Do you know what is the shortest measurable time period known to humans? Are you thinking millisecond? Nanosecond? Nope, you’d be wrong. It’s the length of time needed for a contentedly purring feline to transform into a hissing hellcat that scratches your hand.
The photo you see below is a photo of my hand after an encounter with Simba, one of our two barn cats. Before I describe the encounter, let me give you a little background on my experiences with cats.
Remember the movie 101 Dalmations with dogs running and leaping, coming out of every nook and cranny? Well, if you replaced each one of those cute, furry, spotted puppies with a mostly feral, shaggy, yellow tabby cat, that is what our barn looked like when I was growing up in the Sixties. Back then, we didn’t bother with spaying, neutering or vaccinating barn cats. If Frontline or Heartgard existed back then, we certainly didn’t know about it, and wouldn’t have spent money on it if we had.
Our multitude of farm cats lived wild, lived free, and – in return for shelter and a daily feeding – they kept our many farm buildings clear of mice, rats, and other undesirables.
But let me make this very clear – they were not friendly, and they were not pets. If we kids discovered, hidden among the hay bales, a new batch of kittens before their eyes were opened (and if the mother were not around!) we could hold and cuddle them. But once their eyes were opened and the kittens were mobile, they hissed, bit, and scratched just like their elders.
I loved our dogs; I tolerated our cats.
And then…Jack entered our lives.
Jack, ironically enough, was also a yellow tabby. I talked Danny into getting a cat in 1991 after we moved into a new house in town directly off a golf course. Rodents coming off the course were a real nuisance and I knew the right cat could take care of that problem. Jack was more than I could have ever hoped for. Not only did he take care of our home and property, he taught me that cats could be just as lovable as dogs – but with a personality entirely unique to cats.
Jack was a badass. And I say that with the utmost admiration. A Clint Eastwood type of badass – cool as a cucumber, quiet, calculating, and he always got his man. Yet, just like Clint, he sometimes displayed evidence of a softer side that could almost be described as sweet.
One summer day, my niece stopped by our house with Tuffy, their family dog. A cockapoo, Tuffy was sweet-tempered, smart as a whip, but evidently, inappropriately named. While my niece and I were chatting on our driveway, Tuffy began barking furiously as Jack crossed the driveway towards us. Tuffy approached Jack and began circling him, barking constantly. Jack ignored Tuffy as he nonchalantly strolled ever closer to us. Tuffy was now emboldened. His circles grew smaller, and his barking grew ever more ferocious until Jack stopped, only a few feet away from us. Tuffy was now barking within inches of Jack’s face. Jack’s eyes narrowed to slits, and then…
Remember that time period I mentioned in the first paragraph? Like greased lightning, Jack swiped his paw across Tuffy’s face. Tuffy let out a yip! thenleaped vertically into my niece’s arms! Even LeBron would have been impressed with Tuffy’s vertical leap. Luckily, my niece’s reflexes were also cat-like, and she caught Tuffy before he fell back onto the driveway. Tuffy stayed in my niece’s arms for the rest of the visit.
Meanwhile, Jack casually continued his jaunt across the driveway into the sunset, tail held high. Badass.
Unfortunately, Jack died of old age before we ever moved to the farm. As soon as we got our barn built, Danny and I both agreed we needed another cat.
Enter Sherlock. A gray tabby, I got Sherlock from the Humane Society where he had been appropriately vaccinated and neutered, 21st century-style. Sherlock, we soon discovered, was more affectionate and sensitive than Jack had been, turning out to be more of a Tom Hanks kind of cat. He loves adults, leaping with no warning into any suitable, available lap. He loves kids, even those who squeeze a bit too tight, or love a bit too much. He even loves our other farm animals, and is often seen rubbing against the horse’s legs and snuggling with our dogs.
Unfortunately, Tom Hanks isn’t really known for always getting his man. When I witnessed Sherlock sitting quietly, detachedly observing as a mouse ran between his legs, (Yes! Between his legs!) I realized that we really needed someone more like Clint back at the ranch.
Instead we got Simba. A once-feral cat, Simba came to me via our vet, who had planned to take him to his own farm rather than euthanize him. Also appropriately vaccinated and neutered, Simba is smarter than the inbred cats from my childhood, more ruthless and unpredictable than Jack had been, and more of a hunter than Sherlock. But the line between good and evil is sometimes blurred with Simba. He is definitely more the Al Pacino type.
Simba, Danny and I have reached a mutual, legally-binding agreement. He shall catch unwanted mice, and in return we shall feed him and provide shelter. He shall not, however, be expected to offer any snippets of affection. If any human and/or feline interaction is desired, we shall each be referred to Sherlock (who loves everyone).
This works really well for about eleven months out of the year. The problem is, Simba has long hair. He is beautiful in winter, and I can’t help but admire him (from a safe distance). But in spring, when he starts to shed, his coat gets these gigantic clumps and he simply can’t manage his own grooming. The poor cat looks miserable.
So, for the past few years, I have started grooming him in the spring. Believe me when I tell you, I did this very carefully at first. But then I realized that he kind of likes it! That is, until he doesn’t.
And there you have it. Now you understand the genesis of my hand scratches. I know it doesn’t look like much. But it stung – my feelings more than anything, I guess.
I think I need a snuggle with Tom Hanks.
(Oh, I have more “Jack” and “Sherlock” stories! Read the May chapter in my third book, The Return to the Family Farm.)
Next Week: No Humor Today