Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Tale of the Rat Tail

The strangest sensations reawaken long-forgotten memories of one's childhood. Last evening, I went to remove some kind of object (which turned out to be an unripened mulberry) that was stuck in my daughter's ponytail. Her hair was quite sticky from sweat as well as playing beneath the mulberry tree in our backyard. It was so sticky, in fact, that the pintail felt like a stiff, solid mass.

It was not unlike what I imagined the "Rat Tail" to be like when I was a child.

"Rat Tail" was, to be fair, a misnomer, not to mention silly, childish, and insulting. Of course, I was a child at the time, and the unfortunate inclination among many children -- especially in groups -- is to be rude, crude and insulting. The "gang mentality" is what I call it, and it is part of the reason that I tend to shun involvement in organizations. To our credit, we never used the expression "Rat Tail" in the presence of our object of derision.

Who or what was the "Rat Tail"?

He was a man whom we occasionally spotted in the local supermarkets. No one knew where he came from or what his name was. No one was aware of any job he might have held or had any clue to his personality. So we fabricated the details of his existence to satisfy our curiosity.

"Rat Tail" certainly stood out in a crowd. Everytime he stepped out in public, he wore an all-black outfit that, for lack of a better term, looked priestly. He was as tall as anyone I have ever seen, and must have been an agreeable sort of fellow since he always looked happy. Whether he was selecting vegetables in the produce aisle or walking alongside the highway, we never noticed a frown on his face. His grey beard gave him a distinguished appearance. His hair, almost white, was neatly combed straight back behind his head, and nearly all the way down his waist. When I was a boy, the only people who had ponytails were girls and hippies. Those ponytails emanated from a point at the back of the head where the long hair was banded together.

That man's hair was held together in a much different fashion. He banded it near the bottom. This was similar to the style in which we understood George Washington's hair to be ponytailed at the back, except that Washington's hair never, so far as we knew, grew all the way down his back. The tall gentleman's pintail was the longest that any of the children in my neighborhood or at school had ever seen -- so we called him the "Rat Tail".

Of course, it looked nothing like a rat's tail. The nickname was a blatant example of the cruelty of children. I can only hope that he never suspected that anyone was laughing behind his back, because I would have been mortified if he had ever spoken to us and said something like, "Please do not call me 'Rat Tail'". It wasn't limited to children, thought. Our interest was solely mockery. Ladies in the produce aisle cowered in revulsion behind his back -- literally -- at the sight of the "Rat Tail". They had never seen anything like it, either.

The supermarket ladies might have had their own ideas about what sort of man he was, but their speculation could not have been anything like what the children imagined. Everything about him was dangling from the back of his head. He had obviously let his hair grow for so long, and had it tied in the "Rat Tail" for so long, that the hair was stuck together in one solid mass and was as hard as a wooden board. This must have made it difficult when he had to go to the bathroom. Perhaps he didn't use a bathroom at all. Had he taken a bath, the tail might not have stayed so straight and stiff. Why did he wear "priest" clothes? Was he a religious man? He always had a small paper bag, clutched in his hands at the front of his stomach, whether he was coming or going. What was in the bag? Did he pack his lunch? Or were the contents of a more sinister nature? Where did he come from? Where was he going?

No one ever learned anything about "Rat Tail". He existed simply, and seemed satisfied with who he was. In the end, it seemed, there was nothing to wonder about. He seemingly faded away; I last saw him walking the highways, and doing his grocery shopping, over twenty years ago.

I had all but forgotten about him, and likely would have, if not for the mulberry and sweat in my child's hair. Without going into details, I can use the story of "Rat Tail" to teach her a lesson about personal hygiene. Always be sure to keep your hair washed and conditioned, or you too will end up with a long stiff sticky "rat tail".

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