A Boy Named Rat, Halfway Around the World

Russian dolls

The world seemed a lot bigger back in 1990. It was my first time out of the continental United States, and I was part of a People-to-People program visiting then then-Soviet Union. It was also my first time being away from home for such a duration (three weeks) but after first night jitters, I had settled into the group and began to enjoy myself. In many ways, it was the first time I realized that I could charm and impress, because I never quite felt that way growing up. Here, surrounded by people outside my family (aside from Suzie and her Dad) I could blossom in a way that had gone unnoticed at best, downright trampled at worst.

The first thing I noticed upon touching down was that everything was in full-color. It was a novice’s awareness of the obvious. Russia would not be in black and white or sepia tones as I’d always seen on historical news reports and textbooks. It was a living, breathing country, with trees just as green as the ones back home. I don’t know why that was so innocently jarring for me, but it portended a few weeks of eye-opening experiences and badly-needed growth. We traveled the country, with stops in Moscow and Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and on the way we had a few opportunities to meet and interact with other kids our age. These moments found us forging bonds between different nations, and different worlds, and while it shrunk my conception of the earth, it also expanded my horizons. There was one person I remember to this day, and I still can’t fully explain why.

They called him Rat. A tall but agile boy, he was the unofficial leader of the pack. We were visiting a summer camp of sorts, and he was one of the shining stars whom the counselors nodded at, and who commanded the respect and adulations of everyone around him. Maybe it was that magnetism that drew us all to him, or maybe he needed us as much as we needed him.

Certain people, and it’s true of kids as much as adults, are born to take the lead. Their charisma, their attitude, and sometimes their hunger places them in such positions. In the case of Rat, it was a role he seemed to relish, and also take very seriously. The others clearly deferred to him. I just thought he was a nice guy. Too often, people in power could be mean or condescending to others. He never appeared that way. He defended the defenseless, and fought for what was fair. In the limited interactions I had with him I saw that.

Breaking free from our role-models-of-America poses, we were left alone with him and some other kids, and reverted to how young we really were (about 14). We escaped the confines of the rooms in which we were supposed to stay, and went outside for a walk. When there was danger of exposure or being caught, Rat took us through a back passage-way, ducking behind foliage and creating one of the more exciting moments of that trip. It was a minor infraction of being where we weren’t supposed to be, but I trusted him when others hesitated, and went ahead when others stayed behind.

Nothing came of it – we simply had some time with kids our own age and no adult supervision, and when we returned at the end of the day just a little bit later than everyone else, no one was the wiser, and no one got into any trouble. It was Rat’s protective stance of us that stayed with me. A bit of transparent affection that was at odds with the emotional armor I wore at all times.

Before we left, we sat in a circle talking with him. He was inclusive of everyone, and we were all under his spell. He waved goodbye as we took our leave, smiling and surrounded by his minions. Out of all the people I met in the Soviet Union that summer, he’s one of the few who still haunts my heart. I wonder what became of him, what he went on to do with his life, if he still had it.

When I returned to the States, the radio was playing this Roxette song. Though I was in no way in love or even remotely attracted to him, it reminded me of Rat, and of that summer. He had unlocked something, and I carefully lifted the lid with reverence and reserve. As the bus neared my hometown, I noticed that the fields of corn had grown tall. Soon I would see that the hollyhocks in our backyard stretched to the sky, higher than my head, but I had grown a little as well. Or maybe the world wasn’t as big as I thought it was.

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