"He ran away."
That’s how my parents explained the loss of Topper, my first cat.
"He ran away."
As if the young orange tabby had some choice. As if it were his doing.
"He ran away."
As if cats just sometimes decide they like it somewhere else better, and they go. As if the cat who I treasured, who I had chosen from a big cardboard box of kittens one Saturday morning at a neighbor’s house in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, when I was 6 years old, had betrayed me.
"He ran away."
You’re damn right he ran away, but my family gave him a good reason. We’d had Topper for probably two or three years at that point. We lived in North Florida and were vacationing during the summer at a family farm in Middle Tennessee. We brought Topper with us. It was circa 1976, and maybe cat-sitting wasn’t a thing yet. Fair enough. But the next part, well, not very fair.
One afternoon, my family let Topper go outside in the gigantic yard that led into a barn lot and then to the rest of the farm. They also let my brother go outside — and let him set off fireworks that had the power of conventional military warheads. Such things were legal in Tennessee then (and probably still are).
Brother + Fireworks + Cat in Strange Land = Lost Cat.
We never saw Topper again. What made the cruel situation crueler to the grade-school Cat Dandy is that my uncle had cats (and dogs), and it was relatively common to see other domestic animals roaming around the property. Every few months he’d report seeing an orange tabby that looked a lot like Topper but who didn’t pass close enough for him to lure. For years I held out hope that Topper would return, and we could bring him home the next time we visited.
“He ran away” didn’t mean my family blamed the cat, but just the same, I don’t remember anyone agonizing about making a tragic error. Maybe they were protecting me. Maybe they believed it better that I hope for Topper’s return — maybe they hoped for Topper’s return. "He ran away," I suppose, is easier for an 8-year-old kid to take than, "He might have found a new home but was probably eaten by another animal or died alone, unable to find his way back to us."
Also, maybe that’s just how things were done in 1976. You took your cat on vacation. You then let the cat outside because, well, cats go outside, regardless of strange surroundings, fireworks, vampires, or monster trucks. If you lost the cat, well, these things happen. You tell your kid, "He ran away."
I don’t remember much about Topper’s personality, but I do remember I loved him like no one else in my life. He started a childhood obsession in me with cats. I drew pictures of cats, wrote science fiction stories whose main characters were cats, read books about cats (one of my favorites was Space Cat Visits Venus), claimed to my brother that I was in fact a cat, and started a Cat Club with other kids who pretended to be just as much in the grip of felines as I was.
Also, to this day, even though I’ve lived with and known many cats, the orange tabby is still my "cat prototype," the breed against which all others are gauged, a “starting point,” if you will.
On Sept. 12, Catster contributor Tim Link shared the story of his first cat and asked readers to share their own in the comments section. Most of the stories were happy ones. The one that tugged hardest at my heartstrings was from a reader called Silver Cade about a gray tabby named Taco who her mom adopted and brought home for her.
"We fell madly in love with each other the instant she put him in my arms," Silver Cade wrote. " I was a restless sleeper (my cousin claimed I literally kicked her out of her bed in my sleep during a visit) so mom made a bed for Taco on the floor beside my bed. I woke up in the middle of the night with the curtain over my head blowing and there he sat in the middle of my chest, gazing at me — very much a ‘You belong to me now, little girl’ moment. My mom said I immediately stopped being a restless sleeper, obviously because even asleep I worried about rolling on Taco and crushing him."
A reader called Veteran shared a terrifying story that (luckily) had a comical ending, about a calico cat who adopted her and stayed home one cold winter day with two dogs.
" I got home first and was filled with shock and horror when I opened the door. Sappho, my Shepherd/Samoyed mix, had the kitty’s head completely in her mouth and the limp torso and legs dangled horribly below," Veteran wrote. "Thinking I had condemned the kitten to death, I scolded the dog and she sheepishly dropped the kitty. Much to my surprise and relief, Molly meowed once then jumped on the dog’s back and rode her around the house. When the kitty was dislodged, the dog carefully enclosed the kitty’s head in her mouth. Molly immediately went limp and consented to be carried this way until it was her time to ride the dog again! I had no idea that dogs and cats could play like this but they did."
Timi Townsend wrote that getting her first cat was a matter of skill.
"My first cat was a gray tiger barn cat," Timi Townsend wrote. "The farm lady next to our subdivision said that if I could catch him, I could have him. Nobody thought I could catch him, because I was only 2 years old. But I did! He was the most wonderful, loving cat. This is a picture of us at Christmas, when I was turning 3.
RamonaG wrote that she and her sister adopted a stray tabby in their new home as kids but were initially confused by her behavior. "We were confused and concerned because this kitty was making a strange noise — we thought that maybe she was injured," RamonaG wrote. "When my mother got home from work we showed her the cat and expressed our concern. She said, ‘Oh, the kitty is PURRING! That means she is happy.’ Having never had a cat before (or even seen one up close), we had no idea. Of course mom let us keep her. I have been a cat lover ever since! I currently have two knuckleheads of my own: Smokey Bear and Twiggy.”
Marie815 wrote that when she was 25, she was a property manager and was adopted by a black cat named Merlin and "his gimpy mate Grizabella," who she had for 15 and 17 years, respectively.
"Merlin was beautiful and regal — the family alpha without ever needing to prove it," Marie815 wrote. "Grizzy was a grumpy but loveable tortie girl. They (and later their adopted siblings Finley and Little Bit) went with me all over the U.S. when I started moving for work, and Mer was always my best boy. When he wanted up, he’d put his paws on my thigh and then when I bent down, he’d reach up and drape himself over my shoulder and let me carry him around like a flour sack."
Alas, Merlin started having seizures and eventually had to be put down. But a serendipitous thing happened.
"The very same week he passed, a cat at the shelter where I volunteered (another long-haired black one) needed a place to foster. He’d been in the shelter for almost a year while more colorful kitties went to new homes," she wrote. "At first it was hard, Charlie looked like Mer every time he walked into a room, and he was a bit scared and unsure of me too. But one day, he jumped onto my chest while I was lying on the sofa, stretched out to full length with his paws on my collarbone and that was that. He adopted me and I adopted him. Charlie is the cat Merlin wanted me to have to help heal the sadness of his passing — and to this day we are inseparable.
Barbara Gardner was among readers who said their first cats converted them from being "dog only" people.
"When I was in my teens, my two younger sisters adopted a kitten from a neighbor’s batch. He was a plain old gray striped tabby, and they named him George. George made me fall absolutely, completely, and forever in love with cats," she wrote. "He let the girls dress him in doll clothes and push him around in a doll carriage. He’d escape my mother and run to meet the school bus every day when it brought the girls home. He was personable, funny, loving, and trusting. The whole family fell in love with him and his antics."
Like with my Topper, Barbara’s family lost George far too early and mourned his loss for years.
"My dad would sadly shake his head from time to time and say, ‘There will never be another George,'” she wrote. "And there wasn’t. I’ve been looking for another George for nearly 50 years."
In my own way, I’ve been looking for another Topper. But like Barbara said, "I’ve loved many cats since then, and each one has been special."
Here’s to you Topper, whatever happened to you. I’m sorry I wasn’t old enough to know better the day I lost you.
Rather than ask a downer question here, I’ll turn it around: Have any cats come to you in serendipitous ways? Were you in the right place at the right time? Did it seem like destiny? Tell me in the comments.
The obsession continues; now it’s called Cat Dandy:
About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is associate editor at Catster and Dogster.