Docked in the Hudson River as the centrepiece of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, the aircraft carrier Intrepid stands as a witness to the atrocities and friendships that have been borne out of war. More than 50,000 men have served on board since its launch in 1943 surviving kamikaze attacks and missile strikes as it continued on its mission to defend its honour and provide a safe haven for its occupants during World War II, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. I wonder what life was like at sea during conflict and whether they would have liked a cat on board to help control the mouse population and give them something furry and warm to snuggle at night. Perhaps that’s a question best answered by someone who was there, like one of the US Navy veterans who volunteer at the Museum educating visitors on how the ship was run and speaking about their personal experiences. I got talking with one of them who stood proudly in the Squadron Ready Room wearing his USS Intrepid bomber jacket and cap with his rank insignia and service stripes on his arm. He let me take the helm on the navigation bridge and showed me the chart tables, radar consoles and communications equipment. As I sat on the comfortable slightly torn tan leather chair in front of the radar scopes and plotting boards, I imagined the burden of responsibility held by the Captain the moment that red phone rang with the orders to engage the enemy.
One floor down is the flight deck which exhibits a collection of lovingly restored aircraft, propeller driven jets that supported US ground troops in Vietnam and helicopters that recovered the NASA astronauts in the 1960s. I strolled along the deck under the pale blue sky admiring the different shapes and abilities of the flying machines before me when a sleek dark lean machine caught my eye. It was the A-12 Blackbird and reminded me of myself, jet black, powerfully built and formidable. Don’t laugh! I might be more generously proportioned and a lot less intimidating, but I’m just as glossy and appealing to the eye. Shape-wise I’m probably more akin to the H-19 Chickasaw chopper with its chunky dark blue body, soft rounded nose and nifty foldaway blades. Many of the planes had menacing names like the delta wing Skyhawk, the Crusader, Sea Cobra and Fighting Falcon. I noticed several were named after my own kind like the Cougar, the Tiger and the F-14 Tom Cat which was the fighter jet featured in the movie Top Gun.
The hangar deck displays some of the technology and hardware that supported the ship before it was decommissioned in 1974 and chronicles its history as well as telling the human story through archival footage. My attention was drawn by the sound of a human in distress and I looked up to see historic videotape of a crew member being interviewed, weeping as he spoke of the horrors he had witnessed during a battle. As I walked away I looked behind me and noticed that the people watching the video screen with sorrow in their eyes were from many different countries. It filled me with hope for humanity to think that if different races could be united in their sadness, perhaps they can face other challenges together towards a goal of peace. Cats like peace and I’m lucky to have lots of it at home, apart from when the cat from down the road trespasses in my garden and we have fisticuffs under the kitchen door much to John’s displeasure. The gap under the door is one inch wide so the only thing that gets damaged is our pride as we smack each other’s paws in territorial defiance of each other. It’s ridiculous really and I soon grow weary, amble back to my food bowl to check for leftovers and curl up on my favourite bed, gathering my strength for the next skirmish. By the way, in answer to my earlier question, the veteran told me he would have loved a cat a board but it probably wouldn’t have been fair to the cat. So he now has a cat at home who sounds like she’s as happy and spoilt as I am.
My New York adventure has taken me to the jungle, the Jurassic period and the top of a skyscraper. Now I would feel like I was boldly going where no cat had gone before as John and I made our way across the deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise. We walked through a dark entrance to the sound of real-life conversations between mission control and the Enterprise pilots during their flight tests and through a shadowy corridor decorated with eerily lit signs stating “Houston is go for take-off”, “Nothing endures but change” and “All engines running, we have lift-off”. The corridor led to a large chamber and I emerged cautiously, looking intently around expecting to see an astronaut hopping along the floor in a puffy white space-suit or a green eight-tentacled alien creeping out from behind one of the concrete pillars in the centre of this mystical space. I started to imagine a planet of cats that each lived in a house with a garden and had all their meals and entertainment provided by miniature purple people.
I started to wonder if such a place existed on the other side of the moon when I looked up and saw the vast white-tiled silhouette of the space shuttle Enterprise suspended directly above me. The engines, rocket boosters and fuel tank had been removed leaving the orbiter section which would have housed the orbital manoeuvring systems, science lab and sleeping areas for the astronauts. The Space Shuttle Enterprise was named after a fictional star-ship on John’s favourite TV series Star Trek (he’ll grumble at me for telling you that!). Unveiled in 1976, it was the first NASA orbiter and paved the way for the space shuttle program by performing test flights and acting as a prototype. There were stairs at the far end of the room that led to an elevated platform for a better view of the space-craft where I could picture the crews’ faces pressed against those tiny windows as they orbited the earth and experienced the intense vibrations that would represent the different stages of launch. All around the room were displays of flight instruments, photos, films and other original artefacts depicting the design of the space shuttle, as well as an orbital Soyuz space capsule designed by the Soviet space programme. I was flabbergasted to read on the information board that this small spherical space at around 2½ metres in diameter was the habitat module which carried equipment and cargo and even housed a toilet. It is just large enough to accommodate 3 people as long as they don’t want to lie down!
Now to the bottom of the briny deep in Submarine Growler, the only American guided missile submarine that is open to the public. When John suggested we get on board, I agreed but only because I thought he’d say no! I was worried about fitting my ample frame through the restrictive hatches or lost in its endless parallel corridors that all looked the same. But I had made a commitment and I’m not one to take that lightly so with my ears swivelling madly I lifted my nose in the air and strode up the bouncing metal staircase to the entrance hatch on the hull. With a secret sigh I climbed down the steep steps into this metal casket and imagined the bulkheads bending and creaking as the captain ordered the boat into a deep dive. We moved through various compartments including the aft torpedo room, the attack centre, the galley and crew’s mess. The Growler’s two periscopes were located in the centre of the control room and the cramped crew quarters were packed with small bunks from floor to ceiling.
It must have been hard for the sailors on board to have no contact with the outside world for months at a time, not to mention climbing all those ladders between decks which must have been exhausting. With so many doorways to get through, John and I soon got into a rhythm with John sashaying through each hatch sideways (his narrower aspect) and ducking so as not to hit his head while I developed a rather graceful leap over the high ledge at each access point only slipping once on a grease patch (which wasn’t my fault). As I headed up the almost vertical steps to the exit hatch and felt the fresh sea air rippling past my whiskers, I spared a thought for those who fought and died in submarines just like this one. It’s a piece of history and history should never be forgotten.
Every year in the UK many people celebrate the gunpowder plot of 1605 when Catholic conspirators including Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James I in protest at the way Catholics were treated by the authorities. The plot was foiled and the rebels were caught but the events continue to be commemorated on 5th November with bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes. I’m not sure whether this is to commend Fawkes’ efforts to do away with the government, to celebrate his failure, or simply an excuse for people to set fire to things and make a whole lot of noise. Either way, it’s an intriguing human tradition full of contradictions as are many of your rituals. On the one hand bonfire night is a sociable affair that can bring together families, friends and strangers with the common purpose of getting to know each other and enjoying the festivities. On the other hand people have serious accidents as a result of fireworks and I’ve heard about some deliberate acts of cruelty to animals at this time.
I don’t mind sitting on my favourite window ledge watching the pyrotechnics flashing and banging in the sky as peoples’ money goes up in smoke! However not all cats are like me and this is a frightening and dangerous time for many pets that are scared and confused by the unnatural sights and thunderous sounds of fireworks. So please keep your pets in at night, stick to public firework displays that are safer and kinder to your neighbours rather than buying your own, and if you attend a bonfire don’t forget to protect the wild animals that make their home in the kindling having no idea that it will be set ablaze. If you enjoy being part of the celebrations, have fun and stay safe. If you don’t, hang in there, it’ll soon be over!
Last weekend at Wiston Park in Steyning thousands of people gathered together to celebrate the age of steam and it was wonderful to see young and old joining together to be part of a community event. The Wiston Steam Fair is volunteer-led, no big corporations, just charitable organisations and local businesses keen to commemorate the development of the commercial steam engine and show-off their steam-related contraptions. It’s a far cry from the digital world we live in now and it’s a reminder of life before automation when people lived and worked in the country, handcrafting goods in workshops and not washing their hands. Then steam power replaced wind and water power as a means to drive machinery during the industrial revolution in the late 19th century and humanity plunged down a new trajectory that would change the face of the world in many ways.
Thankfully the mid-morning sun was a pleasant 19c as opposed to the crazy 26c the south coast had endured over the previous few days, so the grass felt cool under my paws and John didn’t have to pack my frozen water bottle which I lick when I get too hot. As we wandered along the rows of exhibits, my senses were stirred by bizarre sounds and smells like the pungent whiff of hot-dogs and chips and the discordant mix of tunes from the carnival rides and the fairground organ. I stood mesmerised by the carousel going round and round with the porcelain ponies going up and down and I had to fight the urge the jump up for a ride. I thought it would be fun and I was sure an attractive black feline would get a discount on the admission price so I hopped on, picturing myself sitting debonair atop a haughty horse. Sadly the reality was quite different and the undulating flow of movement gave me motion sickness. I stepped carefully towards the edge of the merry-go-round swaying back and forth when my John appeared from nowhere and scooped me into his arms. Well that was fine, there was no time for frivolity anyway as John was keen to ditch the digital for the day and start using his old-fashioned second-hand film camera.
There were hundreds of exhibits as well as displays of more than 50 different steam machines from rollers to locomotives, lorries and traction engines. Some of them were rusty and dirty straight from the farm, while others looked pristine coated in shiny paints of burgundy or British racing green. Whatever the condition of the engine, each one was tended to with pride by people tinkering with mechanical parts or polishing brass-work and wooden panels. A little girl waved at me as she drove her miniature plough past me and the cheeky miniature train driver tooted his klaxon which made my jump. John and I caught the trailer ride up the hill and I’ve never seen so many buses in one place before. Yellow, green and red double-deckers as far as my eyes could see, along with old military vehicles, bicycles and motorcycles. We followed the vintage vehicle parade down to the next field while I scanned the spectacle for a yellow Robin Reliant van labelled Trotters Independent Traders. Although I didn’t see any faces I recognised from Only Fools and Horses, there were plenty of Del Boys around, like this guy eating an ice-cream with his rusty brown dog who was wagging his tail furiously while he licked his vanilla cone.
Its holiday season once more and the time has come for those humans who celebrate Christmas to do crazy things like buying Christmas puddings (yuk), hanging lots of dangley things (fun) and putting out food for a fictional character in a red jumpsuit (weird)! This time of year means different things to different people and for some its a religious festival, for others its a time for families, and for many its an ordinary day. For those of you who are happy at this time, I wish you every joy and keep smiling. For those who feel sadness or loss, know that you are not alone and the festivities will soon be over so you can resume normal life. For those who are working, caring for people or protecting them from harm, serving them food or keeping the streets clean, thank you for everything you do. From the animals I would say, please be kind to us during this time, don’t pay to watch wild animals do unnatural tricks and remember a kitten or puppy is for life, not just for Christmas. Give a few pennies to the old folks or the rescue centres full of unwanted cats and dogs waiting to be adopted and you will have done a wonderful thing.
As for the New Year, it’s traditionally a time of reflection and resolutions. Some of my favourite memories from this year are feeding the goats at the local farm shop, meeting the elephants rescued from servitude and playing with the red squirrels at a local wildlife sanctuary. Its often the simple things in life that make it worthwhile. Shad and John wish every single one of you a happy, safe and prosperous 2017.
Today is Remembrance Sunday and across the country people are gathering together to commemorate the ceasing of hostilities between two armies, the Allies and the Germans at the end of the First World War. The agreement took effect at 11o’clock on 11th November 1918 after 4 years of fighting and is now remembered as Armistice Day which marks a sign of respect for the many millions of people who died in this war and the loved ones they left behind. Wars have started for different reasons including religion, revenge and racism, and through the eyes of a cat looking at the devastating effects of armed conflict I can’t think of a single valid reason to start a war. But fighting over a difference of opinion or a claim for territory is not a unique feature of humanity. Many creatures in the animal kingdom do it as part of evolutionary survival including us cats, present company excepted of course. My neocortex is more developed than most felines leading me to prefer a battle of wits to a battle of arms!
Trafalgar Square Nov 2014
Despite the skilled methods humans use to wage war on each other, you also show extraordinary compassion towards those in need and great strength of character in difficult circumstances. You have creativity, loyalty and courage, all qualities I see when I look at the faces of those depicted in the Battle of Britain Monument that John and I took pictures of during our trip to the London Eye. This bronze and granite sculpture commemorates the military personnel who took part in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War and is situated along the Victorian Embankment of the River Thames. It reminds me of the costs of war, like the bright red poppy which serves as a symbol of sadness and hope that one day all humans will live in harmony. The Flanders poppies grew in the battle-scarred fields of Western Europe and flourished despite the landscape having been bombed again and again, providing inspiration for a poignant poem called ‘In Flanders Fields’.
John is a sports fan, just to clarify, I mean watching not playing. He used to participate in sports in his young athletic days and I’ve seen proof in the form of judo medals and a picture of him holding some kind of paddle (otherwise I would never have believed it!). Although he doesn’t play anymore (unless you count the leg lunges he has to do every morning because I run under his feet), he still supports competitive games through the lens of his camera. Technically speaking, portraying the mood and movement of sports in a still-shot is a big challenge. It requires the photographer to take pictures of moving subjects without making them look blurred and be in the right place at the right time to capture the emotion of the scene through let’s say the expression on someone’s face. I often go along with John to give him a few tips and critique his work, but mostly I go for the snacks. My John is an expert in seeking out and preparing the most sumptuous of snacks (yes I’m a lucky cat to have such a devoted friend). On the menu can be anything from steamy steak stew, whisker lickin’ chicken or luscious lamb crockpot.
When John asked me if I wanted to watch an ice hockey game with him, I had a frightening flashback to square-looking bodies adorned in plastic shields crashing into the huge Perspex barriers that surrounded the ice rink they were playing on. I distinctly remember a bewildered man with thick furrowed eyebrows staggering around the ice looking for his tooth. So I opted out of this particular trip and negotiated a small tub of tasty turkey terrine from John before he headed out the door and I headed to my favourite blanket for a nap. If napping was a sport, I’d be a gold medallist I’m sure. As for all you sports fans, keep up the good work. Here’s a few pictures of some brave fit humans working together to score points by hurtling a puck across the opponent’s goal line at anything up to 100 miles an hour with a long curved stick.