AFTON — Louis Palombo has always been a cat person.
“Most every cat I’ve had was a stray,” said the 78-year-old Sidney native, who is occasionally greeted on the streets of Afton as “Meow Man.”
Palombo said his childhood pet, a black cat named Smokey, died young after contracting a respiratory illness. While serving in Vietnam, Palombo unwittingly adopted a kitten disguised as an ocelot.
At 25, Palombo served in the Army as a helicopter pilot, flying wounded soldiers to a mobile hospital unit similar to the one depicted in the TV show “M*A*S*H.”
“It’s the kind of flying I wanted to do, to help soldiers,” he said. “We carried both Americans and Vietnamese.”
On one visit to Saigon, Palombo said he was approached by a little boy carrying a birdcage who asked him “hey G.I., you wanna buy an ocelot?”
Palombo said he paid about 200 piastre — the equivalent of $2 in U.S. currency at the time — and brought the cat back to the villa where he lived with his platoon in Bien Hoa, about 30 kilometers east of the former South Vietnamese capital.
“I thought he could be a little mascot — I could have him ride on my shoulder while I was flying, like some guys had monkeys,” he said. “We tried it once — he didn’t like the high-pitched whine of the engine.”
Palombo and his new pet were featured on the May 25, 1966 front page of The Oneonta Star under the headline, “Sidney copter jockey dodges Cong bullets.”
“I hadn’t thought up a name, so I went with Sid, after Sidney, my hometown,” Palombo said.
A few days after his front-page feature, Palombo said he gave Sid a bath to get rid of the bugs and fleas, only to find that his ocelot was actually a house cat in disguise.
“All the spots and the yellow washed off — it was watercolor,” he said. “He was more like a minx with a long tail, mostly white.”
“It gave me a reason to come back every night,” he said of the cat. “You avoid those bullets that fly so you can come back home.”
Sid was popular among the nurses at the camp, who were glad for the company of someone other than the doctors, Palombo said.
“Come time to go home in December, I was packing my bags and Sid jumped inside the box and looked up at me,” he said. “The nurses were going to take care of him, but I went to the commander and said ‘I’ve got to borrow your Jeep tomorrow, sir. I’m taking the cat to Saigon. I’ve got to ship him home.’”
Sid was cleared by the vet with shots and a certificate to fly back to the U.S., Palombo said. “Catskill Airways flew from Kennedy (Airport) to Oneonta every day. It cost $70 or $80 to ship him in a woven bamboo carrier.”
When he arrived back home to find Sid hadn’t been shipped, Palombo said he called the airport and had him on the next flight.
The cat passed away the following year due to health complications and is buried in Fort Walters, Texas, where Palombo was stationed at the time.
“My first wife, Barbara, knew how devastated I was,” he said. “She got me a blue point Siamese named Maia. We hauled her all over the country.”
The couple took in several more cats throughout the years, and when they divorced, Palombo said he kept custody of them.
Palombo said he left the Army in September 1968 and moved to California, flying helicopters out of Fort Stockton as a contract pilot with a civilian company. Carolynn Marino, who would eventually become his second wife, took care of Maia at her home in Phoenix, Arizona.
“We got married and decided to have kittens,” Palombo said. “It was the second time around for both of us.”
“She tolerated cats — at one time we had five,” he continued. “They all know they can come to Lou’s house and they’ll find a place to live. My wife told me I wasn’t trying hard enough to find them homes.”
Carolynn passed away on Aug.5, her 75th birthday, about two years after Palombo started caring for the stray cats lurking behind the Great American in Afton.
“I try to be here twice a day if I can,” he said. “I noticed all these cats around the dumpster. The staff at the store would help feed them, then they closed and I kept it up.”
He bought a TV stand to store supplies and keep a few of the cat beds and set out a couple of totes lined with straw as sleeping stations.
“At first Great American didn’t want me under the eaves,” Palombo said, pointing to the overhang just outside the now-defunct automatic doors, “But the huts kept getting wet, so I asked to move back.”
Palombo said he traps the cats when he can and takes them to be spayed or neutered before releasing them back behind the store. He’s treated some for injuries and brought a few home along the way.
One of his regulars is a sleek black cat by the name of Pretty Lady, one in a litter of three who couldn’t be convinced to live at home, Palombo said.
“Usually she hears the sound of me driving up in my diesel,” he said.
Palombo’s other frequent customers include a tiger cat, a calico and a raccoon, who gets his own pile of food.
“You can tell when he’s been there,” he said. “When he’s done eating he washes himself in the drinking water.”
A few weeks ago, Palombo said he came to the spot to find someone had stolen the cat food and smashed the plastic dishes.
“If they didn’t like cats or didn’t like me feeding them, they still must have taken the food for cats,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Palombo’s friend, Alexis VanBuren, started an online fundraiser and accepts donations at her Main Street coffee shop, Baristacrats.
“Meeting Lou has inspired me to make a difference,” VanBuren said. “We share an interest in the feline community. We hope to change the way people see and treat stray cats. Lou is a great friend — he has a big heart for animals and everyone he meets. He strives to make the village of Afton a wonderful place.”
Palombo said he received an outpouring of support from community members looking to help his cause and established Carolynn’s Cat Fund, named in honor of his late wife.
Donations of cat supplies can be dropped off at Baristacrats Coffee Bar, 190 Main St., Afton, N.Y., 13730 and monetary contributions can be made at bit.ly/carolynnscatfund.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.