|Wilma Daniels at about age five with her kitty named Smokey. Photo from Kathy Fleming, St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum..
Smokey was the cherished pet of Wilma Daniels, whose father, Cardell Daniels, was one of the keepers of St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida during the Great Depression and World War II. Smokey was a resolutely independent lighthouse cat, with a stout appetite for mice and bugs. As his name implied, he was dark in color, almost black.
Wilma's brother, who was nicknamed Cracker, was interested in aviation. He made model airplanes and experimented with paper airplane designs. One day, after seeing an action movie in town, Cracker was inspired to make a parachute. He made several, attaching rocks for weight, before he found a weight that seemed to work. He was pondering what to use for a real-time test when little Smokey the cat ambled by.
The cat was the perfect size for the test, thought Cracker. The boy scooped up the cat and his invention and climbed to the top of the lighthouse. He carried the cat around to the backside of the tower. This was a test, he thought. There need not be witnesses.
At the back of the gallery, he outfitted the friendly and unsuspecting Smokey with the homemade parachute. Smokey was still purring when Cracker lifted him up and over the gallery railing of the lighthouse. Cracker peered at the vast distance Smokey would travel to the ground, but he had no second thoughts.
"You'll be a hero, old Smoke!" Cracker assured the cat. "Imagine you're a paratrooper landing in the middle of a battle!"
Smokey reflexively extended his four feet outward, and the pupils of his pretty golden eyes enlarged. The cat let out a cry that began as a low meow and ended in an ear-splitting scream just as Cracker released him.
|Coast Guard Photo
Down, down Smokey fell--screeching in horror, paws clawing the air--160-feet to his destination. Cracker watched the little parachute scutter and flutter in the wind and then miraculously open about halfway to the ground. Smokey's skinny body jerked and then floated. His screams eased as he saw the ground approaching at a slow rate. Moments later, the cat's paws touched the earth.
"You've done it Sergeant Smokey!" Cracker yelled from the top of the lighthouse. But the little cat did not hear him. Smokey had landed with a soft thud, and then he took off running. He disappeared into the brush dragging the parachute behind him.
When Smokey did not come home for supper that evening, Cracker was concerned. But he didn't let on that he knew anything about the cat's whereabouts. Wilma called and called for her cat, and then she cried and cried because Smokey didn't come home. After a few days, she gave up looking for him.
"Cats are unpredictable characters," Keeper Daniels said at dinner one night. "They go where they wish and do what they want."
Cracker looked down at his lap. He wondered if Smokey had gotten tangled up in that parachute and was stuck somewhere. Or worse, maybe the cord had wrapped around the cat and choked him. The boy felt a pang of regret as he looked across the dinner table at his little sister, tearful and sniffling.
About a month after the parachute test, old Smokey magically returned. He came ambling into the yard, saw Cracker, and gave him a wide berth. The cat had no intention of participating in any more of Cracker's hair-brained tests. Smokey was thin and looked as if he'd had a rough few weeks in the wilds around the light station. When Wilma saw him she shrieked with delight.
Later in the day, Keeper Daniels saw his little girl hugging her cat. He smiled and even gave Smokey a few pats on the head.
"You know, he might have crawled into the car of a tourist and been driven far from here," Keeper Daniels said.
The keeper praised the little cat for finding its way back home. Wilma didn't really care what had happened. She was just so very happy to have Smokey back home.
It was not until 1993, almost fifty years later, that Cracker Daniels confessed to his sister that he had been the cause of Smokey's disappearance. The two siblings, by now getting on in years, had come together at the lighthouse for a special event. When Wilma began telling people about her cat, Smokey, and how he disappeared for an entire month and then returned, Cracker couldn't help chuckling. With his tongue pressed firmly into his cheek, he admitted the truth. He had so frightened Smokey, the cat ran off and stayed away a month.
I'm so glad Wilma told her tale of Smokey and that Cracker confessed. It's a wonderful tale to tell...even though Smokey might not think so.
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