Of Mice And Men

by · February 4, 2010

In the days of yore, rats were a big problem on ships. They still are. One of my enduring memories of my navy life  was encountering my first rat guard on a dock line. If you’ve never encountered an Industrial Rat Guard before, its a conical piece of metal, about 3 feet in diameter, that encircles a hawser. Nefarious rodents bent on invading one’s vessel are confounded by the thing and cannot scurry up the rope to the ship proper. It took me a moment to figure out what those odd-looking thingies were when I first saw them. When the realization bloomed I was just amazed that we still had to worry about that in the 20th century. Once I gained that insight, other things began to make sense as well– The  quarterdeck, for  example: It was manned 24/7, and not simply to give the drunken sailors something to salute on their way back aboard.  Maybe the tradition arose out of the the necessity to make sure no 4-legged vermin snuck aboard via the wide gangplank along with the enlisted men.  What better way to prevent that than to station some of your basic junior braid out there, monitoring the quarterdeck and keeping a weather eye for rats attempting to infiltrate?  And it wouldn’t hurt in case some random admiral decided to come aboard and inspect the heads at O dark-thirty, either.

The rat guards seemed to work pretty well, as I never saw any (four-legged) rats on any of the ships I served on.  Too bad they never invented a cockroach guard.  We had lots of cockroaches.  Big ones, little ones, hissing ones, squeaking ones, flying ones, black, brown and yellow ones.  All of them very quick and far too creepy-crawly for my liking. I suppose it shouldn’t have been too surprising considering some of the vermin-infested hellholes we visited during our cruises overseas. Most of the time the bugs stayed well hidden, being sensitive creatures who like us even less than we like them. But if you timed it right, you could come full face with the secondary crew that cohabits any ship. My most impressive such encounter was when I was enduring mess duty. 

On the Navy ships your privilege as an enlisted peon is to spend some period of time as a galley slave. No military ship caries enough cooks to perform all the dirty jobs that feeding hundreds, or thousands of men involves, so the solution is to yank random low-value enlisted me out of their normal assignments and consign them, for months, to the depths of the kitchen to perform all the foul deeds that the real cooks were too busy to handle. Have you ever peeled 500 pounds of potatoes?  If not, you have not truly experienced life, I assure you.  Most of the time, though, the cooks did not trust us to actually handle real food.  Instead, we galley slaves were tasked with cleaning up after the horde had finished each of the four meals served at sea. Much of this was the expected stuff, not unlike being a husband– Take out the garbage, refill the ketchup dispensers, slop the hogs (well, fishes), wipe the vomit off the walls when conditions were stormy, that kind of stuff.  All good fun. I was one of the slaves toiling in the scullery, which was a small steam-filled room right out of Dante’s Inferno containing a large machine whose purpose was to wash vast piles of unimaginably nasty dishware.  The sailors would deposit their trays through a small window; we’d toss the food detritus and leftovers and place the trays in racks.  When the rack was full, we’d shove the rack into the maw of the machine, and with any luck, the beast would scrub the trays and silverware shiny clean, to emerge steaming hot out the rear of the machine.

One quirk of the scullery was when the dishes had all been done, we’d have to clean the machine itself. We found that the best way to do that was to drop a packet of Bug Juice into the water reservoir and run the thing for about 15 minutes.– When finished, the machine was gleaming inside.  Bug Juice, in case you’ve never encountered it, was what passed for  Department Of Defense kool-aid back in the 70’s Navy.  It was green, or red, or kind of yellowish, and tasted like, well, koolaid, I suppose.  I stopped drinking the stuff after I witnessed what it did to the insides of our big stainless steel washing machine.

Anyway, one night after we had finished the job  and closed everything up, one of us peons realized that we hadn’t run Bug Juice through the dishwasher.  Being the most superfluous peon, I got “volunteered” to go back and complete the vital mission. I made my way back to the mess decks, and slid open the door to the dark  scullery.  As I did so I thought I heard something, but as the sound didn’t repeat, I figured I was imagining things.  I fumbled around for the light switch, and when I finally found it, flipped it on.

The secret life of the scullery was thus revealed to me.  The walls were moving. Thousands of large, small, and medium cockroaches were scurrying around every surface of the scullery– Walls, ceiling, benches, floor. I stood there, stunned, and watched a teeming mass of bugs fleeing the light.  It was like a horror movie.  In the scullery, No One Can Hear You Scream, to paraphrase the Alien movie. But the last thing they were interested in was some filthy human, and within seconds they had vanished from sight, save for one befuddled bug who circled around on the ceiling in a panic  before finally breaking loose and dropping to the floor three feet in front of me. Cockroach Fail, dude. In seconds even that poor klutz had disappeared into the nether regions of the scullery.

Never mind 500 pounds of potatoes; if you have not walked into a dark room containing 500 pounds of cockroaches, you have not lived.  Try it some time!

Fast forward 34 years. I was thinking about this because of the sailing trip I took last weekend. You see, about two years back, we picked up a mouse on board the Potter. It seems the rodent snuck into a grocery bag full of provisions that  I had foolishly left in the garage overnight.  Now, I normally try to rescue any critter that won’t hurt the kids, wife, pets, or myself. I am very proud of a humane mousetrap I constructed one time, for example,  to catch a mouse who was living under our oven; using a baking sheet, casserole dish, bamboo skewers, and peanut butter,  I did MacGuyver proud and we were soon admiring a totally cute, and totally terrified little creature the trap had snared.  I released the animal, unharmed, in the yard of a cranky neighbor who was always complaining about everything in sight. That was one of my prouder moments, and one of the few times I have  provided a positive example for the children. 

We won’t talk about my alternative role as Ninja Scorpion Assassin, in which I prowl around the house exterior  in the dark with a UV light and death ray spray can to  dispatch any scorpion I can find. The Wife is adamant that our children shall not be stung by scorpions, so I do my manly duty. Even after Cocktail Hour.  I don’t like killing scorpions one bit, but it’s them or us.

But I digress. As much as I wanted to, I wasn’t likely to catch the mouse using my baking pan-casserole-dish contraption, not on a boat in dry storage 100 miles from my house.  Every time we went sailing, I cleaned up the mouse poop and left the companionway wide open, with stuff piled nearby, so the critter could escape.  But for two years, the mouse remained stowed away despite my best efforts. I don’t know what the thing was eating, or how it survived inside its fiberglass prison, but it did.  (I tell you, anything that lives in the desert is seriously tough, from the plants upwards. Even the grass has spikes).  I finally had enough the last time I took the boat out, and set a trap for the mouse.  Last weekend, I opened the boat up and discovered the dessicated corpse of my little stowaway. 

That evening, Felicidade was securely anchored in Why Cove. I was relaxing in the cockpit, watching the airplanes on their trajectories to and from Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, 80 miles away. The stars were twinkling, the moon was creeping up from behind the ridge to the East, which was backlit with a soft glow. The land around me was dark and mysterious, with a single light visible far across the lake on the shoreline, probably some campers. Ducks floated by in the still water, and every few minutes, a fish would jump for an insect. It was beautiful and peaceful, and kind of lonely.

 I had decided to come alone this time, not wanting to expose the kids to the murdered mouse. Swinging alone on the hook, I was feeling guilty about the mouse, and for some reason, very isolated from the rest of the world. I thought of my family back at the house, executing the nighttime rituals, and considered calling them, but the phone had no service.  So I sat there and thought about life. My eyes were drawn, over and over, to the solitary light miles away in the distance, as if I could extract some small measure of companionship from people who had no clue that I was hidden in the dark land across the water from their campsite. It was an interesting feeling, the solitude.  It was tolerable, knowing the the next day I would be back at home cleaning up cat barf while the kids raised hell all over the house. But for an hour or two I felt a taste of what a long-distance solo voyager must feel when the land falls below the horizon. Most of the time I am untroubled by such solitude; this time, though, it was kind of difficult to deal with.

I toasted my friends across the lake, and my former stowaway,  with my wine glass. Then I fired up the IPod.  Soon I had rousing music heralding the moonrise, and Two Buck Chuck easing the loneliness.  Dinner was soon ready, and Life Was Good.  Again.  But I was happy to get home the next day.

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