THE STRIPED CAT
Sufferin’ Succotash! –Sylvester the Cat
I’m the fourth in a brood of nine. I have an older sister, followed by two brothers. After me, there are two girls, then two boys, and a Baby Sister. But it’s my two older brothers, Duncan and Stephen, who have the leading roles in this tale. It depends on one’s point of view.
Duncan is the elder of the pair and Stephen followed him into the world within the year. For a few days between birthdays, they are the same age. That makes them Irish twins I suppose. Duncan has jet-black wavy hair, dark brown eyes and a slightly darker complexion in summer than the rest of our large brood. And he has sharp features and boyish good looks to boot. A lefty, he was always, and still is, the most athletic of the five boys in the family. His musculature was well defined for even a lad of less than ten.
Stephen, on the other hand, was softer featured and freckle faced; indeed, he also may have been the first in the family to wear glasses. His hair was brown and although my father kept us in military-style crew cuts for most of my youth, he sported a mane of tight curls as a young adult, very much in fashion at the time. He gained on Duncan in height each year as a child until surpassing him by inches in high school. Stephen hadn’t Duncan’s easy gift of coordination so worked a bit harder at it, eventually excelling at basketball in high school and volleyball at Ottawa U. Even in those early years, Duncan was the good-looking charmer and Stephen the glad-handing intellectual. I think it’s just that even then, Stephen had a greater awareness of those around him.
As for me, I would have been round of face and body in those days, a serious demeanour and prominent cowlick over my brow at the hairline. The summer sun would have turned my hair a lighter shade of brown, with even some blonde highlight appearing in spots. I had freckles too, all over my face and arms, but not as many as Stephen. All of my clothes would have been ill-fitting hand-me-downs, well patched by Ma where needed, the use of suspenders to hold up my pants better suited than a belt. I squinted in the sun but required no glasses. I was too young then to determine if I would later be athletic or bookish, but Ma had taught me rudimentary reading beginning at age four or five.
Yes, we were Catholics; Mother had ten pregnancies in twelve years. She lost one before me, which she blamed on coating the basement stairs with lead based paint late in her third trimester. It was the mid-fifties and populations were still getting used to living on top of each other in the great suburbs created after the Second World War. She made up for that loss quickly by having yours truly.
It eventually allowed me to claim, in a not so subtle bit of sibling rivalry, that I was her favourite. The truth was Ma treated everyone exceptionally well and evenly. I have never heard her say a bad thing about anyone, ever. This means that we three boys that followed each other are a grouping in the family dynamic, or at least that is how I reasoned it from a young age. Although losing an older sister meant there was a gap of time between Stephen and I, it didn’t even dawn on me until much later. I had always assumed that Duncan, Stephen and Christopher were the oldest boys of the family. One, two, three.
Duncan was our leader; there is no denying that. He looked the most like my father then. And like my boyish impression of Dad, Duncan was as bold as he was courageous. Stephen acted as his most trusted adviser, using his intelligence to frequently temper Duncan’s brashness. I followed them wherever and however permitted; only seeking ways to be noticed.
It was understood by all three of us that I was under their command, the natural order of things being generally dictated by age, size, and degree of maturity. When we were together, the two of them almost always acted in concert, deciding a course of action without me, merely letting me in on their plan afterwards, usually relayed to me by Stephen in a way I could accept. Or, if necessary, by dare, and rarely, by double dare: in which case I would be compelled to act without question.
Thus, it was on one summer’s morning. I think I may have been six, or maybe seven, which would have made them eight and nine, or nine and ten, it matters little. Our school breaks in July and August, full of sun and blue skies, were spent almost entirely outside. Fed and watered, we were put out to play as soon as Ma could manage. We naturally were more inclined to work off our ample energy in the larger open spaces outdoors.
In those days, there were large families on every block, two or three sometimes. Ours was crammed into a three-bedroom bungalow in the South of Ottawa’s practical outskirts of the time. We were just up the street from three primary grade schools. The newest one being built was to be French, which we eventually all attended. My father had had a dream that those who would command a second language in Canada would share a distinct advantage in the future. And he paid for extra tutoring for the three eldest who had already started school in Nova Scotia to facilitate our transitioning to French. I began my Ottawa schooling in grade one without knowing a word of the language, as did the rest of my siblings who followed.
Behind those three schools at the end of the street were fields of grasses and ball diamonds centered by a huge white oak, called by children all around the acorn tree for its plentiful bounty each year. Beyond those, over the tracks, ran woods bisected by Sawmill Creek.
It was a place of unceasing adventure. ‘The Creek’ was where we found hills to toboggan down winter’s snow. There was a swinging rope from an old crag beside a steep hill from which to vault ourselves off for the thrill of momentary flight. Sometimes we returned to hit the actual tree if we took off improperly; sometimes falling the eight or so feet to the ground if we let go. It was dangerous learning to be daring.
It was fertile ground for the imaginations of youngsters by which to seek and find their sense of self. In good time it contained forts and rafts left there by a generation of young explorers. It was also the scene of many a dramatic near-miss as we pushed to the limits of our abilities around deeper pools of water in summer and frozen-over parts of the creek in winter. We were lucky to have its bounty of wild raspberries too. They could be found on the sunny sides of many hills in huge patches of abundant ripe red fruit at the peak of summer. Some days, we gathered about them, each at our section, feeding incessantly like bears fattening up for winter.
On one particular day, Duncan announced to Stephen and me that we were leaving home. In fact, we were running away.
Duncan felt the situation between him and my Ma had become intolerable and so he had made the executive decision that we leave. And, surprisingly, he had cleared it with her too. There was no doubt that if he went, we’d go with him. I don’t recall having the question posed to me; it was presented as done: we were leaving.
There was a plan too. I recall vividly seeing and hearing Duncan and Stephen discussing things: Duncan making pronouncements and Stephen adding in the pros and cons of that undertaking. Stephen was the trusted consigliore to our brotherly mafia. Duncan was the boss. As the youngest, I was the foot soldier who mostly followed orders, usually without question.
It was decided that we would leave after preparing some essentials. We would each take a broken hockey stick as a walking implement and makeshift spear for protection, to which we would fasten a cloth bag in the grand style of the hobos we had seen in the comic strips. I don’t think we had a proper television set at home yet, but perhaps we did. It would have been the great children’s classic movies like Lassie and the Shirley Temple series, interspersed with Charlie Chaplin silent film shorts, watched with hundreds of others at the old Capital Theater during the Saturday morning matinee from which we derived our inspiration. Impressions gained also from the daily newspaper comic strips, and rare store-bought comic books, of which we were avid readers and incidental collectors.
Into our kit was also placed some food, for Mom had a grubstake for us, some victuals for the road. It was peanut butter and jam sandwiches I’m pretty sure, and perhaps a few cookies, although these were unlikely as we would have devoured them on the spot. Water we would get on our own by leaning in over the creek and sipping in the fashion of other trail-blazers before us. We may have had a canteen.
Perhaps a few other essentials made it in. I know we’d have had a penknife or two among us for those were the days when just about every kid had one. A flashlight, unlikely, but we would have taken matches after all we were dedicated outdoors-men, wide open space is where we largely lived our young lives. I may have brought along a Davey Crocket coonskin hat for I know there was a time I was pretty devoted to that sartorial feature of the cowboys and Indian themed movies of the day. Maybe a blanket, a jacket, or even a sweater was brought along too but I remember we packed lightly so as to not impede travel. We expected to be on the road a long ways, maybe even forever.
You know, time has a way of speeding up as you age. But a year to a six or seven year old is simply an eternity. Even a summer, when considered at its beginning in June, holds out September as a far off and hardly reckoned eventuality. Each day is long, more so by the fuller hours of light available at the height of July. Things just get a bit faster with each passing year. After a while, though, months pass like weeks, a week seems like a day. Years fly by ever faster as the seasons unfold into each other. But to a boy, time almost stands still. There is now, today, this moment, and just a vague hint of future.
So it was we set out, with serious intent and grim faces, determined to be our own masters. Well, Duncan was, Stephen advised him and I tagged along. We normally would have headed for the one direction that meant refuge to us all. We would head for the creek. Now, at the edge of the creek valley, beyond the fields of grasses and the school, beyond the Acorn Tree, past the dump and the edge of the neighbourhood that was the limit of our world, we had to cross the CN rail tracks. It was part of a national network that often crisscrossed towns and cities back in the Rail Heyday. I assumed we would go here, for the rail stretched out into eternity from the limits of my mind. It held the promise of far away, and it would serve as a marker of where we had been, if not also for where we were going.
But, on this day, as we entered the avenue we steered left instead of veering right. As if to demonstrate the severity of our situation and commitment to our cause, Duncan led us up the street, away from the creek. The three of us marched, with our sticks over our shoulders, each with a piece of rag tied at the four corners hanging from it at one end. This held our rations and a few treasured items deemed necessary for survival. That’s what we thought the more experienced hobo travelers did, and so we did it too.
I imagined we would perhaps hop a rail car and that we would bed down after sharing a can of some kind of food in some far off place. I really, really hoped it would not be beans. Beans were and still are the bane of my dietary existence. I’ve always found they tasted coarse and akin to dirt. The mere thought of them was enough to cause me considerable anxiety. Although, even then, I knew that eating beans was a staple of the road and the rails, and for cowboys on trails everywhere. They cooked beans in the can over an open fire and used only a knife to consume them. I thought instead that maybe we would beg for bread near a bakery or perhaps perform odd jobs for some kindly old person who would gratefully feed us in return. Maybe that same person would give us shelter under her porch, or in a shed in the back lane. I was hopeful, you see.
All the while as we walked towards the unfamiliar, Duncan spoke of his determination, firing off possibilities which Stephen would temper with reason almost immediately after. I plodded along, listening to my two heroes deciding our fates with complete confidence in their wisdom. And so it was, just as Duncan had led us away from the familiarity of our usual haunts, we found ourselves on Junction Avenue. Junction was the furthest street west in our vicinity. It bordered again the creek that meandered now northward as it made its way eventually to the Rideau River. But I would not know that for a few more years; on this day this part of the creek was to me a wild and unknown place.
I think we spent some time catching crayfish in the shallows of the stream as it passed under Heron Road. Back then, that street was a far cry from the thoroughfare it has become. For a while it wasn’t much more than a dirt track beyond the locale in which I grew up. Only years later, upon completion of the Heron Road Bridge connecting Heron Road to Baseline Road, which collapsed mid-construction and killed nine workers in the summer of ’66, was the road expanded and paved. But at that time, it seemed to me a road to nowhere much. And our creek flowed under Heron Road through huge culverts to either side, fed by runoff from every locality along its way, ebbing and flowing with seasonal rains and snow melt.
As I wasn’t really part of the continuous deliberations between Duncan and Stephen, I had time to explore. We had stopped for some kind of break, perhaps to eat our sandwiches, maybe even to plot our next move. I remember the day as pleasant and blue skied. There were paths worn through brush that led to who knows where.
Leaving my brothers to their ongoing debate, I took one of these a short distance away towards the sound of the stream. I came upon a smaller culvert lazily spilling a trickle of water into the creek. It was on the far side of the hill and generally towards the path we took under my eldest sister’s watchful gaze to attend the RA centre where we took swimming lessons each day for part of the summer. I had never deviated from that walk before and this was the first time I got to explore that section.
Hence, it was wild and untamed by my estimation, its groves of trees and meadows of grass I imagined as virgin and unsettled. From my view, it may as well have been untouched by man for all I could tell. I would be the first to tread her paths, more likely animal trails. I proceeded with caution, as brave as I thought I should be, goaded by excitement and curiosity.
Suddenly, a beautiful cat appeared on the far bank, just below me near where the culvert emptied into the creek. I had a thing for cats at that time. Dogs were plentiful enough around the community but belonged to someone, usually tied in a yard. Cats roamed free, and sometimes appeared at your door begging for attention. Thus, they were often accessible to a youngster. My kinship with cats likely started when my mother used to harness me and leave me to play in the driveway, coming out to check on me in between her chores and bringing me some food to fatten me, some of which I most likely shared with strays that roamed the block. Indeed, I enjoyed their company and liked to pet them and make them purr.
In Halifax, where my family had lived a year or two before, I would often scope out the adjacent properties, spot a cat, hustle over quickly, capture it and toss it over the fence into my back yard. I usually ended up swinging it by the tail to gain the necessary momentum and loft to carry it over. Then I would scurry around the end of the block to retrieve my prize in the yard, imagining the fun I would have playing with the captured cat.
I myself was confined then pretty much to the property. No full off-premises privileges quite yet, having to remain in sight of Ma should she poke her head out a door or window. So it took a calculated risk in high haste to fetch a cat off-property. It always stumped me as to how the cat would escape the yard upon my return after a cat-capture. After all, there was a high fence surrounding the yard, but no matter how many times I caught and sent cats over the fence, always they were long gone when I arrived on the scene. It was a perplexing enigma, a riddle I didn’t solve for a rather embarrassing long time.
So it was in Ottawa with this cat. Fickle as most of them are, it refused to come when I called it. In fact, it pretty much ignored me, a beautiful black and white cat I was determined should become my pet. I thought I could take it with me since we were making up our own rules, or at least I had gathered that much from the brotherly committee. But try as I might, the darn cat would simply not come near, ignoring my entreaties completely. Finally, I became frustrated with it and picked up a rock and threw it its way to command more of its attention. Wide the first time, I tried again, got a bit closer, but still no direct hit. I did get some notice but it decided it had had enough, turned tail and escaped into the bush. I was left there alone, the sound of water trickling by, a few leaves rustling in the gentle breeze, but mostly silence.
I returned to my brothers and matter-of-factly related my encounter, describing the animal. After some initial interest and questioning, my brothers were hardly impressed. My history with cats was of little concern to them considering more important matters now at hand. That was the consensus they arrived at and I was resigned to their better judgment. The attention of my brothers gained though, convinced me that my stalking around in the bush and chance encounter made me a valued member of the team regardless. I was contributing with my daring exploration, my fearlessness and general scouting skills.
That bit of adventure now behind us we continued what I can only assume was the direction agreed upon by the brothers in my absence. We veered south this time, crossing back over Heron Road and onto the far side of Sawmill Creek. I had never been over to that side before, it was a no man’s land, or maybe even someone else’s land, but it held itself out in our minds as where we could also maybe forge a new life. If we had to, we could build shelter and camp out here. We felt isolated and distant from our home turf.
We walked along an old tractor path the city used once or twice a season to cut grasses that grew on the open meadows in between the woods. Trees required moisture to grow and tended to congregate in hollows or along the creek. But here, in the fields between the groves, jack rabbits held us spell bound as they would purposefully bounce away from us only to circle around and return a short while later. We got so we could predict from which direction they would reappear and sometimes lay in wait to confirm our assumption. And their behaviour signaled to us too that there was likely a nest of young nearby, although finding one was unlikely.
As our afternoon advanced, directed by the declining sun, shadows on the trees grew wider and darker. And, as usual, the wind blew just a bit stronger. We had been on the trail since early that morning and hadn’t covered really much distance when I think of it now. I suppose that mattered little for the important thing was that we were on our own. We were somewhere Ma did not know how to fetch us; therefore, we were free men.
But soon we would have to settle in for the night and our talk grew to consider what that meant: who would stand guard against potential marauders and wild animals, and what location would best serve our comfort, protection and security.
As we trudged along, we looked into the darkening forest and saw shapes and shadows of movement. The breeze and cooling air also brought the smell of skunk to our nostrils, and we imagined as the day waned that perhaps we were encroaching on a kingdom of wilder animals heretofore mostly undisturbed. We considered that we were being followed and scanned the edges of the woods for signs of impending attack. Of course, this notion was reinforced by the smell that seemed to precede us.
Were we walking into a trap of trouble? We knew that skunks smelled foul and if we could smell it, this surely meant it was nearby. If it were following us, it meant that it was mad; the demise of Old Yeller of “hydrophobie” likely never far from our thoughts when considering the untamed. It would wait until we were vulnerable and lash out with teeth and fangs. The prospect of spending the night under the stars with a feral animal stalking us grew increasingly alarming. Meanwhile we tried to put as much distance as we could between the odour and us. We were ever mindful of the likelihood of having to prepare for battle by somehow using our penknives to sharpen properly our sticks, turning them more into spears.
We put a quarter mile or more of distance past the first known location of the creeping beast. It was a tense time of high alert and anticipation. But no, the fanged and contemptuous critter continued to shadow us silently, sticking to the edges of the woods where it had a natural advantage. Each leaf out of place, every crack heard from the trees as they bent in the wind, every bush pushed aside in the breeze was proof of its intent. In our minds, we were now its avowed enemies.
Suddenly, the committee had an epiphany. It was likely Stephen but just as easily could have been Duncan. I remember both of them turning to me; it might have been after another murmured huddle out of earshot. In accusing certainty, they said, “that was no cat you saw, Christopher, it was a skunk! And we’re not being followed, you have been sprayed by skunk!”, they exclaimed “The smell is coming from you! And you stink! You really, really stink!”
Doubtless, I was too caught up with the overwhelming emotion of those revelations to hear the rest of it. Surely what followed was more commentary about my inherent retardation. I was exposed then and there as a traitor in our midst. A complete betrayal, hardly mitigated by my insufferable stupidity!
Well, that was a relief! The immediate danger had passed and now we could get on with things. But no, my brothers took in the full stink of my savage cologne and lamented loudly that I had ruined their plans. I had thwarted their escape from Ma’s clutches, from the unfairness of our existence under her roof. All the while they coughed and gagged at the proximity of what was emanating from my clothes. We had a problem: I was the problem.
Thus it was decided that I could not continue with them. Anxious to appease their obvious disappointment in me, I defended myself by saying I never saw a skunk before, and didn’t know that would happen. I’m sure there were howls of derision at that, exclamations of how lame that tact was for everyone knew about Pepe LePew, for God’s sake! How was I to know Pepe stunk? He was such a charming rogue in cartoons at the Capitol’s Saturday morning matinee after all, and the cat I saw looked nothing like him.
After a time, I reluctantly offered to go home.
It was decided that now that I had sabotaged all of our futures, we would have to all return home together. I don’t know if it was by an edict that had been drilled into all of us siblings that we never abandon each other; or maybe it was a convenient way to accede to the realities at hand and perhaps live to fight another day. Whatever it may have been, as bewildering as the whole of it was, the prospect of returning home did not bother me in the least. Even with my brothers condemning my novice bush craft, at age six or seven, the consternation of the skunk episode would soon be behind me. After all, I had no real issue with Ma. It was not my quarrel. Ma was good; she was Ma.
We made the long walk home in record time, or at least that part of what was certainly a continuous dissection of the day’s highlighted misstep is to me now just a blur.
We returned by crossing the rail bridge which rose high above the creek near where Brookfield Road started, following the tracks that wound behind the school, cutting through the outer yards and by the giant acorn tree to more familiar territory.
We may have even attracted a crowd of kids as we arrived on the scene of our street. In those days, there were 62 children living on the two sides of our little block of Falcon Avenue. My sisters would have spread the word throughout the neighbourhood that we had left home that morning with no intention of ever returning.
The novelty of actually smelling skunk on a live person would have made me the star in a bit of a freak show. If the smell wasn’t so widely offered there may have been a way to capitalize on it too. But those imaginings took a back seat to what would happen when we arrived. Little did I know it, and surely my brothers never realized it either, but the disturbance over my condition would likely largely spare them the attention due from whatever spat between Duncan and Ma had that triggered the whole episode. That point has been lost over the years.
I remember nothing but embarrassment bordering on humiliation at home. Mostly the commotion is a cacophony of recollected shrieks and ostracizing commentary from everyone. My mother brokered no resistance from me and sprang into action. Dad was there too, and as it was so often with him, times of great calamity fazed him little compared to the mundane.
I was stripped and made to stand outside in a large steel Eureka washbasin behind the shed at the end of the driveway, hidden from the street but still in the open air. Standing there in my birthday suit, where all the eyes of inquiring children could see, girls too, was something one can only endure. I may have imagined myself suffering stoically at the hands of an enemy, like a captured POW in one of the many war movies of the day, promising myself I would not break.
Privacy during the baby boom years was largely impossible on a scale far outside of just the family home. If people wanted to see you, a backyard would offer little protection. With both parents ensuring my cooperation, silent submission would have been my only refuge. The expression on my face would have been the only hint of the turmoil inside me.
My Mom and Dad scrubbed furiously with tomato juice, repeatedly washing it over my naked body. Dad was calm and accepting, and may have found the humour in it. Perhaps even a debriefing occurred in keeping with his military training. Mom just made herself busy and efficient, her speed of movement dictating the rhythm of the intervention and her complete control over it. She definitely peppered her frenetic activity with occasional comments, likely sourced from her remnant Newfoundlandese, or with the use of some biblical reference. My siblings were banished from the yard but my eldest sister Marita, Mom’s little helper, gained a privileged glance or two at the remarkable scene as she fetched supplies for them. This would have added to my misery despite her special status.
At washing’s end, my clothes were first buried in the backyard, I’m told, although, I have no idea who did the digging. When they had relinquished enough of their foul molecules to the reluctant clay, they were exhumed some time later only to go out with the trash. In those days, one did not want to give too much fodder to the gossip mill that existed on our block, an almost impossible task but an ideal to which family’s would strive. A large unruly brood of kids was always attracting attention as it was.
I was most certainly avoided for a few days, at least in close proximity and confined spaces. There was also a certain fame that comes with being the only one ever sprayed by a skunk; I lived it and survived, braving its risks and managing its danger.
It was an important lesson, one that also set the stage for a deeper understanding of what it means to have brothers; indeed, brothers I would still follow anywhere. I realized much later that wherever I went in life, I recreated my relationship with my brothers from the people around me.
Wisdom can grow on you like tree-moss sometimes, slowly creeping up, without ever being aware of it, until you are one day covered warmly in its embrace.