(This is my third travel blog writing about the time I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa and celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps.)
Second year Volunteers in Liberia ran off and played during the January break. Being new kids on the block, my ex-wife and I were expected to stay home and work. One of the escaping couples, Dick and Sandy Robb, left four female kittens in our care.
Our pay was to have the pick of the litter. Whoopee.
I built our temporary cat family a three-story cardboard mansion. It was a maze of rooms, hanging toys, hallways and ramps. The kittens would disappear inside and play for hours. We could hear them banging around as they stalked each other and attacked the hanging toys.
In a creative moment inspired by the evening cocktail hour, we decided to use the house as an intelligence test to determine which kitty we would keep. First we waited until the kittens were appropriately hungry and then brewed up their favorite meal, fish head stew. Here’s the recipe. Take several ripe fish heads and throw them in a pan of boiling water. When their eyes pop out, they’re done.
Next, we encouraged the kittens to sniff their gourmet feast and showed them that the meal would be located just outside the ground-floor door. Now we were ready for the test.
Each kitten would be placed inside the third-story door and given a nudge. I would then close the door and time how long it took the kitten to reach her dinner. Our theory was that the kitten with the quickest time through the maze was the brightest.
Grey Kitten #1 was a pudgy little character that never missed a meal. My money was riding on her. She breezed through the maze in three minutes sharp and set the time to beat. There was a chance that the sound of her munching on fish heads might inspire the other kittens to greater glory, however.
Grey Kitten #2 was one of those ‘whatever it is you want me to do I am going to do the opposite’ type cats. Not surprisingly, she strolled out of the door seven minutes later and ignored the food altogether. (Afterwards, we were to speculate that she was the most intelligent cat and blew the race because she had no intention of living with someone who made her go through a maze for dinner.)
Grey Kitten #3 was the lean and mean version. Scrawny might be a better description. She obviously needed dinner the most and proved her mettle by blazing through the house in two minutes. The contest was all but over.
Kitten # 4 was what pollsters normally classify as ‘other.’ To start with, she was yellow instead of grey. She was also loud. In honor of her operatic qualities, Jo nicknamed her Brunhilde. By the time her turn arrived, she was impatiently scratching the hand that was about to feed her and growling in a demonic way.
I gladly shoved the little monster in the third story door and closed it. We heard a scrabbling on the other side as tiny claws dug into the cardboard floor. Her race down the hall was punctuated by a crash on the other end. Brake problems. Then she was up and running again, but it sounded like toward us. Had the crash disoriented her?
Suddenly the third story door burst open and one highly focused yellow kitty went flying through the air. She made a perfect four-point landing and dashed to the dinner dish. Her time? Ten seconds.
And that is how Brunhilde became our cat. Our decision to keep her led us to turn her over and check out her brunhildehood a little more closely. Turns out she had a couple of furry little protuberances where there shouldn’t have been any. She was a he. In honor of his demonic growl and generally obnoxious behavior, we renamed him Rasputin, after the nefarious Russian monk.
This brings up a related story, think of it as a blog bonus.
James Gibbs, an anthropologist from Stanford, was living in Gbarnga and studying the Kpelle people when we first arrived. One evening he and his wife invited Jo Ann and me over for dinner. We appreciated the invitation. I should also note we were recent college graduates and over awed by academicians. We dressed up in our best clothes and walked the mile to their home.
The Gibbs had an impressive house for upcountry Liberia. They were sophisticated, nice folks who quickly put us at ease. Among the hors d’oeuvres they served was a delightful concoction of mashed avocado, tomatoes and peppers that Jo and I found quite tasteful. We made the mistake of asking what it was.
“Why it’s guacamole of course,” Dr. Gibbs declared. We must have looked blank because he went on, “Surely anyone from California knows what guacamole is.”
Surely we didn’t. I felt like Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl when she learned that pate was mashed chicken liver. After all, what do a couple of country kids from Diamond Springs and Auburn know? (It was 1965 and Mexican food had yet to storm the area.) Yes, we’d graduated from UC Berkeley but dining out to us meant beer and pizza at La Val’s.
To change the subject I called attention to their cat.
“Nice cat,” I noted.
“Oh that’s Suzy,” Mrs. Gibbs gushed. “She’s in love.”
Dr. Gibbs jumped in, obviously glad to leave the subject of guacamole. “The boys are coming by every night to visit. We hear them yowl their affection up on the roof.”
Suzy looked proud of her accomplishments. She strolled over and rubbed up against my legs. I reached down and scratched her head, which served as an invitation to climb into my lap. While arranging herself, she provided me with a tails-eye view. Staring back at me was the anatomy of the most impressive tomcat I’ve ever seen. In comparison to Rasputin, Suzy had the balls of a goat!
I could hardly contain myself. “Um, Suzy isn’t Suzy,” I managed to get out while struggling to maintain a straight face.
“What do you mean Suzy isn’t Suzy?” Dr. Gibbs asked in his best professorial voice. Rather than respond verbally, I turned Suzy around and aimed her tail at Dr. Gibbs. Understanding flitted across his face.
“We never thought to look,” he mumbled lamely. We were even. While the kids from the hills might not know their guacamole from mashed avocados, they did know basic anatomy.
 Since we are talking academics here, I will insert a footnote. My memory of the event may be faulty and the cat was named something other than Suzy. It was definitely a female name, however.