How the Hen House Turns: Oscar the Cat

How the Hen House Turns:
Oscar the Cat
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

A short time after we moved from San Leandro, California to Hayward, my brother Harold and friends found a litter of kittens under the Fairview schoolhouse. He brought one yellow and tan fluffball home and introduced him to our dog Boots. Somehow the calico cat grew into the handsome feline I knew as Oscar.

I wish I could remember him as a kitten, but I will never forget him as an adult. Though loving and friendly, as evidenced by rubbing against our jeans, he preferred not to be cuddled. His relationship to Boots, our brown and yellow shepherd, could be described as companionship. And though loyal to my dad, Pa, and the apricot ranch, he was fiercely independent.

He refused, vigorously, to enter the house—ever, except once. I have no memory of where he slept, maybe in the barn with Buttercup the cow. I do remember, very well, that he would disappear for days at a time.

We didn’t worry (much) about his disappearances, for the 40 acres of apricot (and other fruit) trees, the stream, and the distant rolling fields of grass were his hunting grounds. He could be anywhere most of the time. He was never underfoot, so to speak, until milking time. Then he would show up to be “squirted.”

Pa soon found himself squirting Oscar’s harem and their kittens, and he obligingly filled pans for their gustatory pleasure. Harold and I tried to tame some of the kittens, without success. Years later, somehow, Ma caught 17 kittens and four mothers and took them to the Hayward “dog pound.” I’ve always wondered how she managed to catch them.

Meanwhile, Oscar and Boots became hunting partners. I watched them position themselves on both sides of a fresh dirt hole and wait. When a sniffing head appeared, Oscar would pounce. If he missed the catch, Boots would immediately dig at high speed. When in luck, they shared the meal, but only if it was a gopher. Moles they deposited proudly on the back porch.

Occasionally, when Oscar returned from his wanderings, his face would be scratched, his tail full of burs, or an ear torn. Once he came home with a large foxtail (wild barley) stuck along the side of one eye. We pulled it out safely, but it left an unsightly scar, visible whenever he glanced up at us.

When a nasty bump appeared on his side, we panicked and talked Ma into having it removed. (Now I should mention that Pa was a generous soul, the kindest man alive. He was one of these people always focused on other people, and he had a joke for every subject of conversation. Everyone he knew loved him.) This time, however, he erupted—only one of two angry comments I remember. “What? Spend $23 for an alley cat?”

The large surgical wound that filled Oscar’s side was left open to heal, so, to his dying day, he carried a huge scar and no hair on that side. In his old age he was not attractive, to say the least. My teenage boyfriend was severely challenged to act cool when Oscar rubbed against his good slacks.

One last note—remember Browny? Boot’s friend, “neighborhood” dog? I mentioned in an earlier article that he knew to stay clear of Oscar, but other dogs were not so wise. When people came to visit with their unsuspecting dogs, they would bark, chase, and tree Oscar–if they were lucky. Otherwise, they were in grave danger of losing an eye or two.

Oscar must have known when he was dying. To our surprise, he came into the house one night. In the morning we found his stiff body under the stove. Our independent loving soul had honored us with his last choice by coming inside.

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