Cats are known for their love of high places — the higher the better, according to my crew. They dash back and forth along their in-home catwalk 10 feet above the floor with no concern at all. But contrary to what you may have heard, cat height adoration is totally conditional. Not all heights are good heights.
Back in the mid-1970s when bell bottoms reigned and platform shoes were as high as I wanted to get, my new husband and thankfully Future Ex who I will only name as FE decided to "surprise" me with "the world’s most wonderful gift." Unbeknownst to me, FE had taken our savings and $1,000 later completed his private pilot’s license.
After all, he explained, it was a whole six-hour drive to visit my parents. With his license, we could just jump in a rented airplane and three hours later we’d be standing at their front door. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of flying at thousands feet with a pilot who had only 60 hours of flight time. Even in dog hours, that’s not much experience. But the money was gone, so we may as well do something useful with the license.
The day before Christmas Eve 1975, FE rented a beat-up Piper Cherokee 140. He logged our trip with flight service and inquired about the weather, then preformed his preflight check.
While he was doing pilot stuff, I stowed my USAA flight bag that held a shoebox containing cat litter, a can of Kozy Kitty cat food, an empty butter bowl and a can opener. I didn’t need pajamas or a change of clothes. After all, we’d be in San Antonio in three hours where I was storing the rest of my clothes after our recent move northward.
Did I mention I was holding our black Siamese-mix, Houston, in my arms? (He was my first cat and I’d never heard of a cat carrier.) Houston had the voice of a thousand felines. He could out-decibel a bulldozer.
He also loved to ride in our 1972 Ford Pinto. Doglike, he’d stick his head out the window. Unlike most cats, he truly enjoyed going for a drive. Across town — fine. Across state — even better. He also liked it when we arrived at our destination. We’d slow down as we approached our apartment and he’d belt out an aria of feline exultation. But he’d share that joy anytime the car slowed or we stopped at a light. So many moments to be happy about.
I looked down as I buckled my seatbelt. It was the first time I had worn my brand-new lime-green polyester pantsuit with little blue and pink flowers — all the rage with nerds in 1975. My mom had given me the Dress Barn special for my birthday a few months earlier. By today’s standards it was hideous apparel that, like Pandora’s Box, should remain untouched in the 1970s. But that night I would proudly wear that fashion abomination as I climbed out of the airplane. It would be groovy. But I digress.
Houston slept soundly in my lap as we began our takeoff roll. "I still say we need a box or cage for Houston." I said uncertainly.
"He likes to ride," I was assured. "He’ll be fine."
As the Piper sped down the runaway I said, "This isn’t a good idea. He’s going to freak out."
"He’s just going to think it was a big, noisy car. He’ll never know the difference. "
About that time, the wheels lifted off the runway. The aging Piper was filled with screams, first Houston’s then mine, as he emptied his full bladder on me and my pantsuit. He obviously knew the difference between a car and a plane. Oh joy.
After that initial evacuation, Houston settled down. He and I sat silently in the dark as the plane flew out of the Dallas Metroplex — Houston in his glossy black coat and me in my birthday suit — my original birthday suit, not the odiferous green wad on the cockpit floor.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, we found ourselves surrounded by clouds. Not just fluffy white things; this solid dark monstrosity rose from 600 feet above the deck to 20,000 feet and ran all the way to deep south Texas. We couldn’t fly above them, below them or around them. To add panic to terror, a few minutes later the artificial horizon, the instrument that tells you the position of the horizon, fell over on its side, deceased.
FE declared an emergency and Waco tower talked us down. Dressed in my only apparel, I grabbed the kitty and flagged a cab. In a juxtaposition of the traditional cabbie/passenger relationship, the driver sniffed the air. "What is that smell?"
At the hotel I grabbed the bar of Camay, washed my clothes in the sink, and hung them up to dry. The next morning my clothes still were still soaking wet, and the polyester had absorbed the scents. My brand new wet pantsuit smelled like Camay and stale cat pee. It was going to be a very long day.
When we arrived at the bus terminal, we learned that Greyhound Bus Line didn’t permit pets on their buses. Every kennel and vet clinic in Waco was either full or closed, so we did the only logical thing we could: I dumped the cat stuff in the bus station bathroom and poked air holes in my beloved flight bag. Houston had his first cat carrier.
With only a single bus scheduled for San Antonio that Christmas Eve, FE and I took what we could get. Not only was this route not a nonstop, it picked up passengers at every wide spot in the road. Each time the bus slowed Houston popped his head out of the bag and announced that he was home. The driver was either a cat lover or he felt sorry for that smelly couple in the 20th row. No one said a word about our stowaway. Houston sat on our laps until we arrived in San Antonio ten hours later.
So, 36 hours after our departure from Dallas Love Field, we rolled into San Antonio’s Greyhound terminal. You know what they say, "Time to spare? Go by air."
Thank goodness FE never went on to earn a commercial flying certification. I can just hear his preflight passenger briefing. "Welcome to Yellow Skies Express. Make sure your seat is upright and your tray table is in the locked position. Hang on. It’s going to be a smelly ride."
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