This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from
Tommy Hastings stopped, made a face then gathered the dead rats up by their tails. Charlie would never believe he’d kill a single rat if Tommy just went in and told him what he’d done. He held the nine rats – two were really small, maybe fat mice – and strolled out through the open barn door. He could barely hold them, feeling the blood throbbing in his broken hand as he crossed the barnyard. It wasn’t the worst pain he’d ever felt. It was the deepest and longest lasting, though.
He walked down a wooden ramp that joined the ground. The wooden part of the barn was held up by field rocks cemented together. There were pane windows set into square holes in the walls. The panes were filthy. At the far end was a wide open door, the wooden part was rolled back. The deep sound of cows lowing rolled out like waves, where the milking stalls were.
From the milking stalls, a pile of cow dung flew through the air, followed by a muffled cuss. Freddie Merrill followed a second later and stopped abruptly, staring at Tommy. Then he said, “You killed those?”
“What are you doing with them?”
“I figured I’d better bring ‘em in to Charlie or he’ll never believe I shot them.”
Tommy said, “Better get back to work before Charlie comes out and beat you up.”
Freddie nodded and went back into the barn.
Charlie was standing on the porch and shouted to Tommy, “Don’t bother, kid. I see ‘em.” He swung a long arm to the edge of the cornfields. “Throw ‘em in there.”
Tommy nodded and headed for the edge of the barn’s lot. He tossed the rats into the brush edging the field. He turned back to the house and this time, Charlie didn’t speak until Tommy reached the porch. Then the older boy said, “Dad says you can’t do any heavy lifting or his brother’ll break HIS bones, so you need to do some more shooting.” He held a smaller rifle over his shoulder. “Dad thinks there’s too many barn swallows. Wants you to take care of ‘em.”
Tommy scowled. “Why would he want me to do that?”
Charlie laughed, “What else you gonna do, muck out the barn?” He held the rifle out butt end first. “Take it or start walking – and hope Dad doesn’t run you over on your way to
The boys worked for two days, Freddie ranging over the farm mucking out the barn, moving a calf carcass, rescuing three other calves with Charlie’s little brothers and watching Tommy learn to hit all but a few of the diving, spinning barn swallows and become the scourge of every rat on the farm.
Two days later, just as the sun was rising, Charlie showed up in the hayloft and shouted, “Rise and shine, boys! We’ll be pulling out of the barnyard with a milk run as soon as you can pump the truck full.” He jerked his head to one side, “I’m supposed to help you.”
The boys scrambled out of the nests they’d made among the bales of hay, shaking crazily to get rid of the straw from their shirts and pants. They followed Charlie to the milk room. A big tanker, the name of a creamery painted on the side. Freddie said, “That’s not you guys!”
“It’s the guys hired to transport the milk.”
“But we can’t ride in the back with the milk cans!” Tommy said.
Freddie exclaimed, “There aren’t any cans!”
Charlie clapped both boys on the shoulders and pushed them toward the tanker. “All I need you to do is pass me the hose and we’ll pump it into the truck and then be on our way!”
They were ready to go in twenty minutes. Charlie held the passenger’s door open and said, “Boys gotta ride in the middle. I get shotgun, dad has driver and you boys get sandwich.”
“In between Dad and me. All the way to
Freddie’s eyes got big and he replied, “I get car sick.”
Charlie’s dad showed up just then, looked at Freddie and said to Charlie, “You’re riding sandwich, Son.” He looked at Tommy and added, “‘sides, the towhead smells like a rat – a dirty rat – and I don’t much feel like sitting next to that for sixty miles.” He fixed Tommy with a long, hard look, then climbed into the tanker and started it.
Charlie opened his mouth to protest, closed it with a snap, then added, “I guess I’m sandwich meat.”