A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Remembering Phoebe

When my first cat, Eliza, died 16 years ago, I wrote that I would never love anyone or anything as much again.
And I didn't get another cat for many months, until my veterinarian's office called and said they had a kitten I might like.
She was a little gray fluffball. I named her Nelly and took her home. But after about a month I realized she needed a playmate.
As luck would have it, the next day one of my co-workers brought in a little feral kitten she had humanely trapped in Moss Beach.
I named her Phoebe and took her home. She and Nelly got along great.
But five months later Nelly got outside and was killed.
Phoebe mourned bitterly for about 15 or 20 seconds. Then I saw the proverbial light bulb over her head go "click!"
And ever since that day she made it clear, as only a very stubborn former feral can: NO MORE CATS!
Also, no dogs, rabbits, hamsters or, especially, people. Just her and me.
That was Rule Number One. She trusted me not to eat her, but she wasn't so sure about anyone else.
Rule Number Two was: I'm supposed to be home 24/7, paying attention to her.
The penalty for violating Rule Number One was her hiding under the bed for hours after the visitor had gone.
The penalty for violating Rule Number Two was The Glare.
All cat owners know The Glare. It means "Stop paying attention to that %*&#@^&! book (or telephone or computer) and pay attention to ME!"
She also had different meows for "Feed me," "Play with me," "I am ready to go outside," "I am ready to come inside,"  "I am about to vomit" and "Are you a moron?"
Having said all that, she was the best-behaved cat I ever had. She ate only dry food, and she never trashed the furniture - not even once.
I had something to do with that. When she was little, I'd give her a kitty treat every time she used the scratching post.
Being no fool, she quickly figured out that the way to get kitty treats was to use the post. Which she did – many, many times a day. And God help me if I was late with the kitty treat. I'd get The Glare.
I was proud of myself for having trained her so well. Then one day I finally realized: She had trained me!
But my favorite time was bedtime. She would climb up on the bed, curl up beside me, lay her little head in the palm of my hand and, using it as a pillow, fall asleep. And we'd stay that way all night. It warms my heart just to think about it.
Two years ago Phoebe's health started to fail. It was one ailment right after another. Her doctors, Alan Shriro and Rick Benjamin of Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital, performed miracle after miracle, but they finally ran out of rabbits to pull out of the hat.
I had her put down on May 1. She went quickly and peacefully. The last thing she saw, the last touch she felt, and the last voice she heard was me.
Did I say I'd never love anyone or anything as much as I loved Eliza? I was wrong.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Go For Broke!

As I mentioned last week, I've been writing this column for 27 years, and in that time I've had the pleasure of meeting more wonderful people than I can count and the honor of telling their stories. 
But if you were to ask me which story is my favorite, it's easy: the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat team, the Japanese American World War II unit that was awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
Put yourself in their position on Dec. 7, 1941. You're a typical 18-year-old American boy, focused on baseball, cars and girls (not necessarily in that order).
You hear the news about Pearl Harbor and immediately march down to the recruiting office to volunteer.
But they turn you down. Suddenly, you're not an American citizen anymore, even though you were born right here. Overnight, you've been reclassified as 4-C – "enemy alien."
The next thing you know, you and your family have been arrested and shipped off to a Godforsaken hellhole, euphemistically called a "relocation camp," leaving your home, your business and all your possessions behind, never to see them again.
But you still want to defend your country, even though it has treated you so shabbily. You keep volunteering, and you keep getting turned down.
Finally, by 1943, the Army is so desperate for manpower it creates a segregated all-Japanese American unit called the 442nd Regimental Team. All the officers are white, of course.
A few of them are decent human beings. But most, especially the general in charge, think of you as nothing better than cannon fodder. So they throw you into the most dangerous battles rather than risk white soldiers' lives.
That's partly how you and your buddies got so many medals. A lot of them were purple hearts.
After the war, you come back, get your parents and your little brothers and sisters out of the camps, and begin the process of rebuilding your life. And for the rest of that life, you live in a way that brings honor to the memory of your dead comrades.
Twenty-five years ago, the veterans of E Company of the 442nd RCT planted a redwood sapling in Oakland's Roberts Park and placed a memorial plaque next to it to honor their buddies who never came back.
And every year on the third Saturday in May – Armed Forces Day - they come back to Roberts Park for a memorial service. Over the years, that service has been broadened to include all the heroes of World War II.
This year's service will be held May 19. And, as they do every year, the men of Easy Company invite you to join them.
Roberts Park is easy to find. Take Skyline Boulevard and follow the signs for the Chabot Space & Science Center. About a mile before you get to the Center, you'll see a turnoff to Roberts Park on your right.
Go though the first parking lot to the second lot beyond it, and you'll spot me and a bunch of other people. We'll gather there at 11:45 a.m., then walk about a hundred yards  into the park to the memorial sapling, which by now has grown into a towering tree.
The service begins at Noon. I'm looking forward to seeing you there.