[Cover graphic by KWillow]
First, you must understand that I knew cats could swim.
When I was a young boy, on several occasions we took our cat with us when my family stayed the weekend with my grandmother at her house on the lake. Charley was a tawny-orange, tabby-striped tomcat, neutered, although that didn't seem to have toned down his pugnacity by the slightest degree. He was a raffish beast with notched ears, a crooked jaw and a missing lower canine. So whenever he purred, he'd drool, giving him an often fatally deceptive appearance of total idiocy.
I suspect the lake was Charley's idea of a little slice of Paradise, complete with all the delicious, crunchy fish heads he could eat. One day, after watching us intently for a while as we cavorted in the lake, he decided he'd give it a try, too. He waded out into the water, hesitantly, until he was about chest-high, then a small wave lifted him up and he began to swim. He dog-paddled in circles for a bit, until I think it came to him what an un-feline thing he was doing, and he returned to shore.
But the secret was out. And as I recall, he did this several more times on succeeding visits.
In those summers before home air conditioners were widely available (or at least, within our price range) my family often spent weekends out at the lake house with my maternal grandmother, Greyson, and her second husband. One of the best things about this old farmhouse she owned -- which sat close by the lake, having missed by about five feet of elevation being inundated when that section of the Cumberland River was dammed -- was the beach.
Before the lake was created, a wide two-lane driveway ran from the main highway between stone walls, across a creek, past the farmhouse to the antebellum mansion which was set back in the woods about a quarter-mile away. That now-submerged avenue was probably the best swimming area on that entire lake. Instead of the usual mud, rocks, roots, beer bottles and cans of your typical TVA lake bottom, we had a gently inclined pea-gravel surface on which you could walk a considerable distance out into the water before it was over your head. And it was exclusively ours, since except for a clear section by the lake the rest of that roadway was by then choked with privet hedge and honeysuckle. My Grandma knew how to pick 'em.
The farmhouse itself was nothing fancy, just three main rooms: a living room/kitchen, two bedrooms, and a minuscule bathroom with an antique cast-iron tub. It had a big screened-in side porch overlooking the lake, including a small breakfast nook. And a stone fireplace in the living room which always smoked at first, no matter how wide you opened the damper, until the fire was hot enough to generate a proper updraft. (As we later discovered when we needed to replace some siding, the house had accreted around the original log "purchase cabin", which probably dated back to the early 1800s.)
One summer, when I was 12, I spent a couple of weeks there, just me with my grandmother and her second husband and their elderly dog, Frisky. And a white cat which had lately decided to start hanging around the place, why, I have no idea, since as far as I know, neither of my grandparents had ever been cat people, and I'm fairly certain they didn't feed him. I think (hope) he came from a nearby farm. But for whatever reason, he attached himself to me, and would follow me around all day.
In the morning, while I waited -- oh, an eon or two -- for the adults to get up and have their coffee, rather than watching the Farm Report on the only TV channel available in what was then the rural hinterlands, I'd paddle around in an aluminum jon boat, keeping close to the shore, in shallow water. (Not that I was afraid of the water, or couldn't swim: far from it. I just didn't want to chance missing out on breakfast!) I can't remember whether I was the one who coaxed the cat onto the boat, or if he just invited himself. Regardless, every morning he'd hop into the boat and go for a ride with me, sitting in the bow, looking every bit as dignified as Washington crossing the Delaware, while I meandered around in the shallows.
Despite the vaguely Tom Sawyer-ish sound of all this, after the initial fascination that most young children have with the sport, fishing bored the hell the hell out of me. So I never took a rod, much less a stringer, with me on these excursions.
On this particular morning in mid-July, the day was still and already turning hot. As I paddled slowly past an old tree stump jutting up from the lake about twenty feet or so offshore, without the slightest warning, the water suddenly erupted beside me -- and a huge bass plopped into the boat, right at my feet!
I nearly jumped out the other side of the boat. This was of course so completely unexpected a development that at first I was too stunned to do anything other than reflexively lift my feet (I was in shorts and my footgear consisted of nothing but a pair of cheap flip-flops) to try to keep from being painfully finned by this very large, wildly thrashing and flopping fish.
The cat, however, instantly grasped the essentials of the situation: he latched onto that fish with teeth and all four paws'-worth of claws. So now I had to deal with about ten pounds of tough, wiry cat -- grimly determined to retain at all costs this bounty from the Cat Gods -- attached to five pounds of energetically uncooperative bass. This is the point at which, if this had been a Warner Bros. Cartoon, the two would have merged into a yowling, flopping whirlwind of scales, claws, fins and white fur.
I somehow managed to separate them -- acquiring only superficial wounds in the process -- while frantically yelling for my grandmother to throw me a stringer. But now I was confronted with the triple dilemma of how to simultaneously keep the two critters separate, prevent the fish from flipping back into the water, and steer the boat to shore.
Something had to go. This is why I wanted it understood that I knew cats could swim, when I tell you I tossed this one into the lake. I'd never have done it, otherwise. We were close to shore, in water only a little over a foot deep, so I figured he was in no danger.
But I'd made a mistake: At this point the boat had turned roughly parallel to the bank, and I had pitched him out the side opposite the shore. So the boat was between him and dry land. He simply swam right back, scrambled over the gunwale and immediately launched himself at the bass again. After I once more pried them apart, this time I had smarts enough to heave the cat out the other side, toward the bank. He landed about five feet from shore. As I expected, he didn't try to swim out to the boat. He stalked ashore, shook himself, and began to pace along the top of the low bank. While giving me the kitty stink-eye.
I finally managed to subdue the bass after whacking it with the paddle a few times, then holding it down carefully but firmly with my feet while I brought the jon boat to shore.
On reflection, the smarter move would probably have been to wait until we landed, and then remove the cat from the fish. I can only figure it was some deeply-ingrained reflex hanging around from the days of Oog the Australopithecus which made me immediately dispute possession of that bass. This overly-ambitious feline was bound to be disappointed, though, so perhaps it was better that I made my point sooner, rather than later.
Though I took up angling again when I was in my 20s, this remains the largest bass I've ever caught -- and I wasn't even fishing at the time! But for years I lacked any photographic proof, at least of the cat-riding-in-the-boat part of this story. Then I recently came across this picture in an old photo album which belonged to my grandmother.
The geeky-looking kid is me, the almost invisible black dog with the gray muzzle standing by my feet is Frisky, and the white cat looking down into the water is of course the nameless cat.
I don't know whether the picture was taken before or after the bass incident. I'm inclined to think it was before. After so many years, I'm not certain, but I seem to recall that this feline/human friendship may have cooled a bit after that.
I never saw him again, after those two weeks.