How Brunhilda the Cat Became Rasputin… A Tale from The Bush Devil Ate Sam

Liberian Peace Corps photo by Curtis Mekemson.

A fading black and white photo shows children in Gbarnga, Liberia mugging for my camera in 1965. Life wasn’t easy– check out the head loads.

In 1965, my first wife, Jo Ann, and I joined the Peace Corps, graduated from UC Berkeley, and flew off to the country of Liberia where we were assigned as elementary school teachers in the upcountry town of Gbarnga. My book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam” relates our experiences at Berkeley and in Liberia.

January was the Liberian school equivalent of summer vacation and second year Peace Corps Volunteers took full advantage of it by chartering a jet airplane and flying off to East Africa. First year Volunteers were left behind and had to take on a ‘summer’ project.

I decided to write a second-grade reader while JoAnn worked with a blind student.

I had spent my first semester teaching a second-grade class where the children were expected to learn to read out of well-used 1950’s era California readers. It was hard for the kids to relate. The world of Dick and Jane in their big houses with white picket fences and white playmates in no way resembled the life of my kids in Gbarnga, as demonstrated by the photo above. As for Spot, he bore a striking resemblance to food.

I had plunged into my project: researching elementary school readers, gathering African folk tales, and putting together stories about the children that reflected their lives, not those of Dick and Jane. The country Peace Corps staff liked the book I submitted. They agreed to assign me an editor, an expert in elementary school education, and an illustrator. But it wasn’t to be. The government decided that my book on African Folk tales and Liberian children was somehow dangerous, a threat to its one-party state. Peace Corps told me to forget the book and not even bring it up in conversations. I might be kicked out of the country.

Fortunately, I had other things to occupy my mind. Jo and I had been assigned to teach at Gboveh High School our second semester and were moving across town. There were classes to prepare for and our ‘new’ house was in desperate need of a paint job. We had also assumed in loco parentis status. One of the second-year Peace Corps couples, Dick and Sandy Robb, had left four little female kittens to live with us while they flew off to East Africa. Our pay was to have the pick of the litter. Whoopee.

I had built our temporarily adopted cat family a three-story mansion out of cardboard. It was a maze of rooms, hanging toys, hallways and ramps. It even had a carpeted floor and a bathroom— a kitty litter box. The kittens would disappear inside and play for long periods. We could hear them banging around as they stalked each other and attacked the hanging toys.

In a creative moment inspired by the evening cocktail hour, we decided to use the house as an intelligence test to determine which kitten we would keep. First, we waited until the kittens were appropriately hungry, and then we brewed up their favorite meal, fish head stew. Here’s the recipe: Take several ripe fish heads and throw them in a pan of boiling water. When their eyes pop out, they’re done.

Next, we encouraged the kittens to sniff their gourmet dinner and showed them that the meal would be located just outside the ground floor door of their mansion. Now we were ready for the test. Each kitten would be placed inside the third story door and given a nudge. We would then close the door and time how long it took the kitten to reach the banquet. Our theory was that the kitten with the quickest time through the maze of hallways and ramps would be the brightest.

Grey Kitten # 1 was a pudgy little character that never missed a meal. My money was riding on her. She breezed through the maze in three minutes sharp and set the time to beat. There was a chance that the sound of her munching away on fish heads might inspire the other kittens on to even greater glory, however.

Grey Kitten #2 was one of those ‘whatever it is you want me to do I am going to do the opposite’ type cats. Not surprisingly, she strolled out of the door seven minutes later and ignored the food altogether. (Afterwards, we were to speculate that she was the most intelligent cat and blew the race because she had no intention of living with someone who made her go through a maze for dinner.)

Grey Kitten #3 was the lean and mean version. Scrawny might be a better description. She obviously needed dinner the most and proved her mettle by blazing through the house in two minutes. The contest was all but over.

Kitten # 4 was what pollsters normally classify as ‘other.’ To start with, she was yellow instead of grey. She was also loud. In honor of her operatic qualities, Jo had named her Brunhilda, after the Wagnerian opera star. By the time her turn came up, she was impatiently scratching the hand that was about to feed her and growling in a demonic way. I gladly shoved the little monster in the third story door and closed it. We heard a scrabbling on the other side as tiny claws dug into the cardboard floor. Her race down the first hall was punctuated by a loud crash on the other end. Brake problems.

Then she was up and running again, but it sounded like toward us. Had her crash disoriented her? Suddenly the third story door burst open and one highly focused yellow kitty went flying through the air. She made a perfect four-point landing and dashed to the dinner dish. Her time? Ten seconds.

And that is how Brunhilda came to be our cat. Our decision to keep her led us to turn her over and check out her brunhildahood a little more closely. Turns out she had a couple of furry little protuberances where there shouldn’t have been any. She was a he. In honor of Brunhilda’s demonic growl and generally obnoxious behavior, we renamed the kitten Rasputin after the nefarious Russian monk.

Rasputin surrounded by Rhinoceros beetles.

 

If you have enjoyed this story and the many other tales I share, you might also enjoy “The Bush Devil Ate Sam.” It’s available in both Kindle and paperback form here on Amazon. For other sources such as Apple, click on the book cover top right.

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Chapter 23: Rasputin and the Cockle Doodle Rooster

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.

When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.

rasputin B&W copy

My only picture of Rasputin has suffered with age but here he is communing with Rhinoceros Beetles. I will discuss the beetles in a later chapter.

Rasputin had grown into one fine tomcat, sweet meat as my kids said. He did not grieve over Boy’s untimely demise, quite the opposite. Now he could resume his rightful role as Dominant Animal.

His primary responsibility under this job title was dog stalker. You knew when he was at work because the neighborhood dogs carefully avoided the tall clumps of grass where he liked to hide. He was particularly obnoxious when it was windy. He could hide down wind and make it more difficult for the dogs to sniff him out. I felt for the poor dog that came too close.

A streak of yellow and a yip of surprise proclaimed his attack. What made his behavior particularly strange was that he came at the dogs on his two hind legs, walking upright. This allowed both front legs to be used as slashing weapons. It was the wise dog that steered clear.

This wasn’t Rasputin’s only trick. He could also do flips. I had taught him how and was quite proud of my accomplishment. Each night Rasputin and I would head for the bedroom where I would flip him several times in a row on the bed. He was usually good for about ten before he would attack me, thus signaling that the game was over.

Jo thought it was cruel but I told her it was quality bonding time. It also turned out to be a valuable skill. One evening when the ricebirds were returning to their nests we saw a yellow flash out the window. Rasputin leapt into the air, did a flip and came down with bird a la carte. After that I figured Rasputin had graduated so we didn’t practice anymore.

Another game we played was leap snake. It was quite similar to leap-frog except the objective was to see how high Rasputin could jump in the air. On a good night he would clear five feet.

The rules of the game were that I would detach the spring from our screen door and roll it across the floor. Rasputin, who had a Liberian’s instincts, assumed that anything long and twisty was a snake and that all snakes were deadly poisonous. His response was to shoot straight into the air and land several feet away. It was one of those situations where you leap first and ask questions afterward. In this case, Rasputin was guilty of jumping to the wrong conclusions.

One way he returned the favor of my hassling him was to wake me up at 5:30 in the morning, demanding to be let in. He did this by practicing his operatic meows under our bedroom window.

Since no amount of suggesting that he should learn from Boy’s experience discouraged him, I jumped out of bed one morning and chased him across the yard. This got Jo Ann excited. Our cat was going to run away and never come back. Jo may have also been concerned about the neighbor’s reaction to me charging out of the house naked. That type of thing bothered her. I promised to repent and assured her that the cat would be back in time for dinner. He was.

I think Rasputin subcontracted with the rooster next door to wake us when he was out tomcatting. I didn’t make this correlation until the rooster crowed directly under our window one morning at 5:30. Even then I thought it was just a coincidence until the rooster repeated himself the next morning.

It wasn’t just the crowing that irritated me; it was the nature of the crow. American and European roosters go cock-a-doodle-do. Even urban children know this because that’s how it is spelled out in books. Liberian roosters go cock-a-doodle… and stop. You are constantly waiting for the other ‘do’ to drop.

“This crowing under our window,” I thought to myself, “has to be nipped in the bud.”

That evening I filled a bucket with water and put it next to my bed. Sure enough at 5:30 the next morning there he was: “COCK-A-DOODLE!”  I jumped up, grabbed my bucket, and threw the water out the window on the unsuspecting fowl. “Squawk!” I heard as one very wet and irritated rooster headed home as fast as his little rooster legs could carry him.

“Chicken,” I yelled out after his departing body. “And that,” I said to Jo Ann, “should be the end of that particular problem.”

I was inspired though. Cats don’t think much of getting wet either. What if I kept a bucket of water next to the bed and dumped it on Rasputin the next time he woke us up. Jo couldn’t even blame me for running outside naked. With warm thoughts of having solved two problems with one bucket, I went to bed that night loaded for cat, so to speak.

“COCK-A-DOODLE” roared the rooster outside our window precisely at 5:30.

“Damn,” I thought, “that boy is one slow learner.”

I fell out of bed, grabbed the bucket and dashed for the window. There was no rooster there. I looked up and spotted him about half the way to Bonal’s house. He was running at full tilt across the yard away from our window. He had slipped up on us, crowed and taken off! My opinion of the rooster took a paradigm leap. Here was one worthy opponent. The question was how to respond.

It took me a couple of days of devious thinking to arrive at a solution. What would happen if I recorded the rooster on a tape recorder and then played it back? I had a small hand tape recorder that I used for exchanging letters with my dad so I set myself the task of capturing the rooster’s fowl language. Since he had an extensive harem he liked to crow about, it wasn’t long before I had a dozen or so cock-a-doodles on tape. I rewound it, cranked up the volume and set the recorder up next to our front screen door.

The results were hilarious. Within seconds the rooster was on our porch, jumping up and down and screaming ‘cock-a-doodle.’ There was a rooster inside of our house that had invaded his territory and he was going to tear him apart, feather-by-feather. Laughing I picked up the recorder, rewound it, carried to the back screen door, and hit the play button.

“Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle,” I could hear the rooster as he roared around to the back of house to get at his implacable foe. Back and forth I went, front to back, back to front. And around and around the house the rooster went, flinging out his challenges.

Finally, having laughed myself to exhaustion, I took pity on my feathered friend and shut the recorder off.  This just about concludes the rooster story, but not quite.

One Friday evening, Jo and I had been celebrating the end of another week with gin and tonics until the wee hours when we decided to see how the rooster would respond to his nemesis at one o’clock in the morning. Considering our 5:30 am wakeup calls, we felt there was a certain amount of justice in the experiment. I set it up the recorder and played a “Cock-a-doodle.”

“COCK-A-DOODLE?!” was the immediate response. No challenge was to go unanswered. “Cock-a-doodle” we heard as roosters from the Superintendent’s compound checked in. “Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle” we heard in the distance as town roosters rose to the challenge. Soon every rooster in Gbarnga was awake, and probably every resident.

Jo and I decided to keep our early morning rooster-arousing episode to ourselves.

Rasputin the Cat and the Cockle Doodle Rooster

(This is the fourth in a series of travel blogs I am writing about my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia West Africa in honor of the Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary. In this article Rasputin the Cat and the Cockle Doodle Rooster team up to drive me crazy. In my last blog I described how Rasputin ended up being our cat. I first introduced Rasputin in the story about how Boy the Bad Dog became the entrée at an African feast.)

Rasputin did not grieve over Boy’s untimely demise, quite the opposite. Now he could resume his rightful role as Dominant Animal. Dog stalker was his primary responsibility under this job title. We knew when he was at work because the neighborhood dogs carefully avoided the tall clumps of grass where he liked to hide. He was particularly obnoxious when it was windy; the dogs couldn’t sniff him out.

A streak of yellow and a yip of surprise proclaimed Rasputin’s attack. He came at the dogs on his two hind legs, walking upright. This allowed both front legs to be used as slashing weapons. It was the wise dog that steered clear.

This wasn’t Rasputin’s only trick. He could also do flips. I had taught him how and was quite proud of my accomplishment. Each night Rasputin and I would head for the bedroom where I would flip him several times in a row on the bed. He was usually good for about ten before he would attack me, thus signaling that the game was over.

My wife thought it was cruel but I told her it was bonding time. It also turned out to be a valuable skill. One evening when the rice birds were returning to their nests, we saw a yellow flash out the window. Rasputin leapt into the air, did a flip and came down with bird a la carte. After that I figured Rasputin had graduated from flip school so we didn’t practice anymore.

Leap snake was another game we played. It was quite similar to leap-frog except the objective was to see how high Rasputin could jump. On a good night he would clear five feet. The rules of the game were simple. I would detach the spring from our screen door and roll it across the floor. Rasputin, who had a Liberian’s instincts, assumed that anything long and twisty was a snake and that all snakes were deadly poisonous.

His response was to shoot straight into the air and land several feet away. It was a situation where you leap first and ask questions afterward. In this case, Rasputin was guilty of jumping to the wrong conclusions.

One way he returned the favor of my hassling him was to wake me up at 5:30 every morning, demanding to be let in. He did this by practicing his operatic meows under our bedroom window. Since no amount of suggesting that he should learn from Boy’s experience discouraged him, I jumped out of bed one morning and chased him across the yard.

This got Jo Ann excited. Our cat was going to run away and never come back. Jo may have also been concerned about the neighbor’s reaction to my charging out of the house naked. That type of thing bothered her. I promised to repent and assured her that the cat would be back in time for dinner. He was.

Rasputin subcontracted with the rooster next door when he was out tomcatting. I didn’t make this correlation until the rooster crowed directly under our window one morning at 5:30. Even then I thought it was just a coincidence until he repeated himself the next morning.

It wasn’t just the crowing that irritated me; it was the nature of the crow. American and European roosters go cock-a-doodle-do. Even kids from New York City and London know this because that’s how it is spelled out in books. Liberian roosters go cock-a-doodle… and stop. You are constantly waiting for the other ‘do’ to drop.

“This crowing under our window,” I thought to myself, “has to be nipped in the bud.” That evening I filled a bucket with water and put it next to my bed. Sure enough at 5:30 the next morning there he was: “COCK-A-DOODLE!”  I jumped up, grabbed my bucket, and threw the water out the window on the unsuspecting fowl. “Squawk!” I heard as one very wet and irritated rooster headed home as fast as his little rooster legs could carry him.

“Chicken,” I yelled out after his departing body. “And that,” I said to Jo Ann, “should be the end of that particular problem.” I was inspired though. Cats don’t think much of getting wet either. What if I kept a bucket of water next to the bed and dumped it on Rasputin the next time he woke us up. Jo couldn’t even blame me for running outside naked. With warm thoughts of having solved two problems with one bucket, I went to bed that night loaded for cat, so to speak.

“COCK-A-DOODLE!” roared the rooster outside our window precisely at 5:30.

“Dang,” I thought, “that boy is one slow learner.”  I fell out of bed, grabbed the bucket and dashed for the window. There was no rooster there. I looked up and spotted him. He was running at full tilt across the yard away from our window. He had slipped up on us, crowed and taken off!

My opinion of the rooster took a paradigm leap. Here was one worthy opponent. The question was how to respond. It took me a couple of days of devious thinking to arrive at a solution. What would happen if I recorded the rooster on a tape recorder and then played it back?

I had a small hand tape recorder that I used for exchanging letters with my dad so I set myself the task of capturing the rooster’s fowl language. Since he had an extensive harem he liked to crow about, it wasn’t long before I had a dozen or so cock-a-doodles on tape. I rewound it, cranked up the volume and set the recorder up next to our front screen door.

The results were hilarious. Within seconds the rooster was on our porch, jumping up and down and screaming cock-a-doodle. There was a rooster inside of our house that had invaded his territory and he was going to tear him apart, feather-by-feather.

Laughing, I picked up the recorder, rewound it, carried to the back screen door, and hit the play button again.

“Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle,” I could hear the rooster as he roared around to the back of house to get at his implacable foe. Back and forth I went, front to back, back to front. And around and around the house the rooster went, flinging out his challenges.

Finally, having laughed myself to exhaustion, I took pity on my feathered friend and shut the recorder off.  This just about concludes the rooster story, but not quite. One Friday evening, Jo and I had been celebrating the end of another week into the wee hours when we decided to see how the rooster would respond to his nemesis at one o’clock in the morning.

Considering our 5:30 am wakeup calls, we felt there was a certain amount of justice in the experiment. I set it up the recorder and played a “Cock-a-doodle.”

“COCK-A-DOODLE!” was the immediate response. No challenge was to go unanswered. “Cock-a-doodle” we heard as roosters from the Superintendent’s compound checked in. “Cock-a-doodle, cock-a-doodle” we heard in the distance as town roosters rose to the challenge. Soon every rooster in Gbarnga was awake and crowing and probably every resident was awake and cursing.

Jo and I decided to keep our early morning rooster-rousing experiment to ourselves.

(In my next travel blog on Peace Corps I will discuss the special power of the Lightning Man who could make lighting strike anyone who wronged you.)

Special note from BONE:

I just learned about the Bunnock Competition in Macklin, Saskatchewan Canada from Bruce and Nancy Campbell, friends of Curt’s brother Marshall. The symbol for the competition is a 33 foot high bone sculpture that is an exact replica of me. What smart people the folks of Macklin must be! Check the sculpture out at the Macklin site http://www.macklin.ca/bunnoc.htm.

Bone