Sunday, October 30, 2011

Packin' Cats for the Army | Geraldine Schwarz

US aviator John B. Moisant and his cat (1910)

PICTURED ABOVE are American pioneer aviator John B. Moisant (1868-1910) and his tabby cat companion (who often flew with him), variously known as Mademoiselle Fifi, Paree or Spark Plug. Moisant died in a fatal crash in 1910, but the cat lived on and, in the bottom photo, is dressed in appropriate mourning attire and poised in a basket at his funeral.

This reminds me of a new book by Iowa author Geraldine Schwarz, titled Packin' Cats for the Arrr-mee: Fun on the Farm in the 'Forties, a delightfully rich and vivid memoir about growing up with her brother (John Robert Fromm) on a farm near Mason City, Iowa, during World War II. Here's how it opens—
We were very-very good to our cats—always thinking what we could do to make them more comfortable, to make them happy, to keep them entertained. On cold winter mornings, we liked to have "cat warmings" because we knew the cats would be warmer if they curled up together. We got them all in the woodhouse and made a good spot in the corncobs where they could all sleep. But they didn't stay together very well. The tomcats fought with each other, and most of the others had better things to do. So we tried stuffing them in a cardboard box and folding the lid closed. 

Our work always had to be accompanied with a slogan or a song, so pretty soon we were singing, "We're PACK-in' cats for the ARRR-mee." The cats didn't have the same commitment to the war effort as we did—they were not as patriotic. After they had been crammed in the box and escaped a couple times, they really didn't want to stay there no matter how cozy it was. It was kind of hard to catch them again. If they got over the wall between the wood-and-cob part to the coal bin, we gave up on them and settled for any cats we could push in and closed the lid. Then one skinny head would come poking through the little opening and we'd have to start "PACK-in' cats for the ARRR-mee" all over again!

It's a wonderful book, replete with snapshots ("you-are-there") and scans of actual remnants from her childhood (including, for example, an account ledger of all the cats on the property), Schwarz's narrative is so fluid and so disarmingly conversational that, once you begin reading, it's hard to take a break—for fear of possibly missing out.

Here is the author's synopsis, as quoted from the dust jacket—

Packin' cats was never easy. They didn't like to be pushed into boxes even if it was for their own good. But if it had been easy, it wouldn't have been fun. It would have been "play," and that was what city kids did. We always thought of everything we did around the farm as "work." We liked to be useful, to be helpful…especially to cats and all our other livestock.

We had a great life on the farm—and that's not from the perspective of a grown-up looking back on a distant childhood. We knew it was great even while we were kids. And we were never bored—we found hundreds of ways to have fun.

Our folks loved the farm, so we did, too. The farm belonged to us and we belonged to it. We depended on each other and took care of each other. It was sometimes tough, but it was such a good life.

Jacquie Colvin, jacket and book design

Here are the bibliographic details: Packin' Cats for the Arrr-meee: Fun on the Farm in the 'Forties, by Deanie and Johnnie, also known as Geraldine Fromm Schwarz and John Robert Fromm. Book design by Jacquie Colvin. Decorah IA: South Bear Press, 2011. 167 pp. 52 black and white photos. 29 color photos. Clothbound. First edition $25.00. ISBN 978-0-9761381-9-8. Library of Congress Control Number 2011909978. Available from South Bear Press, 2248 South Bear Road, Decorah IA 52101. Website