THE RETURN OF THE TUNNEL RATS
by Michael S. Walker
It was in Great Vale Park that I last saw George Oliver.
He was a drummer. He had been the drummer in a punk band I had once played lead guitar for, wrote songs for. We were called The Tunnel Rats. I had come up with the name myself. It was the nickname for the volunteer infantrymen in Vietnam whose job it was to go down into the elaborate tunnel complexes dug out by the Viet Cong, kill any enemy soldiers hiding down there in those dirt mazes, and plant explosives to destroy the tunnels. What had always amazed me was that those kids routinely went down into those burrows, burrows that were booby-trapped to the hilt, armed with almost NOTHING. A 45-caliber pistol. A bayonet. A flashlight. That was it. To me it seemed almost like sending someone to the moon, clad in a T shirt and Bermuda shorts.
So I really admired them.
“Non Gratus Rodentum.” That was their sullen motto.
I had felt that way my entire life…
I was in Great Vale Park on the last day that I saw George Oliver, for a three-day music fest they held there every year. It was called Tribe Quest.
My hippie Christmas really…
I guess that during the Civil War the park had been a staging area for Union troops going off to fight the Rebels. You would never have known, walking along its winding gravel paths, sheltered by oh so many flowering trees. In the very center of Great Vale there was a yellow gazebo. And a long, narrow concrete pond where Canadian geese swam and strutted.
And at the tail end of June, they held Tribe Quest there. A non-corporate music and arts festival. Like Woodstock on 37 acres. The yellow gazebo would be taken over then by banjoes and Stratocasters. The gravel walkways that wound through the park would become a gauntlet of white tents. People selling their tie-dyed shirts and spin art. Buddhists asking you to chant and sign petitions.
Black bean, corn and saffron rice tacos…
So there I was, on the second day of Tribe Quest, sitting on the hard, patchy ground in front of that yellow gazebo, listening to some prog-rock band that was really beginning to get on my nerves. (NOT my favorite music.) They were called Pearls Before Swine or something like that. Even had the initials PBS tattooed on their bass drum head. That might have struck me as funny, but their grandiose music was really boring into my skull. (Like an acoustical trephine.) They were a three-piece ensemble, and I guess that they fancied themselves to be the successors to Rush or something. Every song that they did was long, dull, intricate, and pretentious. There was one that they played, sweating up there in that yellow gazebo–I think it was called “The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus”—that seemed to last as long as an eternity in hell. All cadences and key changes and mathematics. I would have wandered off, went to see what the Canadian geese were up to in the concrete pond behind them, if it had not been for two essential things. 1) I was halfway into my third mug of Tribe Quest beer. (That was what the organizers actually made their money off of—selling plastic mugs of Molson and Rolling Rock to addled hippies.) And 2) About three feet to my right, a young brunette girl wearing ripped, tight blue jeans and absolutely nothing else was dancing to the monster noise of the Public Broadcasting System. I mean, ahem, Pearls Before Swine.
Did I say dancing? That wasn’t really what she was doing. At all. It was almost as if she had been practicing some solitary tai-chi ritual in the park and, much to her irritation, Tribe Quest had happened while she was doing her movements. I watched her with intense fascination, pausing only to sip my acrid beer, as she very slowly and deliberately snaked her arms around, as if she were actually trying to sculpt the heavy, humid air. She would bend her knees and take a few troubled steps forward, then backwards. As if she were a half-naked astronaut testing the gravity of a planet thats mass was way more than our own. She had a yellow flower painted on one gaunt cheek, and her tiny breasts were painted also. A rough, purple peace sign encompassed one, and a blue tulip (or maybe it was a heart?) masked the other.
I watched her do this little “dance” for quite a while, fascinated, a tiny shiver of electricity running up and down my spine each time her naked feet deigned to touch the dusty ground. I wondered what good Tribe Quest drugs she was on. I wondered how such a spirit could exist in the real world, away from the rarified air of Great Vale. Come Monday would those little breasts, that cheek, be showered clean? No flower? No peace sign? No heart? Would she don business-appropriate attire, climb into a Prius or something, and drive to some fiberboard cubicle in a downtown office? It seemed so unlikely.
Really, I probably could have sat there in front of that yellow gazebo, watching that brunette for an eternity, draining my plastic mug of beer. But in the middle of it all, with PBS still sending out their fugues of boredom, an old guy with a sandy goatee and an oil-smudged t-shirt that read “Vote For Pedro,” sat down right next to me. He was very very drunk. Way drunker than me.
And THAT had to be pretty drunk…
He was armed with a plastic mug of the Tribe Quest beer, and he proceeded to water himself (and the ground) between sullen mutterings in some unknown language. He was sitting waaay too close to me. One gaunt naked knee in ripped blue jeans was almost touching my own knee. And to continue staring at my beautiful priestess of dance, I also had to meet his hillbilly face in profile.
Something told me it was time to move on. See for real what those geese were up to in that lily-pad covered pond. Stock up on one more Tribe Quest beer.
Maybe get one of those black bean, corn, and saffron rice tacos.
So I stood up, dusted my jeans and got ready to leave. Fare thee well to Drunk Goatee. Fare thee well to PBS, still hammering out their mythical, mathematical doldrums.
Fare thee well to my half-naked nymph, still sculpting the air with her bronze arms and hands…
That was when I felt someone tugging the leg of my jeans. Hard.
I looked down. It was Mr. Drunk Goatee, of course, staring up at me with unalloyed amazement, his blue eyes made much bluer by a deepening sunburn.
“You’re HIM, ain’t you?” he slurred.
I knew immediately what Mr. Goatee was on about, of course. A very very famous rock guitarist lived in our little city. He was originally from England but about five years ago (supposedly) he had met some girl from here. The daughter of a man who had bought into a small chain of sexy lingerie stores in the mid-60s and parlayed them into a billion-dollar enterprise. I guess the rock star liked our flat little town well enough. He and his bride (again, supposedly) kept a stone mansion on the west side of the city, close to the municipal zoo. At least that is what I had heard. I had never had it confirmed on the Interwebz, or actually seen this fabled mansion. Maybe it was all bullshit and the fabled guitarist was single and lived in an ivy-covered bungalow in the Outer Hebrides.
Anyway, people kept mistaking me for this famous shite. On the street. In bars. It was embarrassing, really. Every time, these would-be stalkers would get the same wondrous look on their faces. As if they were Archimedes and they had just solved the problem of the votive crown. I would have to actually convince them that no, even though I used to play guitar, I was not HIM.
Just some sap who washed dishes in a Mexican restaurant.
“You him, ain’t you?” Mr. Goatee repeated, staring up at me, that wondrous look beginning to slowly suffuse his gaunt, red face. He exhaled heavily on the “you,” sending a deadly salvo of Tribe Quest beer directly towards my face. I winced.
“No man. Sorry. I’m not him,” I said, thrusting my hands toward him, palms up. As if that movement proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Hey…ya gonna get up there and PLAY?” he continued, as if he had not heard me. At all. “Damn, man. That would be super COOL.”
He picked that opportune moment to accidentally knock over his plastic mug, nudging it with one knee. The lightweight cup toppled, and his brew flooded the sparse grass.
“Shit! Godamnit! Fuck!” Mr. Goatee shouted, as if he had just lost his last chip (and his life’s fortune) at some Vegas roulette wheel.
I walked away from him. Toward the gazebo.
I glanced over toward where, earlier, the brunette had been dancing in tantalizing, excruciating slow motion. She was no longer there. (Of course) Either she had become finally acclimatized to our oppressive gravity, or the mother ship had come from her own planet and beamed her to safety.
PBS was still soldiering on, of course, their baroque noise booming out of two giant PA cabinets that dwarfed the gazebo stage like Stonehenge trilithons.
It was then that I caught the eye of their drummer. I hadn’t really paid much attention to him at all during their set, save for noticing that he was a competent time keeper. Tell truth, I had ignored Pearls Before Swine almost entirely, focusing my addled attention on my little Tai-Chi master. On her tiny painted breasts and muscled biceps.
Pearls Before Swine’s drummer was MY old drummer. In the Tunnel Rats.
I stood there, just watching my ex-drummer as he flailed away at his elaborate kit, my feet touching one side of a narrow, pebbled walkway that skirted past the gazebo’s steps. I hadn’t seen George Oliver in close to eight years, ever since the demise of the Tunnel Rats.
Non gratus rodentum.
George looked up from some elaborate paradiddles he was tapping out on his silver snare drum. He went to bring one of his big sticks down on his ride cymbal.
And then he saw me.
George smiled at me and nodded his head. In synch with his kick drum.
So I sat back on the grass, waiting for PBS to finish up their set. I really wanted to talk to George. He was the first familiar face I had seen in Great Vale, all the live long day. I glanced back quickly to see if Mr. Drunk Goatee was still in the vicinity, because I did not want to have to explain to him, yet again, that I wasn’t HIM. I was not the fabled one he was seeking, who, in the mid-60s had been declared God by London graffiti writers. But Mr. Goatee, like the little hippie girl, had, thankfully, disappeared. Probably in search of more drink.
I could not believe that George was the drummer for this overblown, operatic bullshit, but then again, George had been the wrong drummer for The Tunnel Rats as well. He had hated punk rock. Known absolutely nothing about it. Could not tell you the difference between The Sex Pistols and The Saints. His whole tenure in the band had been peppered with bitter arguments. Mostly between him and me.
Now, all I wanted to do was embrace the man, hold him in a big bear hug and say: “Good show, man! Good show!.”
So I sat there, waiting it out once again on the hard grass, as the band played up their last few numbers. The singer/lead guitarist for Pearls Before Swine was particularly annoying. He was a really really young guy, nineteen (maybe younger) and he strutted across the stage in a tight-fitting paisley shirt and even tighter jeans like Apollo down from Mt. Olympus, his bow now a sunburst Strat. And his song intros were excruciating. The ghost of Sammy Davis Jr. would have probably told him to stop being so full of himself.
“This is our last people,” he said, breathlessly, into his microphone. As if anyone in the park would be sad to see them exit. Well, maybe a few. Maybe a few girls. “We’d like to thank you for coming out today. Allowing us, in our little way, to bring the molecules to the light…”
Shit. Had he actually said that? Bring the molecules to the light? What the fuck?
“This song…this song is called Sisyphus, and it’s about an ancient king who, because of his deceitful and evil ways, was punished by the gods. And you know how he was punished? He was forced, for all of eternity, to roll a bolder up a hill. Only to have it come crashing back down for all of eternity. For all of eternity,” he added, dramatically, closing his eyes.
George counted in the number, clicking his bat-sized drumsticks together. It sounded, to me, like everything else they had played during their overlong set. Full of meaningless time changes. Guitar solos in which the only rule seemed to be: Play as many notes as you can in the space of a minute. A power trio of Stuarts, shouting “Look what I can do! Look what I can do! In the background, George kept the beat, stoically. You could not tell if he was having a good time, or if he was about to fall asleep behind his elaborate kit. Of course, that had been the case in The Tunnel Rats. When he was playing.
As Sisyphus went up and down and up and down his hill, definitely tearing past the five-minute mark, I thought of the last time The Tunnel Rats had played together and how disastrous of a gig that had been. It was at a house party that some drug dealer named Gut (certainly not his Christian name) was throwing and we were one of three bands scheduled to play in Gut’s overgrown backyard during the course of a long, boozy afternoon/evening. (Oddly enough, two people at that party had mistaken me for the guitar god I supposedly resembled.) When we took the stage–well took the ground, actually—the other guitarist, Tom Lee, was already pretty shit-faced and incoherent. This had happened in the past. Sometimes the booze acted like a great demonic catalyst, and he would attack the strings and the whammy bar of his white Stratocaster like he was Jacob wrestling with some angel. Other times it would just send him down into a catatonic stupor, and he would stand there on stage swaying, his long black hair down in his eyes. I had learned then that it was best to signal our soundman, have him cut Tom out of the mix because, inevitably, the chords that he played would be wrong.
When we started playing, Tom seemed to be doing OK. George counted in our first number: “Sonic Reducer,” by The Dead Boys. We had revamped it to include a long intro of feedback from Tom on the guitar. He wasn’t the greatest guitarist in the world. As a a matter of fact, he couldn’t even play minor barre chords. But when it came to getting other-worldly robotic death rattles out of his Strat, he was like Paganini.
It started out well. Tom held his guitar very close to his black Peavey amp, and the feedback began to build, as usual. I stood there watching, marveling as always, as Tom began to sculpt that siren song, using his whammy bar and the proximity of his guitar to the amp to build that feedback, tear it down, and then, slowly, build it back up once more.
And, suddenly, it all went south. I was poised to kick in, blast out the four-chord figure that drives most of the song’s bitter verses, when guitarist Tom Lee broke his D string, with one violent wrench on his tremolo bar.
“Shit!” he yelled, looking down at that dangling string as if it were some weird snake he had never seen before in his life.
I stood there, clenching my teeth, suddenly aware of the thirty or forty people who were standing in that trashed yard, gawking at us between chugs of draft beer.
I guess if Tom Lee had been relatively sober then he would have just soldiered on, waited until the last thundering chord to notice that he had indeed broken a string. Changed it quickly. No problem. But no. He kept staring down at the guitar, as if he were waiting for the string to magically change itself.
“Free Bird!” someone in the crowd shouted. Someone laughed, and took up the slow chant. And then it snowballed, until everyone was shouting and laughing.
“Free Bird! Free Bird! Free Bird!”
Tom Lee continued to stare at his guitar, at the broken string, oblivious. He began to sway slightly. As if some strong sirocco had just descended on that white trash lot.
“Lee!” I shouted. “Change your fucking string!”
The bass player (whose name escapes me now) stood on the other side of Tom Lee, his large ponytailed head cocked at a quizzical angle, as if he were pondering some unsolvable mathematical problem, his pudgy fingers just resting on the strings of his black Ibanez. He was just another soldier for hire really, just another in a long line of bass recruits for The Tunnel Rats. He had only been with us for less than a month. He was a strange cat. He could hammer out these elaborate figures on the bass, like he was Jaco Pastorius’s redneck twin. But something easy? Say like the root notes in “Louie Louie”? That seemed to trip him up like he was being asked to play Beethoven. So once again, not a good fit for the group. But, on the plus side, he had gotten us the gig. He and Gut were, supposedly, as thick as thieves.
Now I bet he was regretting the move…
“Lee!” I hissed. “Change your fuckin’ string!”
“You SUCK!” someone in the crowd shouted, as if The Tunnel Rats were the source of all the world’s woes and if we were to just exit the yard all would be again right in the universe.
It was then that I heard a sharp crash behind me. I really had forgotten that George Oliver was back there, sitting behind his kit, patiently waiting for his band members to get there shit together so he could do the one thing in life he lived to do.
I turned around to see what the HELL was going on. The crash even seemed to have roused Tom Lee from his sullen coma. He looked up, turned his head vaguely in the direction of Oliver’s kit.
George had thrown his sticks in disgust. Hit one of his ride cymbals with them apparently.
“I can’t take this any longer,” he said, shaking his head, and standing up behind his kit. He said it matter-of-factly, really. As if he were just ordering some sandwich at a local deli. “I quit…”
Tom Lee, the bass player, and I, just stared at George Oliver. With varying degrees of comprehension.
“What do you mean QUIT?” I was very aware that my face, my ears, seemed to be on fire. All I wanted to do was slink away with my red Charvel guitar, crawl under the back porch of Gut’s gray shingled house. Just die under there, like some old old hunting dog. Why the hell had this all gone south so so quickly? And in front of a bunch of drunks who found it hilarious? Thirty or forty people. People who could care less that, in the space of twenty seconds or so, my sole reason for living had now, apparently, dissolved….
Non Gratus Rodentum.
“I mean…I quit. All I ever wanted was to play my drums. I don’t need this…drama.”
With that he just walked off, toward his Ford Explorer, one of the two vehicles we had used to cart our equipment to the gig. I watched him walk out of that jungle of a yard and out of the band and out of my life.
I didn’t even think about anything as all, as I watched him retreat. Didn’t think about getting home. Didn’t think about the drums he was just leaving there, like some evil father abandoning his child.
All I could think about was that Latin logo. The one we had so lovingly stenciled on his bass drum head six short months before. It seemed like an eternity now. It ran through my head like some kind of perverse tape loop. Playing over and over and over again…
“Non Gratus Rodentum…”
“How you been, man?” George Oliver asked, clutching my hand tightly and giving it a few rhythmic pumps.
We were standing together on one side of the gazebo, very close to one of the giant PA cabinets. Another anonymous band was getting ready to storm the gazebo. They were busy now, setting up their gear, swarming the concrete stage like efficient little worker ants. Guitar amps. Drums. Once they started blasting away, George and I would probably have to move somewhere else. That is, if we valued our remaining ear drums.
“Good man. Good…good,” I replied, nodding. It was a lie. I hadn’t been good for a very long time. Just treading water. Working like a waterlogged dog at Los Gauchos Taqueria, five, sometimes six days a week, sometimes double shifts. Just to pay the rent and keep all the creature discomforts coming. Writing sporadically and joylessly. Depressing little stories about my shitty lot in life. Stories that would inevitably come back to me with rejection slips. Like some heavy boulder raining down on St. Sisyphus.
“You still playin’?” he asked.
“Some…” I replied. Another lie. I hadn’t picked up a guitar in over two years, probably. My red Charvel, the one I had played in The Tunnel Rats, that had been sold a long time ago. When I had been quite desperate to scrounge up the deposit money for the studio apartment I lived in. I had a shitty little acoustic, but the strings were badly in need of changing. It just sat in the utility room of my apartment. Gathering dust.
“Awesome,” George said. “I always thought you were a really really good guitarist. That’s why I stayed in The Rats as long as I did.”
“WHAT.THE.HELL?” I thought, as George and I continued to grin at each other uncomfortably. “Why didn’t you tell me that when we were together?”
“Yeah. And I really liked your songs, man,” he added.
Again, WTF? Was he just being polite, or did he truly mean it? I thought back to all the acrimonious rehearsals we had had together when we were Tunnel Rats. George hot to play some dodgy old Kiss song, maybe “Lick It Up,” or something. (Kiss being his favorite band of all time.) And me being more receptive actually to the idea of jumping down into a booby-laden tunnel, armed with only a 45-caliber pistol.
“Thanks…thanks. That means a lot to me,” I replied, numbly.
About twenty yards away from where we were standing, in the shade of a giant white oak, the singer for PBS was busy chatting up some girl, leaning in close to her, his blue eyes fixed on hers like twin tractor beams. I realized, with a start, that it was the slow-motion dancer I had been hypnotized by earlier. He was really pouring it on. Touching her bare arm every ten seconds or so to underline, I guess, some dumb point he was trying to make. Maybe he was relating to her the myth of Theseus and Ariadne? Or some other drivel. Anyway, she looked more than willing to hear the tale. More than willing…
“You ever talk to Tom Lee?” George asked. “Or Donny?”
Holy shit. THAT was the name of that bass player. The one with the ponytail and the selective ability. Donny Lumm. How could I have forgotten that?
“Not…not in a long time,” I said. “You?”
It was amazing really. I had spent every day of my life, for more than half a year, with this man. With George Oliver. With Tom Lee. Rehearsing. Drinking. Planning out how the Tunnel Rats were going to, inevitably, take over the callous uncaring world. Become the “toppermost of the poppermost” as John Lennon used to say to The Beatles. Back before they were famous. “Where are we going fellas? To the toppermost of the poppermost…”
The singer for PBS now had his arm firmly around my little, half-naked goddess. And he was whispering in her delicate ear.
It all had collapsed with one broken D string…
A memory suddenly came to my mind of the three of us—George Oliver, Tom Lee, and myself—eating breakfast together in a little hole-in-the-wall bar and grill, across the street from my apartment, after an all-night rehearsal where everything just seemed to come together magically, and the windows rattled with the awesome unstoppable noise we made. With our western omelets we had longneck Buds on the side, and we smiled at each other, and clicked those dark brown bottles together, toasting the sound still ringing in our ears. Our bright future.
“The Tunnel Rats!” Clink Clink Clink…
Non gratus Rodentum…
Later that night I sat alone in my shitty apartment, listening to music. I was very drunk, very sunburned, and more than a little depressed. George and I had stood there talking to each other for about fifteen minutes or so until the next band, some unlikely combination of punk and calypso (?)started blasting out their first number: a speeded-up version of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla” replete with steel drums.
“Hey man, you wanna get a beer? I’m buying!” I shouted in his ear.
George begged off. He had to get his drums loaded up, see where his bandmates had gotten to. The last time I had seen his preening singer, he was wandering off toward the concrete pond behind the gazebo, his arm still around the lithe body of that dancing girl. As if she were his possession now. The spoils of war or something.
George got my number though, put it in his phone. Told me he would call me soon about some up-coming gig Pearls (he called them Pearls) were playing at some dive bar on the west side of the city. I got the feeling though that he probably wouldn’t call me about it. That if I ever saw George Oliver again, it would only be through another incredible twist of fate.
“Really nice to see you man,” he said, giving me a big bear hug. “Keep on rockin’ in the free world.”
“You too man, you too…” I said.
And with that, he was gone.
As I sat there listening to music at top volume, I suddenly had a desire to pick up my guitar and play it. Like I said, I probably hadn’t touched the damn thing for two years or so. Now I flew to the utility room in my apartment, got the acoustic out of its flimsy cardboard case. The blond wood was very dusty and the instrument was horribly, horribly out of tune. It took me about a half-hour or so to get it sounding approximately right.
I started singing and playing. The verses to one of my old songs. One that, a thousand years in the past, I had believed would fly to the toppermost of the poppermost. Make me a millionaire. Bring me a stone mansion by the municipal zoo. And a blond, debutante wife…
“Well I’ve been working for seven years
Down here scraping on my knees
Well they say there ain’t no spices in those woods
Still I’ll be free if I just believe
If I can hang on…If I can hang on…
If I can hang on…”
As I played, I thought of George Oliver, tapping out elaborate paradiddles behind his kit. Being the rhythmic engine for PBS. Was he free? He got to play his drums in front of people, certainly, show off his deft ability for an hour or so. But where was the vision? What was the risk? After The Tunnel Rats I had stopped because the music the music the music just seemed to take a second seat to so many other trivial things. How much are we getting paid? Where are the girls? Why is the wiring in this shitty club making my guitar buzz? Why can’t Tom Lee keep his drinking in check? Why do I have to learn the chords to “Cold Gin” when all I wanna do is fly on my own songs? Stand on my own? Not compromise?
Jump down in that tunnel…
Who was better off? George Oliver was still up there. Still making music. Still fighting in his own way…
I just kept thinking these things, playing that one song over and over, trying to make the dirty widows in my apartment rattle (and failing) until there were tears streaming down my face…
About the Author:
Michael Walker is a writer living in Columbus Ohio. He is the author of two published novels: 7-22, a YA fantasy book, and The Vampire Henry, a “literary” horror novel. He has seen his fiction and poetry published in PIF and Fiiction Southeast among others.