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  • April 19th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance

When I was 10 years old, growing up in Chicago, on a sunny Saturday morning my mother would see me out the door of our Southside apartment, knowing that she would not see me again until late afternoon. I was headed for the Field Museum, a wonderland whose echoing halls held mysteries that were, to my adolescent mind as magic as anything ever conjured up by today’s artificial Disney World.


I rode the Illinois Central commuter train from a stop near our home to Loop in the heart of the big city, where the museum crouched on the shore of Lake Michigan like a magic castle, the entryway to a world never imagined by the Great Oz. For a kid with a mind filled with imagination and curiosity, it was almost too much to take in. My mother never worried about me alone in the city, but any mother turning her 10-year-old loose in a big city today would be lucky ever to see the kid again.


My favorite hall was dedicated to natural history and I sneaked glances at the bare bosomed manikins of Neanderthal families, trying not to gawp too much at the forbidden mystery of the female form. But it was farther along the row of dioramas where I always stopped to spend long moments looking at my favorite recreation of a scene I would never see in real life— a snow leopard creeping silently across a frozen landscape high in the Himalayas.


Years later, I would write a short story based on that recurring experience. It was during the Vietnam War, although it could have been written during the Korean War or any of the useless wars subsequent to Vietnam. It was intended not only as an antiwar story, but also as a tribute to the magic that the snow leopard created for me.


Recently, I watched a National Geographic special about how global warming is affecting the world’s wildlife. Among the sequences, was one involving a snow leopard creeping across a bare, brown rocky landscape, absent snow, trying to sneak up on an unwary mountain goat. The leopard was starving, its habitat ravaged by warm temperatures never encountered before in the world’s highest mountains. It was a sad moment, especially when the leopard, overcome by hunger, made its charge too soon and lost a chance for a life-saving meal. Will climate change doom the rare snow leopard, symbol of my childhood enchantment? Will the only thing remaining of that long ago exposure to wildlife, a world away, be a dusty diorama in a museum— or a short story written by a young man still enraptured by dreams of lands where mountains were snowcapped and inaccessible except to the lithe and beautiful creature who lived there?




             I spent my childhood Saturdays at the Field Museum of Natural History.  My friends were numbing their minds at the Southtown Theater, watching Zorro defy El Lobo, but I was prowling the echoing halls of the museum.  The museum fed a spark of wildness in me.  I was a city kid in reality, insulated from nature by miles of concrete, but I was a 10-year-old mountain man in my imagination.

                I loved the old museum with its clacking marble halls, its musty mummies!  I knew them all.  There was a mummy that you could X-ray.  Push a button and, magically, the funereal windings vanished and ancient bones glowed starkly in a black crypt.  It was an era of atomic innocence.  God knows how many roentgens I soaked up watching that Middle Eastern corpse reveal its skeletal secrets.

                Halls of pure magic gloomed in every direction.  I marveled at the monstrous knucklebones of Tyrannosaurus rex, an 18-foot-tall horror peering down at me with a bony grin.  Neanderthal man glowered from a diorama.  I glanced furtively at his bare-bosomed mate.  She was not exactly Miss America, but pre-pubescent kids take their cheap thrills where they can get them.

                But it was the animals that tugged me to them.  I took art lessons and wanted to capture them on paper.  I felt the onetime wildness in those musty creatures that triggered deep sympathetic vibrations in me.  I pestered my parents for sketch pads, water colors, oils, anything.  And I camped in the darkened halls sitting cross- legged to sketch elands on the African veldt, a cougar frozen in mid-swipe at a pesky Arizona hound, a mighty Alaskan brown bear at awesome attention.


                One animal pulled me to it again and again, a Himalayan snow leopard.  The mount had begun to go yellow and gray with time, but the taxidermist somehow had caught a remote fire in the glass eyes.  “High in the Himalayas,” the placard read, “the snow leopard prowls with regal grace.  He owns this lofty domain and bows to no other animal, including man, of whom he has little knowledge and no fear.”


                There certainly was no fear evident in the sleek cat who stared at me through the rippled glass.  He was posed walking away, three-quarter view, his head turned to look back along the line of his pawprints, which began at the glass.  Distant mountains mourned under veils of falling snow.  Snow crystals glittered under the leopard’s paws.  If there was anything to reincarnation, I wanted to return as a snow leopard.  But I couldn’t capture the essence of the creature in my drawings.  They looked like a cartoon cat, Tom of the Himalayas.


                Every Saturday I stuck my drawing pad under my arm, bought my ticket downtown, and rode the rattling train to the museum stop.  Each time I tried to draw the leopard and each time I tore the sketch up in disgust.   One day I was in deep concentration, trying to catch the line of the jaw as the animal looked back at me.  This is my country, the smoldering eyes said.  I live here in the lofty snowfields and you are an intruder.


                “That’s pretty good, kid.”  I jumped, startled.  I hadn’t been aware anyone but me was in the hall.  There was a soldier standing near me, nearly obscured by the gloom.  His face and uniform were sidelighted by the diorama.  He leaned on a crutch with an empty trouser leg pinned up.


                “No, it isn’t,” I said.  “I can’t make him look right.  There’s something I can’t catch.”


                “He’s special, isn’t he,” the soldier said.  “He owns that cold place, you know.”


                I looked at him, startled.  It was exactly the way I thought of the leopard and I nodded, eager because someone else shared my perception.  “It’s like he’s trying to say something,” I said, then was embarrassed.


                “That’s what I used to think when I was your age,” he said.  “I’d come down here every Saturday and dream away the day and I used to think this old cat was talking to me.”


                “Me too!” I exclaimed.  “I’ve been trying to draw him for a long time.”


                “I just liked to look at him and dream about the future,” the soldier said.  “I always wound up here with that cat.”   We were silent for a long time.  It was not an uneasy silence.  He understood the lure of the leopard.


                “What do you think he’s trying to say?” the soldier asked. 


                “Gee, I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe that it’s his secret place and we ought to go away and let him have it.”  I thought about it.  “Or maybe that he wants us to follow him to his secret place–that’s why he’s looking back, like he’s waiting for us to catch up.”


                I stopped.  It was more than I ever said to adults and I was confused.  The soldier barked a short laugh, without humor.  I was hurt.  I thought he was laughing at me.  He saw it and put a hand on my shoulder.  “Hey, no!  I’m not making fun of you.  It’s just that I used to think he was asking me to come with him, too, just like you.  The way he’s looking over his shoulder like he wants us to follow him.”


                He made a clicking noise with his mouth.  “Kind of nuts, huh?”


                He took a deep breath.  “When I was your age, I knew I was gonna grow up and go to the mountains and climb up where that leopard lives and see him.  It was more than just a kid dream.  I really believed it.  Just like you believe you can draw him.”


                He was silent and I didn’t say anything. 


                “I wanted it more than anything,” he said.  “It’s still a dream, I guess.  But that’s all it is now.”  He shifted a bit on his crutches.  I didn’t know what to say.  We looked at the diorama and the snow leopard looked back at us.  The unbroken snowfield shimmered into the distance.  The leopard’s coat was frosted with the fresh-fallen ice particles and glittered in the diffused light.


                I looked into its golden eyes and delicious terror startled me.  I felt the chill fire of the high mountains and the hot predatory glow of the lithe cat.  For an instant, I was the cat, content with my sleek power, the urge to kill always present, but always controlled. 


                Then the fire faded from the cat’s eyes and it once again was only a moldy stuffed animal in a museum display.  I took a shuddery breath and licked my dry lips.  I remembered the soldier and looked at him.  There were tears on his face, glistening streaks highlighted by the light from the diorama.  The tears webbed the lines on his face with silver.


                He sighed and rubbed at his face.  “I hope you find your leopard, kid,” he said.  He turned and I heard the rubber tips of his crutches squeaking against the floor as he moved away, finally becoming only a dim shape in the shadows.  Then he was gone.


                A gaggle of girls broke the thick silence of the hall as they raced into it, giggling and shrieking.  They were about my age, a school class on a field trip.  “Oooooh!  Look at the pussycat!” one squealed.  “Isn’t it cute!   Wouldn’t you just like to hug it!”


                “It’s adorable!” exclaimed another.


                “Are you drawing it?” cried the first girl.  Several of them jostled each other, trying to look over my shoulder at the sketch of the leopard.  I turned the pad over.


                “I’m not doing anything!” I snarled.  “It’s none of your business!” 


                “Old grouch!” one girl whispered, and another shushed her and they all giggled and raced off to gawk at a polar bear, rearing to regard onlookers with haughty disdain.  I turned the pad back over and looked at my sketch, then at the leopard in the diorama.  The leopard was just another long-dead animal in a museum case, and my drawing was just another crabbed sketch without meaning.  I gathered my materials together, stuck the sketch pad under my arm, and started down the long hall, cramped from sitting for too long.


                Perhaps some day I would take out the sketch pad and open it to the drawing of the leopard and, with a sure hand, I would alter the stiff lines and bring to life the wild invitation.


                This was one drawing I would not destroy as I had the previous ones.  It was no better, no worse than the others, but it was different. 


                Perhaps when I had more knowledge, more experience, I could claim the spirit of the mountain cat and show it in my drawing.


                Perhaps some day I would find our snow leopard.


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  1. CJ

    April 19th, 2019 at 4:43 pm


    Did you really draw it? Do you still have the drawing? Or is this a bit of creative nonfiction?

    • joelvance

      April 19th, 2019 at 6:52 pm


      It’s creative fiction….sort of. The National Geo episode is all too depressingly real.

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