T.S. Eliot was right. April is the cruelest month. But he could not have foreseen, nor have taken part in, the Great Palm Sunday Rat Kill on that peaceful and sunny afternoon in Southern Illinois when man met rat and, temporarily, rat lost!
Nestled comfortably, if a bit shabbily, in some hills east of St. Louis and a whole lot west of New York, the small farm where my father and uncles and cousins lived seemed like Eden to me, the cousin who went wrong, the one who left the farm for California. For that there was no understanding. After all, as they say around there, “If it isn’t happening in Bond County, it isn’t happening.”
But such is often the case when local boy leaves. Never mind makes good. I don’t think I thought of making anything in particular up to that point; I just wanted to come “home” and see the folks, the aunts, uncles, cousins, and my father. I wanted roots!
Lunch went about as I remembered from my boyhood: There must have been a dozen or so dishes served up on the picnic table in that suddenly warm and delicious April Sunday. It was Palm Sunday, and that meant some went to church while the rest waited for them to come back. No one spoke of the sermon; no one asked. It was about noontime, and all thought and talk led to lunch. It was time, once again, to eat.
The lemonade was helping the sandwiches go down, and the chicken and the beef, and the blind tiger, as my cousin called it. It was some kind of mystery meat left over from my childhood as far as I was concerned. I didn’t ask where it had been kept all this time. I didn’t want to be told how they went down into the root cellar and rooted among the jars and eggs and things hanging from the ceiling on ropes to find it. Here it was in my sandwich, and they were all watching to see if I still could eat like a country boy. I chewed it thoughtfully with what I hoped was a smile at the corners of my mouth. When the lemonade came around I drowned whatever it was moving about in my mouth and swallowed. My aunt smiled and said, “Welcome home.”
Suddenly, all the peace and tranquility of the day was shattered when Uncle Lute called to my father from the chicken house. “George (my father’s name was Leslie . . . ), you’ve got rats in here.”
“Rats?” my father yelled back. “What kind of rats?”
“Just rat rats,” Lute yelled. “And you better get rid of ’em or they will take care of all the eggs and baby chicks in here.”
That ended the picnic and opened up that Sunday to events I would not, could not, have foreseen. To this day I am cautious about telling anyone about it for fear they will think I’m a liar or, at the very least, be secretly envious of the adventure that followed.
We all ran to the chicken house. Bill grabbed a baseball bat, Jim picked up a shovel rusting in the weeds (this was SOUTHERN Illinois), and I just ran to see rats. What could be so special about a rat? But when I peeked into the dim, smelly, rotting old shed the chickens called home, I saw something like a grey carpet moving over the dirt floor. RATS!
It was Uncle Lute who showed me just what kind of people I had forsaken. He waded into them and kicked several into the air, cursing all the while. My father grabbed a handy stick and started clubbing vermin right and left. My cousins swung away with shovel and bat. Even my aunts Letha and Lura appeared, brandishing brooms, until my entire family seemed to be crowded into the chicken house taking swipes at the rats that covered their feet, dropped off rafters, and scurried in and out of their holes in the dirt floor.
Somebody noticed me peeking in the windowless window and said “Don’t just stand there, Jack. Grab something and start swinging.” The only thing I could find to use was a piece of hedge‑apple fencing leaning against the chicken house, so I grabbed it like maybe I had a clue how to grab a piece of hedge-apple fencing and marched in just in time to get hit in the face with a rat my uncle kicked into the air. That almost did it for me right there, but Bill and Jim, noticing my surprise at being hit in the face with a dead rat, just laughed. After all, I had been away.
After clumsily teeing off on a couple and missing everything but my uncle’s foot, I got the hang of it and was soon dishing pain and destruction right and left, up and down. The bodies flew this way and that. The chickens had taken refuge on the top roost and set up an awful racket, clucking the bad news up and down the line to chickens that fluffed themselves up, out, and over their eggs, their beady black‑button eyes like spiral galaxies, spinning out strange worlds there in the dark.
Bill asked me if I was going to stand there and look at the chickens or was I going to kill rats. So I swung again and again, hitting, missing, until I couldn’t raise the fence post again. Then phase two began.
My uncle told us all to clear out, that there were too many rats to hit like that. He limped to his pickup and backed it up close to the chicken house. My father, immediately recognizing a brilliant strategy, ran to the toolshed and came back with a long hose which he fitted over the exhaust pipe of the pickup. He pushed the other end far down the first rat hole he came to. Everyone looked pleased at the good fortune to actually be present at such a moment. My cousins, inveterate rat killers from prior campaigns, were beside themselves. I just watched. Other aunts and cousins were busy counting the dead rats we flung outside. Someone said 40. But we weren’t through.
We gathered with clubs, shovels and rakes, and brooms and fence posts, and waited. The pickup chuffed and chugged, and it wasn’t long before rats stuck their narrow noses out of the holes, evicted from their own peace and underground tranquility by the pickup’s fumes. Soon there was a rat sticking halfway out of every hole. Then, at some unseen, unheard signal, the sticks, brooms, and clubs began swinging. Rats were teed‑off on, swept into the air, clubbed, and kicked until you couldn’t tell the players without a program. It seemed as if hundreds of rats were scampering, leaping and flying about, and disappearing back into the holes faster than we could hit them.
Phase three, which was not on the menu, began and ended with a shotgun blast. Everyone froze. The rats might have frozen. I don’t remember, because I was looking in disbelief at my son Tim, standing with the shotgun. Ever one for innovation in tactics, he figured the clubs and brooms were never going to be enough, so he went into the house and brought out a little, but lethal, 4‑10 shotgun and fired at the first rat he saw. This special rat, however, was crawling along as fast as ever he could on the rafter just over my uncle’s head. The blast echoed in and out and around the little chicken house, across the tracks and into Turley’s Woods. We unfroze and looked about to see which of us had been shot. My uncle’s face, until that moment suffused with the brutal joy of swinging, was ashen. Worse than ashen. It was rat‑grey. Or rat‑ashen. However it was, there was no color in it.
I sidled over to my son and touched his shoulder, asking him to please lower his weapon. My father breathed in in that awful way that meant something terrible was about to happen. But it was my uncle who surprised us all when he said very softly, in a sort of squeak, “Don’t do that.” There was something in his tone, something in the manner in which he said it, that captured our attention. It seemed to betray a lyric imagination in the face of imminent danger. After all, the shot missed his head by only inches. The rafter was splintered. The rat was gone.
My cousin Snookie, organizing the building of a huge bonfire, said if we thought we had destroyed enough of the animal life inside we could come out and have some roasted wieners. Someone had thoughtfully raked the inactive rats into a pile and covered them with gunny sacks. But there weren’t enough gunny sacks to do the job, and the dogs, normally asleep in the barn, snurffed and whined about the pile.
Sometime later, when everyone was feeling mellow from a job well, if not completely, done, we ate the roasted wieners and the baked beans and polished off the apple pie and ice cream, then eased ourselves down onto the warm grass and counted our blessings. It was, after all, Palm Sunday. The significance of that day was not lost on us, though there be many who would say it was skewed a bit. We watched the few remaining rats crawl unsteadily out of their holes and fall over from the fumes from the little pickup, still chuffing and chugging away. When my father turned the engine off he noticed six chickens had fallen off their roosts, dead as rats from terror or fumes, but everyone agreed it was a price that had to be paid. After all, the count had reached 95. A blue tarp, saved for happier occasions, had been found in the barn, and the pile of rats was gone, if not forgotten.
My wife Dolores, not completely shell‑shocked (having migrated from Kansas), watched from the porch swing, beautifully framed by the trailing clematis vine. Aunt Emma called The Advocate to see if they would send someone out to take a picture. They would. The editor said he thought we had the record! At that moment, spending a beautiful day whacking rats seemed almost natural. And the thought that the daily news could be enhanced by a photo of a pile of dead rats was, in its way, only fitting.
As the soft April day faded into the tops of the tall thorn trees in Turley’s Woods, filling the birdbath under the maples with gold, we watched the embers from the fire glow and pop as sparks spiraled into the evening sky. Somehow I understood just why I left the farm. And why I had returned. I thought it was not everyone who could say that. I never said a word, then, about the meaning of the day, about what I thought I had learned, or had not learned. Or anything about the bizarre beauty of it. The family was together in a chicken house, killing rats. What was there to say? No one thought of cleaning up for the picture. He could take us as we were. We just moved a little closer together.
© J. T. Ledbetter