Although I have now lived with cats for over 22 years, I have not always been a cat person. I got my first cats in 1999 because my therapist said that I needed a pet to have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
As a former elementary teacher, I taught at a Saudi Aramco (oil company) school in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia for seven years. I arrived during the First Gulf War when the Iraqis were firing scud missiles at Dhahran.
Dhahran was a primary target because it was the corporate headquarters for the Saudi Aramco Oil Company. A huge allied quartermaster depot was outside Dhahran as was a large airfield from which the allied forces had launched a seemingly endless wave of fighters and bombers that were attacking military targets in the Iraqi occupied country of Kuwait.
When the civil defense sirens began their undulating wail, we’d grab our gas masks and head for the nearest shelter. At school, my 3rd grade students and I would duck and cover under our desks. At home, I’d take shelter in the storage closet under the stairs of my one bedroom condo.
As an American civilian, I used to be a volunteer baker for the USO at Khobar Towers which was the residential home of the U.S. Air Force personnel who manned the allied section of King Abdulaziz Air Base. On Thursday, I’d stock up my car with a hundred dollars worth of baking ingredients prior to heading to Khobar Towers. I baked cookies for the Air Force personnel until I ran out of supplies.
When Thanksgiving and later Christmas rolled around, I would always be one of dozens of U.S. civilian volunteers who would head down to the main gate at Dhahran where we’d meet and greet busloads of U.S. troops.
A USAF Master Sargent worked with an American civilian liaison like a demented maître d’. After telling the pair how many personnel we could take, the senior NCO would consult his clipboard and bark out names.
“GONZALEZ! JONES! FACENELLI! BROWN!”
Four USAF personnel would present themselves, and they’d leave with the civilian who would take them home for a holiday meal.
Since I lived in a cramped one bedroom apartment, I typically partnered with a family and would cater the dinner while the guests played with the family dog, watched TV, talked to the adults, or took a nap.
This was a nice way for us to “give back,” particularly since our troops had kept the Iraqis from invading Saudi Arabia after they overran Kuwait in 1990.
During a hot summer’s night in 1996, I awoke to the sound of a loud explosion. A few minutes later, I heard the telephone ring through the paper thin wall next door. Lights starting coming on in the condos around me, and I looked out my bedroom window to see that all of the medical personnel who lived in my area were running towards their cars.
I later learned that terrorists had exploded a gas tanker outside the main security gate of Khobar Towers. Nineteen Air Force servicemen and women died in this attack. As the closest medical facility to Khobar Towers, our corporate hospital was put on alert and all shifts were called in to begin caring for the 400-plus wounded who would shortly be arriving.
I never saw any of the troops again and do not know if I knew any of the young men and women who died in the attack. The base commander was scapegoated and removed from command.
Having volunteered at Khobar Towers, I don’t think that this was fair. What most people don’t know is that Khobar Towers was never designed as a military base. As such, it did not have an extensive security perimeter.
Khobar Towers was actually a Saudi government-built set of apartment complexes. The idea was to get the Bedouin (literally translated as “people of the desert”) to stop their nomadic existence and to move into these government-funded buildings.
The problem with doing this is that the Bedouin tribes would have lost their cultural identity. They would also have had to give up their camels and goats. Since none of the Bedouin wanted to do this, these apartments sat empty in the middle of a suburban residential neighborhood until the First Gulf War.
The problem with being in the center of a suburb was that there just wasn’t any space to create a security buffer zone. Doing this would have required the Saudi government to evict the residents of nearby homes so that these buildings could be demolished and bulldozed.
The base commander did what he could do. He put up concrete barricades that forced vehicles to “weave” through them so that a driver wouldn’t have a straight run at the main gate.
The problem was that the front gate was far too close to the buildings that that the security perimeter was supposed to have protected. Terrorists turned a truck into a large bomb. A pentagon investigation later determined that the truck exploded with the equivalent of setting off between 20,000-30,000 pounds of dynamite.
After Khobar Towers was bombed, all of our troops were evacuated from this base and were transferred to a remote location in the desert where they had a much better line of sight for possible threats.
After seven years in Saudi Arabia, I moved to Lebanon where I taught for a year at the American Community School of Beirut. On the evening of the last day of school, I heard the rumble of explosions and rolled out of my bed to lie upon the floor.
A live newsfeed on my laptop told me that the Israelis had launched a series of airstrikes on Beirut in retaliation for the government’s failure to control Hezbollah (literally translated as Party of God). Hezbollah fighters (or terrorists according to the Israelis) were attacking military targets in what was then Israeli-occupied Southern Lebanon.
I spent the night under a heavy desk in my apartment. Over the edge of the windowsill, I could see tracer fire rising into the night’s sky as Syrian anti-aircraft gun crews engaged the Israelis.
The Israeli planes flew low overhead, streaking over Beirut from the Mediterranean Sea. My apartment literally shook from the force of their passage. The air was rent by the ack-ack-ack sound of firing anti-aircraft guns that were just a block away.
Moments later I heard the thunder of distant explosions. Everything would then fall quiet, and just when I was wondering if the attack was over, the next wave of Israeli jets would sweep overhead.
The only teachers to arrive at work the following morning were the expatriates. Some of us were American but there were also Canadians, a couple from New Zealand, a Brit, and a Venezuelan.
Since the Israelis had targeted Beirut’s infrastructure, we had no electricity. Several power stations had been bombed into oblivion. Cell phone towers had also been destroyed along with bridges and highways.
Since there was nobody at work, we left to visit a snack shop next door called Washington’s. The owner was in tears behind the counter of his shop. Without electricity he had lost his entire inventory of ice cream. He didn’t know how he would replenish his stock or if it would even be possible to do this since there was no electricity.
Throughout the city, stunned Lebanese were assessing the damage. Two hundred Lebanese had died in this attack. A lot of the people who died were first responders who had been called to the scenes of different bombings.
While working to triage and transport the wounded and to put out the fires, a second wave of incoming Israeli planes had inadvertently killed a lot of these rescue personnel because they were bombing the same targets that the first wave had already hit.
It didn’t take long for stunned disbelief to morph into anger. Since Lebanon did not have diplomatic relations with Israel, Americans who were widely seen as pro-Israeli were targeted for payback.
Anti-American mobs began forming. One mob tried storming our Consulate and the security police had to shoot and kill several rioters. Another mob briefly protested outside the American Community School of Beirut. Someone even threw a small explosive over the security wall. We were lucky that no one was hurt.
When the international airport reopened, I flew out and never returned.
I thought that I was fine until a clap of thunder caused me to drop face down on the black asphalt while shopping for groceries in North Carolina. “AIR RAID!” I shouted as I crossed my hands over the back of my head.
For a moment, I was back in Saudi Arabia. The wailing civil defense sirens were warning of yet another Iraqi scud missile attack. Moments later, I was in Beirut on the night of the Israeli air raid. A few moments later, I found myself lying in a wet puddle in a Safeway parking lot. A group of unkind spectators were laughing at me.
A visit to a doctor gave me a referral to a psychologist. The psychologist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
“But I’ve never been in the military,” I complained. “How can I have PTSD?”
“You don’t have to be in the military to have PTSD. You were a civilian in two different war zones. I am quite frankly surprised that you didn’t have any of these issues while you were still abroad. I can only surmise that since you were overseas, you kept your emotional shields up; but after coming home, you lowered your guard. The thunderstorm triggered a flashback, and you got emotionally body slammed with PTSD.”
Since I hadn’t planned to work for a year so as to have time to readjust to living in the United States, the psychologist suggested that I get a pet so that I’d have a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
I went to PetsMart to get a goldfish. I came out with an appointment to adopt two Manx kittens. I also had hundreds of dollars worth of pet supplies with everything from cat towers and kitty beds to food bowls, water bowls, scratching posts, toys, carriers, and brushes.
One week later, I picked up Bob and Jasper Baby JB). Bob (so named because he had a bob-tail) and his brother Jasper Baby were my first two cats. I literally lost Bob during my first week as a cat daddy. While unloading groceries from my car, Bob squeezed through the front door and ran away.
Although I dropped my groceries and ran after him, Bob disappeared. JB was despondent over the loss of his brother. To help Jasper cope with the loss of his brother, I went to the local county shelter and found a black kitten named Charlie. I was at the shelter when I heard a man arguing with a woman.
The woman was crying and the guy was being an abusive jerk. I heard him tell her that she could either leave the cat and get in the car with him or he would leave without her. He gave her until the count of five to decide.
The woman gave her fat gray cat a final hug and shoved her into a shelter volunteer’s arms prior to leaving in tears. I personally thought that she had made the wrong decision given how very controlling this guy seemed to be.
The shelter manager told me the rest of the story. After the woman had gotten pregnant, her boyfriend had told her that he would only marry her if she got rid of the cat. Since he didn’t like cats, he announced that keeping the cat would be a “deal breaker.”
Given how the woman would have otherwise been left to carry her child to term on her own, she was forced to give up her beloved cat in exchange for providing some measure of financial security for her child.
Her cat was named Korbi (pictured above). When her owner left her in the arms of the shelter manager, Korbi wailed in protest and struggled to get free. Having already adopted Charlie, I offered to come back in a week to get Korbi, assuming her owner hadn’t changed her mind.
Since kittens are more predisposed to socializing than are adult cats, the moment I got home, Charlie popped out of his carrier and immediately began playing with Jasper Baby. The kittens pounced on each other and tumbled across the floor.
Although I was happy for JB, I was worried about Bob. I had put up missing notices around my neighborhood to no avail. Long walks taken throughout the neighborhood had left me completely despondent. Where was Bob?
Korbi joined our growing cat family a week later.
The poor old girl was 14 years old, which made her 80 in human years. She was understandably confused over what had happened. When she went from room to room loudly meowing, I felt as though she was looking for her beloved owner.
The old cat didn’t care for Jasper Baby or Charlie who insisted upon playing with her tail. Although an angry hiss would send them running away, the moment Korbi turned her back, the kittens would scurry forward to again pounce upon her.
The day after Korbi arrived, I heard a clawing sound on the front door. I opened the door to find Bob peering up at me.
“Rrrrrrr,” said Bob who peered up at me from the front porch. I took this to mean, “I’ve had my great adventure and have decided that I’d rather be a house cat. Could I please come home?”
I opened the door to let him in. Korbi gave me a disgusted look when Bob and Jasper were happily reunited. As bad as it was to be living with two kittens, why had I felt compelled to add a third?
The therapist was right about my need to adopt a pet. My four cats all had distinct personalities. As the alpha male, Bob was very serious. His brother, Jasper Baby was a complete goof. Charlie was mischievous and loved to pounce on the other cats from ambush. Korbi warmed to me in time and would bring me gifts that usually consisted of kitty toys.
Over time, Bob, JB, Charlie, and Korbi have each crossed the rainbow bridge. Although I have mourned each loss, within 2-3 months of each passing, a new kitten has invariably taken the place of the deceased cat. Life goes on.
My cats have been with me through three career changes, (innkeeper, chef, and Culinary Arts teacher), four states, and seven homes over the course of 22 years. At the height of the recession, there was a time when I was unemployed for six months and despite all financial worries, I managed to keep my cats in kibble as well as their moist canned food. I never once contemplated surrendering any of them, or worse yet, simply abandoning them on the side of the road.
My current four cats include Buki Boy and Chi Chi as the alpha male and female cats. Buki is the oldest cat in my home. He’s 12 years old and came to me when he was six. As a kitten, he and his mother and all of his littermates were brought to a no-kill private shelter.
Although his mother and all of his siblings were quickly adopted, Buki languished at the shelter for six long years. Nobody wanted him because he was a black kitty. At the time I adopted him, nearly a third of the shelter’s cats were black.
Chi Chi and her brother Hunter are both four years old. Chi Chi is a lovely tortoise shell kitty. Although I initially only wanted to adopt her, she was so terrified of me as a kitten, that I also took in her brother.
When these two kittens first came to live with me, Chi Chi (pictured below) hid under an arm chair for nearly a week. She only ventured out to eat, drink, and to use the litter box. Hunter was very brave in comparison. His example inspired Chi Chi to start venturing out. She is now extremely brave and confident. She is also the most socially outgoing of my four cats. During the rare instances that anyone ever visits my home while the other cats hide, Chi Chi will actually come out to say hello.
My remaining two cats are Hunter and Uma. As junior-ranked cats, Uma and Hunter have fewer privileges than Buki or Chi Chi. During the day, the alpha kitties have prioritized petting privileges. If I am sitting in my recliner, they always have first dibs at sitting on my lap.
Now that it’s winter, I’ve put a heater on a coffee table in my den. A fluffy cat bed has been placed in front of the heater and Buki and Chi Chi have reserved this bed as their spot. The junior kitties are not ever allowed to use this bed. Any who dare are glared at until they leave.
When I go to bed, the cats come to me for kitty treats. Buki and Chi Chi always get the first treats. As the alpha kitties, they have pride of place beside me. As junior status cats, Hunter and Uma have been relegated to the foot of the bed. I have to toss them their kitty treats and if either of the boss kitties are feeling particularly peckish, they’re not above gobbling down their treats and then stealing additional treats from the lower ranked cats.
Since access to me is an alpha cat privilege, I always go to bed about 30 minutes before I plan to turn off the lights. This allows ample time to give the cats their treats and to visit with Buki and Chi Chi.
The moment the lights are turned off and I settle down to sleep, Hunter always uses the cover of night to visit. In between head bonking my pillow and rubbing his face against my chest, he purrs with happiness as I gently scratch him behind his ears.
I love having my cats in my life. My cats provide companionship and emotional support. My only real worry is that as I get older, I wonder what will become of them if I were to suddenly keel over and die.
Since I teach Culinary Arts, I know that my school would send the police over as part of a welfare check if the day were to ever come where I didn’t show up for work and nobody was able to get ahold of me through email, text messaging, or phone calls.
At some point, I will retire. What will happen to my cats if I were to suddenly drop dead? I cannot imagine life without my cats. I may have to look in to the possibility of an assisted living arrangement after I retire with provisions in my will for the continued care of my furry friends.
Regarding my PTSD, having cats to care for distracted me from my problems. The medication I was given helped me sleep, and with time and therapy I was able to move on to the point where claps of thunder no longer prompt flashbacks.
Although I sometimes miss living abroad, after seventeen years of life as an expatriate, first as a child in Ghana, Thailand, and El Salvador, and later as an adult in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, I’m happy to be back in the States. I like owning my home and having my own furniture as opposed to living in a furnished apartment.
Even if we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic, I still wouldn’t return to my life as an expat teacher at an international American school. While an overseas school might possibly allow me to bring two cats, they would never let me arrive with four. Since I will never voluntarily give up any of my cats, I’m stateside for good and have absolutely no regrets.
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