Ted Kalvitis - Far Muse

At 65, Rosa, our neighbor across the field to the west, was imagining her relevance to be slipping away. That’s kind of early, but it does happen. I harbor hopes of being spared this experience as long as I can continue to entertain you, dear reader. However, I already have to keep a catalog of story titles in order not to tell the same stories over and over again in geezer fashion. But I’m wandering here, also in true geezer fashion.

Anyway, she raised quite a fuss about our 4 cats getting into her flower bed. I countered by showing her an advertisement for a sonic cat repeller and suggested that we give it a try, my treat. She thanked me but said that I needn’t bother then went on railing about our cats. This gave her a measure of authority and recognition — 2 things that she was really after.

She was a fine neighbor, otherwise, so we decided to honor her request to decrease our cat population. Remembering the cats in the dairy barn on my grandparent’s farm, I came up with the brilliant idea of giving them away as barn cats. Nostalgia wafted over me as I remembered the barn cats showing up at milking time and lunging at the stream from a cow’s udder directed toward them by a laughing older cousin.

However, as it turned out, you can’t make a barn cat out of a house cat. House cats, being people interactive are hip to the tricks, such as laying on their backs with their paws folded and looking at you upsidedown. We gave 2 cats to Daniel and Nancy Kidwell in Levels. The cats didn’t acknowledge their duty at the barn and arrived at the house on their regular feeding schedule, complaining about slow service.

The other 2 went to a barn in Frederick County, Va., to a young couple who had actually advertised in the Valley Trader as needing cats for their rented horse barn. Apparently, they were barn cat idealists like myself.

This lasted only a few days until the cats charmed their way into the couple’s house in a ritzy part of Old Town Winchester thus becoming ultra-pampered town cats.

It would seem that barn cats need to be somewhat feral before enlisting. To install a good cat in your barn, go to a mean part of town and trap a battle scarred alley cat. Take him by the vet’s office for shots, then release him (stand back) in the barn. With the barn now his gangland turf, he’ll tolerate no rivalry. The few surviving rodents will instantly evacuate, and the cat might even take down a groundhog just to make his point.

I really don’t know where my grandfather’s barn cats came from. Likely they were inherited with the farm when my family, new from Lithuania via Logan County where they made their fortune in bootlegging, bought the place around 1930. Perhaps their lineage goes back to the founding of the farm in the 1700s when cats were rare and in great demand for rodent control.

Anyway, only 200 years of inbreeding could explain their mean disposition. Backs arched and hackles raised, they hissed and growled from the hand-hewn beams. Only my grandfather and grandmother could handle any of them. Even lean and mean inbred barn cats know on which side the bread is buttered.

There was a collection of army surplus junk stored in the hayloft. Much of it seemed to relate to Air Corps activity, which remains a mystery since none of my uncles flew. There was also a GI office desk. It’s unlikely that any of them flew one of these either — just free stuff after the war, I guess.

Anyway, a curious barn snoop even then, I opened the deepest of the desk’s drawers and found a litter of kittens hissing and spitting at me. None of them were big enough to fill a teacup, but they were ready to take on an 8-year-old boy. I quickly closed the desk drawer. Fortunately, the mother cat wasn’t there.

After the farm was abandoned and the property under the barn sold to a developer, I answered a contractor’s request to salvage the barn wood with an indifferent shrug. The boards soon vanished only to reappear adorning the walls of a Princeton tavern. Perhaps the descendants of my grandfather’s barn cats live as house cats amid the new manicured lawns and posh lanes with woodsy names that now occupy the fields.

I don’t know when the barn cats at the old Miller place in North River Mills established themselves. I wouldn’t have noticed them when we lived at “The Mills” in the early 1980s. “There’s a barn so there’s a barn cat— big whoop.” So they might very well have been there then.

They may be descendants of Charley Miller’s huge gray lap cat, which might trace its lineage to generations of Miller cats, going back, possibly, for over a century — Confederate cats. It’s also possible that they were recently introduced. With no occupied dwelling nearby and the woods full of bears, cougars, snakes and raccoons the size of Fiats, a new arrival might feel inclined to tough it out at the barn, come what may.

For a period of time, the population of North River Mills was 1; the “mayor,” or actually, mare — Glen Burton’s horse. Glen boarded his horse at the big red barn across Cold Stream Road from the old Miller house. After he ceased boarding the horse there, he continued feeding the barn cats, which he was already in the habit of doing.

I never really got to know Mr. Burton; though we were nodding acquaintances ever since I delivered a wood stove to his home in the late ’70s. Glen passed away June 10.

Last Saturday, as I tinkered on a rifle at the shop, a fellow drove up to the barn and tapped his horn to summon the barn cats as Glen had previously done. At that distance, I couldn’t determine who this younger fellow (well duh — Glen was 92) was. I guess we can’t expect this fellow to call the cats in the same manner that Glen did.

Since I established the North River Mills shop in 2009, every afternoon spent there included a visit to the barn by Glen. I would quietly chuckle to myself as he called, “Heah, kittah kittah,” in his elegant tidewater accent. I’m going to miss that.

First published June 24, 2015

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