A dog and cats tale
It’s been a nightmare dealing with the many needs following the fire at UP Diliman’s Faculty Center (FC). I missed one column last week (my third miss in 19 years of writing “Pinoy Kasi”) and have been at my wits’ end trying to figure out what to write. There’s no lack of topics, no doubt, but my regular readers know that I do extensive research for most of my columns, scouring books, journals and materials on the web.
For today, I hope you’ll indulge me as I entertain you with a short story I quickly whipped up, a dog and cats tale, still drawn from the Faculty Center. I had a room in the FC which burned down completely, so I meant this story-telling to be partly therapeutic as well (as I have been urging my colleagues to seek therapeutic treatment).
Here goes: It was around 2001 or 2002, shortly after I had been appointed chair of the anthropology department, when I met one of those extraordinary challenges that spice up a school administrator’s life.
I had gone home to San Juan that night, and I got a phone call sometime around 9 from a colleague. We had a new staff member and his relatives were looking for him. He was known to work overtime but no one was answering the department phone.
I knew there was only one thing to do, and that was to return to UP and check the department’s office at the FC.
The family driver had left, though, and I was feeling a bit anxious about making the trip alone. As I tried to figure out what to do, I looked to my side and there she was, our old—and I mean old—family dog. Black and tan she was originally, but now she had white hair everywhere. She looked at me, wagging her tail, almost as if volunteering: “I’ll be your bodyguard.”
“Oh, Big Mama,” I told her, “you’re a bit too old for this.” But her tail wagged even more furiously, almost as if to protest my lack of faith in her.
I apologized: “Yes, yes, I know you’re a certified Dog Scout of the Philippines.”
I’m not joking. There used to be a group with that name that offered clicker training for dogs. I was so impressed with the program that I wrote several columns about it and the way the group members use positive reinforcement, rather than force and choke collars, to train dogs.
I hosted two training sessions of the Dog Scouts in UP and convinced them to let me bring my dog, who was the oldest student in class. I thought that if senior citizens could still work on their master’s and PhDs, then why couldn’t geriatric dogs go back to school as well?
Big Mama vindicated me, picking up on clicker training, challenging the cliché about old dogs being unable to learn new tricks. Not quite as quickly as the younger dogs, but in the end she did catch up, complete with applause from her new fans.
That night, I decided I’d have a senior-citizen bodyguard. Like Wonder Woman, she dashed into the car, all excited about our night rescue mission.
We got to the FC. I distinctly remember that it was a moonless night. All you needed were howling wolves and flying bats, which we have in UP Diliman (bats, that is). The FC was totally dark, too, because at that time, we strictly enforced a policy of shutting down electricity at 10 p.m. We did that for safety reasons, given that FC had so many rooms and all you needed was one electrical appliance, or computer, overheating to cause a fire.
The guards shrugged when I greeted them. They were strict about the curfew and didn’t quite like faculty members who insisted on coming in that late. I explained that I was looking for a missing staff member and they let me through, but didn’t offer to accompany me.
The darkness didn’t seem to bother Big Mama; she dashed forward like a bloodhound following a trail. I could tell she was having an adrenaline surge, bombarded by all kinds of new sounds, and scents of wise women and men… and cats.
“Meow,” we heard as we climbed the first flight—a tentative soprano. Then several more from the cats scattered on the second floor. Soon there was a chorus, a chorale, a choir. I could imagine the FC versions of Mr. Mistoffelees, Old Deuteronomy, Gus The Theater Cat and other characters from T.S. Elliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which became the basis for Broadway’s “Cats.”
There must have been a hundred of them in the FC, coming out at night to feast on leftovers. We didn’t have too many restaurants at that time in UP Diliman; instead, long-time caterers brought home-cooked meals and meriendas to the faculty and staff. The cats loved that arrangement, obviously.
Big Mama loves cats and so kept attempting detours. No, I’d tell her, we’re here on a rescue mission.
We got to the department administration room and as I brought out the key, I had all these visions flashing in my mind, at high-speed and in 3D. What if I unlocked the door and couldn’t open it because there was someone, something, behind it? What if it were alive, a torso flying into the air, no lower half? Worse, what if we stumbled on humans, sinister and evil, looking for nonexistent valuable artifacts like mummies and golden Buddhas?
Worse, what if our missing staff member was indeed inside, sprawled on the floor, unconscious or lifeless?
I looked at Big Mama and realized she wasn’t going to be too much help. A St. Bernard she wasn’t, and I wondered how she’d help me evacuate the staff, down the three flights, past the cats, the mice, and the cockroaches.
I’m pretty sure she whined. Maybe she wanted to meet the cats, maybe she was hungry or tired, or both, but I took it to mean she was telling me to have more confidence in her.
We didn’t find anyone, or any Thing, in the office. Our staff member, I found out the next day, had a night out and forgot to inform his family. I was so relieved I thought I’d stay longer, opening my own room and having Big Mama, who was exhausted by then, jump up on my lap for a break. I congratulated her for upholding the good name of the Dog Scouts of the Philippines, with UP’s honor and excellence thrown in.
Big Mama on my lap? I can tell you now: Big Mama was a moniker I used for a dachshund, black and tan and white, named Tiny. She’s long gone, but—can you hear “Memory” being played?—she comes around sometimes when I think of family, friends… and the FC.
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