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.