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Why "The Streamlined Cannonball"?

"The Streamlined Cannonball," like "The Wabash Cannonball," is a country song about a train. The Streamlined was a diesel locomotive that took over the Wabash Cannonball's route, and both trains figure prominently in a musical tradition that loved trains and railroads and the dreams of hobos. So far, this doesn't have very much to do with cats.

Trains have fabulous names, though, and cats should, too. This goes beyond the T.S. Eliot remarks about the multiplicity of names for a cat, but it certainly overlaps him.

I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular
A name that is peculiar, and more dignified
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

Not that your cat cares even the tiniest bit what you call him, as long as you don't call him Late For Dinner. Even T.S. Eliot goes on to note that a cat won't even reveal its own name. It underscores how naive we are if we fail to acknowledge what a fine screen a cat (in particular, more than other pets) makes for our projections. A cat's name is at least as much about ourselves and our lives as it ever is about the animal.

My dad started it with a little orange cat he named The Orange Blossom Special. She was excellent, and since my dad (an Old Time-y fiddle and banjo player) found my grey tabby, the Wabash Cannonball, I wanted to give him a similar name. He turned into a blobby, trundly cat, with a delightful personality. People loved him and asked after him - spontaneously! - long after they met him.

She pulled into the station on one cold December day
As she rolled up to the platform you could hear all the people say
There's that gal from Tennessee, she's long and she's tall
She came down from Birmingham on the Wabash Cannon Ball

[And a myriad variations, with different towns.]

My next cat was a black cat with a white undercoat and faint tabby markings. She looked like a black-velvet painting, and I called her The City of New Orleans. We had a short, tempestuous relationship.

Getting my next cat - the current one - was a real leap of faith for me, as I detailed in journal entries at the time. I really missed Wabash, and I wanted a Wabash-alike - and not just some cheap duplicate with the same DNA but a different soul. I had him for a week or so before I started calling him the Streamlined Cannonball, and silly as it sounds it was a little disconcerting, like I might be jinxing it. He's turned out to be a pretty great cat, though.

Oh she climbs along like a cannonball
Like a star on its heavenly flight
This lonesome sound of the whistle you love
As she travels on through the night

Wabash was round and low to the ground, but the Streamlined Cannonball has definitely followed lofty trajectories - launching himself from tables, bookcases, the fridge, tops of doors. I guess I have to admit his night-time noises are not a whistle exactly, more like a stampede of buffalo. Still, he's a hell of a fine animal.

March 22, 2005