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December 17th, 2008:

Red Swill and Warfarin

Today’s entry is about classic rat poison. Or maybe a Georgian folk band. (From our Georgia.) Or perhaps the mis-persistence of memory, mine specifically. And certainly about the power of true names.

Hokay. Calling all Baby Boomers formerly of Chicago: Do you recall seeing signs tacked to the wooden power poles in the alley, warning us that the City of Chicago had set out “Red Swill and Warfarin” to combat rats? The memory came to mind in an odd way: I had remembered my writer friend Chuck Ott casually remarking, some time back in the 70s, that “Red Swill and Warfarin” would be a great name for a fantasy thief and his barbarian sidekick. The signs were a commonplace when I was ten or twelve. And whereas it’s been my experience that absolutely everything has been mentioned somewhere on the Web at least once (and thus findable via Google) I found nothing about “red swill and warfarin.” I did find a decent folkie band in Macon called Red Swill. I found plenty about warfarin, which is a medical anticoagulant that was toxic in rats until the rats ate a little too much of it and started developing tolerance in the 1960s. But no mention of the signs, which all my Boomer friends knew as just part of the alley background in our home town.

Pete Albrecht mentioned on Skype last night that there is an herbal called red squill that is toxic in large doses, and (significantly) an emetic. That’s a big deal if you’re a rat, because rats can’t vomit, and emetics put them into convulsions. Aha! So we do find mention of the thief and his barbarian:

It was the spring of 1967 [in Lincoln Park, Chicago] when I came up with a plan. Spring was when they baited Pearl Court with Red Squill and Warfarin, and every few days you’d see a dead rat lying there. Many of them were decomposing and maggot-eaten but one day I found one in perfect condition. I picked up that rat by the tail and put it in a shoebox. I took it to my grandmother’s house, the back yard of which adjoined Pearl Court, wrapped the box with brightly colored paper and tied it with a shiny ribbon. I then took it over to Robin’s house a block away. He wasn’t home, but his older sister was outside with some of her friends. “Hi, Debbie,” I said in as casual a tone as I could muster, “I have a present for Robin. Please give it to him and make sure you tell him it’s from me.” The next day in school he approached me, grinning like a jackal, and spoke his first, but not last words to me. “Thanks for the present!”

Yet another example (in my long list) of the truth that if you don’t know what something is called, you can’t find it. The last time it was coupler nuts, but the nice man at Ace Hardware looked at the sample I had found in my junkbox and took me right to them. The time before that it was golabki. (I know a few Polish words, but can’t spell them.) This may be an unsolveable problem, or at least one with no general solution.

And while I’m at it, here is more than you probably wanted to know about all the various concoctions used to kill rats. Bad beer with a little food coloring might work too, but I’ll leave that experiment to others.