Sports writer shares memories of exceptional cat

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A great voice has been stilled.

Diesel, our 16-year-old gray tabby with the purr to rival a Massey-Ferguson, passed away peacefully at Herrin's Animal Hospital on the first day of November.

Most outdoor cats live less than four years. Pampered indoor felines average a life span of 11 years. Diesel roamed the farm next to the Washburn Prairie Cemetery for 11 years before retiring to the hills of Wildwood in Cassville for his last five. He was fiercely independent, extremely loyal and could spot a soft touch a mile or a meal away. He slaughtered mice, birds and chipmunks, chased away dogs and avoided predators with a combination of wits and instinct that none of our other cats ever possessed.

If you knew our family, you knew Diesel. He was the self-appointed doorman, the guardian of the living room, the third wheel in the bedroom, where he slept when it suited him. He chaperoned many a teen date on the couch, much to Robert's and Daniel's dismay. When Josie and I married in 2007, he had to train her kids, Sophie and Wilson.

In his last years in Cassville, he adopted our neighbors and charmed them out of food and treats with a skill to rival a master pickpocket. He developed a special relationship with Martha Bennett and spent as much or more time at her house as he did at home.

Wildwood was a natural haven for an aging cat: no one came up the hill by accident, and the residents were -- and are -- careful of all the pets and children in the neighborhood.

In the summer, Diesel would lay in Martha's driveway, enjoying the cool concrete beneath the towering oaks. In winter, he preferred the cat bed in the front window in the evening, but mornings found him sunning in the east window of the garage. The sill was too high for him to reach, so we built him a ramp from my work bench to the window.

The years passed and seemed not to touch the old gentleman. When asked his age, I would reply, "Thirteen" until Josie gently reminded me that I had been saying "thirteen" for several years. I had to think back to when I first got Diesel to place his age.

It was a warm spring day in 1996. I answered the knock at the door to find Phyllis Norman standing on the front porch.

"Lee, I was working down at the cemetery and I heard a cat crying," she said. "I thought it might be yours."

"We don't have a cat," I said with no clue of what the next 16 years of my life had in store.

With no pressing chores at hand, I decided to wander down the driveway and check out the situation. The cat wasn't hard to find. He was parked halfway up an evergreen bush, crying loudly for the owner who had abandoned him. I carefully peeled him out of the greenery and tucked him inside my jacket. He appeared to be about six months old, with ordinary gray and white markings.

By the time we reached the front porch, he was contentedly purring inside my coat. His purr had the throaty intensity of a diesel engine. He was named before he ever knew he had a new home.

It took one swipe of his claws to teach our Dalmation who was boss, and his status as a family member was sealed.

I've had a lot of pets over the years. Most came and went in life with little or no fanfare. A precious few had the personality and the savvy to make a real impression. Diesel was one of those special animals that inspire us to want to be pet owners. I don't think he ever really thought of himself as a cat. He had little patience for our other cats. He was more like Mijbil, the delightful and eccentric otter from Gavin Maxwell's "Ring of Bright Water."

We buried Diesel in the flower bed beneath his favorite garage window. I left the ramp from the bench to the window. Sugar, our big white furball of a cat, thinks he knows what it's for.