Lions and Tigers and….
Once upon a time, my husband had a talisman he held over me that could always reduce me to rage and then deep, utter, despair. I know he loves our two feline despots, but he knows that MY affection for all things animal, and in particular cat-related, knows no bounds. So, when he was on a “business trip” to South Africa, one I was not allowed to go on, he came home with a T-Shirt of a tiger for me with the words “South Africa” emblazoned across the chest…..and a poorly drawn image of a tiger as well. The cheesy “my husband went to South Africa and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt” jokes aside, that WAS all I got. But the bigger surprise was the photo (one he has viciously held over my bruised psyche for decades) of him cuddling a BABY TIGER. I have steadfastly refused to even listen to any narrative surrounding this, what I consider to be marital abuse, obnoxious escapade. Don’t tell; Don’t care. The shirt is still around but relegated to the rag bin now, thankfully used to mop up spills, and my occasional, despondent, tears.
Truth be told I have lived an amazing life, with or without close encounters of the large cat kind (sniff, sniff); right places, right times, eyes open, and lived long enough to tell about it. Blessed by any standards. Just one small story exemplifies the times I have had. I have dined out on this story for almost fifty years and it took almost that long for ANYone to believe its veracity.
Back when I was 18 and a freshman at the University of Wisconsin (very brief but tragically, legally, brought to a quick end) (another day), my cousin Claire and I had ventured across the Mississippi on the Old Dresbach Bridge, a plate and girder nightmare, and up the bluffs to a pseudo bar/club/dance hall that only rural America can grow and maintain. We went to hear and dance to a “new” band called Rufus, just breaking into mainstream radio play in 1970. Winona, Minnesota in 1970 had few, if any black folks back then. Rufus was a mélange of blonde, Barry Gibb sorts and black horn and rhythm players, not exactly Minnesota ready but the buzz was hot.
During the evening they had a dance contest, winnowing out the contestant couples by audience and band approval or disapproval. As the contest heated up the contestants shrunk; four, three, two couples, and there was one. Claire and I won the contest! I assume free drinks were involved but that memory has since departed. What stuck, what really came into focus a few years later, was that the female lead singer who awarded us “the win” was none other than Chaka Khan; yes, that Chaka Kahn.
To say that no one believed this cocktail ditty 30 or 40 years on is to put it mildly. With no cell photo video to offer up, I simply smiled to myself at the memory and moved on. Just a couple of years ago, Claire was down visiting for our collective birthdays. Friends were gathered for a bottle of wine, or ten and tales were being trotted out. Suddenly, without warning or preamble, Claire pipes in and says, “Remember when we won that dance contest with Chaka Khan???”
Stunned is a good word. I doubt even Dave had believed me on this one but from that moment on, my “tall tales” gained a whole new track of respectability. Claire was mercilessly questioned; they practically separated us to drag out conflicting details. Even down to the rusted-out floorboards on her boyfriend’s VW Microbus, there were none.
So now, with Dave’s lording of the “I cuddled a tiger cub” story over my head, something happened. I can only call it a miracle. Another cousin has been sorting through her late mother’s effects and is down to boxes of clippings and photos my aunt had squirrelled away over a lifetime. I should mention here that my mother and aunts and uncles were all raised in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, across the river from Winona.
An email popped in last night with the heading “You never TOLD me this?” Another devoted cat fan, she had found a clipping from the LaCrosse Tribune 50-odd years ago. Apparently, yours truly had ridden a lion, on TV (the Garry Moore Show to be specific), and the resulting newspaper article had made it from my hometown (Washington, D.C.) to the LaCrosse Tribune where my grandparents were still living. While there is no photo there IS media and my cousin Marty, being a veteran, legit, reporter, is frantically searching old Garry Moore archives from those years to see if there is tape!
So, I now have my “evidence”, my Kitty Kuddle moment. I didn’t just have a cub plopped in my lap for a phot-op I actually rode on top of a lion, on national TV, CBS to be exact. The truly odd/sad part is I have NO memory of this! If the article was not so detailed even I might doubt it’s veracity but here it is, in faded yellow and brown:
Odd though, what I do remember is riding on Pick Temple’s pony, Piccolo, on a local kiddie’s TV show in D.C. at about the same time. Pick was the local version of our own Gene Autrey or Roy Rogers; he just never made it out of the junior leagues. We were all called Buckaroos and got sheriff’s stars and wore cowboy gear to the show. Maybe the reason I remember Pick and Piccolo so well is that as events would unfold, Piccolo came to his retirement on the farm next door to my house where I tended to him, mucking his stall and grooming him, until the day he died. Which I guess gives an odd nod to the old adage:
I DO remember shit.
That’s Piccolo’s saddle in the foreground.