AMERICAN CHRONICLES: Impractical Cats
Copyright: John C. Merino 2016
Originally airing March 18, 2016
When I stop to think about it, Miss Dolan was at fault. She was my 5th grade teacher at 17th Street School…a former Army WAC Sergeant in WWII…she managed 10 year olds like a room full of recruits.
She taught the three R’s of course, and once a week made all the boys polish their shoes with paste wax. In the 1950’s, you couldn’t wear sneakers or jeans to school. No T-Shirts either. You had to have a collared shirt.
We practiced Air Raid drills once a week by jumping under our desks when the alarm went off, and looked forward to June because she always gave her class a “Roast Beef on Weck” party to celebrate the close of the school year. She was tough alright, but introduced us to poetry by reading from T.S. Elliott’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. I still have a copy in my collection.
That, I suppose, is why I’ve mostly chosen cats over dogs during the course of my lifetime. I’ve had a couple dogs that lived long lives (Sebastian & Pudge), both mutts from the SPCA…but there were always cats too.
Midnight was the first. When I found her wandering the street on the way home from the Big Pool one summer, she couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. I picked her up, held her in one hand and told my mother she followed me the whole way.
I was allowed to keep her and later that summer when my father started the lawn mower, she was jolted from her sleep on the front porch rail and darted in to the street, where a 48 Desoto hit her and that was that.
Several years later, when I returned from my wanderings across the country, I got my first apartment….a cold water three story walk up on the corner of 18th Street and Ontario Avenue….across from the pet store. A handwritten sign in the window said “Free Kittens.”
The one I chose was all grey. I named her Delores Del Streeto. I bought her a red collar, flea powder and food. She was street wise alright, never attempting to cross if there was a car within a block of her. When I’d get home from work she’d be waiting by the door for diner. She talked a lot…always something to say.
She didn’t look any fatter to me, but one morning when I woke; there was a liter of six kittens at the foot of the bed. I never heard a thing. I gave them all away, but for one little tough guy I named Junior Del Streeto. He was black and white…broad shouldered and tall. So now it was me and the Del Streeto’s…Delores and Junior.
A couple years later, we moved out to a cottage on Lake Ontario. It was attached to a green house that hadn’t been in use for decades. Delores and Junior loved the lake. They’d walk the beach together, playing with the dead fish that washed up, chased the squirrels and prowled the greenhouse in search of mice.
Delores got ill. The Vet said she had cat leukemia and when she passed, I buried her in an old tool box, wrapped in a towel, under a fir tree next to the cottage, carving her name in the bark with my pocket knife.
I stopped there several months ago to see if the cottage was still standing. It was and the greenhouse was thriving. Her name is barely visible now. After all, it has been a little over 40 years.
The following winter, the furnace died and the property owner simply told me he couldn’t afford to fix it so I’d have to move. Junior and I headed back to the city. We found an apartment on Main Street in an old Victorian house that had been cut up in to four units.
It was owned by Dr. Walker, whose home and office were next door. He was the anti-war doc. Dozens of draft age boys would get their medical draft deferment letters from him in the early days of Viet Nam. He would find something wrong with you…even if you didn’t know it.
The apartment behind me, facing the alley, was occupied by an Alabama red neck, his wife and daughter. He’d moved to Niagara Falls to work as a laborer on the Power Project and never left.
They were nice enough, but he hated Junior. When he’d get home from work, Junior took to jumping up on the hood of his El Camino. It was warm and a purrrr-fect place for a nap.
When Junior disappeared for a few days, I asked the red neck if he’d seen him. “Nope” he said, but the following afternoon his daughter who was only 8 or 10 told me that her daddy had taken my cat for a ride in the car. He wouldn’t own up to it….said he knew nothing about it….but I heard him yelling at her and she was crying.
I went to the hardware and bought a gallon of oil based navy blue paint. It took him weeks to buff it off, rubbing on a small spot every day when he got home from work.
He knew it was me and I knew it was him.
On the chance Junior had just been dropped off on the other side of town, I went to the SPCA to see if he might be there.
I walked into the cat room and called his name. There were 20 or 30 cats in a long row of cages. In the end cage a paw came out between the bars when I called “Junior”. It looked like him to me, so I sprung him and took him home.
The girl I was dating at the time said it wasn’t Junior.
I was in denial for a week but finally understood. It wasn’t Junior. I called him “GI”…the Great Imposter. When I finally let him out a couple weeks later he never came back, (but as cats will), he left me a dead mouse on the back stoop as a thank you gift for aiding in his escape from the SPCA.
Since then, I’ve had nothing but house cats. Among them was Azalea Mae Von Bulow whose name was later changed to Azalea Mae West after Klaus Von Bulow was arrested in Rhode Island for trying to murder his wife. I didn’t want her to be stigmatized.
Then there was Mitzi who lived 15 years, Lucy who still lives in Niagara County and is 13 and Cleo who wakes me up every morning around 4:00 AM by pawing my face until I scratch her head. I’m up before dawn seven days a week. She’d have it no other way.
There are neighborhood cats that prowl my backyard in the early morning, triggering the motion detector light on the garage and Tink down the street who follows behind her owner when the dogs are being walked. Tink likes to hang out in my yard in the summer, especially when I’m doing my gardening.
Obviously, I like cats…their independence and look, their getting out of the way just in time, the purr and swagger of them.
As T.S. Eliot wrote:
“The naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have three different names”
I’m John Merino and this is American Chronicles.
American Chronicles is a bi-weekly locally produced feature on WRFA written and produced by retired Gebbie Foundation CEO, John C. Merino. Currently, John is an Adjunct Professor of Micro-Economics, Organizational Management, and 20th Century World History at Mercyhurst University. American Chronicles airs twice monthly, Friday mornings at 7:15 and Friday Afternoons at 4:35. American Chronicles features original stories (partly fact and partly fiction), commentary on local, state , national, world conditions and more.
For past episodes and transcripts, visit www.wrfalp.com/tag/american-chronicles/