I’d like to take a break from answering unanswerable (and the occasional shouldn’t-be-answered) questions to introduce you to my grandfather, Artemis Valiant Tanager. While I won’t be introducing you to him literally, mainly due to his having passed on decades ago, I’d like to treat you to one of his wonderful stories about his days in the Spanish-American War, also known (mainly to him) as The War to End All Wars. He also referred to it as the Great Depression and The New Deal occasionally, when not referring to it as The Era of Good Feelings. He did love a good generational label.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate a photo of Grandpa Artemis, no doubt due to photography still being very much of a “dark art” during his most photogenic years (age 12 and age 31, if I’m not mistaken). However, I did find a rather nice scientific drawing of a Palm Civet Cat, who will be featured prominently in the following tale. Enjoy.
My great-grandfather, Artemis Valiant Tanager, was a veteran of the Spanish-American War. Keeping with the family tradition (which he had just started that afternoon), he would often sit down on quiet nights and regale us with horrendous tales of his proud service of his country (mostly the United States).
He’d dim the lights, often inadvertently, before beginning his story. As an “attention-grabber,” he would sometimes accompany the dimmed lights with a lusty yell and a few muzzle-loaded shots, usually aimed high and wide, thanks to his delirium tremors and failing eyesight.
We’d gather around his feet, our little hearts racing and our little hands surreptitiously checking ourselves for bullet wounds, and sit in rapt, near-catatonic attention as he began:
“We were encamped for a few weeks, nestled deep within the lovely rolling hills on the outskirts of southern Manila. Unfortunately, many of us were too dead, too wounded or too scared to enjoy what was left of the scenery and most of these autumnal memories have only returned via gunfire-triggered flashbacks or years of regression therapy.
The Filipinos were somewhat ill at ease as well, what with their country being used as a war-ridden playground for a battle between Spain and America. We indicated through a series of inept hand gestures that their invitations to play “host” for this war must have been lost in the mail, a common occurrence with drunken Pony Express riders and their none-too-sober mounts.
In fact, their invitations had been lost, having been bundled with several thousand care packages on a steamer located up in Cleveland, OH. It had followed a circuitous route through the Great Lakes before emerging in the Atlantic and heading for the Philipines. Unfortunately, a calculated attempt to “stir things up” saw the ship run full-bore onto the nearest Filipino beach, launching itself over a scrub-covered mound and unceremoniously drop its entire load directly between the two peaks that bookended Manila. Obviously it was a huge mess and those at the receiving end were none too pleased.
Anyway, the men and I had received our orders earlier that day via the Filipino version of the Passenger Pigeon: the Palm Civet Cat. The small packet of top-secret information and lifetime supply of cyanide pills was carefully inserted by highly trained couriers into the lower intestine of the cat.
Though known for their ill-tempered clawing and unrestrained bowel movements, they actually could become quite tame given the proper training, although the constant stench was somewhat of an annoyance.
Ike, you can use the facilities when this story is finished. It’s rather rude to keep interrupting.
(An aside: Grandpa was referring to my cousin Ike, who was three years my junior and somewhat of inconvenience to be around, thanks to his constant urination which led directly to his constant dehydration. Spending time with Ike meant rotating between the nearest restroom and nearest sink/water fountain. He was also a poor conversationalist, what with his words being continually drowned out by his water intake or muffled by the door to the men’s room.)
Someone had discovered, most likely due to boredom or being hopped up on the local fortified mango wine, that the beans found in their heaping piles of feces could be used to brew a rather strong cup of joe. Of course, “joe” had not yet become widely used slang for coffee, but instead referred to the eye-wateringly powerful beverage made from a mixture of civet cat feces and the 90-proof mango wine.
We lost a few men to what we now know as “e coli” and a few more to the heart-stopping power of the wine’s most active ingredient: polypropylene glycol. While its many uses around the world render it safe to consume in small quantities, a weeklong-bender’s worth would usually turn a healthy man’s blood into something between high-pressure plastic and memory foam. Shortly thereafter, it would turn their minds into a mush we referred to as “Mango Madness.” Those under the spell of “MM” often rushed headlong into the nearest body of water before emerging briefly to futilely attempt to set themselves on fire.
Ike– again. You can wait. All this urination can’t possibly be good for your remaining kidney. Maris, stop picking at that bullet wound. There’ll be plenty of time for that when the wound becomes infected.
Anyway, the messages would be retrieved from the civet cat droppings along with the precious coffee beans and assorted roughage. After a quick cup of joe and a scan of the illegible map, we were ready to storm whatever the hell it was that to the very blurred north of us.
Long story short, within 24 hours we had reclaimed the capital from the peaceable but proud Manilans and were celebrating with a spiked cup of deadly mango-joe. We sold our coffee secret to Juan Valdez Sr. who promised to take it to his grave as soon as he made a quick fortune.
The rest of us adopted a fair amount of the tamer civet cats as pets, taking them home with us to become coffee makers, guardcats and handy shipping containers for various illegal products and substances.
Ike, as soon as you’re done collapsing in pain, you may use the restroom. Maris: I’d like to take a moment to refer to the release form you signed prior to your visit.”
- Clifton L. Tanager