by Mike Blackburn
In the early ’70’s, I was stationed with the US Army in Asmara, Ethiopia (now Eritrea), The Horn of East Africa. The site was approx. 8000 feet on top of a mountain and approx. 75 miles inland from the Red Sea. It was operated by the Army Security Agency (ASA) and was tasked with communications support for the Apollo Moon missions, messages from various other government agencies, listening to Boris (USSR), and other potential adversaries.
The city had a large number of Italians due to Mussolini’s grand plan for another Roman Empire. It had a very European feel with sidewalk cafés, Fiats, Vespa scooters, one lunger Ducatis, baloney slicing Moto Guzzis and a few old Brit bikes still oiling the streets since WW II.
In a section of the city we called Casablanca could be found Camel trains prodding down the streets carrying heavy salt blocks, herds of sheep and donkeys. The braying noise they made while working their way to market was interrupted by the feeble beeps from tiny Fiats and scooters. (A stop sign to an Italian is merely a suggestion). On one of the corners could be found what we would call a Mom and Pop store ran by an elderly couple. Out front they had a pet Cheetah. A very OLD pet cheetah. Hair was matted in places, missing in other places; and he had major attitude. Sometimes you could walk up and pet him, scratch his belly but, just like the family cat (a family cat with FANGS !), or he could become surly, as one of our guys could attest to. The guy was very proud of the four round puncture scars on his calf. During the heat of the afternoon, the Cheetah would rest outside, tied with a rope to a rain gutter. We had discovered that if you quietly pulled up across the street, while the cat slept, then gunned your engine, the cat would spring straight up, ROARING, then bolt towards the bike. Of course the rope snapped taut, his rear end would whip past his head, and he’d be slammed onto the sidewalk. He’d then stand and with the rope holding him back, continued roaring and snarling until we left. We found this very amusing and amused ourselves often.
One day, after suppressing Communist aggression, I decided to visit the Cheetah. As I pulled up across the street on my single cylinder 450 Ducati, the Cheetah rested in a sliver of shade along the base of the building. Stretched out, I could watch his chest rise and fall with each breath. A grin formed as I grabbed a handful of throttle and twisted. All 450 CCs screamed and shattered as they exited the short slash, cut-chrome muffler. The Cheetah instantly bolted upright, ROARED and sprinted towards me. WAIT for it…Wait, I told myself chuckling. Here it comes, this is going to be a good one! The Cheetah hit the end of the rope and it SNAPPED! Now at this moment, everything in my little world went into a surreal slow motion. The Cheetah stumbled and fell. He stood up, looked back towards the rope then turned and looked at me. We made eye contact and we had the same frame of mind, but with a different perspective. To him I was now lunch. He bolted forward, his feet losing traction, slipping out from under him as he fell down off the curb and into the street. He arose again and found his footing.
Absolute fear, utter terror grabbed my heart. I found religion. In the blink of an eye I grabbed the clutch, stomped first gear, strained the throttle cable then dropped the lever. The front wheel lept four-feet into the air. As it touched ground again, I stomped second gear, the wheel popped three feet and as it returned to earth I found third. I looked over my shoulder and the Cheetah is even with the rear axle on the left side.
He was picking them up and putting them down. It’s true that all of their feet are off the ground during the run. His ears were folded back against his head, his upper fangs were four inches long, kind of a off-white at the tip, turning to a dingy white then a dull yellow color with what looks like small hair line cracks running their length. The lower fangs are two-inch versions of the uppers. He’s fixated on the bike.
I look ahead and it reminds me of the parting of the Red Sea, only with camels. Camels, screaming donkeys, and screaming people. I rip through fourth and into fifth gear and check behind me. The Cheetah is fading fast and drops off the chase in a lazy lopping pace, laboring for breath. I can feel my heart pounding against my T-shirt. If he had been a younger cat in better shape, or if I had been on a slower machine, this story would have been an interesting obituary in my hometown paper.