Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Visiting Fort Riley

Monday started out as a day when nothing quite went right, and got worse quickly.  David overslept, waking only when he felt Rudy patting his face at a little past 7 am.  Since he was usually on the road by 7:15 and hadn’t even moved, Rudy had decided to go and make sure he was still breathing.  He didn’t snore, so she had to get quite close, so close that she lost her footing on the squishy pillow and stepped on his face.  He woke up with a shout, startling Rudy who levitated and landed on his stomach with her claws out.  That caused David to yell again, and Rudy ran off under the dining table.  Geez, she thought he was a morning person, but maybe he wasn’t. 

David grabbed clean clothes and threw a cup of cold coffee in the microwave to heat up.  After it started making odd noises, he realized he’d put the coffee in a styrofoam cup and hit the stop button.  The microwave seemed to be okay, but the cup had kind of exploded all over.  He grabbed a second cup and poured the rest of the cold coffee in it.  Cold coffee was better than nothing.  He grabbed some papers he’d brought home to look at over the weekend (but never had) and ran to the rental car. 

LT was waiting at the car, and seemed to be trying to get his attention.  David looked at him and said, “Sorry, LT.  I am so late, no time to talk.  Gotta get going.  See you tonight.”  LT just sat back and looked at him.  He’d realize soon enough that the car wasn’t going anywhere.  David turned the key, but nothing happened.  Not only did the car not start, it didn’t even make a ‘my battery is running down’ noise.  It didn’t even make the ticking noise that meant the starter might be going bad.  Nothing.  David said something that couldn’t be broadcast on television and got out of the car, slamming the door.  He looked at LT.  “You knew the battery was dead, and were trying to tell me.  Sorry, LT.  I should have listened to you.  Well, we’re all going to Fort Riley today.  I’ve avoided bringing the RV in, but I don’t have any choice today.” 

The next ten minutes were hectic.  David stowed the folding furniture back under the RV, rolled the awning back into the roof, and smooshed the bedroom and living room extensions back into the RV.  This involved moving a bunch of stuff that had taken residence on the floor.  He also threw a bunch of stuff in the bedroom closet that might roll around, and put away all the kitchenware that had been out on the counters.  It wasn’t neat, but it was quick.  The cats sat in the front seats to keep from being stored or stepped on. 

Rudy was delighted to be heading to Fort Riley, but LT wasn’t so eager.  He’d visited Lakehurst Naval Air Station five years ago when he’d decided to walk to Virginia, and had been accosted by a cat who called himself an admiral.  Admiral Smoochy, LT recalled.  It wasn’t a pleasant recollection, and LT thought he could do without meeting any Army cats.  Well, worst case, LT figured he could spend the day indoors. 

On the drive to Fort Riley, David told the cats about what they could expect to find where he was working.  He’d park the RV next to the sweat lodge site, so they’d be right where he’d be all day.  They were in the Custer Hill Troop Area on what was called the Resiliency Campus, which was a place for all sorts of health and wellness services.  There was a stream running right next to where the lodge was being built, which might be a nice place for the cats to hang out.  There were some trees a ways down the stream and a pond at the edge of the residential area.  David cautioned the cats that there were dogs around, as well as some cats.  The dogs were supposed to be leashed, but sometimes folks liked to let them run when they thought no one would notice. 

After making this explanation, he got on his cell phone (hands-free, of course) and arranged for the rental car company to replace the battery and check out if there was anything else wrong with the car.  By this time, they were driving through Manhattan, the town nearest Fort Riley.  It was the home of Kansas State University, but luckily classes were not in session at the moment, so they sailed through town. 

At the gate, the MPs had to inspect the RV rather thoroughly.  One looked in the storage areas under the floors and another came inside, accompanied by David.  He introduced the cats, but the MP ignored them.  Within a few minutes they were driving onto the post itself.  David negotiated a rotary, never easy with a vehicle that big and a sharp turn onto a small road.  He parked and said, “well, this is it, kitties.  We’re here.  I can’t expand the camper and there won’t be any air conditioning today, but I’ll put out extra water for you inside and outside.  I’ll check on you as often as I can.  Don’t go too far away.  We’ll be here all day, but I don’t want you to get lost.”

LT and Rudy looked at each other.  David was really worried about them.  Was there something he wasn’t telling them?  Cats don’t get lost.  They started familiarizing themselves with the area by looking out of every available window.  It looked normal out there.  They could see the frame of the lodge where David was talking to his workers and the stream beyond it.  There were buildings off a ways on all sides, but nothing nearby.  They didn’t see any dogs, or even any other cats, and so decided it was safe to go outside. 

After a brief discussion, LT led the way.  He scooted under the RV and Rudy followed.  They tested the air – no noxious smells, no animal smells, just the smell of grass, dirt and water.  The sounds were normal sounds, kids playing in the distance, David and his workers talking, cars on the roads.  There was nothing dangerous as far as the cats could tell.  Rudy ran over to the stream bank and LT followed.  The air was a little cooler here, and they followed the bank down towards a small stand of trees overhanging both sides of the stream.  There was a sandy area that looked quite comfortable, and the cats headed there.

They poked around a bit in the sand, making sure that it wasn’t the kind of sand that hid things like scorpions or crabs.  It was just plain sand, the kind that was probably covered when there was more water in the stream.  LT gazed at the flowing water, ready to be hypnotized into sleep while Rudy explored.  She startled a small frog who hopped into the water.  Rudy tried to snag him with a paw, but he was too quick for her.  The frog swam across and emerged on the opposite bank, six feet away.  Rudy didn’t want the frog enough to get wet, so she ignored him.

The two cats were enjoying the sound of the running water when their relaxation was disturbed by three cats who emerged from a bush just downstream.  “Private, we seem to have intruders.  Please determine the identities of these felines.”  A large grey tiger cat had spoken, and a calico cat sprang to follow his order. 

“Name, rank and serial number – NOW!  You heard the sergeant.”  Although the calico was an attractive female, she wasn’t very feminine.  She barked out this demand as though she were a bulldog rather than a cat. 

“Um, I’m Rudy and this is LT.  We’re here with the man who is constructing the sweat lodge just up the stream.  We’re not military.  The MPs know we’re here and they let us in.  We’re allowed to be on base, ma’am.”  Rudy decided that deference was the best idea. 

The cat looked them over and marched back to the Sergeant.  “They’re civilians, Sarge.” 

“I heard them, Private.  At ease.”  The sergeant walked over to them and looked down at them.  “What’s the name of the contractor, Rudy? We can’t be too careful around here.” 

“His name is David.  We’re not his cats, but we’re travelling with him to keep him company on this trip.  We live in New Jersey, but he comes from Massachusetts.”  This seemed to satisfy the sergeant, as he sat down and gestured the other cats to come over. 

The sergeant explained that he was in charge of this section of Custer Hill, and had to determine that any unfamiliar cats were authorized to be here.  Otherwise, they’d be chased off post.  David had befriended these cats since he’d started working there, and shared tidbits from his lunch with them.  He’d even told them about the cats he was traveling with.  LT, who’d been a bit rattled by the encounter, asked how they got their military ranks.  The sergeant explained that animals took their ranks from the humans they lived with.  His human was a sergeant, so therefore he was a sergeant.  Paisley and Robber’s humans were privates.  As an aside, he said his real name was Tiger, but since all the cats called him Sarge it was easier just to answer to that. 

That was a fine explanation for their ranks, but it didn’t explain how LT had met an admiral at Lakehurst.  That was too small a base to have an admiral.  He asked Sarge if the practice was followed in all branches of the military and was told that it was.  LT told the cats about his encounter with Admiral Smoochy and the three laughed.  “Just because we’re cats doesn’t mean we don’t have our own oddballs.  We have a tortoise shell cat over on Camp Forsyth who insists he’s General Washington.  The other cats humor him unless he tries to get them into a boat to cross the Delaware.”  The three Fort Riley cats laughed at this.  This made sense to LT.  The other cat with Admiral Smoochy had said something about humoring the Admiral, he recalled.  Well, it took all kinds to make a world, and it never hurt anyone to be nice.

Sarge had all sorts of interesting stories to tell the New Jersey cats.  He’d been to all sorts of different Army bases, and had even been overseas.  His least favorite had been Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, as winter was brutal there.  He’d spent most of the winter indoors, and had been bored out of his skull.  They’d spent a year at Katterbach Kaserne in Germany, and it had been lovely to live there, although the local cats spoke only German.  Sarge had been worried he’d have to live in quarantine when he got there, but he’d just had to go to Tibet a couple of times before they left for shots and a physical. 

Robber and Paisley listened avidly to this discussion.  They had never heard Sarge talk this much.  They didn’t socialize with him much, as they were lowly privates.  Their humans were new to the military and this was their first assignment after training.  Paisley was worried because her owner talked about going to Iraq and Paisley didn’t want to go there.  It wasn’t a safe place for cats, from what she’d heard.  Bravely, she asked Sarge if he’d even been posted to a conflict zone, like Iraq or Afghanistan.  

Sarge explained that cats weren’t allowed to go with soldiers when they were posted to places like that.  He said that he’d heard of cats who’d stayed with their human’s family or had been adopted by other families.  He didn’t mention stories he’d heard of abandoned animals or ones that had been sent to shelters because there was no one to adopt him or her.  There was no reason to alarm Paisley.  He’d keep an ear open and try to help her out if it ever seemed like she was in danger of homelessness. 

Unfortunately, Rudy wasn’t quite so sensitive.  She said she’d seen news stories about abandoned animals around military bases, especially if there had been a deployment of a large unit.  Paisley’s eyes grew wide.  This was what she’d been afraid of.  She could be homeless, left to fend for herself in the hot Kansas summer or brutal windy winter.  She hadn’t signed up for this.  Her human had been an auto mechanic and they’d lived happily in Oregon until he’d lost his job and couldn’t find another one.  With the support of his family he’d joined the Army and gone for training and was posted to Fort Riley.  They were ever so far from his family now, he said so.  As Rudy told stories she’d heard (including some added details she made up on the spur of the moment) Paisley started to shake.  LT reached over and cuffed Rudy, who finally noticed what her stories were doing to Paisley. 

The other two Fort Riley cats moved closer to Paisley and Robber began grooming her.  “Pais, that’s not going to happen to you.  You know our humans are really good friends and mine would let you live with us in a minute and he’s not going anywhere.”  Sarge sent Rudy a steely look and Rudy tried to undo the damage she’d done by telling stories of animals adopted by other families, but LT cuffed her again and told her to just shut up.  Rudy looked up at the trees above her head and wished she’d stayed in the RV. 

From upstream the cats heard David asking his workers if they’d seen the cats.  Before they could make their apologies and leave they saw David walking down the stream bank in their direction.  “Well, I see you two found the locals.  Good afternoon, kitties.  And how are you all today?”  David moved closer and saw Robber grooming a terrified Paisley.  “Little miss; have my cats been terrorizing you?”  He bent down and stroked Paisley, who gratefully moved closer to David. 

Encouraged by her response, David picked Paisley up and held her close while rubbing her head.  She was a beautiful cat and looked like his own Pepper at home.  He crooned to her and she relaxed into his chest.  David spoke softly to the other cats.  “Let’s go have some lunch, folks and we’ll see if we can make this little girl feel better.” 

They all trooped up the stream to the RV where David had set his lunch out under the now-open awning.  He’d put out two dishes of catfish that he’d cooked up for the cats last night, but went inside for some more for their guests.  He returned with three saucers of catfish and placed them on the ground.  The guests quickly moved the catfish from the plates into their stomachs.  They didn’t get fresh catfish specially cooked for them very often, well ever, honestly. 

After they ate the cats inspected the close to complete frame of the sweat lodge.  It looked like a large version of a children’s construction toy with all the saplings tied together at the places they overlapped.  There was a large cinderblock lined pit with rocks piled next to it about ten feet away from the lodge.  David explained to the cats that the pit was where the rocks would be heated so they could be brought into the lodge to heat it up.  A fire would be built in the pit and the rocks placed around the fire to heat up.  The cats looked at it and decided that the humans would need to be very careful not to burn themselves while picking up the hot rocks.  Rudy idly wondered aloud how the heat would stay in the sweat lodge, since it was just a bunch of saplings tied together with big spaces in between.  LT, who had looked over the plans, explained that it would be covered with huge pieces of fire-resistant cloth, and that would keep the heat inside. 

Robber spoke up and asked why they were building a sweat lodge.  There was a perfectly good sauna over at the Leonard Fitness Center.  LT, who’d listened to the conversation between the Daddy and David, explained that a sweat lodge wasn’t a fitness thing.  It was a place that they would hold special ceremonies for soldiers who were either going to combat zones or who had been in combat.  The Indians had known that going into battle was something that needed preparation beforehand and resolution afterwards for the warrior’s spirit, his mind.  LT said he thought it was kind of like a combination of meditation and a self-help group, because there were quiet times and times that the soldiers could share their fears or experiences they had gone through.  The military had originally allowed a few sweat lodges to be built by native Americans who’d requested them, but then they’d found that other soldiers who had no native American connections wanted to attend the ceremonies.  The Chaplains had talked to the soldiers and veterans who’d attended and discovered that soldiers who had post-traumatic stress disorder were helped by these ceremonies and more of them were built on military posts. 

Sarge nodded and said that this would be a very good thing.  Some of his human’s friends had PTSD and needed help.  He told Rudy and LT that their human was a good person for coming here and building this thing.  In honesty, LT had to say that he was being paid to build it; it wasn’t something he was doing on his own.   The cats all sat quietly for a few minutes, thinking about how hard it could be to be a human.  Sometimes they were faced with situations and dilemmas that were hard for them, and not all had cats to help them get over difficult situations.  A sweat lodge would be a good thing for the soldier humans who didn’t have cats, and maybe even for some who did.

No comments: