I had not thought of her in years. Probably sixty years.
And she was brought to my memory by the most unlikely of associations: a scene in an old James Bond movie.
Remember this scene in From Russia with Love (1963)? The faceless criminal mastermind Ernst Stavro Blofeld of SPECTRE has summoned his trusty sidekick, the archvillainess Rosa Klebb. Blofeld and his cat sit beside an aquarium containing three Siamese fighting fish. Klebb watches with morbid fascination as two of the fish fight while a third watches.
Siamese fighting fish . . . Miss Katie!
Miss Katie lived down the street from us when I was a kid.
Miss Katie, of course, bore no resemblance to the menacing Rosa Klebb. Miss Katie was gentle, nurturing, and did not, I’ll wager, own a single pair of poison-tipped shoes.
No, the memory trigger for me was Blofeld’s aquarium of Siamese fighting fish.
About 1960, when I was ten, my family lived on Burton Street in Poly. My buddy across the street was Jerry Ziegler. Somehow Jerry and I learned that a little old lady down the street, Miss Katie, raised tropical fish. A boy goes through many hobbies before he discovers . . . girls: coin and stamp collecting, ant farms, leather craft, model cars and airplanes, baseball cards, etc. I don’t remember which hobbies preceded and succeeded tropical fish for me, but Jerry and I forsook our current hobby to take up tropical fish.
Soon Miss Katie had us, well, hooked.
Miss Katie lived in a 1927 red-brick house with a detached single garage. Jerry and I discovered that her garage was a veritable fish farm: rows of aquariums with a narrow walkway between rows. The garage was windowless and dark except for a fluorescent tube over each aquarium. The only sound was that of the bubbles glub-glub-glubbing up from the air pumps in the aquariums.
I can see Miss Katie now puttering with her aquariums in her wondrous garage: She was diminutive, moved slowly, wore her dark hair pulled back in a bun, and was, to a kid of ten, infinitely old.
To two kids accustomed to trying to make pets of minnows and crawdads we caught in Sycamore Creek and painted turtles we bought at Mott’s dime store, Miss Katie’s tropical fish were exotic: black mollies, tetras, zebra danios, swordtails, suckermouth cats, the glamorous, superthin angelfish (Audrey Hepburn with fins), even the unglamorous guppy. Sleek and fast and nimble, tropical fish were underwater Ferraris.
Miss Katie also raised Siamese fighting fish (also called “bettas”). These fish are not for beginners, but Jerry and I soon bought some anyway. Bettas are divas. High strung and high maintenance. The male betta is the peacock of the aquarium, with long, flowing fins. As the James Bond movie shows, the male betta is also territorial and will attack another male betta placed in his territory.
But he has a domestic side. After the male mates with a female, he blows bubbles to build a nest. As the female lays her eggs, the male catches them and deposits them in the nest, where he guards them.
Jerry and I hovered over our male betta’s bowl, watching for him to build his bubble nest. Every time he emitted a bubble we wondered: “Is he feeling paternal or just gassy?”
Beyond the fish themselves, the whole culture of tropical fish was interesting to us: the air pumps, the filters, dechlorination tablets, lights, colored gravel, bits of coral, vegetation.
The glug-glug-glugging of the air pumps was mesmerizing. As was the constant movement of the fish, who swam with such economy and ease in an environment that humans are never truly at home in.
Jerry and I saved our school lunch money, hoarded our allowances, collected pop bottles to sell up the street at Houlihan’s grocery store, mowed lawns to buy fish from Miss Katie (who, I am sure, sold to us at cost) and fish paraphernalia from Ward Plaza or Pair’s Fin and Feather Shop on Rosedale Street.
We checked out books on tropical fishery at the bookmobile that parked in the Worth Food Store parking lot on Vaughn Boulevard.
Of course, we ran to Miss Katie for advice when things didn’t go according to those books.
Miss Katie seemed to know how to solve every problem. Some people have a green thumb with plants. Miss Katie had a blue thumb: She could make anything in the water—plants or animals—thrive.
And none of your freeze-dried Hartz Mountain fish food for her. She fed her fish brine shrimp, filariae, daphnia, mosquito larvae.
So, we did, too.
Despite her guidance, Jerry and I suffered some failures as we learned our way around an aquarium, and I suspect that in Miss Katie’s garage, the fish shuddered to see us eyeing them and prayed that they would not be shipped out to our Aquarium of Death.
I do not recall Miss Katie having a husband or children. She was the only person on her block I had ever spoken to. One reason was that her block of Burton Street had no children—an anomaly during the Baby Boom. For instance, our block had twelve children; the block of Thannisch Street just north of Miss Katie’s block had nine.
Jerry and I were the nearest children to Miss Katie.
I think she was glad to have someone to share her enthusiasm with, to impart her wisdom to, even if they were just two goofy boys.
But at some point, as goofy boys do, Jerry and I lost interest in tropical fish and immersed ourselves in some new hobby.
After I left home for college I never saw Miss Katie again and forgot about her.
Until that scene in From Russia with Love sixty years later.
After I remembered her after so many years, I felt I owed it to her memory to find out more about her.
I began by looking up the 3300 block of Burton Street in the 1956 city directory.
There she was at 3305: Mrs. Katie L. McCaleb. After sixty years Miss Katie had a last name.
Come to find out, Miss Katie was born “Katie Lee Mason” in Johnson County. In 1890. So, she indeed was of my grandparents’ generation. So, when I knew her, she was about seventy—about my age now. (Harumph! So much for “infinitely old.”)
Her parents were William Mason and Lucy Ford, born at the start of the Civil War. In 1900 Katie and her sister Anna and father were living with William’s father-in-law.
Miss Kate in the 1890s. Bottom photo shows Miss Katie, left, father, and sister Anna. (Photos from Find-A-Grave.)
By 1910 Miss Katie was Mrs. Katie McCaleb. She and her husband, William McCaleb, lived in Dallas, where he worked for a telephone company. By 1914 they were divorced.
She married again in 1937 in Wichita Falls, where she and her second husband papered and painted walls for a living.
She later owned a secretarial school.
She had two children and outlived them both. One child died at age two. Another, Elmo, was a Fort Worth police lieutenant. He died in 1972 at age sixty-seven.
Miss Katie moved into her house on Burton Street about 1954. The deed card says her wondrous garage measured ten by sixteen feet.
I am not surprised that she was a member of a garden club.
By 1982, I find, her house was for sale. By then she was ninety-two and probably had given up her independence and relocated, perhaps to live with younger relatives. How long had she raised tropical fish in that wondrous garage after Jerry and I ricocheted to other hobbies, grew up, and moved away from Burton Street?
Finally, I find that Miss Katie died in 1986 at age ninety-six. I didn’t really expect a woman who had been “infinitely old” sixty years ago to still be alive in 2020, but it made me sad to see it confirmed in print. She is buried in Mansfield Cemetery.
Of course, these are just dry facts of biography. Sixty years later it took an old James Bond film to make me realize the most important fact about Mrs. Katie Lee Mason McCaleb:
She had inspired two boys to take an interest in something new, taught them to care for fragile creatures, encouraged them to read, to discover, to learn from their mistakes.
And sixty years later she reminded me that not all the influencers in a child’s life come from the home, the school, the church, the Little League, or the Girl Scouts.
Sometimes they come from a garage down the street.