One very slow news day at the tail end of the buildup to the first Gulf War, I decided to hunt up my three friends: Sergeants Leroy and Maculhaney, who were attached to the mobile AFRTS station, and Orvis who was attached to Combat Camera, where she was stubbornly campaigning to adopt the motto “You Kill Them, We’ll Capture The Moment.”
"You lookin' for Deege?" At the station, Ty Reese, Maculhaney’s friend and cohort on assorted broadcasting crimes waved to me from the studio trailer door. He had kicked it open with his foot, and kept it in place by hooking his toe around the edge of it. He also had a fistful of plain CD jewelbox cases in one hand, a coffee mug in the other hand, and a three-day old copy of the "Stars & Stripes" tucked between his elbow and side,. Altogether it was an impressive display of organizational juggling.
" Just missed her... she’s off shift, probably heading back to her hooch. It’s two down, three over from here….Hey, that anything more current?" He eyed the newspaper I had brought out from my hotel downtown with positive hunger, and I answered regretfully,
"I bought it for Mackie, but I'll ask her to pass it on to you when she's done...its yesterdays' Washington Post, though."
"Ma'am, at this rate, I'm about to subscribe to the West Podunk Gazette Recorder, if'n they'd promise delivery to our hooch, and four pages of funnies on Sunday!"
"I can spare you a week-old copy of Time." I fished it out of my bag, and Ty deftly snapped it under his elbow with the newspaper, saying
"Inquiring minds want to know... whaddy they say at the press briefings
that they don't show on CNN?"
"That the doughnuts are stale, and the coffee is cold," I said, wryly, and Ty grinned like the genial maniac that he was,
"Life is just full of these little tragedies, ain't it?" and withdrew into the studio.
I had met several more of the broadcasters, since I got to know Maculhaney and Leroy. While military radio broadcasters did not vary quite so much as the civilian variety, being more or less the same age, and displaying about the same amount of experience, education and physical fitness, they were a little outside the other military professionals I had met so far. The military broadcasters were intelligently verbal, aggressively impatient with the slow on the uptake and needled each other on air and off with wit and creativity. Hanging out with them frequently felt like an endless improvisational skit created by an off-the-wall comedy troop with a taste for lavatorial humor and an encyclopedic memory of twenty years of popular music.
I followed Ty's vague directions. Although I had visited many times, the tent city lamentably looked all alike. Halfway there, I caught up to Maculhaney, just as a large tan vehicle rumbled past, missing her by inches.
“You ought to be more careful!” I said, “I’d hate to be deprived of one of my deep background sources.”
“Ehh, they wouldn’t dare run me over… the paperwork would never end,” Maculhaney was casually dismissive.
“So you like living dangerously?” I asked.
"Statistically, the only things I have to worry about are an airplane crashing on top of me, and the Viet Cong overrunning the compound. Drunk drivers and colonels who hate rock and roll are a much more significant hazard... stick with us, and you'll just have to worry about falling aircraft, and substance abuse."
"Thanks. I think," I said, as the door to the female NCO hooch fell closed behind us.
I knew by then, others lived there besides Maculhaney, Leroy and Orvis, but those others came and went, as the military mission required. Since they had been there nearly the longest, they had done the most toward making it, if not precisely homelike, a little less bleakly comfortless. The latest innovation occupied the center of Maculhaney's bed, nestled in her upturned helmet on what looked like an old terrycloth towel, a tiny piebald puddle of fur.
"Do you know there's a cat in your hat?" I asked, and Maculhaney replied
"Yes, but I’ve always more favored green eggs and ham better.... I forgot, you hadn't met the Wee Morsel." She gently slid her fingers under the sleeping kitten, and lifted it out. It barely filled the palm of one hand. Sleep disturbed, the tiny thing mewed a nearly silent, feeble, protest, and I said,
"Good lord, its eyes aren't even open! Where did you get it? Doesn't it have a mother, someplace?"
"It did... she was a stray that some of the Army guys were feeding. They had her sort of tamed, but something went wrong, after she littered. The guys found her dead, and they went looking for the kittens. This one was the only one still alive. D'you know we have a veterinary detachment here, for the bomb dogs? Well, they took the kitten to the vet, and one of the Army guys is an old buddy of Leroy's husband. He is such a softie for our dumb chums, he begged Lee and I to take over, and we're such softies ourselves that we said we would."
All the while, Maculhaney was cuddling the kitten in one hand, and taking out a bottle of some thick, yellowish fluid out of the refrigerator with the other. Setting the bottle on the table, she took an eyedropper from some mysterious store in her battledress pockets, and began dribbling the fluid into the Wee Morsel's tiny pink mouth. "He... I know it's a he, got itsy, bitsy teensy balls...is about a week and a half old. We've been feeding him like this for about four days, and I think it's working. This stuff is condensed milk and water, with an egg yolk and some corn syrup mixed in."
The Wee Morsel sucked avidly on the eyedropper, wrapping his paws, fringed with translucent little claws, around it. It's ears lay close against the skull like delicate new leaves and the black and white fur was still so thin and short that the pink skin underneath could still be seen.
"Whatever are you going to do with it?" I asked, fascinated. I already had an idea for a human-interest essay taking form.
"Don't know,” Maculhaney refilled the dropper, deftly easing it into the tiny mouth, "Depends on if it lives... poor little thing! I've hand-raised kittens before, but they were older than this."
I noticed, however, that she stroked the Wee Morsel's head delicately, and as tiny as it was, it rose to meet the caress.
The events of the next week or so pretty well drove the existence of the Wee Morsel out of mind. Leroy told me later that she managed to buy a wicker travel basket on the local economy, when it became apparent that the Wee Morsel was going to live and needed a more suitable home than Maculhaney's helmet. I presume that he shared the subsequent hours and days in the shelter during Scud alerts, since Maculhaney and Leroy were conscientious mother-substitutes. I honestly did not become aware of his existence again until several weeks afterwards, during another one of my visits to what Orvis described as "Mi dump, su dump."
The black and white kitten drifted silently across the floor, after I had poured myself another cup of Leroy's ever-present herb tea, and regarded me solemnly.
"Good heavens, he has grown," I said, and Leroy laughed, and picked him up by the scruff of his neck and dropped him in my lap.
"He sure has, he's eating solid grown-up cat food now, and sleeping all through the night!"
Orvis, scowling at the letter pad propped against her knees, remarked
"Amen fo' that!"
"Wait till you have kids,” Leroy said knowingly, and Orvis replied
"They the trouble that lil' thang has been, then I won't ever... waking' up all nights, all hours, jus' cause that thang let out a peep!"
The "lil' thang" regarded me with ancient yellow-green eyes, and licked my wrist with a raspy pink tongue, before swarming up to table-top level, and crouching down, brief tail wrapped around haunches, to watch Leroy cleaning and reassembling a videotape recorder.
"The Prophet Mohammed is reported to have cut the sleeve off his robe, "I said seditiously, "Rather than disturb his pet cat, asleep on his arm,"
Orvis retorted unprintably, and Leroy scratched the Wee Morsel between his tiny ears,
"Aww, don' say that, Sunny... you just mad 'cause he put a dead scorpion on your pillow. That means he likes you."
"A mighty hunter before the Lord," Maculhaney remarked from her cot, where she was reading the latest "Atlantic", "He is looking for your affection and approval. Be a sport and play along, or we shall never be able to place him with a suitable human."
"I thought one of you would be taking him," I said, and Maculhaney replied, “I have two already, and they don't either of them takes kindly to interlopers. They are both elderly and cranky... it just wouldn't be fair."
"Mitch is allergic to cat dander,” Leroy said, "He can't even stand to be in a room where a cat has been. I'll have to wash everything that this lil' fellow has touched, else Mitch 'l be sneezing an' coughing 'til next Christmas."
"But what are you going to do when him, when you rotate home?" I said, and
"Oh, don't worry about it, we'll sort out something,”
I let the matter rest, for the moment. I knew as sure as the sun rose in the morning, Leroy and Maculhaney between them would see the piebald kitten to a loving home, with a commodious litter box and tuna on demand.
Away in the desert towards Iraq, Desert Storm broke and fell, and in a matter of weeks, Kuwait was liberated. I threw in my lot with a couple of old reporter friends who had plotted a lighting trip in a rented Range Rover--- another story I have told elsewhere. By the time I visited Leroy and Maculhaney again, the kitten was a gangly adolescent cat, wearing a bright red harness and leash, and riding Maculhaney's shoulder, as she walked along the main road through tent city. I had the driver let me off, and the first thing I said was,
"Wasn't there a popular song about taking the cat for a walk?"
"Norma Tanega, "Maculhaney answered instantly. Of course, she would know that. "'Walking My Cat Named Dog'... 1967ish, I believe."
She set the Wee Morsel down at her feet, and he scampered obediently at the end of his leash as we walked together. Nearly as many people stopped to pet him as spoke to Maculhaney. I had never seen a cat take very well to a leash before, and when I remarked on it she answered,
"I don't think he knows he's a cat. I'm not at all sure what he thinks he is, but he definitely thinks he's something more than a cat. He doesn't meow, for one. He tries, but all that comes out is a tiny squeak. And he's very much an inside cat. He won't go outside, unless one of us takes him. Since he has been handled constantly since birth, he has bonded very well to humans... we are pretty close to finding him a good home."
Inside the female NCO hooch, she unsnapped the leash, and the Wee Morsel made a beeline for Orvis' area,
"Long time, no see, Reporter Lady," said Orvis, in pleased surprise, "Dammit, cat, get outta there!" She scooped Wee Morsel out of an opened portabrace bag, "Go catch a rat, 'r somthin'! So where've you been keeping yourself? "
"Here and there,” I said, "I got a ride into Kuwait, stopped on the way back to liberate a cup of Leroy's Red Zinger."
"How did you find it all?" Maculhaney asked, and looked at the canvas ceiling when I answered,
"Basically, by following the road signs... actually? Looted to a faretheewell. They even ripped the sinks and toilets out of restrooms. I talked to some guys on the road out of town, they insisted there was a wrecked Iraqi truck full of sanitary napkins further up the road... do you know why a group of guys would rip off a truckload of sanitary napkins?"
"I haven't got an earthly idea," answered Maculhaney
"It sounds like a setup to a joke," Orvis said and Leroy suggested.
"Maybe they were trying to corner the market... looking to be the kings of the sanitary napkin black market." She capped that with a suggestion based on a crude slang expression and an ethnic slur, which was as apt as it was not repeatable in polite company. Maculhaney looked pained when the rest of us snickered guiltily, and I said,
"That's a headline that will never see the light of day. I actually thought about doing a story about your furry friend, here. I talked to my editor last night, and he's already drooling. Sort of human-interest thing. Resourceful American military women rescue and nurture a helpless little kitten, and seek good home for it. Played right, it would have people lined up to adopt the Wee Morsel, and get him a ride back to the States in royal comfort. It could put your names in the headlines,"
"And our asses in slings, "Orvis said, bluntly, "Cat, get yo' furry butt outta that bag!" She lifted Wee Morsel out of the portabrace again, and plunked him on her cot, where he licked his paws and pretended it had never happened. I looked at Leroy and Maculhaney, and they looked equally unenthused.
"It's a good idea, "Maculhaney finally allowed, with a diplomatic touch of polite enthusiasm. "It could work, too. But it only has about an eighty per-cent chance of working the way you wanted it to."
"Not even that good. I say sixty to seventy-per cent, "Leroy said, "Which means a twenty to forty per-cent chance of rebounding on us. It's a great idea... but I'd rather do this our way."
"But why?" I said, "A story would make you all look great. It would make the military look great... it's a win-win situation. Explain to me why it wouldn't work, as you see it."
"'Cause you don't know diddly 'bout how the military really works," Orvis said bluntly, "Fo' all you been hangin' with us, you still ain't got a clue."
"Explain it to me," I said, exasperated. "How could it make trouble for you?"
"Because this whole thing with the Wee Morsel has been... well, definitely against the rules," Maculhaney explained with her usual air of cynical detachment. "We have been keeping a pet in the barracks. Diverting Air Force time, energy and resources towards a questionable end. What if someone living here in the last four months had been allergic? That Army veterinarian wasn't over here to look after sick kittens. Those egg-yolks I got from the guys in the mess
certainly weren't suppose to be fed to them, either."
"We got away with it because no one here complained," Leroy added, "But I guaran-damn-tee, if you write your story, someone would raise a stink, no matter how cute other people think it 'ud be, no matter how many other people think it plays "abide with me" on the heartstrings! And it would just take one... some damnfool congressman, or some bastard of a retired colonel with his shorts in a twist about what women are doing in his military. Trust me, someone would see it their duty to see us nailed to the wall. And we'd be screwed, even if we weren't just ordered to dump him back where we found him."
"Which we wouldn't do, to start with,” Maculhaney said, "'Excuse us for caring, but
we're rather fond of the Wee Morsel."
"People over here now are pretty cool with it,” Orvis chimed in. I was interested to notice that she was ticking Wee Morsel's whiskers, "Hey, nothing's too good for our boys and girls in a war zone, we entitled to whatever keeps us outta the rubber room at Malcom Gow. But the war's about over, and the regular rules are gonna apply here. An' the biggest of the
rules is, "thou shalt not draw unfavorable attention". "
"Making a gesture might work, in the short term. It would get Wee Morsel back to the States and some cute pictures in the Sunday supplements, but when it all dies down, those that make the rules will be remembering that we rocked the boat. Like Leroy said, they'd see us nailed to the wall. Quiet honestly, I don't think my career can stand it." Maculhaney said, gravely and Leroy said,
"Mine for damn sure can't!"
"But it's a sure-fire story, “I protested, "Isn't there some way I can write it... maybe without mentioning names?"
"Lose our names, change some of the details," Maculhaney considered it soberly, "If you can wait a bit... once everyone rotates home, and starts to loose track of who was where, and did what with whom. It would still be a cute story..."
"And as cold as a plate of vichyssoise, “I conceded, "Well, if that's the only way it will fly... at least get me a picture of the Morsel to go with it."
"Deal," Leroy said, "As soon as you get a picture of him, then you can publish your story."
We shook hands on it, and I passed the rest of the afternoon in the manner of most of my other visits. I had intended to visit sooner, and have no one to blame but myself that several more weeks passed, and by that time, the tent city was in the process of being struck. The tents were empty, and half of them were down: I only recognized my friend's hooch because of the shelves that Leroy and Orvis had built, forlorn and abandoned outside, with a pile of some other trash and a stack of Maculhaney's old magazines. With a pang of disappointment, I walked toward the radio trailer, dreading to find that gone as well, but it was still there, although the contents were rapidly being disassembled and packed into a series of bulky square anvil cases under Leroy's stern eye.
"At least you're still here,” I said. She looked at her watch, and answered
"For another forty-six hours, and approximately twenty-two minutes... but who's counting?"
"I didn't know you were so short," I said, and Leroy cackled with laughter,
"Sugar, I am so short, I can't even carry on a long conversation! Maculhaney left yesterday, matter of fact. Sunny's been gone for, oh, nearly three weeks now. She sent me this..." Leroy fished out a scrap of paper from her breast pocket. "It's her parent's address, an' that picture we promised you."
I looked at the Polaroid, and recognized Orvis, skimpily and unfamiliarly clad in shorts and a tube top, sitting on the edge of a verandah, somewhere in the South by the look of the lush garden just visible beyond. The Wee Morsel himself lay adoringly in her lap, and I could think of nothing to say but,
"I didn't even think she liked cats... Orvis is the person you were trying to place him with? I can't even think of a time she wasn't shooing him out of her area, or complaining about him leaving dead scorpions on her pillow! Whatever made you think she would take him?"
"Well, the way he kept making up to her! Sunny, now, she never had a pet, growing up, with her father in the Army and all, so she had to get used to the idea.... There was this night when she was all upset about not hearing from her husband and that cat just crawled up on her bunk, and began licking the tears off her face, and purring and pushing his face into hers. I never seen a cat get so upset because someone was upset, before. Maculhaney didn't, neither. That baby cat just decided it was Sunny that he wanted for his human."
"Why didn't you tell me, then?"
"We couldn't, "Leroy answered, "She hadn't really said yes, at that point and we was still trying to work out the logistics. It was her Daddy helped the most, though. He was flying home commercial, and took him along as live cargo on his flight. It all went as easy as pie... you didn't need to write no sob-story stuff about him. We got it all scoped out."
"It certainly sounds like it," I said, "Since I have the picture, can I
write my story, now?"
"Be our guest," Leroy laughed, and added, "You ain't gonna use our real names, though? I'd hate people to know what a softie I am...jeeze!" her attention snapped to one of her sweating young troops, two of whom had just contrived to drop a large square case onto the ground, and she snarled "Be careful with that amp Airman, it cost more than you'll make in your next two
"They'll never guess," I said. "Never in the world."