They are usually sliced or diced Baby Bellas in water, but they provide the same flavorful enhancement as fresh Bellas when fried in a butter and Woost. Mighty fine, mighty fine . . . .

Well, there’s no sense in belaboring this issue: Portabellas are simply wonderful, and any cook should keep some on hand to bake, broil, sautee, grill, or add uncooked to salads or any dish he/she’s a mind to impart a little extra flavor to. (And anyone who cautions that you should never end a sentence with a preposition never took one of my grammar courses. As Sir Winston Churchill is reported to have said once to demonstrate the absurdity of the rule, “That is nonsense up with which I will not put.” As proof of his elevated nature: Sir Winston is also reported to have been most fond of Portabellas, especially with eggs.)


by pauldruffin


If you recall, last week I recounted an occasion on Mr. Pate’s front porch out in Segovia during which he announced that he thought it would be a good idea for the country to bring back the draft.

We’d been watching my son chase some of the old man’s Black Buck Antelope and marveling at the kid’s persistence, even when it was obvious that he was not going to get near one.

We all studied the proposal a minute, and he continued: “The kids we got coming along these days–the boys that is–don’t have no respect for authority or discipline, got no sense of responsibility, don’t have no direction in life, don’t know how to take care of theirselves. The military’d give’m all that.”

He took a draw off his tea. “I was a smartmouth punk of a boy when I went in, but basic training straightened me out. I had a sergeant made a believer out of me.”

“I did too,” I said. “A master sergeant snatched me up by the lapels of my fatigue jacket one day and slammed me against the barracks wall and advised me that he wasn’t going to take that kinda talk from me–I can’t imagine what I said to him or how I said it, but you’d better believe that I chose my words very carefully after that. What bothered me most was that I couldn’t imagine sassing any adult, given my father’s attitude toward that kind of thing.”

The old man laughed. “One kicked my butt, hard. That was back when they could do it and not have to go to sensitivity training to get their heads straightened out afterwards. By the time I got out of the Army I knew what authority was, and I knew how to talk to my superiors with respect–I learned I had superiors–and I knew how to make up a bed and keep my own clothes clean and in order . . . .”

“The military used to do that. I don’t know whether it does anymore or not.”

He looked at me. “But it’d sure as hell help. Take these little smartmouths just brimmin’ with testyrone and send’m off for a year with Army sergeants as their mommas and teachers, and they’d come back here with a different attitude. I say take’m the day after they cross the high school stage and send’m off for a year of active duty. Some European countries do it, and it works out fine.

“And if they’re trouble-makers, send’m off even before they graduate. Then let’m come back and get jobs or go to college. You’d have a lot less trouble with them. That I’d guarantee. The Army’ll wear’m down, discipline’m, take all that–”

He noticed his wife out of the corner of his eye. “All that you-know-what and vinegar out of’m.”

“Subdue them to the useful and the good,” Winship echoed Tennyson.

“That’d be one way of putting it,” said the old man.

“Well, it’s not likely to happen.” I said it as conclusively as possible.

The boy had wearied and started out of the pen, while the antelope eyed him, bending their necks this way and that, almost like they were sorry he was leaving. And maybe they were.

We surrendered our empty glasses to Mrs. Pate and headed off down the road toward Winship’s place, three abreast, our feet falling in unison, the boy having to stretch but keeping cadence–right, left, right, left, right, left, right . . . .


by pauldruffin


It was several years ago yet another late afternoon on Mr. Pate’s front porch out in Segovia, and Bob Winship and the old man and I were drinking from tall glasses of tea so packed with ice that there was probably not much more than a cup of tea in them. The air was dry and still, and the glasses barely sweated.

Mr. Pate was grousing over the fact that he had been trying with little success to talk one of his grandkids into joining the Air Force or Navy for some training in electronics–and for some discipline.

The boy told him, “Hey, Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go,” echoing the lyrics from a song popular a few decades ago–you remember it, with drums beating in the background and Indians whooping.

The old man had explained that there was no war on, so he didn’t have to worry about being surrounded by a belligerent tribe of anybody intent on killing him and taking his scalp, but the boy didn’t want to give up whatever freedom he had for even less, so he dug in his heels and declared flatly that they might burn the woods and tote out his ashes, but he was not going to join any branch of the Armed Forces as long as he was able to resist.

“It’s not a popular thing, joining the military these days,” Winship said.

“Never was terribly popular,” I added.

The old man snorted. “I joined. And they was a war on. And I actually got close enough to the action in North Africa that one day a piece of shrapnel dented my helmet.”

I reported to them: “I was reading the other day that the Army, Air Force, and Navy are all anticipating shortfalls in recruitment over the next year–way off.”

“The economy’s not too bad,” Winship said. “Jobs everywhere. Why would a kid knocking down fairly good money at the feed store, enough at least to consider himself fairly independent, go off into the military for a disciplined life and for what, even these days, is paltry pay?”

I turned to him and smiled. “Well, it’s better than the $87 a month I earned.”

“And I didn’t make even half that,” Mr. Pate said.

We were silent for awhile, watching the little herd of Black Buck Antelope Mr. Pate had put together run from my son, who was chasing them in a pen just a bit bigger than a football field. They whirled together in formation, tight and coordinated, leapt high in the air, like spring-loaded toys, dividing around the boy, then closed on the other side into their formation again.

“That boy’ll never get near one of’m.”

“No sir,” I said, “but at least he’ll wear down a bit trying, burn off some energy.”

“Won’t wear them down, though. I ‘spect they think it’s a game.”

“Yessir, they do,” Winship said. “And they like it because they’re winning.”

The old man rared back in his chair and said sagely, “Because they was born to run from things that try to catch them. Nature’s disciplined them that way.”

There was silence again as we watched the boy angle across the patch for another attack on the antelope, who’d gathered in a little clump behind a line of low mesquite, their little heads darting and dodging as they stood watching.

Mr. Pate finally spoke. “You know, I was thinking the other day that it sure would be good if they brought back the draft.”

[Next week we’ll listen to Mr. Pate’s theory.]


by pauldruffin


If you recall, last week I announced that I had caught my office rat and all was right again in my world. Nope, the story’s not over. Not quite. As Yogi once said, “It ain’t over till the fat lady belches,” or something like that.

A few days later my trap yielded another rat, this one not as big the old boy I’d caught before, so I figured that it had been a couple that had set up housekeeping above my office and found my popcorn too irresistible to pass up. I felt kinda sorry for’m, you know.

Then I discovered the extent of their pillage.

For years I have had a bobcat (Felis rufus, Latin for Happy Ruffin) standing on my rolltop desk in the office. Probably twenty pounds on the paw (as opposed to on the hoof), he came to me by a circuitous route from former SHSU President Bob Marks, who judged that the animal was too pretty to leave on an East Texas roadside for buzzards to feast on and hauled him in for stuffing.
Bob, the cat, is a magnificent creature, and I have used him as a backdrop for quite a few photographs. Mounted on a big pine slab, he is in battle mode, his face up and to the right, fangs sparkling, and if you let yourself imagine it, he is snarling. Below him is an old oil painting of Jesus, and you just know that the cat is there to protect Him. The pity is that Jesus did not protect Bob.

Well, I got word the other day that there just might be a little money in the college budget for some shelves from one of the press storage rooms, so I turned around from my computer, which sits on a more modern desk, and reached for my steel measuring tape in one of the pigeon holes in my rolltop.

“Whoa, whuzzup here, Jesus?”

There were clumps of fur scattered over the top of the desk and cascading down onto the face of Christ.

“From where do this hair come from, mon frère?” I axed myself.

And then I looked up at pore old Bob, whose short, fluffy tail was nothing but a stem, like a rat’s tail.

“What the hell happened to your tail?”

And then I noticed that his upper lip had been completely gnawed away, and tufts were missing from the tops of his feet.


One or more rats had ripped him asunder. Ruined my bobcat is whut.

“WHY?” I yelled at no one in particular. “Why the hell would rats gnaw on a bobcat?”
I looked at Jesus for an answer, but He said nothing. Had to be a sign of the End Times, the Second Coming maybe. Or global warming was at it again. It seems that everything is out of kilter in this old world.

Then it came to me: to build a nice, comfortable nest for the little darlings that Momma Rat must have been carrying.

Fancy this, now: Those rats crawled up on my desk and attacked a creature that would have swallowed them whole had he been alive. I mean, they were gnawing off the upper lip and probably bracing their feet on Bob’s big pearlies and ripping out tufts of hair a quarter of an inch from his claws.

“What I wish,” I told some of my students after they had marveled at the desecration, “is that I had a LIVE bobcat that I could train to stand as still as stone on that board, heartbeat slowed to an occasional thump, and relish the speed with which a curious rat would disappear.”

But I don’t. All I have is a stuffed bobcat that looks like whatever brought him down gave him a real thrashing. Such a fine, fine animal he was. Sorry about that, Bob.

I discovered even more damage as I began a careful inventory. They had chewed into boxes of everything that looked or smelled like it might have food inside and then actually gnawed through the side of a can of V-8 and had a nice healthy drink after eating my popcorn.

Sooooo, all things considered, I had every right the shake off any sympathy I might once have had for those two rats and regret only that I wasn’t there to witness the snap, crack, and twitch as they crossed over into Ratdom Come.


by pauldruffin


Once I left Sand Road and the lucrative world of rat killing, I thought my war with them was over. By the time I moved out, the chicken house was gone anyway, my parents having come slowly to the realization that buying store-bought eggs and chicken already plucked, cut up, and packaged made more sense than spending all that money and time fooling around with a herd of chickens and fattening a den of rats. I don’t know who won, me or the rats, but I saw no more of them when the chickens were gone.

I had a few brief battles with one or two many years ago when they got in my shop and broke into two boxes of Christmas wreathes and ate anything that might pass as items on a rat menu. I tried my damnedest to shoot one with a .22 loaded with ratshot, but I never could get a shot, so I took them out with rat traps baited with cheese or pecans.
Several years ago, the war was on again. I walked into my university office one morning and found popcorn kernels scattered all over the floor and desk and shelves, the little germ missing from the tip of every kernel. But the critter was into bartering and left me several nice little droppings in payment for the popcorn. A swift ballistics analysis suggested rat, not mouse.

A couple of evenings later, I had a night class on editing and publishing, so the students were working in the Texas Review office, which joins mine. I heard a student say, “There’s something up there making noise.” When I looked out of my office, she was pointing to the ceiling, where indeed something was making enough noise that you’d figure they were moving furniture in for housekeeping.

“More than one,” I said, and then I told the students about what happened to my popcorn stash.

“Ewwww . . . .” “Gross!” “Nasty things.” Etc.

As I drove home that night, I tried to figure out how best to go about doing battle with the gray ghosts. The .22 was out, since the UPD would likely frown on my firing even ratshot in my office. And my grand little sure-fire rat killer was out, since it would make a hell of a lot more noise than the rifle. See, I have this little brass device with a hammer and a short barrel that has a primer-cap nipple on it, just like on a musket. There’s a trip lever right at the end of barrel with a bait pan cast into it. You load the barrel with a charge of black powder, pack it tightly with aluminum foil wadding, place a primer cap on the nipple, put some sort of irresistible bait in the pan, cock the thing by wedging in the sear, and place it in a likely spot for rats. When the critter touches the bait and puts the least little pressure on the pan, the sear trips, the hammer flies home, the cap sprays fire into the powder charge, and that ball of aluminum sends the rat straight to Ratdom Come (kinda like Kingdom Come, only this place is just for rats). Lots of smoke and noise, though, which I assumed the UPD would not be entertained by.

So I decided to do the proper thing and report the interloper to the authorities on campus, who in a couple of days sent over three pieces of ratpaper. Now these little rectangular pieces of thin cardboard (maybe 7 by 3 ½ inches) are coated with some truly strong sticky stuff that is supposed to keep the rat at the trough much longer than he intended to stay. No directions whatsoever. Had to be their answer for a rat trap, though, so I dutifully peeled off the protective paper, set one down by one of my file cabinets, and laid a Ritz Cracker at the end of it.

The next day the Ritz was gone, but the pad had not been touched. So I rearranged things: I laid a Ritz right in the middle of the piece of paper. I’d already wondered about what would happen if the rat got just one or two feet stuck and decided to take off, dragging the paper along with him, so I set half a cement block (which I use for book ends) across one corner of the paper. If he was big enough to move that block, I’d consider bringing in a shotgun loaded with buckshot. It would clearly be a case of self-defense, so what could the UPD say?

Next morning the Ritz was gone, but the only evidence that the rat had been there was a light coating of fur, as if he had eaten the cracker and taken a nap. I slumped in my chair and wondered just what to do.

When I got back to Willis, I ran by D&M Hardware. Mr. Lee would have the answer. And he did, in the form of one of those old-fashioned wooden rat traps with a spring-loaded steel loop designed to crush the biggest rat’s skull when he grabs the bait. I was quite familiar with them, since my grandfather used them in his barn.

For a couple of days the trap sat unsprung in my office, the ball of Velveeta untouched.
Sez I, “Must be a squirrel. No rat could resist Velveeta.”

The third morning I opened the office door and saw, brethren and sistren, one huge rat lying there with a big grin on his face, the steel loop right across his head and in deep. He didn’t even get a nibble before boarding that freight to Ratdom Come.

Yeah, I know I probably broke some sort of rule, but I researched the issue thoroughly and found no mention of rat traps on the campus list of prohibited items. And you members of the American Rat Lovers Association have my word that I won’t kill any more rats than I can.

[Next week: The war continues . . . .]


by pauldruffin


(OK, we’re back in the chickenyard of my youth, where the chickens have just finished eating. If you didn’t read last week’s column, you should have. Otherwise you are behind the curve. What we’re really talking about here is rats, not chickens.)

But, of course the chickens never ate all their feed, because their eyesight is not all that good, and they have little sense of smell. And what they left, the rats scurried out to finish off, because rats’ eyesight passeth all understanding. They could spot bits of corn in molecular measure. They have a keen sense of smell too. They would never venture into the yard while the chickens were feeding; this was something the chickens and rats worked out between themselves after a rooster hammered the ever-loving hell out of a rat at a feed pan one day–I saw it happen. It was no match. Beak, wings, and spurs went to work in a great whirlwind of feathers and dust like an apocalyptic scene from the Bible, and the rat found his hole just before he had to make a new one. Hell hath no fury like a hungry rooster with a rat between him and his rations (Confucius, The Sung Sun, 12 April, 490 B.C., sec. 1:3).

When the chickens were gone, the rats would slip out of their holes and literally polish the pans and sweep the yard around them. So they get a little credit for living.

Now, I had a generic .22 single-shot rifle that had been handed down from my grandfather to my father to me, and I was good with it. Plain wood stock, once-blued metal, burnished by then to a sheen I could see my teeth in. I could head-shoot a squirrel at fifty yards every time, if I got a chance to draw a bead. On the run, it might take three or four fumbling reloads, but I’d generally make him real sorry he’d gotten up that day before I took him home for Mother to batter (hell of a word, ain’t it?) and fry up for breakfast, head and all.

My father encouraged good shooting, because he hated rats and because we were too poor for me to waste cartridges. The deal was that he would provide ammunition and pay me a nickel apiece for rats I head-shot, two cents for those that died a lingering death. A mouse brought a nickel wherever I shot him, since mice were much smaller and thereby more difficult targets, but mice were so low on the pecking order that they seldom showed up at the pans–mice don’t mess with roosters or rats, which is why they will be cleaning up the bones of the last rat, rooster, and man. They’d wait around and come out at night after the rats had gone to bed and dine on whatever was left around the pans, generally in atomic measure, I’d say.

My stand was the ridge of the chickenhouse, where I’d take position while the chickens were eating. I hoisted my rifle onto the roof, climbed the fence, and stepped from a post top onto the slope, scrabble with the rifle over rough shingles to the ridge, then straddle it, a leg and arm on either side. Rifle loaded and cocked, steady on the roof edge and trained on the feed pans below, I waited like a figurehead on the prow of a ship–the only way I would move was if the chickenhouse did, and this was not often.

The wait was short, intense. Just as the chickens cleared the pans, a gray head would fill one of the many ratholes that dotted the edge of the yard. I cradled the head in the rear sight, the fine post of the front sight weaving from cheek to cheek, while the little whiskers and ears twitched, testing the air. I dared not fire then–I had to let him get away from the hole. I’d lost too many to a reflex retreat.

In time he’d make his move to one of the feed pans and busy himself with the paltry leavings. The thin crack of a .22 short and I almost always had my rat. One rat per stalk was a typical yield, though sometimes they were hungry enough to ignore the noise of the rifle and the silence and stillness of a dead comrade and rush the feed pans. Oh, for a repeating rifle! Once, I had five stretched out lifeless in the yard before I left my post–a full quarter, but for one neck shot.

So it was that at age twelve I rose to the status of professional hunter. No one snapped pictures of me kneeling before my kills, no menacing heads with cold glass eyes hung over my bed, no writer from Outdoor Life or Field and Stream came calling. But I knew what I was, and I was proud. Arms and legs scratched and dimpled by the sandy shingles, I would gather my rats and carry them triumphantly to the back door and present them on the steps, then carefully clean my rifle and wait for my father to examine for head shots and pay me off. But for place and time, religious taboo, and my mother’s fury, it would have been a moment for a beer and cigar for the hunter home from the ridge.

(Next week I go to war with rats again, this time in my university office.)


by pauldruffin


While revising my memoir for the thousandth time a few days ago, I ran across a section on rats, and it got me to thinking about some older pieces I ran on rats. It’s time for an update.

And don’t get uppity with me about rats: They be God’s little buddies too, you know.

A few years back David Bottoms, who looks for all the world like a Georgia-peanut-farmer-turned-hippie, came out with a collection of poems titled Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump. Won the Walt Whitman Award for 1979 with it. Published by Morrow. Nominated for a Pulitzer. Big-time stuff here.

I was re-reading Shooting Rats the other day and ran across Dave’s title poem, which describes how these good ol’ boys, loaded on beer and whiskey and .22 rifles, would go out to the Bibb County Dump (on the Georgia poetry travel circuit, I believe) and shine their car lights out over the mounds of refuse and shoot rats too dumb to keep their eyes closed. See, young rats’ll stare with both eyes at a light every time; the older ones will use only one eye, and you don’t know whether it’s the right or left, so you can’t decide what side to shoot on. You shoot and you either miss completely, maybe clip an ear, or you hit them right between the eyes, but you can never be sure. Clever they are, old rats. That’s why they’re old. The young ones are dumber than frogs. They’ll stare at a light even on a moonlit night, while a frog won’t. Now, possums, old or young, will stare with both eyes every time, which tells you just about everything good that you need to know about possums.

A frog that’s been around a few years learns that there’s just one moon up there; so when your light joins the moon, he knows something’s not right and stays safe underwater. A young one will whisper to a buddy, “Hey, Buddy, looky there. They’s two moons out tonight. I ain’t never seen that before.” This frog has not studied much grammar either. “You right, Jugbutt. Man, they purty. Whon’t we poke our heads out and get a better look?” Buddy or Jugbutt, or maybe both, won’t be wearing those skin-tight jeans much longer.

So it is with rats, except that someone would have to be starving to death to skin and eat the legs of one.

Dave describes how rats react to a head or gut shot. Not pretty stuff. But if you’re going to read a poem about shooting rats at the county dump, you’re not in a mindset for aesthetics. Rats and garbage dumps, taken together or separately, generally don’t make the Chamber brochures.
Well, what I’m getting around to here–and you’re probably saying “Finally, thankyouJesus”–is my own rat shooting back in Mississippi when I was a boy. It was my earliest exposure to hunting and high finance.

At age twelve I was a professional hunter.

I put that on a line by itself and emboldened it to let the gravity of the message sink in.

When I was a boy we had rats. Lots and lots of rats. Big, burly, aggressive rats, the kind that could whip every cat in the neighborhood and most dogs and were known to eat calves and small children and sever power cables and gnaw through sheet-iron panels on a barn. Now, in the house the folks went high-tech and dispatched them neatly enough with D-Con (or however it’s spelled–probably on the way to being outlawed by now anyway, thanks to the EPA and animal-rights people). They’d put out these little jar lids of greenish pellets in the kitchen and closets, the pellets would disappear, and in a couple of weeks the odour of the house would announce to all who entered that something in the walls or attic or underneath the floor was with some reluctance returning to the dust from whence it came.

That was fast-working, sure-fire poison in those days, so the rats (and mice) just didn’t last in the house. D-Con in the chickenhouse, though, was another matter. And that’s where we had the biggest problem: rats fattening on chickenfeed. Sprinkle poison pellets out there and you get dead chickens, not because chickens are too dumb to distinguish between their food and rat poison but because chickens are trusting: they’d never believe you’d give them anything that wasn’t good to eat. This is a distinguishing feature–along with the feet, feathers, beaks, and eyes set in the sides of the head–between chickens and most children.

We had a big, long chickenhouse with feed pans outside in the fenced-in yard. The chickens got cracked corn every day, and Mother would now and then toss in some ground-up oyster shells “for their craw,” a mysterious organ that apparently only chickens have (though I heard my mother say on many occasions that she had had a crawfull of me). The chickens, three dozen or so, would descend in a great flurry, cluck whatever grace they were required to say–I determined by their talking in strange tongues that most of them were Assembly of God, like us, with a couple of haughty hens that acted like Catholics and one heathen rooster–and contentedly take their meal.

OK, I’ve run out of space here. I’ll continue next week. We gon’ flat kill some rats.


by pauldruffin


[And so we conclude the females cousins’ solution to their problem with Cud’n Bobby Wanye.]

The grandest folly of the male is to underestimate the female, at all levels, as he is wont to do. Bobby Wayne Mason had had his way with the lovely cousins so long, lording it over them, touching as he would, saying what he liked, that not even the strayest of notions that he might have a price to pay ventured into his vacant head.

This is too often the case for a boy, blessed as he is with an intellect that should set him well above the hooved and horned and hairy, but with an arrogance and hormonal rage that drives all wisdom from him.

So there was Bobby Wayne Mason strutting up the hedged drive of the old homeplace, not a quarter of a mile from the new, in search of the female cousins, known to gather in the weathered house once for games and little parties involving tea and dolls but now for talk of boys. And he was, after all, BOY, almost MAN, cousin or not, and in his head strange notions danced from ear to ear. He had felt faint stirrings near and far, now gathered to greatness in him, a surge to be obeyed rather than allayed. So he would act upon them.

Ah, but Bobby Wayne knew not what dreadful fate awaited him. He had crossed the cousins a time too many, and now he must be punished, only how could he know this, being swamped by hormones and bereft of common sense?

“Oh, Bobby Wayne, Bobby Wayne,” a voice came from out the hedge, low and sweet and thrilling, smooth as panty silk and soft as summer butter, “would you like to see me now
with all my clothes from off me and touch me as you might, sir?”

What boy or man could resist this call, cousin or not, sir? Bobby dove into the hedge,
like plunging into water, and found himself enjungled there–six sets of claws unsheathed, three mouths howling, three racks of fangs upon him.

And when at last he surfaced, a shocked and trembling thing, weak and mewling like a baby–striated, torn, and bleeding–his pride stripped bare of what it was, ravaged soul and body, poor Bobby limped off to his room and huddled there, resisting all entreaties, though the sun passed across the sky and settled westward red and swollen. Word was he had gotten lost in a great patch of briars and endured a terrible shredding.

Next day, as the others talked and watched TV and surfeited on Thanksgiving plenty, Bobby Wayne lay sullen in his room while across his window dashed the girls, shrieking gaily, “Catch us, Bobby, if you can, and you may be our master. We are but little Gypsy girls, harmless as the wind and ripe now to be taken.”

Poor Bobby winced at their cries and wept and snuffled–forlorn, ashamed, and shaken.

The boy grew up to become a successful county politician, with dreams of ascending to the legislature, and word is that to this day when he is around the female cousins, now broadening into middle-age, with children of their own, he treats them with utmost respect and the reverence that is due their kind. So sayeth the good doctor.

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