“Ouch! He bit me!” I thought hamsters were supposed to be cuddly little beasts, but this one was out for blood. I was only ten or eleven at the time, which didn’t help. This was a long, long time ago and I was on my own, a nerdy Air Force brat in Germany. Elvis had just been drafted. NATO was ready to nuke the Russians at the Fulda Gap, and you could still buy a DeSoto in the States.
The family lived in a very nice third-floor apartment in a former Luftwaffe officers family housing area at Rhein-Main Air Force Base outside of Frankfurt. The reason I say I was on my own is because I mostly was. I hardly remember my mother at all from those days, and my father was often gone. (My duty as an Air Force kid was to understand the way things were and take it.) Somehow I was allowed to have a pet. That’s the really strange part. I have no recollection of buying or being gifted with a hamster, neither can I imagine where on earth he came from or why I wanted one. Boys my age were into snakes and dogs, neither of which were options. Maybe I thought he’d come with me in my pocket to play pranks in school.
I’m pretty sure I named him “Fang” after a song by Nervous Norvus. This was intended to be humorous and was, especially since no one dared to tame him or knew how. Nowadays you can Google “how to pick up a hamster” and find out you have to lift him up from below so he knows you’re not a predator. Apparently you also have to sing.
He lived in a little cage with one of those wheels to run in, and every now and then he did. The thing about keeping a hamster is that you have to clean the cage a lot because they piss and shit all over. Cleaning the cage involves changing the bedding material, in this case sawdust or peat moss, and of course you have to take the hamster out. Given that Fang was prone to mayhem and I had to grab him with a glove, I generally postponed this chore until my mother or the maid complained about the stink. Oh yes, we had a housekeeper. Every family did, and the maids had rooms down in the basement. Our first maid was a sweet young thing with rosy cheeks, but for some reason after several months we ended up with an older lady from the farm who was tough and strong and like a second mother. She was always there, and I remember her.
The other thing with hamsters is that you’re supposed to trim their claws. Living in a cage, the animal has no chance to wear them down. I may have tried it once, but that was it—Fang’s grew to considerable length and developed quite a curl. What with the smell, his claws, and lack of social interaction, my relationship with Fang consisted mainly of listening to him scratch around at night. In this activity he excelled.
Eventually the little bastard died. I was mildly sad but happy not to bear the guilt. I made a coffin from the cut-down end of a cereal box and buried him beneath a tree beside the playground, looking forward to the day when I would dig it up and have a hamster skeleton. I tried next spring but never found the grave, a perplexing mystery at the time. The odd thing is that right now you could put me in that tree back then, the one with the big long branch I used to hang from, and I could point to where I thought I’d buried him, a little to the left and toward the swings.