‘Most Popular’ For a Day —A Father’s Day Legacy

FromSusan Parker
Tuesday June 15, 2004

My father left for work at dawn, wearing dungarees and a blue button-down cotton workshirt. On his feet he wore heavy woolen white socks and brown scuffed round-toed boots. He walked fast with a slight bend forward across the front yard and driveway and entered a nearby red barn. That is how he began every day, for more than 40 years—sprinting across grass and gravel to an outbuilding where he raised rodents for a living. 

It may seem a peculiar occupation for those whose fathers wore ties, carried brief cases and took the bus to Philadelphia or drove in the morning carpool to a modern office building in a sterile suburban center. My daddy didn’t go far. He was always home for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He never owned an attaché case and he never wore a suit to work. 

My father built a small eclectic empire of rats and mice, guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils. It was hard physical labor, but work that he enjoyed. He cleaned rat boxes, fed and watered mice, bred guinea pigs and hamsters, and tried to keep his gerbils happy. He kept records with thick black Magic Markers on the sides of plastic rat and mice boxes, recording the approximate dates of conception, birth and separation. Hamsters and guinea pigs were more difficult to keep accounts for as they d idn’t mate with just anyone. And gerbils were impossibly monogamous. With rats and mice it was one male to three females, six days of wild, orgy-like sex, four weeks of gestation, one month before mother and babies were divided. But gerbils were persnicke ty. They had to be friends in order to copulate. 

Gender was identified by lifting up hairless tails, except for the guinea pigs and hamsters who were turned over and studied. The animals were segregated by sex, age, weight and health. Rodents who were si ck or vicious were disposed of by a yank of the tail and a swift whack on the head against a building support beam. It was a violent ending, but quick and efficient. 

The rooms where my father toiled were covered in sawdust and grime. They smelled of ammonia and rot from urine and feces and they were forever dusty and hot. When you walked up the wooden steps to the outer chamber where the guinea pigs and gerbils lived in wooden boxes with screen tops, your eyes began to water and your nose filled with an acrid, unpleasant smell. The mouth became parched and it was difficult to breathe. A constant scratching noise and high-pitched peeps and squeals let you know that the animals were busy. A thousand pairs of curious pink and pale blue eyes peeked out of sm all holes, whiskers quivering, tails vibrating and thumping. Every day my father was greeted with the sounds and scents of breeding and birthing, life and death. 

Because of my father, once a year, between second and fifth grades, I was the most important kid in my grammar school class. My teachers would arrange to bring my classmates to dad’s rodent ranch to learn about the facts of life. Other kid’s dads might teach their school chums how to throw a football or when to swing a bat, but my daddy shared w ith my schoolyard friends life’s most important, sacred secrets: furry mothers caring for their naked pink babies, fastidious hamsters building soft round nests, immaculate gerbils self-cleaning their cages and falling in love. 

Other kids’ dads came home at precisely six o’clock, irritable from a day watching the stock market go up and down, or selling car insurance, their eyes tired and their fingers cramped. My father returned to our house late in the evening, often after dark, smelling of sweat and sa wdust and domesticated guinea pigs. He provided a safe, loving and prosperous home for my brothers and me. And I will always be grateful for his important gift to my childhood development and later fragile adult psyche by making me the most popular kid in my class, for one day of every year.›