The Cat House
Nothing Beats Embracing the Suck to Serve Others
When I think of the Cat House, I dry heave. Then I smile.
None of us left the Cat House unscathed. I watched one guy puke into his respirator mask. Top had a branch come down on his head, leaving a huge gash across his forehead and a scar still marked on his forehead today, TR grey soaked in blood and clotted with sawdust, his corncob pipe stuck somewhere under the debris. A few of us got nails through our boots. Some cuts and scrapes. Most of us developed a very real hatred of cats.
The Cat House is located somewhere in western Moore, OK. The exact street or neighborhood doesn’t quite stick out to me. The homes that once stood across the street from the Cat House were now gone; the tornado tore them up like a giant blender, turning their 2x4s into chopsticks, pink insulation strung out across the city blocks.
The Cat House still stood on three walls. The front room was blown open, doorframe standing but the walls to either side were gone. A couch lay overturned across the middle of the floor, covered in broken glass and splintered wood. The giant oak tree out back was split down its trunk; half of the old tree fell in through the back of the house. The roof was gone.
I think part of what makes a Team Rubicon volunteer a little different is her willingness to do the dirty and backbreaking jobs.
Mucking out a basement, surrounded by raw sewage and floodwater is not inherently fun. Ripping out drywall is also not incredibly fun, feeling the itch on your forearms and down your back for the next three days, covered in a film of your own sweat and fiberglass particulate.
The Cat House surpassed all standards of nastiness, even for Team Rubicon.
We called it the Cat House because we were told 19 cats lived there. It smelled like nineteen hundred cats lived there. Full litter boxes. Bowls of spoiled wet cat food. We were told the owner recovered only a few of the cats after the tornado. We assumed several cats were still inside the house, for better or worse. Schrödinger’s cats. Plural.
Our three strike teams rolled up to the house first thing in the morning, our work first order of the day. A group of sawyers would take down the towering split oak in the back while the rest of the teams would remove debris from the house and sort for the homeowner’s personal effects. Once the tree was down and the house was clear, the heavy equipment teams would come through in the skid steers and level the house. The rest of us were tasked with debris removal: moving through the house and property and removing downed branches, broken furniture, splintered door frames and damaged drywall.
A nice lady and her husband, the homeowners, had lived in Moore for a longtime. Even after the storm, the home had the feel of a grandmother’s house. Warm and cozy. Easy to imagine her grandchildren tearing through the house and jumping off of couches, chasing the cats into the yard, peeking out through the small gaps of the fence in the backyard. The strike teams moved silently through the destroyed house, taking in the memories of their own grandmothers and carefully picking up picture frames and books off the floor.
The homeowner’s daughter asked us to be on the lookout for two things: a grandfather clock and any photos we could find of her father. He was something of a local celebrity in Oklahoma, a clown on a Saturday morning kid’s shows in the 60s and 70s. I’ve always had an irrational fear of clowns, but digging through the rubble of the house and finding pictures of the clown smiling was a cathartic experience. By the time we had swept the house of personal effects, we had three stacks of photos and memorabilia of the homeowner’s father. We never did find the grandfather clock.
Michael Washington, whom we only called Top, led a team of sawyers on taking down the towering oak out back. As Top set up a cut on backside, a branch broke and came down on him, knocking the pipe from his mouth. The branch cracked his hardhat down the front and cut a gash into his forehead. We looked up from our work and saw Top walking away from the tree, chainsaw in one arm and the cracked hardhat curled under his other, blood coming down his face and dripping onto his grey TR shirt, sleeves ripped off, sawdust sticking to the sweat and blood on his arms. He was walking back to the truck for another hardhat so he could keep working on the tree.
As Top got patched up, we took turns ripping the sleeves off of our own shirts. We knew we could never look as badass as Top had, walking away from that tree with a smirk on his bloodied face, but damn if we weren’t going to try. We all joined Team TBS (Too Big for Sleeves) that day.
More strikes teams joined us throughout the day. The tornado had shredded and flipped the home inside out. Stuffed animals, bricks, books, and clothing were thrown across the yard. We used snow shovels to pick it up and move it into piles by the road for collection. When we ventured into the house to remove the smashed appliances, we held our breath against the smell of rancid litter boxes. More than once we laughed (and gagged) as someone sprinted out of the house to dry heave and breathe in clean-smelling air. At least two of us puked into our facemasks. But even after getting sick, we would still jump back into the house, determined to continue working.
We worked on the Cat House the whole day, a rare thing to have several strike teams on the same work order so much work there was. And even after the workday was over, some of the guys from the teams continued to sort through the rubble, this time for Top’s missing pipe.
We got back to the FOB tired, some of us bloody, covered in fiberglass hairs, and smelling like old cat piss. Another strike team had found something on their way back, a great big blue flag with a bright yellow mug of beer in the middle. We raised the beer flag and drank some cold Oklahoma 3.2% ABV beers. It was a good day. We hated the Cat House. We loved what we did with that day.