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APO BROOKLYN - Cats and paperwork just don’t mix

In this issue we begin a new bi-weekly feature column, APO Brooklyn, a series of essays on military life written from the perspective of a military spouse. It is meant to entertain, but, more importantly, educate people about the life, the joys and challenges, of being a military family member. The stories represent, solely, the point of view of the author based on her experiences over the last 23 years.

It’s Raining Cats

& Paperwork

Studies have suggested that having pets is good for you. It is hypothesized that pets can positively affect your well-being in numerous ways; everything from general happiness to increased longevity. That’s great. However, I’m pretty certain that theory goes out the window if you ever have to move your pets overseas!

When we PCS’ed to Vicenza, Italy in the summer of 2003, we had only one pet. A lovable, if intellectually challenged, 100-pound golden retriever named Ranger. The process of preparing to bring him overseas was exhausting. Endless paperwork, trips to specially certified veterinarians, all of which had to be completed within five days of flying. Really, within five days of moving to a foreign country, what else could you possibly have to do?

When we arrived in Venice, I was clutching a thick file of all Ranger’s “bona fides” ready to vigorously defend my dog’s health and overall well being. Of course, given the general state of my luck in such matters and the exemplary state of my preparedness, we were waved through customs without so much as a glance at my paperwork masterpiece.

I promised never to do this to myself again. Somehow I’d get out of it when we left Italy, maybe the rules would change, maybe we’d never leave. Maybe, well you get the picture, I did not want to do the angst ridden paperwork drill again.

Within eighteen months of arriving in Italy, my “no paperwork” edict was long forgotten. We had added two cats, Lucky and Boo, to our family. While I had never considered myself a “cat” person, the decision to bring them into the family is one I did not regret. I was charmed by their “affection only on my terms” attitude. Ranger needed only the briefest of glances to get him excited and ready for some attention. In fact, Ranger seemed to suffer from some form of what can only be called “reverse” anorexia. He truly believed he was a tiny, ten pound dog and would gladly attempt to crawl into your lap, whatever the occasion. On the other hand, the cats seemed not to care about us one way or the other. Compared to Ranger, the indifference was a little refreshing. However, while I never regretted the decision to get the cats, I definitely questioned it. That would be because of Boo.

Boo is an average looking calico cat. Nothing outstanding, no unusual markings, no exceptional size, nothing that would ever make you look twice. That is, not until you understand what is wrapped up in this unassuming package. The amazing Boo quickly brought a new dynamic to our home. A cat who had many of the same skills that we, as humans, have. He was able to unlock and open doors, open cabinets and drawers, he even managed to lock himself inside my daughters’ room on one occasion. In fact, I was pretty certain that when we were all asleep, he walked upright, surfed the net, and helped himself to a beer now and then. Nevertheless, we loved our trio of pets, Boo included. Therefore, in the spring of 2006, when we received orders sending us to Ft. Polk, Louisiana, I grudgingly took on the dreaded paperwork.

It was pretty much as I had remembered it, five days out, blah, blah, blah. There was the added twist of going through both the American and Italian systems for paperwork, the true test of my self proclaimed fluency. Turns out I’m not. Fluent, that is. The other difference was that I asked the vet for tranquilizers for my cats. Ranger had always traveled well. The cats, on the other hand, went just short of insane each time they traveled in a car. I couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen to them in the belly of an aircraft for over ten hours.

Finally, the day of our departure arrived. We left Vicenza at 4 am in order to make our flight to the states. Six people, three pets in crates, countless pieces of luggage, and me, clutching my pet documents and pet tranquilizers. I should have recognized it as a bad omen when both cats proceeded to hock up the pills and actually spit them at me. Whether bravely, or stupidly, I still kept trying to get them to take the pills until all I had was two seriously upset cats and a handful of dissolved kitty meds.

Once at the airport, however, things began going more smoothly. The lines were short, and we managed to check our luggage and pets without too much drama. It was the first real feeling of freedom I’d had in weeks. After living out of suitcases and dealing with all the moving stress, and yes, the pet paperwork, all I had to do was sit back and relax until we arrived in Houston.

Our journey was scheduled to take us from Venice to Frankfurt, and then, from Frankfurt to Houston. Upon arriving in Frankfurt, we were not deplaned through a jetway. Instead, we taxied to a designated spot and took portable stairs down to the tarmac, where we were to be met by a bus to take us to the terminal. As we descended the stairs, the belly of the plane was being opened to unload the luggage. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something. I saw something that looked like Boo, in fact, it looked like Boo jumping from the belly of the plane onto the tarmac. Impossible! Boo was secured in a brand new crate. The crate had hinges, a locking mechanism, you needed opposable thumbs and a brain to open it. I shook my head. Apparently early onset jet lag and stress were making me hallucinate. Unfortunately, my daughters have greater faith in their senses. They immediately believed what they, too, saw.

Let me interrupt here. I was in the Army for five years, two of them, on airborne status at Ft. Bragg. One of the things I remember, very clearly, is that you do not mess with Air Force runways. You do not step onto them without proper clearance and an escort. I was fairly certain of two things: one, civilian runways were probably similar; two, I had no desire, whatsoever, to find out. That knowledge kept me rooted in place as I watched my cat, NOT my hallucination, take off across the Frankfurt runway. My daughters, not schooled in the finer aspects of runway etiquette, only cared about their beloved Boo. My husband and sons, not having seen Boo’s escape, watched in disbelief as my daughters took off, full speed, onto an international runway. I then did what any mother would do; blew off the law and ran after them.

Needless to say, close on my heels was a contingent of weapon toting security personnel. Oddly enough, it’s not every day that you have three American females running across your runway. Here’s a fun fact; “halt” is the same in English and German.

This is where it gets a little muddy. From what I can piece together, my husband and sons fell into the “cat” parade on the heels of the security people. Of course, while chasing us, my husband was probably contemplating the state of German jails and wondering how the words “international incident” look on an OER.

Then Boo just stopped. He sat and began grooming himself. How nice for him. This caused my daughters and me to stop abruptly. In fact the whole “cat “parade ended up looking like slapstick comics as our human accordion crumpled. About this time, the security people began piecing together just what had happened. However, no one was sure what to do, how to do it, who to yell at, and most importantly, who was in trouble. I was not above letting the cat take the fall. Finally, a brave baggage handler walked up to Boo, picked him up, and brought him back to us.

This would be a great time to talk about how we all had a laugh. All the participants in this twisted little drama shared a moment that transcended language and cultural barriers. I wish I could, sadly, I would be lying. The “no harm, no foul” philosophy was not making headway. I don’t speak German (“halt” notwithstanding), but I did learn a few new vocabulary words, hand gestures included, in the minutes that followed. They don’t bear repeating or description. There were lots of questions, even more attempted explanations. As the chain of events was recounted, despite the language differences, we were able to resolve the situation once everyone calmed down. Boo was put back into his crate, and we were allowed to get on the bus. “Quickly!” I urged my family, “before they change their minds”. Boarding the bus, we were treated to a round of applause, having been the best entertainment anyone had seen in a while. We then proceeded to the terminal and onto our flight to Houston. Meanwhile, I was wishing that I hadn’t wasted the kitty tranquilizers on the cats; I should have taken them myself.

Amazingly, Boo did not have a TransAtlantic escape attempt. We arrived in Houston to find him in customs, asleep in his crate. My paperwork, once again, was not given the attention it deserved, but, I was just happy to have my family and pets safe and un-incarcerated. Boo’s crate had been modified, however. It had been duct taped into oblivion with only a few small holes for air. There was also a note, in German, with lots of bold writing. Sometimes I’m glad I don’t read German.

Cat is reprinted with permission from “Household Baggage Handlers: 56 Stories From the Hearts and Lives of Military Wives” (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishers, June 2008).

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Angela Owens is an Army spouse of over 20 years and also a former Army officer. She and her husband, their four children and three pets moved to Brooklyn this past summer from Ft. Polk, Louisiana. The Owens have been assigned all over the country, to include Hawaii, and also in Europe. Angela was born in the Bronx, and raised on Long Island.

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