You've been cramming
and struggling for eight semesters, sometimes getting out of bed before noon, in pursuit of your bachelor's degree in the liberal arts
. The intoxicating glow of recognition by your academic peers will seem reward enough at graduation but now is not the time to rest on your laurels. It is never too soon to start planning your career and I'd like to take this opportunity to share a piece of wisdom that I acquired the hard way.
You will be swept up in a heady swirl as you collect your BA in Interpretive Dance and that Ceramics minor can only serve to broaden your commercial appeal. You must, however, keep your feet firmly planted on the ground after graduation and not let your expectations, as a man or woman of letters, get the best of you.
I'm not bragging but I eventually parlayed my own Political Science degree into a swell bartending job and you could do the same. I know what you're thinking, "Yeah but you prolly had connections and stuff," but this is not the case. I am a self-made man and had to claw my way up from the bottom just like everyone else.
There was, at the time of my graduation, an apparent glut in the supply of political scientists so I had to make my way in an unrelated field. There is no shame in temporary compromise toward a greater goal so I held my head high as I signed on for my first professional situation.
When the potato processing facility needed a security guard, I seized the opportunity.
I overheard the drivers talking about Mama Passion as they dumped their potatoes into the flumes in the floor of the loading dock. I heard one of them say that they had first seen her around the Tater Tot
laboratory so I presumed they were talking about the woman who worked in the lab.
Each end product produced by the factory had its own laboratory staff for quality control and the technician who tested Tater Tots was a large woman, whose girth seemed to expand hourly. Her primary duty was to make sure that exactly 70% of the Tater Tots could stand on end but it was clear she was involved in voluntary taste testing as well.
I wanted to join in the conversation with the truck drivers so I chimed in, "She's a big one alright."
They fell silent at once and each of the four men stared at me as I turned the key in my security clock. The driver who had been telling the story about Mama Passion spoke in a strangely hushed reverence; "You've seen her? You've seen Mama Passion?"
"I see her nearly every day, she's over near the Tater Tot line right now gobbling up the profits."
All four drivers stared at me, slack jawed, inexplicably awed by my utterance. The senior driver spoke again in a quiet conspiratorial tone.
"The last poor bastard that ran into her is a raving lunatic to this day, he lives with his mama in Williston. They say he ran screaming out of the factory, into a taxicab and took the cab clear across the state. Nobody's seen or heard from him since but the taxi driver still loses sleep over that $900.00 fare."
The other drivers were inching their way toward their respective trucks, slowly, inconspicuously as the senior driver spoke. "The cab driver says that the guy trembled the whole way to Williston and mumbled the same thing over and over again for seven and a half hours – 'Mama Passion, Mama Passion, Mama Passion...'"
"Aww, you've gotta be exaggerating, she's not that scary, I've seen women twice her size."
"Women? Listen college boy, I ain't talkin' about no woman, I'm talking about a spud gobbling rodent. I'm talking about a rat as big as a Labrador with teeth like a wolverine. I'm talkin' about Mama Passion!"
Hardly anybody called it a potato processing facility, it was "the potato factory" and it employed half of the town. The other half of the town were bettering themselves with a college education, which, as often as not, also led to a situation at the potato factory.
The local vernacular included many references to the burg's primary industry and the busiest bar was called "The Spud." If someone wanted to express total joy they would say they were "as happy as a rat at the potato factory."
By all accounts, Mama Passion was a happy rat indeed. A mammal specialist from the University was contracted to investigate and had taken plaster casts of her footprints and samples of her stool. He estimated that she weighed between thirty-five and forty pounds and was at least two and a half feet long without her tail. A plaster cast of the tail itself hung in the biology department and the diameter at its base was almost four inches.
The life expectancy of a typical brown rat in the wild is 2.5 to 3.5 years but the consensus at the biology department was that Mama Passion had been feasting on tubers for a decade or more.
Rat infestation was a constant concern at the potato factory so the facility maintained a full time exterminator on the premises. Jack Trader was a sadistic sort and generally well suited to his detail but he was no match for Mama Passion. He always managed to feign effectiveness with a high body count but everyone knew that he was terrified of confronting the big girl herself.
Jack employed the typical arsenal of traps and poisons with the atypical addition of a twenty-two-caliber side arm. He claimed he wore the hip boots because the flumes were damp but we all knew it was an extra layer of protection against the teeth of the legendary rodent.
I finished my last circuit of the factory for the night and returned to the security office to clean out the coffeepot for the next poor chump when the telephone rang. Five-dollar an hour security guards are rarely the last buffer between life and death so I was tempted to ignore a call so near the end of my shift. I now wish to God that I had.
The property was massive and with my luck I would be summoned to unlock a door on the other side of the factory and I'd miss last call at The Spud. The guy that relieved me for the graveyard shift was a meticulous little puke named Willis but everybody called him Barney Fife. Barney was as punctual as the guards at Buckingham Palace and he'd arrive in ten minutes exactly, at the stroke of midnight, as he had done five nights a week for the past ten years.
Barney took his degree in Criminal Justice at the University and was thrilled to be gainfully employed in his area of expertise. He seemed oblivious to the taunts of the factory workers and after a decade he still believed the job to be a valuable "resume builder" in his chosen career of law enforcement. The factory struggled with an epidemic of employee theft so some genius upstairs decided to arm the security guards. Barney had been appealing to management for a firearm permit since the week he was hired and the day we got the memo he drove straight to Kmart and bought a gun.
He was a passive aggressive cat and was the last guy on Earth you wanted to see with a loaded weapon. He quietly chafed under the derision of the factory workers and his face burned red with latent rage when they called him Barney Fife to his face. One of the guys on the French fry line called him "Deputy Dawg" once and it so angered him that he kept the guy under surveillance for weeks until he caught him doing something wrong. Ol' Barney Fife wrote him up and got him suspended for a month.
Barney had been only a minor hindrance to the black market French fry trade in the past but his authority could no longer be questioned. Nobody doubted that the wiry little Criminal Justice major would wind up shooting somebody, it was just a question of when.
I recognized instantly that I wasn't being summoned to unlock a door when I heard the man screaming on the other end of the telephone. The wailing on the phone reminded me of a call I had taken a month before when a couple of rats had gone through the potato-peeling machine. It's not a pretty sight and the poor girl who witnessed the spectacle had only worked at the factory for two weeks. She took a medical leave and never came back.
This call was different though, as it wasn't a teenaged girl doing the screaming but a grown man with a side arm and hip boots. Jack Trader, the company exterminator, dialed the security office from the phone on the loading dock. He had seen a shadowy figure moving behind him in the maintenance tunnel and was calling me for backup when he came face to face with the gargantuan rodent.
He dropped the telephone receiver and it dangled from its cord while he scurried up the nearest pile of potatoes. Jack was screaming his appeal from atop the potato pile to the dangling telephone handset across the loading dock but he was making himself abundantly clear.
"Jesus, Jonny, get down to dock A quick...Aw, Christ Almighty she's coming up after me!"
I could tell Jack wasn't talking directly into the receiver by his distant shout but it didn't occur to me that he wouldn't hear my voice.
"What the hell is it Jack? Is this some kind of goof?"
"OH, SWEET MOTHER OF GOD, CALL THE NATIONAL GUARD!"
I still suspected that Jack was playing a joke on me until I heard the squelch
on my two-way radio. Barney Fife was driving past the loading dock
on his way to the front gate and heard the shouting.
"Troubadour to Eagle's Nest, Troubadour to Eagle's Nest, do you read me Eagle's Nest?"
"Oh for Heaven's sake Barney, enough with The Guns of Navarone crap, you're a rent-a-cop in a potato factory."
"My name's not Barney, it’s Willis and you're supposed to call me Sergeant Peters. I can have you written up you know!"
"Ok, Sergeant Peters, get your skinny ass to the loading dock and find out what all the shouting's about."
"I'm in front of the loading dock now and your insubordination has been noted..." Barney paused and I could hear a squelch on the two-way radio and then the distinct crack of a pistol shot. "Troubadour to Eagle's nest, Troubadour to Eagle's Nest, I'm taking fire from inside the loading dock. I'm going to return fire, call for backup."
"Oh, jeez Barney, don't shoot. Jack Trader's in there shooting at Mama Passion. Repeat, don't return fire!"
My warning fell on deaf ears as Barney had already tossed the walkie-talkie onto the passenger seat of his Pinto and retrieved his Kmart pistol from beneath the driver's seat. I still had the telephone receiver held to my ear when the firefight ensued.
Jack took the worst of it with a slug in the shoulder and another in the kneecap. He had a nasty set of teeth marks in his waders and twelve puncture wounds on the foot beneath them. He'd tell you that the worst part of his recovery was the rabies regimen he had to endure and that the gunshot wounds were secondary. They put him on sixty-percent disability and gave him a big settlement check to prevent a lawsuit.
When Barney started firing blindly into the dark loading dock, Jack ignored the attacking rodent long enough to squeeze off a shot at the over zealous security guard. You'd think Barney was a combat veteran to hear him tell it but the shot barely grazed the top of his head. It followed the geeky center part in his hair almost perfectly and left a comical bald scar where the part had been. He was back to work the next day. Both men lost their permit to possess firearms.
Jack Trader swore up and down that the rat was the size of a Saint Bernard and that he was lucky to escape with his life. Barney Fife's incident report describes a "shadowy figure approximately waist high."
Mama Passion was never found.