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June 29, 2005

Something strange popped into my memory bank the other day. It had virtually nothing to do with anything else. It was just the kind of stuff that bounces around in my head from time to time for no apparent reason, but nevertheless, there it was: A story about rats. Yes, those furry little denizens that upset many of us just because they exist. Nasty, unnecessary, disease-bearing rats.

Not a pleasant thing to dwell on, but they were once a fact of life at the City Drug Store, our family business in the depression-era of the 1930's, and we hated them. They were seen everywhere food was served. We had a soda fountain where lots of creamy malts and hot fudge sundaes were made, and thus we dispensed many gallons of thick, calorie-laden goodies each day. Some of those little rodents were usually just hanging around, hoping someone would spill something for them to clean up. They normally stayed out of sight, thank goodness, but this little piece is built around their occasional visibility. We knew they were there.

My older cousin, Fred W. Beers, ran the drug store for my widowed mother and he probably hated the rats more than the rest of us did. So my sisters and I were not surprised when he took me and marched into the Lobsitz Hardware Store on the south side of the square, looking for a weapon we could use to destroy the enemy those rats. He was much better acquainted with arms than I was, and he asked to see a .22 short rifle. Mr. Lobsitz, a white-haired gentleman who had made the run here in the wild and wooly days of 1893, brought one out from beneath the counter and asked Fred how he liked it. Fred squinted down the barrel, aimed it a couple of times, and said he'd take it. We returned to the drug store. In the back room, Cousin Fred had set up a kind of target area, complete with paper targets, and for the first time in my young life I fired a rifle. The small shell went wide of the target, but at least it was in the right direction.

Years later, when I was an infantryman in the U.S. Army at wartime, I was taken to the targets with a .30 caliber rifle of my own and ranked high enough that they declared me to be a "sharp-shooter," and I knew I owed it all to that little .22 rifle. Cousin Fred had taken me to the town dump on many Sunday afternoons. We saw lots of live targets when the resident rat populace scurried away from us, and I must have actually hit a few of them. They never quite disappeared altogether at the drug store, but Cousin Fred and I, and our trusty weaponry, kept them at bay. Nobody was ever bitten, at least, as I recall.