Something about growing up outside a boomtown. Boomtown Rats—always liked the sound of that. Something beautiful about a rat. Still remember the big old barn we had when I was a kid—how the black streaked down from the square-head nails, staining the oak siding, long worn gray and grooved along the grain from countless peltings of rain and hail and sun, how its slate roof sagged in the middle like an old swayback nobody had the heart to put down.
But it still served its purpose, and over the years it had gathered overhangs and additions, rambling beyond the original foundation, made of hand-cut sandstone some poor bastard, long dead now, hauled from the top of the hill where glacial outwash left hulks of rock big as locomotives. You could see every place the ax landed on the hand-hewn timbers that framed the barn, and all around the foundation ran a web of trails and tunnels from the Norway rats who’d followed the streams up through the hollows find home there.
They called them Norway rats, but the rats didn’t really come from Norway, not originally. Came from China, a few centuries back. At one point, nobody knows why, they swarmed up over Mongolia and the Russian Steppes in a kind of mass exodus. Scared the hell out of the natives, and they recorded it. Village by village, folks detailed their arrival so faithfully historians can pretty much trace the rats’ advance by the month. The rats left a swath of destruction in their wake—devastating grain supplies, food stocks, even standing crops—like a biblical plague.
But then, they say history is written by the winners. I don’t know about that. History is written by those who write, and I guess it depends on your perspective. I suppose if you were a rat, you might think of it less along the lines of a biblical plague and more along the lines of your divine right to manifest destiny.
In under a century, they were all over Europe, pushing out the black rats, the ones that carried the Black Death, and in 1774, they landed in America—came over on the ships with my ancestors. Reckon that makes us damn near kin. In another fifty years, they’d colonized every part of what would become the continental United States. Now they make regular trips to space. Bet a few came down with the Columbia.
In late afternoon, when darkness gathered, the rats would come out from the stones of the foundation and onto the dirt floor of the lower barn to feed from the chicken hopper. I used to watch them while collecting eggs. Neither the rats nor the chickens showed any fear. They fed side-by-side, respecting personal space but otherwise ignoring one another.
In the corner, metal drums of chicken scratch rested on two four-by-fours. The rats liked to tunnel under the drums, between the four-by-fours. If you lifted a drum, a dozen rats would run out. I noticed when a chicken was sick, near death, it always went to the same spot. The sick chicken would stick its head between the four-by-fours, under the drum. When I saw this, I’d pull the chicken out, try to get it to take food or water, but never fail, the next day I’d return to find the chicken back in the same spot, this time stiff, and when I’d pull it out from between the two four-by-fours, I’d find it had no head or neck, just a hole into the body cavity above the wishbone.
Our farm bordered both the Connoquenessing Crick and the B&O Railroad line. Connoquenessing means “A long way straight”—Onondaga, I think. Don’t know how they figured that one. The Connoquenessing weaves all through those hills. Then again, Onondaga means, “On top of the hill.” I used to find their points on the flood plain next to the Connoquenessing. Holding the tools they’d worked from stone, I’d think about the bigger span of time—not in the hundreds of years we write about, but in thousands, even tens-of-thousands of years. It made me think about being a part of the land and the land being a part of me, and what it might be like to lose that.
Some doctor from a university found a skull down there on the bottomland once. Growing up on that land, I took it for granted their ghosts still lingered, walking in the mists of the bottomland, stalking the woods, gliding along the Connoquenessing, but it didn’t bother me, not at all. I was on good terms with them. I figured we had in common a love for the land, the hills and the woods. They were good company.
I often walked the B&O line—bored mostly, wondering always what was around the next bend. Ten miles up and around a few bends lay the county seat, the City of Butler, the only real city in all of Butler County, and even then not much more than a euphemism for Armco and Pullman Standard. These companies not only manufactured the freight cars and the rails but also gave reason for their existence—steel. Some cars hauled coal for coke, others, the little red iron ore pellets that came from over the Great Lakes. The coal came by rail from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, the iron pellets from Michigan, by water and by rail.
Funny thing, though they hailed from entirely different regions, the men who mined the iron ore and the men who mined the coal both shared a fondness for rats. They believed the rats knew something beyond the ken of man and that miners would be wise to heed them. Mining folklore in both regions mythologized the survival instincts of the rat, claiming a miner would never find a rat drowned in a flooded mine, a rat’s whiskers would never be singed in a fire below ground, and their little bodies had never been dug out of a cave-in. Superstition held so strong a grip on the Cornish and Irish who mined the iron ore in Michigan that they refused to go into a ratless mine. Young boys in iron mining towns like Negaunee, Ishpeming and Michigamme made good money, a dime a rat, catching the little vermin from local barns and selling them to miners. The miners would then stock them in the new mines and feed them bread crust and scraps at lunch break.
Often I’d find the red iron ore pellets and chunks of bituminous coal mingled with the gravel of the railroad line. Picking up these little artifacts, I’d wonder what was outside, around the next bend. Trains fascinated us kids. They were exotic invaders, that came and went, like wagon trains, and we robbed them every chance we got. Nothing better than a lame train. One time a train derailed so far back in the woods and in such deep snow, the only way to get to it was by snowmobile. When we got to the wreck, we found the carcass of a General Mills car lying on its side, ripped open. We ate Golden Grahams for a long time. Everyone around ate Golden Grahams. Cases of Golden Grahams were given to neighbors as Christmas gifts. I don’t think I could eat Golden Grahams today.
The iron pellets and coal, though, were dropped from the moving trains—tipped by the sway of the big Chessey cars—the big black cars with a Cheshire Cat stenciled in white on the side and the words “Chessey System”—big rat-eatin’ grin on that cat.
In the ‘70s, Japan saved us from all that. Foreign dumping made steel manufacture less profitable, and somewhere far away a decision was made to scale back the steel mills. Some said the region had died. I don’t know about that. I know the trains ran less often, and the rails grew red. The creosote ties, once brown as shoe polish, turned gray, and the blackberry briars crept in closer and closer to the tracks. Mud daubers built adobe tubes for their young under the lip of the rails. But railroads have come and gone many times in those hills. Buddy of mine had a tunnel running from the basement of his house to a church—another kind of railroad—long forgotten, a different cargo, different purpose, no freight cars or tracks, just a web of trails and tunnels running the ridges from Tennessee to Upstate New York and then on to Canada.
Anyway, the economy took a hit in the ‘70s, but we did okay. Fur prices were up then—a good size coon pelt could fetch a hundred bucks, so a lot of laid-off steel workers took to fur trapping to make ends meet, and I skinned what they caught. We opened a fur post, and all through high school, I skinned coon, fox, beaver, muskrat and possum. At 4am, we went out into the woods, checking the trap line, got back around 7:30am, caught the school bus, tried not get caught sleeping in school, came home and ate, then skinned till midnight. Over the holidays, the trap lines got longer, and we’d spend all day out in the snow, following game trails up into the hollows, hauling a wicker pack basket full of bait, traps, lure and hopefully a few furs.
A mile up the line, a road crossed the tracks, and a few houses gathered at the intersection. Within that cluster of houses lived a boy and two girls near my age. The boy and I would become friends. I would date both girls and marry one. The journey would have taken six miles by road, so I walked the rails through the woods in winter darkness to see them. I was on good terms with the ghosts.
In summer, we grew weed along that stretch, in the alluvium of the floodplain between the B&O tracks and the Connoquenessing Crick. Weed grows good in alluvium—alluvium and chicken shit, a little lime. Easter Sunday, every year, we’d put in, my buddy and I, at a bridge near the railroad crossing, the canoe sinking almost to the gunwale from the weight of all the sacks of chicken shit. We’d drift down to a place where the briars grew thick, hack our way in with an old machete and dig a garden in the alluvium. The garden was hidden, but it didn’t matter if anybody saw us putting in. They all knew what we were up to.
One farmer up the road used to joke about it. Ray was his name, and he talked with an oat stem dangling from the corner of his mouth, so you could see the wispy oat cluster bob up and down with each word he spoke. “When are you boys gonna give me some seed? I’m thinkin’ ’bout plantin’ the lower forty in wacky tabbaccy.” He’d pause to spit for emphasis. “Corn just ain’t profitable no more.” Corn would become less and less profitable.
That place was spectacularly beautiful, and I swore to God I’d get the hell out as soon as I was old enough. I left when I graduated high school, returning once in a while, mostly holidays, to visit my mother. The girl from the railroad crossing came with me, and we were married by a Justice of the Peace. We saw cities and attended colleges. We learned that saying what you mean is obscene. We learned that there are whole passages of your life you’d do better not to talk about, and we learned that one needn’t do anything to be offensive. We took pains to play down the white trash image. I took to wearing khakis, leather boating shoes and polo shirts, instead of bluejeans, t-shirts and sneakers. We both leaned to talk different. I noticed she even got a different laugh—kind of an overstated laugh. And she started saying things like, “wonderful” and “fabulous” when she meant, “good.” I felt lonely.
One night, at a cocktail party, I found myself staring out a window atop the Sears Tower, gazing down at Chicago, a glass of champagne in my hand. A normal person might have felt, I’ve arrived! I felt homesick. I wanted to bolt, to get out of there, to go to her, lead her to an old strip-mine pond, take our clothes off and slip into the warm water, feel the warm rank mud between our toes, listen to the bullfrogs. Mostly, I wanted the old haunts—I wanted to be among the ghosts—to be among them with someone else who could feel them there too.
I don’t know how it happened—suppose it had been happening all along, only we never noticed. Interstate 79 had been around for decades, but it seemed that while we were away, Pittsburgh crept up I-79 like gangrene walking up an artery. Housing developments sprouted almost overnight. I’d never before heard the word “cul-de-sac,” and I had no idea what it was until I saw one. Then I wondered why they didn’t call it “a dead end.” Instinct told me it was a bad thing to get into—only one way out.
For some reason, maybe what the real estate folks called “picturesque vistas,” my particular neck of the woods attracted the higher-end developments. Real estate brokers said the area had been “revitalized.” I’m still not sure what that word means, but it always puts me in mind of Handsome Lake and Wovoka. Seems to me, when the Iroquois were revitalized, they became white, and when the Lakota were revitalized, they became dead.
My mother sold the farm. The fur post was first to go. The new owners, a radiologist and a DA from Pittsburg, asked the volunteer fire department to come out and burn it down. Saw some rats that night I bet. All over the region, farmers sold out, old barns were torn down, McMansions popped up, and once-dark hollows blazed with light all through the night. At some point, my wife seemed to realize she’d lost something, left something behind, and she ran back there with all the earnestness of a little girl running into a burning building after some cherished object, already gone. I watched from a distance. It smelled like death to me.
I returned only once after that. Like an intruder, I came after dark and retraced the path along the railroad I’d once walked to see her. New homes filled the valley with light. I wondered if the children could ever learn not to fear the darkness—if they could ever come to terms with the ghosts.
Often, when I think back on that place, I picture a rat, pausing to rest back on her haunches along one of those tiny rat trails next to the Connoquenessing. I imagine her little hands preening the fur in the hard-to-reach places behind her ears—her belly round and full, a dozen little pink tits bare against the white fur of her underside.