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A feral cat, a loaf of bread and an execution . . .

Cat in the Hat Barn

A couple of months ago I posted the story of my family’s brief attempt at living life on a farm in Mississippi in a three-room house with no bathrooms, no electricity and no running water. Winter was kept at bay by two fireplaces that heated the combination living room and bedroom and a separate bedroom. Added to those two rooms were the combination kitchen and dining area and a lean-to intended for storage, primarily for stove and fireplace wood and livestock feed. Click here to read the details—it’s well worth the read, featuring tales of cotton picking, sexual abuse of chickens, killing twin fox terriers and threatening runaway children with a shotgun.

This posting is about an incident on the farm that featured a feral tomcat. One evening at dusk my stepfather, knowing that I longed for a pet, came in from the barn and told me there was a wild cat in the barn and that if I could catch him I could keep him for a pet. Although I was exultant at the thought of having a pet, I approached the barn with more than a modicum of apprehension—I had learned earlier that his promises should not be taken literally, but with a grain of salt.

One Saturday soon after we moved to the farm he promised to bring me a present from town. I felt sure that it would be a bicycle, but it turned out to be a wheelbarrow, to be used to clean stables and other indelicate and backbreaking activities. I spent that Saturday afternoon shoveling you-know-what out of long-neglected barn stalls and hauling the loads to our garden and to what my stepfather called his horse pasture, although we didn’t have any horses. Also one year near Christmas time he promised to bring my sister and me dogs as Christmas presents—he gave her a collie and me a Pekingese—hers decorated an ashtray and mine was a leaded doorstop. Read the full story here.

I was surprised to find an actual wild feral cat in the barn, hiding out among the hay bales and equipment stored in the barn’s loft. Equipped—armed, actually—with nothing more than a flashlight with weak batteries, I finally cornered the cat, a multicolored tomcat with a ferocious temper. I caught him after many tries, each of which added to the plethora of scratches he inscribed on my hands and arms. I tried to stuff him in a burlap bag but finally just wrapped it around him and made a triumphant return to the house. The hardest part of that return was going down the ladder from the barn loft using only one hand, with the other holding firm to some fifteen pounds of wriggling screeching tomcat.

The farm included a skid-mounted store fronted by a single gas pump, a dinosaur mechanism operated by first pumping fuel from the underground tank with a hand pump into a glass reservoir with gallon marks and then using gravity to lower the required number of gallons into a vehicle’s tank.

The little store measured some 12 by thirty feet and was stocked by those items that country folks needed to replace between visits to markets in the city, items such as bread, cigarettes, cigars, snuff, candies, thread, needles, lard, sugar, flour and various canned goods. The store was infested with rats, and my stepfather told me to close the cat up in the store and it would take care of the rats. That sounded plausible to me as a temporary measure, and then I would begin a program to domesticate my new wild pet.

It was not to be. That cat ate an entire loaf of bread the first night, leaving only the plastic wrapper. Store-bought bakery bread came in one-pound loaves only in those days—today’s one and one-half pound loaves had not yet been developed.

My stepfather indicated that he understood the cat’s depredations, considering that he had been in the woods with only bugs and field mice for sustenance, and then only if he could catch them. He told me to catch the cat and cage him, then put him in the store again in the evening. Having filled up on a full loaf of bread, the cat’s movements were slowed down, and that feeling coupled with his belief that he had found a cat’s Shangri-La made him easy to corner and catch. That day happened to be a Saturday, and at dusk I locked him in the store.

The store was closed on Sundays, and my stepfather awakened to start his usual morning with a few snifters of bourbon before breakfast, a practice that continued following breakfast, and in mid-morning we opened the store’s door and the cat catapulted out—did you get that? He catapulted out and kept going, quickly disappearing under the house some one hundred feet or so from the store.

The evidence was spread all over the floor near the bread shelves. A full pound loaf was a bit too much for him this time, and several slices were scattered about, some whole and some shredded in various stages of having been eaten.

My stepfather voiced numerous epithets, loudly and earnestly and not one of them was anything similar to “That darn cat!” No, they were not gentle, and all contained words and threats not really suitable for my young ears—not that I hadn’t heard them before, of course—and all seemed to be centered on the likely untimely demise of the cat.

And so it came to pass. My stepfather raced—staggered, actually—to the house and retrieved his 16-gage shotgun from its stance against the wall in the corner nearest to his side of the bed he shared with my mother in the combination living room/bed room. The shotgun was kept fully loaded with a live shell in the chamber, as was the military .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol he kept on a bedside stand, again on his side of the bed.

The house was built on piers that provided a substantial crawl space underneath. The shooter kneeled, peered under the house and fired one shot from the shotgun. I soon learned that the cat had been outlined against the base of the brick fireplace when the buckshot took his life.

I learned that because I was tasked to bring out the remains and dispose of them properly. It was not an easy task because numerous particles had been splattered against the bricks, but I managed to clean up everything, to not leave anything that might cause unsavory odors on hot days.

There is a story about Abraham Lincoln that I would like to tell now. It seems that some unruly urchins had inserted dynamite into a certain orifice of a stray dog and then lighted the fuse. Abe was witness to the explosion and he commented at the time that, Well, that dog won’t ever amount to anything now—at least anyway not as a dog.

That story is probably apocryphal but it serves to showcase Lincoln’s sense of humor and perhaps his belief in an afterlife, perhaps even in reincarnation. Who knows? Could be!

I know that my erstwhile potential pet, that feral feline, that thief of baked goods and consumer of the same never amounted to anything else, at least not on earth and not as a cat. And as regards reincarnation, I and my family have had several cats over the years, and I cannot discount the possibility that one or more of them could have been reincarnations of that wild cat I rescued from a life in the woods and sentenced him to be executed, to die an untimely and undignified death for no other reason than his hunger and my drunken stepfather’s temper.

That was as close as I came to having a pet while I lived with my stepfather. I did come close another time when I saw a speeding car hit a black-and-tan hound dog on the road some distance from our house. I raced to him to see if he was alive, and finding him inert but breathing I carried him back to the house.

That was no easy task—that darn hound was full grown and weighed almost as much as I did. I stretched him out on the front porch and asked my mother if I could take care of him and keep him if he lived. She assented but only after considerable thought, saying that he was probably a working dog and that my stepfather would want to keep him for hunting. We scrounged around for something to use as a bed, and with an old quilt in my arms I returned to the front porch.

The dog was gone. I looked around the yard and then glanced up the graveled road where he had been hit, and there he was, going full-tilt in the same direction he had been going when the car hit him, going at full speed without a trace of a limp, kicking up gravel with every stride.

For a moment I felt anger, not for the driver that had hit him, but for the dog that fooled me and made me stagger a considerable distance to get him to the house, then forced me to convince my mother to let me nurse him and keep him. Yep, I really took it as a personal affront that he had recovered so nicely and thus denied me an opportunity to nurse him back to good health and keep him for a pet.

My anger was brief, however—I realized that had I kept him and returned him to good health and he turned out to not be a working dog, a dog that would not contribute in some way to the family larder, he would eventually suffer the same fate suffered by the two fox terriers and the wild cat—splattered, perhaps, all over the brick fireplace and at that thought I breathed a sigh of relief.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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More on Midland + country bands + baseball . . .

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, when our family had accumulated a sufficient amount of capital, enough for our stepfather Papa John to live his life in the manner to which he had become accustomed, a life to which he longed to return, he would take the necessary action. When he deemed that capital to be sufficient, he would find an excuse to dissolve our family. He would then go his way and we would go ours. This posting will discuss the spark that led to another conflagration in our family.

I believe Papa John always knew his ultimate destination in these circumstances, but we never knew ours until shortly before or shortly following the dissolution of our family. I never knew for certain in this instance, but I have a strong suspicion that he remained in Midland.

He was a skilled poker player, or at least professed to be such, and the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles—F.O.E—hosted such activities nightly, up to and sometimes beyond the witching hour. Gambling was illegal in the state, but the state apparently considered poker playing similar to the game of canasta, or perhaps bridge, but I was a witness to some of the games—they usually involved seven players, too many for either canasta or bridge.

Now that I think of it, Midland was in a dry county at that time, and whether in search of beer or other alcoholic beverages, Midland’s residents journeyed to the city of Odessa, some eighteen miles to the west and smuggled their purchases into the city of Midland.

The F.O.E, however, served up myriad alcoholic beverages on demand, with that demand met by a demand for remuneration. A supposition could be made—and I do suppose such—that bending of the liquor law was allowed because the F.O.E  is a fraternal social club for members only—ordinary non-member drunks, however thirsty, are not allowed.

I have a separate posting in mind pertaining to the F.O.E and will follow up shortly with that posting unless I forget—I’ll never forget the incident, but I may well forget to post it. If it doesn’t appear soon, perhaps a visitor to my blog will remind me of my promise to post it.

As with any gambler, Papa John’s luck ebbed and flowed with the tide. When his luck turned sour and the tide was at its lowest, he would make up with my mother and take the measures necessary to reassemble our family. My mother never volunteered to brief my sister and me on the actions of our fickle but predictable stepfather and we never asked—we became experts at testing the wind, and usually could see the breakup coming down the pike.

Now to the crux of this posting:

The four of us were crowded into a single motel room on the outskirts of Midland. Ours was termed a kitchenette, a room equipped with a stove, refrigerator and an area for dining. One corner was walled off from the rest of the room and equipped with a small combination tub and shower, a small commode and a small sink.

Yep, everything was scaled down to fit in a very small area. The walls of the bathroom consisted of sheet rock on both sides with no sound proofing in between. The room had only one bed—a sleeping area for me and my sister was provided by placing the top mattress on the floor, thus leaving the bottom unit on the bed for our mother and our stepfather.

Yep, my sister and I shared that mattress, but I hasten to say that even though we were products of the deep South we did not conform to the popular notion that siblings in that area share a mutual physical attraction. There are some from the northern climes, particularly those attracted to novels such as God’s Little Acre, Tobacco Road and The Journeyman, that probably believe that such siblings are always physically attracted to one another and many, perhaps most, indulge in that mutual attractiveness.

Nope, not my sister and not I—we stayed on our respective sides of the mattress. My sister did not appeal to me and I can truthfully state that I did not appeal to her—for most of the limited time we were together during our teen years, we fostered and fed an intense dislike for each other.

The motel was adjacent to the city baseball park, and visiting baseball teams often housed players in the same motel. Also in proximity to the motel was a really swinging country music dance hall, one that attracted well known, little known and unknown country bands to perform there. As with the baseball players, the motel frequently hosted band members during their gig in Midland.

As the bard would say, “Ay, there’s the rub!” My sister was almost eighteen years old and apparently was considered quite comely, both by baseball players and country band members. I hasten to add that I was nowhere in agreement of their assessments of my sister’s comeliness, but I also confess that she and I shared only a modicum of respect and liking for each other—that mutual modicum figured prominently in my assessment of her comeliness.

Be that as it may, she was quite popular with the young men that called our motel home while in the city. On most evenings she could be found in a communal area directly in front of our room, an area that offered seating, umbrellas for shade in the daytime, a barbecue pit and lighting—very subdued lighting, subdued to the point that Papa John had to strain to effectively observe activities after nightfall. His observations frequently led to criticisms and warnings to my sister, prophecies that terrible things could come of her penchant for visiting with the visitors. He always ordered her in at an early hour, but my sister never came in at his first order—it always required repeated calls from our doorway, and often I was required to take the message to her.

My sister was a rebel, a modern day female Thoreau—she ultimately went her own way by going over, under, around or through any obstacles placed in her path. She responded to Papa John’s remonstrations with humor, none of which set well with our stepfather.

One evening when she came in just before midnight, considerably later than usual, Papa John told her that she should stay away from the baseball and band gangs, that  they were n’er-do-wells with nothing in their jeans. My sister responded laughingly that, “Oh, they sure do have something in their jeans.” Papa John was obviously thinking of money in their jeans, but my sister’s thoughts were elsewhere.

And that incident was, I believe, the catalyst that sparked the dissolution of our family. The tinder caught fire that night, a fire that would smolder for several days and then erupt into a full blown four alarm fire. The cataclysm that ensued was the result of a clever rejoinder my sister made to a cautionary remark made by our stepfather, a rejoinder that I considered hilarious—not that I laughed at the time, but I joined my sister in laughter later.

A few days later Midland and the summer we spent there was history—our kitchenette was vacant, Papa had disappeared and my mother, my sister and I were on a bus headed for El Paso, watching the motel, the ball park, the dance hall and the city of Midland recede through the back window of the bus. We were on our way to join my older brother and his family.

Our stay in El Paso would prove to be of short duration.

I’ll get back to you later with more details.

 

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Go west, young man, and grow up . . .

Go west, young man, and grow up with the country, a quote attributed, perhaps wrongly, to Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Regardless of the quote’s origin, my mother’s youngest son followed that advice—not voluntarily but certainly not reluctantly—the mere thought of going west was exciting. By the age of 12 I had read every Zane Grey western novel, and I fancied myself a fine candidate for the title of cowboy.

Click here for an interesting article dealing with Horace Greeley and the development of our country. Be forewarned—every time the author used an apostrophe or quotation marks—and they are numerous in the article—they printed out as a question mark on a black diamond background such as this:

Now on to my great adventure:

I made the trip from the deep South—Mississippi—to Midland, Texas, as a passenger in the rear seat of a 1939 Plymouth four-door sedan. The youngest of my three sisters, just eighteen months older than I, shared the rear seat with me, and my mother and our stepfather—Papa John—filled the front seat.

It took an interminable time to complete the journey. Our interstate highway system was in its infancy at the time, and most of the trip was along two-lane roads—paved, of course, but not conducive to getting anywhere anytime soon. Papa John, dressed in his trademark khakis, shod with hand-stitched Texas style boots, with a wide-brimmed Stetson hat set squarely and firmly atop the ensemble, served as our driver. He sat rigidly upright with both hands on the wheel, positioned at two and ten o’clock, and hurtled us toward our destination at a hair-raising speed of forty-five miles per hour—exactly. I gave him credit for getting us to Midland safely along treacherous roads, but gave no kudos for making good time—both comments made inaudibly, of course—I couldn’t afford to tempt fate!

My time in Midland lasted just over three months. It began in March and ended in late June when Papa John, once again weary of shepherding our small family, found an excuse to throw a tirade–or pitch a fit, as my sister put it—and send us packing, off on another great adventure. My mother, my sister and I wound up in El Paso with my older brother who lived and worked at the El Paso Smelting Works. We made the trip on a Greyhound bus, one that we hastily boarded after hastily packing our meager clothing.

Our stay in El Paso was of short duration, and that stay will form the basis for a subsequent posting. As a preview of things to come, I’ll say that my arrival in El Paso was followed by travel by my brother and me, from El Paso to Dallas and on to Valley Park, Missouri for an overnight stay in jail on a Sunday—my sixteenth birthday—then on to St. Louis and New York City for a brief stay at 21 University Place in that city’s Greenwich Village.

Here’s a teaser: My brother and I were hot on the trail of his wife, a native New Yorker that had left home with their two children, shortly after he left for work, on the pretext of a shopping trip to downtown El Paso—that pretext took them all the way to New York City.

Stay tuned– more details of our pursuit will soon follow. The pursuit proved fruitless, but provided significant adventures for my brother and me, not the least of which was our overnight stay in a Saint Louis suburb. Our sleeping accommodations were rather sparse with no freebies, but were provided by the city at no cost to us.

Had I the talent and the inclination (I have neither), I could write a book on my experiences during that summer in Texas—not just a short story but a lengthy tome. Just as a teaser, I’ll say that in that interval of time I acquired a Social Security card—illegally—I was fifteen and the minimum age requirement at that time was sixteen, and subsequently had two paying jobs while in Midland. That card enabled Papa John to hire me out, first to a self-service laundry as an indentured servant—so to speak—and then as a clerk in a retail hardware store.

In addition to swamper duties—mopping, sweeping, cleaning windows, etc., my job at the self-service laundry included bringing in dry soiled clothing from conveyances and taking out newly laundered wet clothing to the same. The bringing in was no problem, but the taking out was a serious problem because the laundry had no dryers. Customers took their wet clothes home and hung them out to dry on lines mounted in their back yards—ah, for the good old days!

Picture this: A #2 tin washtub piled high with wet clothing carried by a 100-pound teenager—I’m here to tell you that the job got old quickly. My usual sequence for outside delivery was to squat, take a deep breath, lift the tub with a loud grunt (the grunt was mine, not the tub’s) and hasten with short steps, almost running, to the proper conveyance, be it an auto, a child’s wagon or a wheelbarrow—all three modes were used at that time in that place.

Following a brief period of hauling in soiled clothes for women and returning wet clothes to the proper conveyance, Papa John thoughtfully secured a position for me as a clerk in a combination lumber yard and retail hardware store—I’ll hold that story in reserve for a future posting.

One final note on my adventures in Midland, Texas—no, belay that—this may not be the final note—there may be more to come, because writing of one aspect of our sojourn there tends to awaken more memories, many well worth separate postings.

Now to continue with my not so final note on Midland:

As in all locations in which I earned money while under the tutelage of my stepfather, my take-home pay in Midland was not subjected to discussion but was, as always, subjected to division. One half went to my mother for my room and board, and I was allowed to retain a pittance for my use—the rest went for the purchase of federal savings bonds in my name, documents that were termed war bonds during World War II. I suppose I should feel indebted to Papa John for instilling good saving habits in me, but at the time I did not appreciate the continued division of my labors, with the smallest amount left available for my use, an amount not determined by me.

Bummer!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
 

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