Jesse Stoddard

Everything I Ever Needed To Know About Being A Man I Learned From A Cat

We always had cats growing up.

Probably because we had a very unique experience with the first one.

My dad was too busy for pets, but I imagine he liked dogs. Apparently, my father once had a dog, but it passed away around the time I was born. My birth must have been a part of the changing of the guard, or otherwise, perhaps I made such an underwhelming impression on the virile old dog that he just threw in the towel.

I had a lot to learn about manhood and masculinity.

After that, my mom won my dad over with what some consider the lower-maintenance pet option; a cat.

My mom took the initiative to get a pet. My dad was too busy building his family’s future during the eighties to worry about such details, so he had no problem with it at all. I am sure I helped the case by begging him for a pet of some kind.

Most of the guys I know think that a dog would be the only real option for a boy such as myself aspiring to manliness. In this case, they would be wrong.

Besides, my grandma’s cat was always in heat and befriended every male specimen on Airport road and the Mukilteo Speedway.

Her suitors used to come howling from miles away, fighting each other, clawing, scrapping, and making all kinds of racket outside my grandparents’ window. At the same time, grandma was trying to watch Wheel of Fortune and eat Saltines.

In fact, grandma Donna Gregerson sustained herself for at least fifty years on nothing but cigarettes and Saltine crackers. I don’t think she ever ate anything else—at least I never saw her. Grandma used to prepare us kids peanut butter and butter sandwiches with Wonder Bread, which she might have nibbled on a bit. She pecked at edibles in-between the final few puffs finishing off her first pack of cigarettes for the day.

For some reason, we didn’t really notice the smoke back then. At least not until it became a thick yellow cloud when uncle Jim came by, and they all started chain-smoking and talking politics. By the time you got home from grandpa and grandma’s house, you had to bleach your hair and burn your clothes.

When it got that bad, we went outside to play with the cats.

The Old Queen is what I called her. Queen in this context is a term that means a pregnant cat that has just given birth and is nursing. It is a much nicer name than what my grandparents called her. When talking about Old Queen, they used a variety of pejoratives alluding to her tendency to take on street-walker behaviors.

I’m not sure if the cat technically belonged to my grandparents. She was there, and they fed her, so I guess in those days that constituted ownership—or perhaps kinship.

I think she was the perfect cat to be adopted by my mothers’ side of the family in every way. All the other cats came to her and fought over her, she was the life of the party, had a good time, and then multiplied her impact on the world.

God bless the queen.

And in one of those many, many, many litters of kittens over many, many, many years, she had a sizeable black kitten with a white diamond tuft of fur on his chest.

That one, along with one of his many brothers, were the two cats we brought back to our house in Edmonds when I was but a wee lad.

I think the real reason we got a pet at all was that my grandparents had to get rid of as many cats as possible. They begged my parents to take at least a dozen. From that particular litter, we considered only two black cats, much to my grandparents’ disappointment.

The big black kitten eventually turned into the enormous black cat we affectionally called, “Big Al,” short for Albert.

I am sure you have seen big cats before. Likely, they are the fat Garfield kind that lazes about all day doing nothing but eating and complaining. Or, perhaps you have seen those breeds with very long hair that sticks to every piece of clothing and gives everyone around you violent bouts of hay fever.

But I’m not talking about that kind of big. I’m talking about the Conan The Barbarian-muscled big you’d see on a small black bear kind of big.

This cat was huge and bulky and heavy. My dad threw out his back a few times, picking this cat up, and I simply couldn’t budge the girthy thug.

Albert took a liking to me. He treated me like a dog would treat a master and protected me. He slept curled up around my head on my pillow, his weight putting such an impression on it that I had dreams of falling into quicksand head first.

At his full size, he resembled a well-fed raccoon, which may have been why he tended to scuffle with them from time to time. This would later become a problem.

In his leisure time (what other kinds of time is there for a cat?), he would sit atop the fence and peer down rather unimpressed at the stupid neighbor golden lab.

Now, I have nothing against dogs, mind you. In fact, I currently own a dog and have grown fond of it. But I think most people can agree that there are just as many dumb dogs as dumb cats. The trouble for the neighbor dog was that he was particularly foolish, and his chosen arch enemy was one of the smartest and most self-confident cats who ever lived.

Big Al would just sit there lazily watching the dog as it foamed at the mouth, barking as loudly and viciously as he could. He jumped up and nearly made contact with Albert by less than an inch every time. The dog would leap up, jaws chomping violently and miss, and immediately rebound and miss, over and over and over. For hours.

Meanwhile, Big Al’s tail would slyly tease the dog by wiggling and winding around like a worm on a hook just above the dog’s nose. I am surprised Big Al never brought his fresh catch home for dinner.

What Big Al had was chutzpah, extreme self-confidence, and audacity. He had gusto! Gumption!

Naturally, he was an indoor-outdoor cat, which is another way of saying he did whatever the heck he wanted. He came inside to tend to his humans, eat manmade foods, sleep, and reprieve from the wild. Then he went outside whenever he wanted to hunt, eat the real hot-blooded stuff, fight a raccoon, or toy with dogs.

He didn’t care about whether all the other cats in the neighborhood liked him. He didn’t fret over his fur-style, or whether or not his flea collar was en vogue.

The thought of not being great never crossed his mind. He was comfortable in his own skin. He never doubted anything or any of his choices for even one second.

One evening after the sun went down, I heard a thunderous banging and hissing outside our back door. Usually, when Albert wanted in, he just meowed powerfully, but politely, and I opened the door. This time, I sensed an urgency in his cat voice.

Oddly, his back was to me, and his fur was on end, arched back, looking massive. In front of him were five very large raccoons hissing and spitting. As I looked out into the yard behind them, I saw dozens of glowing eyes throughout the tree line, eerily closing in on us.

Albert had been cornered by an entire pack of Raccoons. It was like a scene out of Gangs of New York. I thought that every Raccoon in the whole city of Edmonds had shown up to take on one cat.

Perhaps they came with a vengeance to get him for beating one of their own. It might have been that Albert had defeated their alpha male, and now they were paying fealty to him. They might have been bowing in submission, and hissing was just a part of the crowning ceremony. Who knows when it comes to those crazy raccoons?

My parents had a gaff-rigged schooner that my dad wholly rebuilt. It is in the National Historic Registry, and it is called the Quissett. I was fortunate enough as a kid to get to sand the bottom in dry dock and occasionally went out on it in the Puget Sound.

Great Albert would come with us, of course. Like all cats, he didn’t want to go in the water, but because he had incredible self-esteem, he did not let it get the better of him. See, Albert wasn’t afraid of water. He simply preferred to avoid it. Being on a boat kept him above it, so he didn’t have any insecurities to worry about.

Later in my life, after making many stupid childish mistakes, I realized that I had a tendency to repeat the same unfortunate decisions in life. I think it is because I was trying to get over the fear or a bad habit by immersing myself in that very same fear or bad habit. Instead, I could have just done like Albert and stopped jumping into the icy cold water in the first place. Man, I should have listened more to that cat.

Anyway, Big Al used to climb out on the bowsprit. If you don’t know what that is, it’s the long wooden thing that sticks out of the bow (the front) of the sailboat and has netting on it.

Big Al would climb out to the very tip end of the bowsprit at high sea, the water splashing up all around him as the boat bobbed up and down in the large waves like a cork.

I like to think that maybe Albert was just visualizing the wave as if it were that dumb dog on the other side of the fence and smirking to his cat self. He must have realized that the splash scared all of us, silly humans, so he directed our vessel while we stood by, helpless. When you think about it, by definition, the leader leads from the front, and he was usually in front, so therefore he was our leader.

On one of our typical stormy Pacific Northwest trips, the waves were coming over the bow, and my friend Max Babb and I were seasick. We were throwing up uncontrollably over the sides and trying to stop the world from spinning around us.

When we finally came to, the wind was howling fiercely, and I started to get worried. I did not see Albert down below in my bunk, he wasn’t walking around the decks, and he wasn’t out on the bow.

I thought for sure he had been swept overboard by a strong gust of wind or a wave over the side.

In a panic, I cried to my mother (as all boys do no matter how old they get) to help me to find my beloved cat. All the adults began to search but to no avail.

Then, as my dad (who was not concerned at all as his beard was more manly than the rest of the men aboard) was at the helm of the Schooner Quissett, the wind changed directions. As we were tacking and coming about, the boom of the mainsail swung violently from port to starboard. It took the flapping mass of canvas with it, making all kinds of loud, disturbing windy noises.

Suddenly, we looked up and saw Albert the cat far up in the sail. Not on the mast, but outstretched paws, spread eagle, claws engaged firmly in the canvas itself with an iron grip. The wind engorged the sail into a round concave massive bowl for the muscled animal to slowly slide down. His claws prolonged his descent to a very smooth and rather graceful glissade. He would stop from time to time, a black ball of fir in a giant cream-colored canvas, like a splotch on a minimalist painting.

As soon as we all woke from our stupefied daze, and after we stopped shrieking and screaming in terror and bewilderment, we realized Albert didn’t seem troubled at all.

We watched in awe as an intimidating wave broke across the bow, hissed, and shot water up all around us. We bobbed up and down in the surf, holding on tight and wondering how we would save our beloved Albert—but we found he didn’t need saving.

To our total astonishment (save my father, who was beaming proudly upon realizing that another great male had joined the Stoddard ilk), Albert seemed altogether unfazed. In fact, other than his fur being puffed a bit from the strong winds, Albert seemed to be… having fun.

“He’s sail surfing. Now that’s what I call a cat!” My dad said as his beard flapped in the wind. He masterfully commanded the ship’s wheel, turning the rudder and altering our destinies toward a manlier place.

It was then I learned what it meant to be a real man. Self-confidence, esteem, gusto. Passion and zest for life. Carpe Diem. All these traits mastered and demonstrated by Albert the Great.

Big Al lived at least a decade, maybe several. I don’t know how he died because he just kind of disappeared one day like cats sometimes do, preferring to die with honor like the rugged individualists they are.

I always imagined him slowly fading away as Jedi Knights do. His collar gently dropping to the floor, rattling around in a circle like a spinning coin as it came to its final resting place.

Albert the Cat Pirate
Albert the Cat Master and Commander

Albert The Cat Comics

I found these comics I made about Albert in my old boxes of childhood drawings, probably from the mid-1980’s. If you click on these pictures, they should enlarge to full screen for you…

Schooner Quissett

Just for fun, if you want a glimpse into the marvelous history of the Schooner Quissett, here are some pictures to peruse. If you click on the pictures, they should enlarge to full screen (even on a phone)…

Picture of Jesse Stoddard

Jesse Stoddard


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