I wasn’t always a cat person.
I grew up in a family that usually included one or two indoor-outdoor cats – but they’d ranked well behind the invariable pair of dogs and my sister’s ponies.
Moreover, whatever affection I had developed for cats as a kid had been severely attenuated by a grad school year. I’d shared a Charlottesville apartment with two other guys – and a Maine coon cat who quickly decided that my loft – being the highest point in the place – belonged to him.
Our differences over that question brought out the worst in both of us.
So I managed to get well into middle-age without being overly fond of cats. And then, ten years ago, I unexpectedly became a cat person.
Or rather, a cat’s person.
It was a pristine summer morning – not too hot. I was standing in front of the house at Bermuda Hundred, talking with two visiting Civil War buffs, when we noticed a squad of tiny kittens approaching down the drive – five of them, in V-formation. Taking point was a strikingly-marked little fellow with a decisive air.
The leader of this feline patrol marched right past the two visitors and halted in front of me. Then he started clambering up my trouser leg. When he reached my waist, I picked him up, examined him, and asked who he might be.
And that’s how I met Sarge.
Of course, I didn’t know his name then, and Sarge hadn’t decided I was cleared for classified information at that level. But he and his siblings were a few weeks old, motherless, hungry, and in a rural landscape abounding in predators – unleashed dogs, occasional foxes – even American eagles and ospreys.
They needed help, and their leader had chosen me as the person most likely to provide it.
I talked things over with Mom, whose love of animals did much to shape our family. We decided to feed the kittens in an outbuilding and look for kind folks to adopt them.
I was scheduled to leave in a few days on a ten-day tour of Atlantic Canada. While I was gone, Mom would begin putting out the word about the kittens – but for some reason, I asked her not to let the leader be adopted.
And that’s how it all started.
It took a while for me to get onto a first-name basis with the new kitten. I tried out all sorts of names on him – mostly literary names, as I recall. Nothing worked. We were reasonably friendly by this time, but if I called him by a name that wasn’t his, he pointedly ignored me.
This went on for some time, until I noticed something about his markings.
The kitten was primarily a beautiful, pure white, but he had dramatic markings. His whole tail was black-and-grey tabby. There were black patches along his back, on the back of his head, and over each eye – and a tiny, bad-boy smudge on the tip of his nose.
There was also, I finally noticed, a light grey patch on his left front leg, crossed by three distinct, black stripes – almost like chevrons. When I finally took note of these, I asked him, “Hey, are you a sergeant?”
He looked around at me.
“Are you a Sarge?”
His gaze didn’t waiver. I was slow, but I had finally gotten it. He was Sarge, and always had been.
And thus we began our friendship.
Sarge was a big part of my life at home for seven years – until my sister offered to move in and take over Mom’s care. Sarge was so much at home at Bermuda Hundred, it seemed unfair to uproot him for the series of urban and small-town apartments I’ve occupied since.
For most of our seven years together, Sarge was my boon companion. And even when I left home – every time I visited, no matter what the hour – he would somehow know. I’d turn into the drive beside the house, and there he’d be – waiting right in front of my parking spot.
Despite an early surgery, Sarge was entirely male. He had swagger. As a young cat, I often thought of him in terms of The Fonz. By night, he ranged over a surprisingly large territory, and he gradually accumulated the scars of a warrior.
As he aged, Sarge developed more gravitas – but he never lost his swagger. It just became more adult – John Wayne instead of the teenage rebel.
But Sarge developed health issues, toward the end. It was almost certainly cancer that got him – far earlier than he deserved.
I’ll miss old Sarge – more than I’ve missed any pet I’ve ever know, even the dogs of my long-ago childhood.
In many ways, our pets define us. Sarge certainly defined me – or redefined me, in mid-life.
It was a privilege to know him.