Why I Rat. (With a Bonus Story About Viet Nam Bill. And April.)
It doesn't happen often anymore, but every so often someone will come up to me and say, "Hey, Will, I hear you like to "rat."
And I'll immediately understand them, because I was born in the South, spent most of my life in the South, and probably have some relatives that still talk like that.
I'll say, "Yeah, I like to rat," because I don't want to embarass them. (Like I don't want to be embarrassed when I misspell embarrass!)
Then they'll say something like, "Well, I been to Viet Nam (or Graceland or Panama City or somewhere) and got a piece of metal in my head and you ought to rat my story."
I remember Bill, a guy who swatted flys on his window pane with his bare palm, telling me just that.
He told me some great stories about how him and his always high buddies wanted and tried to kill their own lieutenant in Viet Nam, but I finally just had to tell him, "Bill, I think you need to rat your own story."
Well, he'll never do that. He's too busy taking pills and staying high, I guess to forget what he saw over there.
But I can't do it, I can't rat for him or anybody else... the primary reason being I'm not a taperecorder man. For some reason I can't bring myself to tape record people and then transcribe what they said, even though I'm sure it (some of it at least) would be very interesting.
I know Bill was interesting, and I'll tell you a quick story about him at the end.
But I remember a college professor of mine called me one time and asked me to come over, because she had an elderly missionary woman visiting with her that ONE day, who had been in the depths of China for fifty years, and her story would be very interesting for the world to know.
I wasn't interested. But because I was in the professor's class, I felt obligated to go. I took a tape recorder, set it up, listened to the woman talk, and after about forty-five minutes, the tape ran out.
Then I got home to discover it hadn't recorded anything.
I had to apologize to the professor, because there would be no second chance. The woman was gone back to China. I know she did a great thing, Christianizing the heathens and all that, but God was she boring.
And so I wasn't really listening.
I'm just rambling here on a Sunday afternoon, so jump ship now if you have more important things to do
And in my rambling I came to the realization that the missionary was not boring, I was just a bad interviewer, with a bad attitude - one who couldn't see a great story back then if I'd been looking at it through the Hubble Telescope.
This old woman had seen murder and war and gunboats on the Yangtzee River... but I'm pretty sure all I was thinking about at the time was a girl named Amanda, who was full of gunfire and fireworks herself. (A totally different story I don't want to "bore" you with here.)
So I'm laying there on my Swedish mattress and I'm thinking among other things, Just why am I a ratter? (And whatever happened to Amanda? Actually I know: she married a semi-famous comedian in Nashville).
And another question, Why the hell am I not in there in front of the tube watching football like ninety nine percent of all grown men?
Why do I rat when there is no mon-ee in it? No cash, No dough!
Is it a sickness curable only by death (Answer: yes.)
My daughter, unfortunately, is falling, I mean following in my footsteps, though I think she is beginning to wise up like I never did.
At one time she wanted to be a ratter, too. She's thirteen now, so I think her mind is starting to focus on other things, including eyeliner, which when she went to church this morning, for some reason extended all the way across the top, but only halfway across the bottom length of her eyes. I thought that might have been how Elvis looked, when he first started using the stuff, but hadn't quite got the hang of it. (Hey, Priscilla, cum in heah baby, show me how to do this stuff..." "Why, Elvis, Honey, you've got to use MOAH!"
I said nothing about my daughter's eye job.
But the other day I knew her middle school band played at their first football game, so when I got home I asked her, "How was the game?"
She said, "It was ok. It got rained out at the uh... I think the half."
It suddenly occurred to me I had let her down terrifically. I had not been a good "man" influence on her... cause I don't do manly things like watch football and drink beer and jack my truck up on tires that reach the ceiling. I just bacically, rat.
To test my theory, I asked her a question. I said, "What is the name of the game they were laying?"
She said, "Football..." and then there was a long pause and she added... "I think."
I decided to try my first question again, though this time worded slightly different. I said, "How did you like the game?"
She said, "The pizza was good."
Because of these questions I should have been ready for a "unique" answer when I asked her another question later that evening.
The question came about because I personally am in the "fourth quarter" of my life and I know the game is rapidly approaching an end for me.
And because of that I talk to my little girl (Yes, I know she's not little any more, but I am ratting this, not you, so I can call her what I want) and tried to gently get her used to the idea that I am not going to be around for ever)
So I said to her, "Nikki, I'm just trying to help you learn some things, so that when I'm not here any more, you will be ..."
I don't think I got to the end of the sentence. Because as soon as I got to the not here any more part, her face lit up into a great big smile.
And I said, "Wow, that sure makes me feel great, that you smile when you hear I'm not going to be here any more."
She was laughing now and saying, "Oh, I wasn't laughing at that." But she wouldn't tell me what she was laughing about.
But I kept on, determined to get to the bottom of that laugh.
Finally she said, "I was laughing because your'e not going to be on a boat anytime soon."
I said "What?"
She said in rapid fire words, "Well I had a dream and you were going to go on a boat and I was going to go with you, but you got mad, and then walked on to this little river thing, ( a dock maybe? Note to would be parents: Every thing is a thing or thingie to thirteen year old girls!) but I went down with you and waited for you to come back but you didn't come back, then I walked back toward the house and there was this little swampy thing then the alligators started chasing me and I jumped in tree cause I didn't think alligators could climb but they can and he bit me in the foot and i kicked it in the face and then somebody hit it with a stick and it died."
Now, although I don't profess to understand the workings of little girl's minds, much less big girl's minds, after long and hard processing of the above, I believe now that she was originally smiling because she believes "at least" my leaving... won't be anytime soon.
But nobody knows that for a fact.
She came in the room just now, read a little over my shoulder, and said, "You're not writing about that are you?"
To which I said, "Yes, I am."
And I am because my heart is still ticking but it won't always be. My ticks are limited to an unknown number.
I have to rat while the ratting's good.
Which still doesn't completely answer the question "Will, why do you rat?"
I guess the simple, though not short answer to that, is this:
When I was a kid I was a "slacker" before there was a name for what I was doing.
I was in the fifth grade before people - including me - realized I couldn't see and needed glasses. It never occurred to me the teacher was actually writing stuff on the board. I thought she was just drawing these inredible hazy looking stick figures.
So I always sat in the back and looked out the window. Still couldn't see anything, but everything was green and beautiful.
So even when I got glasses, I wanted to be outside. Not looking at the board.
That worked well for me until my Junior Year of High School, when there were no windows, or through some communist plot to make me actually learn something, I was kept away from them.
I spent that year doing a lot of one of either two things: staring at the wart on the rich girl's neck in the seat in front of me and thinking seriously about stabbing it repeatedly with a sharp number one pencil (my favorite)... or staring at the long beautiful legs of the tall Irish/English Catholic girl who sat to the left of rich French wart girl.
The rich girl let it be known loudly and often that she would be going to Paris for the Summer. (They did EVERY year we learned).
The Irish girl let it be known softly and gently, that she liked me.
Then, in my last year of high school - the same year I spilled a drink on Pamela Fitzgerald's pretty dress on prom night (Yes, the Irish girl!) after taking her to McDonalds (Even then my taste was beyond reproach!) - I had to write a report for an English teacher I have long ago forgotten.
I wrote the report based on a book about Classical Guitar that I had more or less stolen from a library in Germany, before coming back to the states.
When The teach handed out the reports I was expecting to get my usual slacker grade of C, D, or F, but there in a big red letter was "A."
And it was no mistake. I hadn't gotten someone else's paper by mistake!
And there was also a note on it that said, "I didn't know you had it in you" with something like today's version of a smiley face on it.
Hell, I didn't know I had it in me either. Was there something finally, I was actually semi-good at? Inspite of a habit I to this day can not break of putting prepositions at the end of sentences? (See previous sentence!)
The best I can recall, that was the one and only positive feedback I received the whole four years of high school.
And because of that one seed planted long ago, you dear reader, must now suffer.
Pretty depressing, isn't it?
But maybe I can make up for it by telling you the story about Bill that I promised. And one about April - a girl, not the month.
Bill was hard to impress. It was hard to get his attention after he'd been through such exciting things as Viet Nam. But he was an ok guy.
So one day I was going down the road in my car, and I saw Bill way up on top of long pole by the side of a busy intersection. He worked for a sign company or something at that time. I hadn't seen him in a while so I decided to pull over and say "Hi."
I got out and looked way up high and said, "Hey, Bill!"
He glanced way down low and said "Hey, Will," and then immediately went back to what he was doing. But then he did a double take and looked back down with interest. He said, "What happened to your arm?"
It had a bandage on it as something had happened to it that I can't now remember. I can only remember what Bill said and did.
I told him, "Oh, I hurt it, but the doc fixed it all up."
Bill said urgently, shifting around in the pole to study the seriousness of my wound, "What did he give you for pain?"
I said, "I don't know, just some stuff."
He said with growing excitement he could almost not contain, "Can I have some?"
And I , being different than I am now, said, "Sure, why not?"
But before I had the "why not?" completely out of my mouth... Bill was coming down off that tall pole like he was on fire.
Now I have bungee jumped before, and I know that for one second when I stepped off that platform, I actually hung in space. But then what happens is gravity kicks in and you go down so fast you only have time to think this one thing: "this was a mistake!"
Bill came down that pole that fast.
That's how much he loved drugs.
And that's why he will never be a ratter.
My mind is already fuzzy and un-focused enough as it is.
I want to still have it in me, and keep it in me...
til it's gone.
And maybe, just maybe, if I keep trying,
I will write something that will make you smile, happy, angry or mad.
Whatever it is...
I just want you to feel alive.
Cause someday... (Smile)
You won't be.
I'm just glad you won't be getting on that boat soon.
But no one knows.
So finally, here as promised, is the story about April:
April was a little blonde haired girl that Senior year.
She sat in front of me and my other loser friends at the back of math class,
which I failed miserably.
Before class we would flip for dollars behind April's back. Her back would hide the teacher's view.
One day a dollar slipped out of my hand and floated down and landed to the right of April's desk. She saw it, smiled, and turned and picked it up.
Then teasing us, she put it down inside her blouse, because she knew we would never go there!
We laughed about it and forgot it.
Just a few days later, April was dead.
She had been driving her parent's car on a rainy evening and lost control and slid off the highway and was killed.
That was 1967.
She never graduated, never got married, never had kids, never really found out who she was, or what she wanted to do with her life.
Maybe that's why I don't give a good God ;Daman about a dollar or money to this day.
Life is about people, not money.
Life is about you and me and April.
Life is about living before you die.
Because no one knows
when that will be.
That's why I rat,
And why I rat right now.