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Cats in Wartime 6
The Cat from Hué, Vietnam
John (Jack) Laurence, considered one of the finest TV war correspondents of the time, was covering the Vietnam war from the 'hotspot' of Hué in February 1968; he had been due to go home at the end of his tour, but had been persuaded to return to Hué to cover what turned out to be an extended battle. One day he encountered a small, starving, homeless and orphaned kitten in a bombed-out house; it was dirty and dishevelled, with its fur sticking out, and had fleas in abundance and a possible eye infection. He put some of his C-rations down for it, but although desperately hungry and with its ribcage showing it was probably too thin to have been considered worth putting into a cooking pot it wouldn't approach him. He left food for it when he left the house.
A friendship begins
Returning next day, he found the kitten emboldened and it accepted food from his fingers, also allowing him to clean some of the fleas and dirt from its face and ears. It seemed to be a tricoloured cat, white, with some orange and black. Due to be getting a lift by jeep out of Hué, on a sudden compulsion and wave of compassion Laurence scooped up the kitten, knowing that if left there its chances of survival were slim. And 'It gave me something to worry about apart from myself,' he said. He ensconced it in one of his pockets, from where it scratched him through the thick material he was wearing. The kitten nearly escaped when they made a stop at an aid station, but he managed to recapture it. On learning that the Vietnamese for cat is 'meo' (pronounced may-oh), it was decided that Meo would be the youngster's name.
Escape from Hué
Eventually the pair continued their journey to Danang, away from the combat zone, by helicopter and then in a C-123 plane. In both craft, Meo explored and clambered up onto the pilot's shoulder straps in the cockpit.
Confined to the networks' barracks room at the Combat Information Bureau in Danang, Meo prowled restlessly, looking for an escape route. News of him as 'the lucky little cat that survived the battle of Hué' spread to the US bases in the area, and many people came to visit him and take photos. Generally he was very unsociable, either scratching people or fleeing to hide; he seemed to be particularly anti-American! As time went on he gained the run of the press centre, returning to the barracks room only to eat and sleep. He slowly grew bigger, ate 'like a little lion' four or five times a day and gradually gained in confidence, although still startled by loud noises. Sometimes he would sleep at the foot of Laurence's bed.
During March 1968 Meo was flown to Saigon in a cardboard box, so as not to disturb the pilot on that flight. The cat was furious and tried ceaselessly and unsuccessfully to escape. Laurence took him, still howling, up to the hotel room where he was to be based and gave him the run of the place, including the balcony. He was given food and shelter, but otherwise looked after himself; he loved to sit on the balcony ledge for long periods and watch goings-on in the street below. The Vietnamese hotel staff enjoyed bringing him titbits and treats.
Upon arrival in Saigon he had been given his one and only bath which he strongly resented and resisted and was revealed as mostly white with a few bits of orange no black, which had just been accumulated dirt! By April he was clean all over, growing fast and still had a ravenous appetite. He kept himself to himself, tolerated the Vietnamese 'room boys' but still seemed to bear a grudge against other humans, especially Americans, and would attack without provocation. They decided that he was a 'Viet Cong cat'! He was a fierce hunter, taking on all creatures great and small; he had no fear. He dominated the hotel grounds, including the feral cats that lived there. Sometimes he'd disappear for several days on expeditions of his own, but always returned. He had a tendency to visit other hotel rooms at night, looking for food, but never got caught.
Meo goes to America
By May Laurence was booked to go home to the US but what was to be done with Meo? The two of them had gradually bonded, and the cat made fewer unprovoked attacks. If left behind he would either become feral or get cooked and eaten. He couldn't be sent back to Hué, so it was decided he would travel to America. He was given his shots and a health certificate at Saigon Zoo. A few days after Laurence had left, Meo was flown in the cargo hold to New York's JFK airport a 36-hour trip plus further delays at the airport. He was not pleased!
While Laurence looked for his own place, Meo went to Connecticut to stay with Jack's mother, an animal lover, and settled down to a life of sleeping, eating, hunting and ruling the roost over the existing house cat Clem, who initially was terrified of him. Meo actually became quite a favourite with the neighbourhood children and would play with them when they came to visit and stroke him.
An accident, then illness
One day he disappeared, uncharacteristically not coming in for his supper. Everyone searched and searched, with no result. On the fourth day he was found in the garage, to where he had managed to make his way back after, presumably, a traffic accident. Rushed to the vet's, he was found to have a shoulder broken in two or three places and a broken paw; it seemed to be touch and go whether he would survive. But he was young and tough; he rallied and next day was operated on to set the broken bones and have a metal pin inserted. He spent six weeks at the animal hospital; the bill was 1500 US dollars (worth more then than today Ed.). Back home it was hard to keep him indoors and eventually he was allowed out, where he carried out his own vigorous programme of rehabilitation.
Then he caught pneumonia. It was back to the hospital, that time for three weeks; Meo wasn't happy, but with a course of antibiotics he recovered, although the illness left him with fits of sneezing that never entirely left him afterwards.
His own place
Some months later Jack and his girlfriend Joy moved into their own small apartment in Manhattan and Meo went to join them. Jack returned to Vietnam in May 1970 for a while; letters from Joy said the cat seemed to miss him. She reported that one day he had fallen into the toilet! Towards the end of June Jack returned; Meo ignored him at first, but sniffed all his baggage in great detail, inspecting it as though it reminded him of something he couldn't quite put his claw on. When John went to bed early to sleep, Joy said the cat sat near his head and looked at his face for ages. He could still be irascible, but not all the time, and his ambushes seemed now to be more playful than malicious. He still apparently saw most American men as enemies, though.
Living in London
In June 1970 Laurence's work took him to London, where he and Joy married and eventually had two daughters. Meo had to spend six months imprisoned in quarantine and although they visited him every week and took him treats, they felt he never forgave them. Back in their new apartment, he was wilder than before and tore around the place like a demon. But in the end he settled down into a life of comfort and regular meals, supplemented with treats from young daughter Jessica. He slept a lot, but not always peacefully; his body convulsed sometimes as though he were wrestling with ghosts.
He observed mail coming through a slot in the door, and decided the hand pushing it through belonged to an enemy. One day he lay in wait and attacked the postman's fingers; the man said it was the first time he'd ever been assaulted by a cat!
Meo liked to share some brandy with Jack sometimes, licking it off his fingers; at times the two of them would stagger off to bed quite tipsy! Meo seemed to have gained wisdom; he knew the two of them were friends. 'Our long, angry, loving relationship had come to symbolise in some way the bond between our two countries, drenched in each other's blood, locked in an unbreakable embrace of life, suffering and death,' wrote John.
Information taken from John Laurence's 850-page book The Cat from Hué: A Vietnam War Story, widely thought to be one of the best accounts ever written of America's involvement in Vietnam; published in 2002 by PublicAffairs Ltd, ISBN 1-903985-10-2. But note: this is not, of course, a book about the cat Meo; I have picked out parts relating to him.
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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.
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