By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 2, 1939
“What,” inquired Jimmie Frise, “do you know about rats?”
“Rats,” I informed him, “are my meat. What I don’t know about rats isn’t in the encyclopaedia. I have killed thousands of rats. Black rats, gray rats, brown rats, fat rats. In the army they called me the Pie-Eyed Piper.”
“There are rats,” stated Jim, “under my garage. They’ve tunnelled down under the concrete floor. You can see the two entrances. From this dugout they come at night and forage in the garbage cans of the neighborhood. Members of the family coming home at night see them scuttling. They are huge.”
“It will be no trick to get rid of them,” I assured Jim. “You can use traps, poison, fumigation or a ferret. Maybe a ferret would be the best fun.”
“I was thinking of sitting up some night,” said Jim, “with a pleasant companion, both of us armed with .22 rifles. I thought we might spend a very amusing evening popping off rats.”
“It would bring back the old days,” I admitted fondly. “Many’s the long night, in the war, I have whiled away potting rats with my revolver. I often thought that officers carried revolvers for no other purpose but rat shooting.”
“Gosh,” mused Jim, “did you ever see so many rats as we had in France, especially around the Vimy sector?”
“There were millions,” I agreed. “Great big scaly-tailed brutes as big as tomcats.”
“You might say,” said Jim, “that after dark you could look in any direction, at any spot on the ground, and within one minute a rat was sure to cross that spot.”
“They got so plentiful,” I submitted, “and so bold, that they no longer confined their activities to the night. They moved freely about all over the place in broad daylight.”
“And why not?” said Jim. “Nobody disturbed them. They had that vast silent world to themselves, especially by day. No human stirred. No man showed a head. It was at night that rats had to take care. At night we humans were abroad. We shared the night with the rats.”
“As soon as night fell, in the trenches,” I told, “and all the sentries were posted and all the working parties detailed, an officer had little to do but walk up and down and see that all was well. So presently he would pick a suitable spot, a bit of trench or a sap preferably near an old ruined house or barn. And there, sitting on the fire-step of the trench, he would unlimber his revolver and wait.”
“So that,” cried Jimmie, “was what all the shooting was about? We artillery used to sit away back with our guns, wondering what you gallant infantrymen were doing all the popping at.”
“Mostly it was rats,” I admitted. “I used to sit in the dark, motionless. In a few minutes, along the trench, on the parapet or from a rat hole in the wall of the trench, out would come a rat, secret, silent, sliding his head down, his back arched, seeking, sniffing. Quietly, the revolver comes up. Bang.”
“You must have made an awful mess of them with that army gat,” said Jim.
“If we hit them,” I provided. “The best way of hitting a rat was known as fishing for rats. It was mostly done in old dugouts that were rat infested. When it became so bad that the boys could not sleep owing to the rats running over them and fighting and squeaking all over the place, the boys would declare a fishing trip. All the men in the dugout would leave their snug beds on the damp cold planks of the dugout floor and go and sit on the stairways of the entrances. Then the expert would extinguish all the candles stuck along the plank walls and sit on the floor. Extending his legs, he would rest his rifle on his legs, the muzzle resting between the toes of his boots. Out from the end extended the bayonet; and on the end of the bayonet a piece of cheese would be impaled. There in the dark the fisherman sat, finger on trigger. When he felt a nibble on the cheese he fired. Seven times out of ten he blew the rat against the far wall of the dugout.”
“Rather nasty,” muttered Jim.
“What were sanitary corporals for?” I retorted.
“You wouldn’t get many that way,” said Jim.
A Major Problem
“The rats were so plentiful and so greedy,” I assured him, “that no sooner was one rat blown to pieces and the candles doused and the fisherman in position again before the rats, with a secret, soft, scuffling sound and squeaks and scutters, would be coming from their holes again amidst the planks of the dugout walls and ceilings, snuffling for that cheese. I have seen Corporal Cutsey Smith, now with God, get one dozen rats in one hour by this method.”
“But it was a hopeless business,” submitted Jim.
“It was,” I agreed. “And I have often wondered since how France and Belgium got rid of all those countless rats after the war. It must have been one of the major post-war problems.”
“When I close my eyes and try to recall what dugouts were like,” said Jim, “I can smell the queer sour smell of them, and the smell of coke gas and wood smoke. I can see again the dimness, the quietness, the men lying in their matted gray blankets and greatcoats on the muddy plank floors, see the two or three sitting up awake, in dim candlelight, writing letters; but most of all I can feel the silence, amidst which, ever and always, goes on the quiet scuffling and scratching of the rats behind the plank walls and ceilings, a sound that went on day and night.”
“I woke up one night,” I said, “with two rats fighting furiously on my chest.”
“I have had a rat,” countered Jim, “exploring in the dark come to me, lying on the ground, and place his two hands on the bridge of my nose to look over.”
“Ugh,” I surrendered. “What puzzles me is, if men hate rats so badly, how is it we haven’t exterminated them ages ago, like all the other animals we hated and killed off?”
“I figure,” said Jim, “there is a family of six rats under my garage.”
“Right,” I agreed. “The problem is, how can we deal with the present situation. I suggest poison.”
“Too many dogs in the neighborhood,” said Jimmie. “I would sooner put up with rats than poison a dog.”
“We can pump gas down the hole,” I suggested. “Put a tube from the exhaust pipe of your car and carbon monoxide them.”
Plan of Battle
“Wouldn’t you kind of like to sit up tonight, with .22 rifles, and do a little shooting?” wheedled Jim.
“It’s too risky,” I declared. “And too cold.”
“Very well, a ferret then,” said Jim. “Let’s get some fun out of this. I don’t like the idea of putting poison or fumes down the hole and letting them quietly die down under the concrete floor of the garage. They might smell. I’d like to get a whack at them. And a ferret would chase them out and we could stand at the hole with clubs.”
“Where would we get a ferret?” I demanded. “And besides, we’d have to have somebody handle the ferret. I don’t want to be partly responsible for a ferret getting loose in our neighborhood.”
“Well, I’ve got some rats,” said Jim, with pride, “and I want to find some sporty way of dealing with them.”
“I tell you,” I cried, “we’ll drown them out. Why didn’t I think of it sooner? Of course, drown them out. How many holes have they got?”
“Two,” said Jim. “One under the corner of the garage and another at the back. We can block one hole up and turn the hose into the other and they’ve got to come out.”
“You’ve got it,” I agreed. “I’ve often drowned rats out. They hate water.”
And we went home a little early so as to deal with the rats before darkness came to their aid. Jimmie got his son’s baseball bat and we brought the hose up from the cellar, where it had been stored for the winter. We turned on the water at the outside tap that had been turned off for fear of frost, and we proceeded to study the terrain.
Just under the south corner of the garage a hole about the size of a milk bottle led downward steeply. At the back of the garage a much smaller hole served as an emergency exit. Trust a rat for emergencies.
“It looks as if a whole army of rats used this front entrance,” I said, as we examined the larger hole. “They probably hold meetings here. Maybe this is a public hall.”
“They’ve got a great cave under there,” said Jim. “I bet it’s tunnelled into a regular apartment. An apartment with a concrete roof. The floor of the garage gives them an ideal bombproof shelter.”
So we took sticks and gravel and cinders and filled up the smaller emergency exit at the back. We shoved all the stuff deep down, packing it in, so as to prevent any possibility of the rats digging out by that route.
Then we turned the hose on and into the larger hole I directed the stream while Jim limbered up with the baseball bat, in readiness.
“You’ve got to be ready for fast work, Jim,” I cautioned him, “because when they come they may come all in a bunch.”
“Don’t fret,” said Jim, “I can hit with this bat faster than they can fight their way past that stream.”
And indeed it was a dandy stream, because in winter the water pressure is good. No other hose owners are watering any lawns. A powerful jet of water bored into the hole and we could hear it gurgling and swishing deep in the dark cavern of the rats.
“They may come any minute,” I warned. And Jimmie stood poised and tense.
“What do you suppose is going on down there?” I chuckled, as the water gushed. “I bet there’s a commotion.”
“They were likely asleep,” said Jim, “and about now they are getting anxious. This is no ordinary rainstorm.”
“Heh, heh, heh,” I laughed, and squatted down to aim the icy water deeper and more vicious.
“They probably have galleries and upper levels,” said Jim, “into which they are already fighting their way. How long do you suppose it will take to flood ’em?”
“Well, there’s probably quite a large space,” I submitted, “counting all the rooms and galleries. It may take several minutes. The earth is soft under there and will naturally soak up quite a lot of water.”
“It’s sand under there,” said Jim. “It sure will soak it up. This may take half an hour or more.”
“Relax,” I said, seeing Jim still poised with the bat. “Take a look around the back at that escape hole and see there is no sign of anything being tampered with.”
Jim skipped around to the back and returned eagerly to report that the hole was thoroughly stopped.
Still the water from the hose hissed and bored into the hole, which consumed it without any sign of filling. No sound of gurgling came from below any more though I put my ear down.
Jim made several trips around to the rear to see that the exit was properly secure. It was chilly work holding the hose, and when I suggested Jimmie take a turn at running the water in, he said I would be too cramped to do a proper job of execution in case the rats came out.
“Look What You Did!”
And suddenly there was a most extraordinary result. With a loud crash, something inside the garage fell. We could hear the car inside bump heavily against the front doors of the garage, and bulge them outward.
“The floor,” bellowed Jimmie, “the cement floor, you sap!”
I ceased firing with the hose and ran around to the front of the garage with Jimmie. Very carefully, Jim unlatched the bulging doors, and when he opened them, there was his car sunk down on its left rear wheel, its front end high in the air, one-half of the cement floor of the garage having collapsed into a huge dark hole in the ground.
“Look what you did,” shouted Jim.
“The rats did it, not me,” I retorted hotly.
“That water ate away the sand,” accused Jim.
“The rats had dug the hole,” I countered. “The whole foundation of your garage was honeycombed with rat tunnels.”
“It would have held forever, if you hadn’t bored in there with that hose,” concluded Jim. “You and your drowning out methods.”
It was a mess, all right. The car was tipped down at least three feet on its rear end, and securely wedged into the hole.
“Did you see any rats?” I inquired, incidentally.
“I certainly didn’t,” said Jim.
“Well,” I assured, “I bet you’re rid of them. That’s what I undertook to do, at your own request – rid you of the rats.”
“A fine mess,” said Jim.
“Now you can put a proper foundation under your garage,” I pointed out, “and never be troubled with rats again.”
“Any child would have known,” muttered Jim, “that you can’t run a hose for 20 minutes into sand…”
“Look, Jim,” I interrupted, “did you or did you not wish to be rid of the rats? Well, you’re rid of them.”
So Jim phoned for the garage man come with his derrick and hoist out the car. And the garage man’s brother-in-law was the cement business; and before supper, whole situation was well in hand.
And Jimmie is rid of rats.
Editor’s Notes: This story was repeated on November 20, 1943, under the title “Rat Catchers“. The illustration for that story appears at the end, and you can see that the microfilmed copy was very poor. There was no difference in the story, except that references to the war were changed to the “old war”.
This story also appeared in Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing (1980).