Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Back In the Day…
Ten-year olds with BB guns are frequently seen as a source of trouble, but my childhood friend Jon’s grandfather saw us as an opportunity.
BB-guns are an inexpensive and effective way of building small boys into expert marksmen. With an investment of a dollar’s worth of BBs, Jon and I spent many a happy afternoon slaying rows of pop-can soldiers, sniping at strategically hidden Coke cans, standing our ground against waves of oncoming Mountain Dew containers, and bringing down the dreaded 7-Up assault helicopters lofted into the air by a buddy. Many a happy hour was spent in carefully setting up the assault of enemy pop cans, and then fending off wave after wave of vicious foes as fast as we could pump our BB guns to send round copper retribution winging forth. After the wars ended, we would scrupulously gather our late foes into the large burlap sack we kept them in for re-use the next time we had to Make the World Safe for Democracy.
Jon’s grandfather, old Amos Hooper, watched our progress on occasions we fought our wars on the Hooper farm; he frequently found occasion to applaud our marksmanship. One day, he approached us with an intriguing proposition, one that he had no doubt picked up in conversation with my own grandfather, with whom I had struck similar deals.
“You boys are getting to be pretty good shots. How’d you like to help me with a problem?”
Rattus Norvegicus, the Farmer’s Bane
It seemed Grandpa Hooper’s corncrib had a major rat infestation. Poison and traps didn’t work; the Hooper corncrib rats were the end product of several decades of natural selection in an environment loaded with poison and traps. They chewed down the poison like it was candy; any bait in the traps was gleefully removed, and the traps snapped on air as the rats went away chuckling to themselves. Thus, Grandpa Hooper’s plan:
“You boys take your BB-guns and keep an eye on that there corncrib, and I’ll give ya a quarter for each dead rat.” Dizzying visions of wealth assailed us; the booming population of rats in that corncrib would keep us in pop cans and BBs for years to come. And my Grandpa had only offered a dime per rat!
Rats, on the other hand, tend to resist being converted into a medium of exchange for BBs. We figured our hard-learned stealth, honed by months of sneaking up on ground squirrels and chipmunks, would overcome the rat’s natural caution. We didn’t know rats very well.
No six-month African safari was ever planned with greater care than Jon and I displayed in planning our for-cash rat hunt. We calculated our approach into the Hooper corncrib with a thorough, meticulous care that would have done credit to Indiana Jones. Robert Ruark and Peter Hathaway Capstick would have been proud of how we figured prevailing winds and air currents around the ancient building, analyzed terrain features, and eventually concluded that we should take a stand behind the left-hand rear wheel of Grandpa Hooper’s John Deere, normally parked about twenty feet from the drive-in entrance to the crib.
On the Saturday morning following Grandpa Hooper’s offer, the sunrise found Jon and I huddled behind the tractor, awaiting the first sign of rats.
The first rat, a smallish adolescent, appeared just after the sun broke through the row of oaks on the east edge of the farmyard. Jon potted him nicely with one shot, the BB dropping the young, incautious rodent neatly in his tracks.
“That there is a quarter.” Jon gloated. “Only got to do that four times for a dollar!”
“I get the next one, then.”
The next rat was a larger specimen. We only say his nose at first, poking out from under the siding of the corncrib alongside the door. Gradually, he wormed his way under the siding until most of his head was in view; I sent a BB forthwith into his brain.
So far, so good. We were out two BBs, and up by fifty cents. What we didn’t realize is that the rats were on to us. At that moment, a conclave of rats was having a mission briefing under Grandpa Hooper’s corncrib. Their two casualties had galvanized the rat community; all able-bodied adults had joined the rat militia muster, and their battle plans were laid.
The rat offensive began with two large adults rushing us from the main door of the corncrib. We were ready for them, and a long summer plinking thrown pop cans had prepared us; the two rat scouts went down, dropped by two well-placed BBs. Jon and I didn’t have a good understanding of the concept of a “diversion” however; to our ill fortune, the rats did. While we were engaged in halting the banzai charge of the first two rats, several others were flanking us.
The main body of the rat assault hit Jon from his left. In retrospect, I imagine it was no more than three rats; at the time, I would have sworn an oath that there were at least a hundred rats running up Jon’s pant leg. With a screech like a band saw blade cutting sheet metal, Jon leaped about ten feet in the air.
Another rat leaped on my back before I could move. Like Jon, I levitated myself howling at least ten feet straight up.
But the rat offensive had underestimated the tenacity of two ten-year olds determined to obtain a supply of BBs.
On landing, Jon snatched up the first weapon to present itself – a stout cottonwood branch. A rat rushed him; Jon planted himself, swung, and with a stroke that would do Tiger Woods credit, drove the rat a good fifty feet. Another rat dashed between his legs; Jon knocked it skywards with an upstroke. At that point I managed to grab a shovel that was leaning against the tractors’ wheel and laid into the attacking rat army myself.
We laid about us with a fury that staggered belief. The rats drew back for a moment, leaving us gasping for breath, surrounded by a scattering of deceased rodents.
Then, with a swelling roar, the main body of the rat army poured out of the corncrib to the attack. We took one look at the onrushing horde, and then at each other. Only one course of action was reasonable to us; abandoning all pretense of valor, we turned tail and fled.
An intolerable situation resulted. We simply couldn’t acknowledge defeat by a group of rodents. The three dollars we collected from Grandpa Hooper for the retrieved bodies of the first rat assault only whetted our appetites; a new strategy had to be found. After a week of planning, sketching, arguing, and collecting materials, we were ready to begin; for some days, the Hooper farmyard resounded with the sounds of sawing, hammering, and shouted instructions. Rope appeared strung between the corncrib roof and nearby trees; strange, Rube Goldberg contraptions of wood and tin took shape in the vicinity. Two days were spent hauling rocks from the creek some three-quarters of a mile distant. As part of our planned finale, we spent another day in gathering scrap metal, attacking pieces of pipe with a hacksaw, enlisting Grandpa Hooper’s aid with a spot of welding, and finally dragging a large gas-powered air compressor over to a spot near the planned area of operations.
The rats watched incuriously from under the sides of the corncrib; they were confident they could deal with whatever we threw at them; little did they know the surprises we had in store for the Rat Militia. After three days of sweating, hammering, climbing, and arguing, we were finally ready.
Came the morning of D-Day, the momentous day of the Great Rat War. The rising sun found Jon and I perched on the top of Amos Hooper’s tractor, parked squarely in front of the Corncrib of Doom.
A rat scout emerged cautiously from under the siding. We held our fire. “Let them come. Let them come.” Jon repeated, ominously. Jon held in his left hand a rope, which ran through the branches of a tree to the roof of the corncrib; in his right, an odd-looking contraption of metal pipe, a large bent sheet metal hopper, and a compressed air line which hissed like an enraged bull snake as the air compressor chugged away behind us. I clutched my BB gun in my right hand, already sighted on the first rat scout to emerge; my left held a large soup can with a short piece of model-rocket fuse projecting from the top.
Grandpa Hooper watched from a safe distance, no doubt hoping his corncrib would survive intact. The rat scout nosed about for a moment, apparently not detecting us on our tractor perch. We waited in silence; our moment was at hand.
A moment after the scout disappeared under the side of the crib, two larger rats appeared in the doorway. After a perfunctory look around, they made for the side of the crib that still contained some of the previous year’s corn, intending to eat up some more of Grandpa Hooper’s profits. Jon looked at me; I looked back. We nodded. “Now!” we said, both at once. Raising my BB gun, I potted the larger of the two rats with a shot to the head.
The other rat dodged my second shot and ducked under the side of the building. Even at our distance we heard the scurrying of uncounted rat feet; the Rat Militia was mustering. They no doubt thought they had routed us once, and they could do it again.
Four rats burst from the open doorway, zigzagging with practiced skill; I nailed one on the fly, pumped my gun, nailed a second ten feet from the tractor. The third rat bravely tried to leap up on the tractor tire; he slipped and fell, landing in the dust right beneath us. Jon clobbered him with a large rock.
“Look!” Jon pointed. “Here they come from the side again!” The rats were trying the flanking maneuver again; we were ready. Fishing a butane lighter from my overalls pocket, I struck a flame and held it to the rocket fuse on the soup can; as soon as the fuse took, I tossed the can into the middle of the platoon of rats attempting to flank us. With a loud BOOM the half-pound of black gunpowder in the can blew the rat platoon into little rat bits; the survivors scattered in panic. A hot blast of air and grit blinded us for a moment; we recovered in time to see the main body of the rat army rushing us head-on.
Jon yanked the rope. A large sheet of plywood on the roof of the corncrib tipped, sending a rain of large river rocks down on the rat horde, killing and maiming several. Ducking and dodging, the rats came on; it was time for our piece de resistance.
Jon stood up on the tractor’s hood, holding up our odd-looking contraption of pipe, hosing, wood grips and sheet-metal hopper; I stood up beside him, holding a gallon milk jug filled with #2 birdshot. As Jon opened the air valve on the contraption, I poured a large helping of shot into the hopper welded atop the pipe.
A solid stream of lead shot poured from the end of the pipe, driven by the high-pressure air from the compressor; Jon played the stream from our improvised BB machine gun over the attacking horde. I kept the hopper topped up as Jon fired away.
The rats attempted to regroup; wherever a leader emerged, Jon focused the stream of birdshot there for a moment, blowing away rats in a gust of lead. Another group attempted a flanking movement; Jon caught them, sending them howling away in a birdshot hurricane. The compressed air blast howled, and Jon and I roared in triumph.
Finally, the last few rat survivors fled, decamping the Hooper farm for greener pastures; we sent arcs of lead shot after them as they disappeared into the fields. It was to be many years before another rat appeared on the Hooper farm.
Needless to say, Grandpa Hooper was delighted, as were we with the commissions for the day’s work. The rat war brought us enough proceeds for a new BB gun each, and enough BBs to keep us fighting pop can wars for years to come. And, best of all, Grandpa Hooper’s Corncrib of Doom held many a crop, safe from vermin, for many seasons to follow. The rats, however, were forced into safer quarters; it was that eventuality that found Jon and I knocking on the door of the neighboring farm some two weeks later. As the farmer answered the door, he was faced with two ten-year old boys dragging an air compressor, a length of hose, an odd-looking contraption made of pipe, and several jugs of lead shot.
“Hi!” we greeted the farmer. “We heard you have a rat problem! Have we got a deal for you!”