Life, Destiny, & Calculating Cats

Ninety days ago, I had no inkling of any desire to craft a website, and thought blogging was about the silliest and least productive activity a person could engage in.  Now I know it for sure.

Writing a book about Thomas Lovewell was also the furthest thing from my mind as I stood shivering in White Rock Cemetery on the last, coldest day of 1998.  My mother had shipped me a copy of Roy Alleman’s “The Bloody Saga of White Rock,” and happened to mention that her grandmother, who is briefly mentioned in the book, is buried in that little, out-of-the-way but well-kept cemetery, which may be the last physical reminder of the town of White Rock.  After reading “The Bloody Saga," I began having dreams, actually the same dream, night after night.  I was driving a car, following the rutted country roads that thread their way through the chalk hills of northern Jewell County, when I began to notice quaint new houses and craft shops that seemed to be waiting around every curve.  My subconscious may have been telling me that there were hidden things waiting to be discovered in those hills.  The dream finally wore me down.  I told my son to pack.  We were going to make the 350-mile trip to drop in on his grandmother.

What I found when we visited that cemetery in the biting cold, was the birth date of Thomas’s daughter Juliana, a detail which undermined the traditional chronology of Thomas Lovewell’s timeline, eventually adding new dimensions to the story of his life.  Instead of tramping through Nevada and California and Utah on a quest for gold for the better part of sixteen years, he had spent some of that time speculating on Iowa farmland.  Then he joined an abolitionist colony in Marshall County, Kansas, serving next as a scout during the Cheyenne and Arapaho Uprising of the late 1850’s.

But I wasn’t quite finished with recurring dreams and trips to lonely cemeteries, or they weren’t finished with me.  In the summer of 2006, my sleep began to be interrupted again, this time by a nightly tour of White Rock Cemetery by flashlight.  In my dream I made another startling discovery in the graveyard, but upon awakening, could never remember what it was.  It was time for another road trip to Jewell County.

My first stop was Balch Cemetery, with my old hometown visible about a mile to the southwest.  I had promised my friend Barb that I would snap a picture of the tombstone of her great-grandfather, John Robinson, and Balch seemed a likely place to start looking for him.  He wasn’t there, but I did make a startling discovery nonetheless.  One other car pulled up during my brief visit.  Inside the car was my aunt Vera, who was then about ninety, and her daughter Nancy, whom I hadn’t seen in years.  We started talking about family history, and Nancy revealved the true identity of our own great-grandfather, who was also named John Robinson, the man who had married Thomas Lovewell’s daughter Juliana.  Barb and I were led to believe the two John Robinsons were the same man, but they were not.  My John Robinson’s life evidently took some strange twists, his was a story I had never heard, and thus I had no idea that anyone in my family knew his secrets.

So, without those two pesky dreams to spur me on, I never would have started down the road that led to a book I wasn’t aiming to write, and a blog that ambushed me just over two months ago.  It’s tempting to think of Thomas Lovewell’s life story as a project that was looking for someone to take it on, and I was the chump it found.  Of course, that’s not how the universe works.  Anyway, I don’t think it does.  “Fate," “destiny,” “their time was up,” and “it was meant to be” are words and phrases we toss around too lightly, because we are somehow comforted by the thought that certain things are preordained and quite beyond our control.  And I would be completely sure that the universe doesn’t operate that way, if it weren’t for a cat I met once in Manhattan, Kansas.

In the 1970’s I worked at a radio station there which was managed by Lowell Jack, one of the models for actor Gordon Jump’s portrayal of Arthur Carlson, the affable but slightly foggy GM of "WKRP in Cincinnati."  One of our noontime features was “Pet Patrol,” an effort to reunite pet owners with their missing animals.  We would broadcast a wayward critter’s description and give the phone number of its master, in case it happened to be spotted by some caring citizen.  It was a service that aired only on weekdays.  On the weekends, roaming pets were on their own.

That’s what I had to tell a frantic cat owner one Saturday afternoon, when he called hoping I would alert our radio audience that his beloved Siamese had wandered away from home.  The cat was easily recognizable, he said, because it wore a black collar which was adorned with silver studs and a small silver bell.  I took down the information and filed it in the “Pet Patrol” folder, assuring the owner that we would give out the description of his cat promptly at 12:35 on Monday afternoon.  I apologized that we could not help before then, and wished him luck.  Then I headed back to the house where I was staying in Manhattan, and started to throw something together for lunch.

I had proceeded as far as grabbing a jar from the fridge, when I heard a silver jingling.  I stopped and slowly turned, knowing exactly what I would see peering at me through the screen door.  There was a beautiful Siamese cat with a black collar, silver studs, and a bell, with his front paws pressed against the glass.  As far as I know, among the 30,000 or so citizens of Manhattan, I was the only one who knew he was lost, and once I got back to town, it had taken him only two minutes to seek me out.  I called Meredith Kidd, the announcer who had the radio board-shift after mine, and asked him to read me the phone number I had taken down fifteen minutes earlier.  I put out a dish of food to keep the cat in the vicinity, then called the owner and told him that his pet was safe and gave him my address.  The man said he lived only eight or nine blocks away, and would be right over.

When the cat’s owner showed up I got a second surprise.  It was someone I knew, but hadn’t seen in many years, a young man who also grew up in Jewell County, 120 miles from Manhattan, on a farm not far from my parents’ home.  We sat on the front porch and reminisced while he and the young woman who was with him took turns petting their cat.  They finally climbed into their car and that was the last I ever saw of them.  The cat got what it wanted and the rest of us had all played our bit parts in his drama.

So, no, seriously, books do not seek out people to write them.  Long-dead ancestors do not crave to have their stories shared.  Dreams are not a means of communicating messages to us from some hazy and uncertain netherworld that is laying out a chess board and moving pieces into position.  Fate and destiny are illusions, we are told, artifacts of our inadequate way of dealing with the world, a way of making our lives seem more significant than they probably are.

I would be 100% certain of all of this, if it weren’t for that darned Siamese cat in Manhattan, Kansas.  When I stared into that cat’s eyes as it was about to be transported home, I got the notion that I could see the universe staring back at me.  It’s at moments like that, when you feel it’s capable of anything.                  

© Dale Switzer 2023