The Giant Rat Of Sumatra

The Giant Rat Of Sumatra

It's Behind You!

Some stories just seem to stick in your mind.

I first heard the writer Roger Rosenblatt tell this anecdote in a brief NPR segment for KQED radio in San Francisco back in 1999. Ten years later he reused it in a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College. And thank goodness he did, otherwise I'd never have found it again.

When I was a boy of 12 — knowing then that I wanted to be a writer — I was already exhibiting signs that I dimly perceived would qualify me for the pursuit. I used to memorize certain lines from movies, which I would store in my head, awaiting an opportunity to slip those lines into ordinary conversations. People would be conducting a perfectly sensible chat, and I would be crouching like a lion in the brush, anticipating the moment when I could insert a line from a film. I do so to this day. You may imagine what a delightful social companion I am.

The lines I chose where never the garden variety, such as "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" or "Frankly, my dear…" and so on, but rather ones that an idiosyncratic attraction for me.

For many years, there were two lines I had never been able to slip into any conversation. The first of these, I never did get in. It occurred in Earthquake, one of the disaster films of the 1970s, in which a man was stalking a young woman to do terrible things to her. One would have thought that an earthquake would have been enough to divert his attention, but he was, as they say, focused.

At the height of the quake, he finally cornered his quarry and was about to jump her, when George Kennedy, playing a cop as he always did, appeared, threw the attacker to the ground and shot him dead. Consoling the shaking woman, Kennedy told her: "I don't know what it is. Earthquakes bring out the worst in some guys."

The other line was more unusual and exotic so it presented a much greater challenge. It was spoken by Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson in one of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1940s, when Watson was attempting to impress a couple who were unfamiliar with Holmes's exploits. "Haven't you heard of the giant rat of Sumatra?" asked Watson, referring to one of the great detective's most famous cases.

"Haven't you heard of the giant rat of Sumatra…?"

Decades passed, and I never came close to a moment when I might work that line into a conversation. Then, in the late 1970s I was writing for the Washington Post, and I had all but given up on my quest. One day, some friends and I went out to lunch, and it happened to be the 50th anniversary of the creation of Mickey Mouse.

There was some chatter at the table about Mickey, to which I had been paying scant attention. Suddenly, one of the guys sat up with a quizzical look and asked, "Has there ever been a bigger rodent?"

Naturally, following Roger's admitted failure, I became obsessed with trying to smuggle the George Kennedy line into some conversational exchange with co-workers. One night when a 4.6 quake finally hit the city, I was alone. Sadly, the next morning I couldn't conceive of any device that would casually introduce the phrase. I have all but abandonded hope. Perhaps you may carry the torch?

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