Bryce an’ me had a few scrapes. Whether peddling across the Great American West, traveling in the Middle East, or just surviving life in a college dorm, we punched through some good times. Hard times too, I guess. The fog of years somehow renders all those experiences—good, bad, and ugly—a little prettier. This is also true when I think about that rat.
Summer returned with a vengeance. Final exams wrung us out and then released us for a season. But what a season it was shaping up to be! We had tickets to fly the big TWA bird from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to St Louis, Washington DC, Athens, and then on to Tel Aviv. There, we aimed to connect with other participants in an archaeological project in Israel-Palestine! For rubes like us, it had the feel of epic.
Imagination fueled the excitement. We had watched, enthralled, as Indiana Jones was sprung upon the American public. He swashbuckled through spiders and snakes and college administrators and Nazis and death pits and devious Frenchies looking for the lost Ark. This was real archaeology!* We had no idea what challenges awaited us in the summer of '84, but we felt prepared.
Other than the liquid laundry detergent bottle that exploded inside my suitcase somewhere over the Atlantic, the travel went smoothly (note: this early lesson eased my laundry task for the rest of the summer with only one downside: every time I sweated I burst into bubbles). We met our group in Tel Aviv, were introduced to our site, and were assigned duties and a room in our "base camp."
Our excavation site was a low-slung hill topped by an olive grove outside of Ramallah, Palestine. The excavation team, however, was housed in East Jerusalem. This meant an early commute every workday.** But it also meant that we were just a short walk from the walls of Jerusalem's Old City. We regarded the latter as a bonus, especially since our home place faced the local Arab bus station. It was a hub of foreign food, loud music, diesel fumes, excessive shouting, fist-fighting and petty thievery, in short, everything that is wonderful about East Jerusalem.
Mountains of reeking garbage accumulated in and around dumpsters in the station. These, in turn, attracted vermin of every stripe including the nastiest cats imaginable. Now I can't assert this as fact, but rumor has it that the cats were a gift of the British back when they were still in the business of empire. The cats were introduced to do battle with Jerusalem's rats who did battle with the mice and so on and so forth and so on. It went something like the song, "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly." The rats have the upper hand to this day, but time may yet change this, a point that brings us back to the story.
As I recall, the room Bryce and I shared was spartan. Just to the right of the door was a large wardrobe and private bathroom with shower and stool. Straight in were twin beds. Bryce had the one by the window. Mine was in the middle of the room. From this command center we schemed, played, and slept.
One night, nature awakened me. Bryce was sleeping heavily. I tiptoed around the corner, felt my way through the dark to the toilet and stood to do my thing. Afterwards, I nosed back to my bunk. But before I got there, I heard something . . . an odd sound . . . odd enough that I stepped back toward the bathroom and flipped on the light. I froze in horror. Crouching on the toilet reservoir was a RAT THE SIZE OF A KENTUCKY RACOON! His black beady eyes fixed on mine. His yellow teeth chattered and a growl began to rise in his throat. I gasped and tried not to think of where I had been standing--in a rather exposed way I must add--not five seconds previously!
Natural athleticism took over and I did what Harrison Ford would have done in the same situation: screamed like a schoolgirl. Then I swashbuckled through the air, cleared my bunk, and landed on top of Bryce. Arms and legs flailing, it was now his turn to holler.
We regained our composure and quickly made a plan. Gathering all the shoes from under the bed, we tiptoed back to the corner by bathroom door. Light spilled out on our feet. With coordinated precision, we leapt around the corner and launched our arsenal at the rattus rattus. He swashbuckled and somersaulted from toilet to shower and back again, dodging our thudding shots. He was too quick! Then it was the rat's turn. With narrowed eyes, flaring nostrils, and curled lip he charged straight at us.
Together now, we screamed like schoolgirls. This time Bryce demonstrated his swashbuckling skills and managed to cover the distance to his bunk without touching the floor. The rat, now in full froth, shot out the bathroom door, wheeled on the spot we had previously occupied, and squeezed behind the wardrobe.
Warily, we approached the wardrobe, shoes in hands. We yanked it back and discovered a dark hole punched through the masonry wall. Was it a rodent highway to the bus station?
More than thirty years have passed since that first field season. I still trek through East Jerusalem every summer. It remains a hub of foreign food, loud music, diesel fumes, excessive shouting, fist-fighting and petty thievery. The overflowing dumpsters are still there too, as are the nasty cats. If you slow down and look carefully however, you will note something often missed: the cats cower from time to time. Bryce an' me know the reason: they can see the beady eyes of them rats under the dumpsters.
*Bryce an' me (and Terry and Mark) saw the release of the second film of the series that summer. Two things from that experience of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" stand out. First, the theater (in West Jerusalem) was really loud and rowdy. Second, the film was subtitled in unpointed Hebrew. My one year of Hebrew study did not rise to the occasion.
**This happened in 1984. At the time, travel between East Jerusalem and Ramallah was relatively easy. Today the "separation barrier" (i.e., the nine meter wall) and the horrors of the Kandalia checkpoint would make this kind of commute nearly impossible.