Rat Head Stew

Pardon, please, as I look back again. The anniversary of our move north from Alabama to Virginia (Dec 18, 1974) approaches. This little bit of memoir was cut and pasted from the early Fragments of August 2002. For those of you who’ve read the book, you can plug this in to those early dreams of northern migration. And THIS is the job I eagerly left behind in ‘bama. (And it follows an earlier story about my career in fire alarm sales. Maybe I’ll dig that one out sometime for you. And for me.)


So, I would not be bringing in a paycheck off my commision from sales of fire alarms to the poor parents of the potentially charred remains of little Bobby and little Susie. Dang! We were really motivated to move out of my mother’s basement to a place of our own (ultimately, this would be a squalid apartment on southside Birmingham) and it would be very helpful if Fred had a some income here, as wife was great with child.

Once again, I let my fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages, and got a bite from the University Medical Center–some place called the Department of Comparative Medicine. Whatever. I took the job as research technician and would be working with several Veterinarian PhD’s on various projects that used animal models for human disease. Kewl!

What it actually meant was that, faithful to the footsteps of those who had preceded me in my chosen field of Vertebrate Zoology, my Masters Degree qualified me to handle various kinds of animal poop while knowing the Latin name for the animal producing the deposit. Also the higher degree somehow instilled a willingness to tolerate inordinately high levels of inhaled ammonia, a by-product the breakdown of stale urine. Got to where is sorta smelled good…a true sign that I had ‘made it’ as a zoologist. Like the folks who live near and work at papermills say of that awful stench: Smells like money to me!. And all those nay-sayers who told me all I could do with a Masters in Zoology was shovel poop behind the elephants at the zoo were dead wrong! Much smaller poop. No heavy lifting!

My chief responsibility would be with a study of trace element effects on dental caries (‘cavities’) prevention. Rat mommas were fed various low to high sugar diets while nursing new litters of rat pups. New born rat pups are bright pink, half the size of your thumb, and look like writhing little plugs of old-fashioned pink bubble gum. The rat pups received various trace minerals by intubation (now that is another story) to see what effect boron, strontium and so on might have on tooth developement.

So, I mixed diets, cleaned cages, formulated and administered treatment doses, and generally tried to keep all the rat mommas and babies happy and properly fed or dosed toward the objective of the study, which was to determine how the trace minerals had impacted tooth developement while nursing on a high sugar diet of momma’s milk. And so, when the rat pups were 40 days old, tooth development had reached the desired degree of maturity.

Oops. I guess I hadn’t really thought about the next step. Somehow, little rat chums, we sort of need your teeth for assay, if you don’t mind. Now baby rats are cute in the way that all mammal-babies are: big-eyed, trusting, playful and innocent. I have to confess, after handling each of these little white-furry critters many times each day since birth, I was not comfortable during my instruction on the use of the Murine Cephalic Clevage Device. Yep, that’s right: a guillotine. I will spare you the details.

So, now I have 120 tiny rat heads, with the teeth we need to extract for the P-32 study. That requires extracting the tiny little rat molar teeth. Extraction requires heating. So, I put 120 little foil-wrapped rat heads in the autoclave, a glorified pressure cooker, for 30 minutes. Opening that autoclave when the task was done is the one thing that stands out in my mind of the 14 months I worked at this job.

I opened the autoclave slowly, to let the pressure escape gradually, and out pours a cloud of rat-head-scented steam filling the room…a vapor of all my little chums I had nurtured for 40 days, until I became their executioner. Was it too late to consider a career change, I wondered? Not a good day, folks. I was never so relieved when the job came to a stopping place and I could go home where there were no rats…heads, teeth or otherwise. I began the 2 mile walk home, trying to think about anything other than the details of my day.

Ah, finally, our apartment door appears. Ann has been home today and I am looking forward to a home-cooked meal. I will never forget opening the door and being overcome by the smell of hot, cooked meat. Ham, if I recall. It was overpowering, too much like the rat head stew I had just left; I almost chucked my cookies. I apologized from outside the door and without explaining other than to say “I’m sorry. We have to eat out tonight. Don’t ask. I will tell you about it. Some day. Maybe. Let’s go get a salad”.

So, I had my job. I was bringing home $7000 a year. Plenty. Soon after the rat head episode, our first child was born, and we knew we were destined to leave Birmingham for a place to the north, rural and beautiful, but without a clue as how to go about finding this place we dreamed of. Reading maps and Mother Earth News were fine for dreaming, but we were too conventional to just buy a VW bus and start driving, like many were doing in those days. We had to have a plan, a destination, and jobs would be nice.

It seemed like it was going to take a miracle to deliver me from a life of perpetual animal poop. So far, all roads had ended in a cul-de-sac. Ann could find work anywhere, and I could find it nowhere. Finally, in the Fall of 1974, our angel called from Virginia, and we never looked back. We felt like we had finally arrived, when, in hindsight, we had only taken our first steps toward ending up here at Goose Creek.

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2 thoughts on “Rat Head Stew”

  1. Didn’t mom also have some job with pulverized rodent brains or something? Maybe that pedigree is why I went the non-science route. Thanks for reminding me that I’m still not safe: Rat-brains have found their way into ethics and writing, aak!

  2. ugh….i would have lost my lunch! one of the nearby towns has a HUGE chicken plant and the whole town smells like rotten, boiled chicken. in the summer, especially, the smell hangs in the air and i just about gag every time i go outside there. what a lovely job you had- you’re a braver soul than i. 🙂

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