Popsie and McCloud
The air hung heavy with excitement that weekend in Bel Air. It was difficult to
breath. The Santa Ana Winds, as they were called, had backed off and it was
cooler now. Still, there was a fight coming and the mere thought of it created a
certain kind of static electricity on Moraga Drive. Everyone knew about the fight.
We were all waiting. Darryl, who was 9 years old, had even sold tickets for 15
cents each until his mother Barbara made him stop and return the money.
“Dang” was all Darryl said. He had dreams of becoming quite wealthy.
“It’s my cat anyway,” said Andy who was 3 years old and could already swim.
“But my dog,” said Darryl.
“Isn’t,” said John. He was 11. “Popsie is our dog. He belongs to all of us.
He remembered when the monster with a black patch over his right eye had
joined the family. Popsie was just a puppy then, but already huge for his years. He
once consumed, like in a gulp, a pound of hamburger meat from the top of the
kitchen counter. Mom had taken the meat from the refrigerator to make spaghetti
for dinner. Popsie had changed her plans for dinner real quick.
Now, however, we lived in Bel Air, high above Santa Monica, and we also
owned a cat. At least, we thought we had a cat. She lived on a roof somewhere.
Andy said she lived on our roof, thus was our cat.
“He doesn’t really know where that danged cat really lives,” John said to his
“It’s certainly not my cat,” said Barbara.
“Mine,” said Andy. “I call him McCloud.”
Good lord, but kids grow fast! Seems like only yesterday he was in diapers.
Now, he wore a little suit, but was barefooted.
Darryl, on the other hand, was into the Beatles. He listened to their songs
and he currently wore his hair in a mop style.
John put aside his comic book for a moment.
“That cat is gonna get killed. It’s gonna be something gruesome. Blood.
Lots of blood.”
“That dog had better not hurt my cat,” said Andy.
Actually, he thought McCloud was really an alien tiger from Mars. John at
that age had been afraid of tigers and one hundred foot tidal waves. We had lived
in a Manhattan apartment at the time on the fourth floor and we could not persuade
him that he was safe from either one. He thought that tigers could climb the wall
outside and come in on the patio deck. We couldn’t figure out where he got the
idea about the tidal waves. The apartment building was high above the Hudson
River in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
My son John was of the opinion that Popsie was a gentleman and my wife
Barbara agreed with him.
“Definitely,” she said. It was her favorite word at the moment. She loved
such words and would use them until they wore out. I did not agree.
“Popsie is a mongrel. There is no such thing as a gentleman mongrel nor,
come to think of it, a mongrel gentleman. Note the black patches over his eyes.
Definitely the sign of a bandit or a mongrel.”
Barbara scowled at me. She didn’t appreciate my using one of her favorite
“He’s a Mexican bandit,” insisted Andy, who was 3 years old and an expert on
bandits of all kinds. Today, that is. Yesterday, he’d been an expert on asteroids
and there was one heading for earth, he proclaimed, at 42 mph. It was due to
arrive in about an hour and a half and would obliterate humanity, but avoid bunny
rabbits. For some reason yet to be explained, asteroids loved bunny rabbits.
You just had to love a 3-year-old. I was waiting for his explanation when the
asteroid missed hitting the earth. That was going to be quite interesting.
Our present home was in the hills above Santa Monica. The clouds of Santa
Monica were our fog and the fog could be quite dense at times. But usually the
weather was pleasant. Moraga was a fairly short street. Another street branched
off and led further up the hill. Where Moraga ended to the south was a canyon with
a trail down to the old Keck Estate through dense vegetation, brush, and
rattlesnakes more than a mile away. Now and then, we also spotted a small deer
or two. Ed Asner, the actor, occasionally could be seen jogging by the house on
his way up to Roscomare for a longer run.
Andy’s name for the cat had come, of course, from the television show.
Perhaps that’s where John had also obtained the tigers who could climb apartment
walls. The one hundred foot tidal waves? Who knows?
The thing that bothered me was the dog. I really felt that Popsie could and
would kill that cat. Any cat. Including one that lived on the roof of the house and
seemed to have a rather mythical life. By that, I mean no one could touch him.
Not me, not my wife, nor any child in the neighborhood with the exception of
Andrew Clark Hall. That little toddler could walk right up and pick up the cat in his
arms and sit down in a living room chair. Yep, even stroke the cat’s fur backwards
and you know what that does to most cats. It was just the dangest thing!
If McCloud was somewhat of a myth, so was the dog. Our backyard was
actually a hillside of ivy and a couple of towering pines and up at top was a fairly
tall fence. Now and then, as if he had secret wings, Popsie would leap that fence.
Right, we never figured out exactly how. And even an Olympic champion couldn’t
leap that fence. Guarantee you.
Normally, he stayed put in the yard. Normally, he was a well-behaved pet.
Especially for children. I’ve seen a neighborhood 4-year-old beat on his side with
his fists and Popsie would merely turn and lick him in the face. Yeah, Popsie was
tough! Just the other day he’d whipped a German Sheppard out in the street in
front of the house. Made that dog run!
There were several kids from the neighborhood, including the Vellines who
lived up the street, and immediately some kid, probably that same 4-year-old with
the flying fists, came up with the idea of a dog and cat fight.
Well, not just a fight, you understand, but a battle royal.
Andy had quickly protested.
“Not with my cat.”
“I’ll let you read my Batman comic,” said John. “The new one.”
“I read it. While you were at school yesterday,” said Andy.
“You did not,” said John and he quickly turned to his mother. “Can he read
“Of course not,” said his mother. “Andy is only three.”
“I like the pictures,” Andy said. “Pow!”
“Stay away from my collection,” John warned.
“Okay,” said Andy. “I think Batman is sort of a sissy anyway. Why doesn’t he
just learn karate or something?”
“He doesn’t need karate. He has gadgets,” John said. “These are amazing
things that enable him to do this and do that. When I grow up, I’m going to buy me
“Not me,” said Darryl. “It’s a Cadillac for me.”
We were momentarily gathered by the swimming pool that graced our
backyard. There were three towering eucalyptus trees gracing the sky back there
on the hill of ivy that covered up to a high fence line. Until last year, a pine had
also decorated the hillside. One day it fell. Pity. I loved the smell of pine right after
Because of the trees, our backyard was almost isolated from the rest of the
world. And I loved it that way. The result was that the Bel Air area of Los Angeles
seldom saw a robbery. First, it was in sort of an out of the way place tucked near
the top of the mountains above Los Angeles and you needed a car to get there.
The original area sort of precluded Jews even though, today, one of the son-in-laws
of a famous movie director, a lawyer by trade, had a house just up the street and a
rock and roll star lived just across the street from him. Second, if a burglar had a
car, he had better pickins’ in Beverly Hills or the Pacific Palisades or maybe down
in the San Fernando Valley in Tarzana where it was said that the creator of Tarzan,
Edgar Rice Burroughs, once owned a ranch. All that area was just houses now.
Ranches were history. To tell the truth, our Bel Air was actually the poor man’s
version. The wealthier crowd lived sort of down below on the Santa Monica side.
There was a beautiful gate down there on Sunset if you came in from that direction.
An archway that proclaimed money, money, money. At some point, the road
became Roscomare and climbed into the hills. Not here, but at random places in
these mountains you could find houses built on poles; they hung off the ridges of
the mountains like bird nests.
I didn’t like guns of any kind. Because of the kids. But I did fancy a beautiful
Bowie knife that had been given to me by a disc jockey for helping him find a radio
job. I felt pretty safe, though, from robbery because of the family dog.
Popsie, the family dog, loved our backyard. He could roam free. And, of
course, he could escape if and when he really felt the need, which wasn’t very
often. Nope, no member of the family ever saw him leap the fence up at the top of
the hill. I suspected that he had a tunnel under the fence, but since I occasionally
heard the deadly chill of a rattlesnake somewhere up there, you’d never ever find
me searching very much. Once, I heard that rattling that a rattlesnake makes and I
said, “Sic’em, Popsie” and he just stared at me as if he didn’t understand English.
He understand English very well, thank you. Especially words such as “food,”
“water,” and “car.”
With a dog like Popsie, you never had to worry about burglars. The young
lady who lived just next door and often babysit was frightened to open the kitchen
door when she came. “After you were let inside, everything was okay. He had a
growl like a lion and he barked like a mountain was about to fall on you.”
And he was tough! Just slightly smaller than a German Shepard. How he
survived the rough play of my three sons was a mystery to me. Frankly, I think his
favorite times was when the Velline kids from up the street came to visit and with
seven kids yelling and shouting, barking and diving out of a pine tree that arched
over the swimming pool in the backyard, you almost had a storm the size of a
Texas tornado. Even Ginny Velline, the baby, loved jumping out of that tree into the
To tell the truth, Popsie belonged mostly to my wife. He was too big to crawl
into her lap. But he would sit beside her and put his big ugly head in her lap. Then
he would stare up at her with wide, open eyes as if she were some goddess that he
worshipped. And I suppose he did. She would sometimes bring him a bone home
from a trip to the to the supermarket. And when she took everyone to the beach,
she would say, “Car.” That meant he was going too. So, he hung on her every
He loved to run. Once, on a trip from Troy, New York, I’d let him out on the
road to make … that is, go to the john as dogs go. He took off running directly
west into the woods. I thought for a minute or two that we’d lost a family dog. But
then I could hear him making a wide sweep to the south and then returning back
our direction. In a couple of more minutes, he appeared. I suppose that dog must
have run two or three miles. He was barely winded as he returned to the car and
jumped in the rear door into his place in the back.
“Did he make?” asked Barbara.
“How should I know,” I told her. “If he did it was at top speed.”
Popsie went everywhere with the family. He especially loved camping trips.
We often spent weekends camping in the Sequoias. I had a fairly stressful job and
camping high up there amidst trees about 2,000 years old could put your feet back
on the ground real quick. It was quiet and peaceful. And the dog could run free
except when you were walking up one of the countless trails. When we camped at
29 Palms somewhat west of Los Angeles we generally had to keep Popsie on a
leash. The rock squirrels and bluejays … and they were everywhere … could drive
a dog crazy. A squirrel would perch on a boulder in plain view and scream at
Popsie. And one or two bluejays would join in. It was a doggy mess. No dog alive
could catch one of those squirrels. You moved, they fled into the rocks. Forget the
bluejays entirely. Those birds at 29 Palms simply loved to torment dogs. The idea
of leaving Popsie at home never occurred to us. He was a member of the family.
That’s just part of the reason I was more than allergic to a fight between
Popsie and McCloud. Also, I would more than likely be the one to clean up the
mess. I could conceive of a broken lamp, cat scratches in the living room furniture,
and, as John put it somewhat gruesomely, blood over everything. Especially cat
blood. If Popsie could whip a German Sheppard, just think what he would do to a
mere cat. Well, to be honest, I didn’t really want to think about it.
“I have my doubts about that,” the father of the Velline kids told me. His
professional name was Bobby Vee and he had a million-selling hit with “Take Good
Care of My Baby.” The Vellines lived just up the street that branched off of Moraga
Drive. “Cats will surprise you sometimes.“
Barbara and Karen Velline were close friends. Almost like sisters. We often
were at their house for coffee or they were down at our place.
“Are you interested in seeing a cat fight?” I asked.
“Not me,” said Bobby. He grinned. “I’m afraid I’m busy.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said.
“There will be no cat fight,” said Barbara.
“How can you be so sure?” I asked, finishing up my cup of coffee. “As I
recall, you’re the person who took him to training sessions. To teach him how to
Popsie actually learned, finally, to heel. But only for a second or two. Then,
he was gone. The kids were having too much fun without him. He just had to join
That, of course, brings up the question: Was he a dog kid? Or was he a kid
dog? I was afraid of finding out all too soon. Because Darryl was eager to find out.
It was Darryl who sought to discover “who is actually boss in this house, dog or
Andy was willing to concede the point. “Popsie is … because McCloud lives
up on the roof.”
“I am boss of this house,” insisted Barbara. “And that includes the rooftop.
Anyway, I’ve had a discussion with Popsie.”
“What about?” Darryl wanted to know. He was still trying to figure out a way
to make money from the fight.
“About being a gentleman. He’s a male. McCloud, in spite of the name, is a
“That doesn’t really matter,” said Darryl. “They’re naturally-born enemies.
Cats and dogs always fight.”
“I will talk to McCloud,” said Andy. “Tell her to keep away from Popsie.”
“I’m quite positive,” said John in a sarcastic tone, “that she will listen to your
John currently attended John Thomas Dye, a private school in Beverly Hills,
courtesy of Francis Schwartz, one of his grandmothers. She loved being a
grandmother. When John was a tiny baby, she died her hair red because he had
red hair. And she bought a fancy baby carriage just so she could wheel him
through Central Park on Sunday afternoons.
For a while there, I began to believe that Andy had it right about his cat …
she was from Mars. There were several reasons. First, you seldom saw her.
Darryl said he saw her on the roof a couple of times.
“Hunting birds, perhaps?”
My grandfather Charlie Smith once had a cat on the farm who would kill
rabbits for her offspring when she had a litter. She lived in his barn and kept it free
of mice. But McCloud was at least domesticated to the extent that she had a food
bowl and a bowl of water on our back patio. And, although I never saw her eat any
of the food, it would disappear every day or two. Another reason? You could hear
her yowling on occasion. Never often, though. And we never quite sure it was her.
It could have been another cat in the neighborhood.
Then came the big day. It happened all of a sudden on a Sunday afternoon.
A marine layer had moved into Santa Monica down below and we had fog. A
cloud. It had turned off chilly. At Barbara’s encouragement – it could have been a
direct order – I gathered some firewood from behind the garage and started a fire
in the fireplace. The flame was cracking and popping. Barbara was reading an
Agatha Christie mystery she’d just discovered. Darryl was listening to the Beatles
on his transistor radio. Probably had KMET-FM tuned in. John had his nose in a
new Superman comic book. I was reading about the Lakers basketball team in the
Los Angeles Times. Suddenly, an elbow landed in my ribs and when I looked up,
Barbara nodded toward the fireplace.
The sliding glass door that opened upon the back patio and the swimming
pool was open to admit fresh air. It was damp, but it felt good in your lungs.
Popsie had sprawled in his usual place to the left and there was McCloud
sitting primly, as cats do, beside him. Neither dog nor cat seemed to know the
other was there. Oh, they did, of course. That cat had come in the back door,
stayed a few minutes so that Andy could pet her, then left. Back to her rooftop, I
guess. Or Mars.
“Told you,” said Barbara and returned to watching her flames twisting up the
chimney in the fireplace. “Popsie is a gentleman. Convinced?”
“Not likely,” I said. But I folded my newspaper. The basketball team was
winning, but I sort of longed for the days of Jerry West.
That evening, long after we’d all gone to bed, we discovered the great value
of having both a family dog and a cat from Mars or somewhere beyond the
rooftops. And Popsie proved he was definitely not a gentleman. As for the cat, we
still don’t know.
That was a tremendous noise, followed rather closely by a scream. And the
loud barking of a dog. I think I also heard the sharp yowl of a cat.
Then another scream from someone rather near. My wife Barbara, of course.
“Someone’s in the house,” Barbara shouted.
I opened the drawer by my bedside and withdrew my knife. Then turned on
the bedside light.
Still half asleep, I blundered into the living room, not sure I wanted to face a
burglar or not, even with a Bowie. Burglars, as a rule, have guns, you know. But I
didn’t need the Bowie.
A very frightened man stood in the living room, both hands in the air. His gun
was on the floor at his feet.
“Call off your pets,” he pleaded. “That damned cat fell on me from
somewhere. Almost scratched my eyes out.”
“Mars,” I told him.
“That cat fell on you from Mars,” I said.
“Your dog also bit me on the leg.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “He’s had his shots.”
The burglar just stared at me.
Before him sat Popsie and McCloud. When he moved, Popsie gave a low
growl. The burglar stopped moving and was very, very still.
“Call the police,” I told Barbara, who had followed me in her nightgown.
“Police?” she asked.
Three children in pajamas immediately popped into view beside her.
“Definitely,” I said.
She frowned at me.
“Not likely,” she said. “They take forty-five minutes to get here. Karen Velline
and I always call the fire department. They’re faster.”
Fortunately, the firemen who service that part of Bel Air are gentlemen. They
held the burglar hostage until the police finally arrived.