The Tommy’s Mountain Lion Story
A true story about my driving while having a mountain lion sleeping on my lap
Written 1/12011 Re Written 04/22/2016 unedited
In 1959, I met a fellow who was to become my best friend for over 50 years now. His name is Tommy Letis. I met Tommy one night while I was parked in the back row of the parking lot at Jimmie’s
Restaurant in West Haven.
I lived in Westville, a suburb of New Haven Connecticut. But like lots of kids that were from New Haven, North Haven, East Haven and West Haven, we would go to hang out at Jimmie’s Restaurant which was located in West Haven, It was located right by the ocean at the Savin Rock Amusement park.
Jimmie’s Restaurant, a part indoor, and part outdoor restaurant had a giant parking lot, and in the summer evenings, lots of guys that had custom cars, hotrods or other real cool vehicles hung out there.
We all parked in the rear rows of the monster parking lot. Jimmie’s Restaurant was pretty famous among the local kids, the restaurant had an indoor seating area that served very good local seafood, but was really the open air part of the restaurant, set up to serve takeout food for the hundreds of cars in the parking lot, that’s what everyone really came for. You could stand in line and order lobster rolls, soft shell crabs, and fried clams. But the real famous item that Jimmie’s was famous for was their hotdogs, and they really put on a sideshow dishing them out. You stood in front of the long take out window to place an order, Sal, A short Italian with a pinched nose and black hair parted in the middle, was the hot dog man and Jimmy behind him handled everything else.
Inside the long takeout window Sal had four flat top stoves all in a row, the first one held perhaps 200 hotdogs sitting there warming up, on the next flat top the hotdogs were starting to sizzle, and that’s when Sal the hot dog man went into action, he would spear each dog with a fork and slice them down the middle, flip them over and move them onto the hot side of the flat top to finish cooking.
On the last flat top he had about 100 hotdog rolls open and warming. Now nothing I have told you was unusual, except Sal took all the hot dog orders, sliced them, cooked them and put them into a roll faster than the eye could see, people came just to see Sal in action.
Now the reason that I hung around Jimmy’s, parking in the back row, was because I had a pretty cool car that was fairly fast, and if anyone wanted to drag race, they knew they could find us hot rod guys all parked back there. I had a 1959 Chevrolet convertible, it was jet black with a red interior. It was a pretty neat car, it had a four speed Corvette transmission and a 348 cubic inch engine with three carburetors on it. So on summer evenings, I would always be there at Jimmy’s, parked in the back row with the cars top down. For us guys the parking at Jimmies was like a social event, all of us kids knew each other, and we sat in each other’s car, ate hotdogs, and talked about cars and girls, always waiting for someone to show up that wanted to race. Now, because I was there so often, I got to know Jimmy and Sal the hot dog man pretty well, we would always greet each other as I stood in line waiting to place my hotdog order.
Back in 1959 there was a television commercial, it was offering a product called “Man Tan”. Man tan was supposed to make you look like you had a beautiful Florida Tan. Well, to me, being a twenty year old guy from New Haven, having a Florida tan sounded pretty sexy, so I went and bought a bottle, and I applied it liberally on my arms, neck and face, and that evening I headed for my spot at Jimmie’s parking lot. That evening as I stood in the hotdog line. Sal looked up and saw me. He stopped what he was doing and so did everyone else in the kitchen behind him. Sal said, “Are you OK”, Yes, I said, I’m OK. Sal said, “Do you know your skin is bright yellow”. I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t have a Florida tan at all, now that I was under the bright fluorescent lights I saw that he was right, I was completely yellow. I said, I put on Man Tan, you know the stuff they show on TV. Well, the entire restaurant kitchen staff broke out in laughter, and from then on I was called Man tan by everyone at Jimmie’s, and that included Sal and Jimmy himself, I think it was over a week until the stuff wore off.
As I mentioned, we all hung around Jimmy’s waiting for someone wanting to race. On several occasions a black 1956 Ford Pickup truck would show up, and the rumors spread fast, they said the truck had never been beaten. On a couple of evenings, that the black Ford pickup would show up, I watched as it beat all of the cars it raced against. I knew that sooner or later it would be my turn to get beaten, but, all of a sudden for some reason the pickup truck stopped coming by.
One evening, I was parked in the back row at Jimmy’s, I had the convertible top down, and I was sitting in the passenger seat waiting for friends to show up. That’s when I noticed a fellow standing by the driver’s side door looking in at the car. “How does it go he asked”, pretty good I said. As I looked over, and I saw he was a pleasant looking fellow about five foot six, he had on green work pants, blond hair and a cherubic face. He had a small cigar he was twirling in his mouth and most of all, he had a big friendly smile. He said, “I read all about this 1959 Chevrolet Impala, but this is the first one I have ever seen. Tell me how does that new 348 “Tri-power” engine and the four speed transmission perform. I told him it was not as good as I had expected. Then I did something I had never done before, I asked him if he wanted to try driving the car, “Sure I do”, he said, and without another word, he got in and we drove up to the Connecticut Turnpike for a spin. When we got back, he thanked me, and I asked him what he was driving. He pointed across the street in the shadows, and there was the black 1956 Ford pickup truck, and that’s exactly how I met Tommy Letis, and before the evening was up we were the best of friends.
Tommy, I learned, owned a ten wheeler dump truck, and ran his own business. He told me that for years he had a good friend named Billy Quick. Together they put a souped up Pontiac engine in Tommy’s 1956 Ford pickup truck, and then it was Billy who usually drove the truck whenever they went anywhere to race. But one evening Tommy and Billy were arrested for racing on the Connecticut turnpike, Billy lied and said Tommy was driving, but Tommy could ill afford to lose his driver’s license as he owned his dump truck business and he depended on his license to make his living. So needless to say, Tommy and his friend Billy weren’t friends anymore.
Now at the time, I was living with my mother and father in a two story house in Westville Connecticut. But I envied Tommy because he lived with his family on a former egg farm in Foxon Connecticut, and he had a big barn where he worked on his dump truck. We were the same age, but here Tommy was, and he was already a financially independent guy and he took no guff from anyone. I found out that Tommy was really a big soft hearted guy, but he put on the persona of a tough guy, and he carried a roll of $100.00 bills in his pocket that would choke a horse. But what I really liked about Tommy was that with his financial independence he took no crap from anyone, and he said whatever he wanted, and those were things I couldn’t yet do. Tommy had friends everywhere we went, and it seemed like everyone knew him or had heard about him. So being with Tommy I never knew what was going to happen next. For example we were at a big party one evening and all they were serving was liquor. Tommy stood up on a chair and yelled over the heads of everyone, I’ll give $100.00 for a glass of milk. I don’t know if he got the milk, but that was Tommy, and I had never ever met anyone like that before.
I felt that I lived a rather docile and normal middle class life, Da, had a two family house in a quiet middle class neighborhood in Westville, where nothing unusual ever happened, my father was an electrician and my mother was a registered nurse, they both thought that sometimes Tommy did some nutty things, but they liked him.
So one day, a few weeks after I met Tommy, he showed up at my home in Westville, he came with one of his friends named Bobby Allen. Bobby was a tall slender Appalachian looking guy, complete with a jutting jaw and a few missing teeth. Bobby was a bulldozer operator that Tommy knew from his working on construction sites. I heard them coming up my front hallway to the second floor where we lived, so I went to meet them. That’s when I saw that Tommy had a full grown mountain lion with him, it was on a leash. I had never seen anything like that before in my life. The lion was just following after Tommy like a docile pussy cat on a leash.
I watched as the big cat gingerly walked up the hallway stairs, I thought that it must have been over eight foot long to the tip of its tail, and it must have weighed over two hundred pounds. All the way from the top of the stairs I could hear the cat was purring.
Now, I had seen plenty of mountain lions on television, I knew they were capable of attacking and killing people, so I was very hesitant to stick my hand out. Tommy said. “Go ahead and pet her, her name is Brandy, and she’s from Branford Connecticut.” So I reached out and gently petted the top of the lion’s head, and nothing happened. Whose cat is this I asked, and Tommy said, “It belongs to a friend of mine and I’m babysitting”. Isn’t it dangerous not to have something like a muzzle on him, and Tommy said with a big smile, “He ain’t killed anyone yet, that I know of”. When they reached our living room, the lion was walking in front of the three of us, just like she knew where she was going. My mother peeked around a corner, took one look, never said a word and I heard her put a key in the bedroom door and lock it. I don’t think she ever expected to see anything like this cat walking through the house. The closest my family had ever come to a mountain lion was at the zoo.
My bedroom was in the rear of the house and we all walked into it, and Bobby Allen sat in a chair by my desk. I saw the cat was sitting, sniffing the air. Suddenly the cat leapt forward, pulling the leash out of Tommy’s hand. In a giant leap, she was on my bed with my pillow firmly clenched in her mouth. Brandy now had both front paws with claws bared, gripping the sides of the pillow. Her rear legs were dug into my mattress, she was in full attack mode and she was growling. I saw Bobby Allen’s eyes get real big.
We realized right away what the lion wanted, it was my duck down pillow, and she had it in a death grip. Tommy had let go of the leash, and reached over the lions head, putting his hands into the lion’s growling and salivating mouth, and with both hands he attempted to pry Brandy’s mouth open and get her to release her bite on the pillow. Brandy was now growling fiercely, but it didn’t stop Tommy. He had his hands prying open her jaws and he said to me “Grab her paws”, and because I didn’t know any better, I reached over Tommie’s shoulders and I tried to get Brandy to release the pressure of her paws that she had digging into the pillow. I saw that her paws with her claws extended were much larger than my hands were. Bobby Allen just sat frozen in my bedroom desk chair, watching us. Bobby had on a big grin showing all his missing teeth. But what surprised me the most was that neither he nor Tommy seemed to be afraid that the lion would bite or kill anyone of us. So seeing how calm everyone was, and I could feel how hard Tommy was trying to get the lions mouth open, I tried as hard as I could getting Brandy’s paws and her claws to release the pillow. But I could feel every muscle in the lion’s tense body was pushing to tighten her grip. My mother came to the door and said, “Oh my god, I thought the Lion had attacked one of you, then she left. Surprisingly after about a minute of our prying the lion suddenly released its pressure on the pillow and seemed to just relax. Tommy said that it getting close to Brandy’s feeding time, so let’s all head down to Jimmie’s Restaurant and I can buy her a couple of raw steaks to eat.
Tommy led the big cat down my front hallway stairs and out onto the sidewalk in front of the house.
I followed closely behind and I could see several neighbors watching us. This was a most exciting thing for them, me too. My 1959 Chevrolet convertible was parked right across the street and the convertible top was already down. Bobby Allen got in the back seat, Tommy sat in the passenger seat and I got into the driver’s seat. After we all sat down Tommy tugged the leash and Brandy, climbed right in, right on top of us. She calmly wiggled around until she found a comfortable position. She had her rear feet curled up on Tommy’s lap and her head was on my lap. Her right paw was sticking through my steering wheel. When Tommy saw that the cat was comfortable, he picked up Brandy’s tail and curled it up into the car so he could close the door. Really Brandy was too long, for the front seat, but here she was curled up on our laps and purring away, she was causing the whole front seat to vibrate.
We took off, heading for Jimmie’s Restaurant in West Haven. The only problems we had was that every time I needed to make a turn, I had to lift Brandy’s paw out of my steering wheel, and every time I had to shift, Tommy would push Brandy’s stomach in. Now, because we had the convertible top down, it was quite a sight for anyone that could see us just driving along with a mountain lion lying across our laps.
At Jimmie's Restaurant that evening, Tommy and the cat were the center of attention, and as he walked the Lion up to the take out windows where Sal and Jimmy were, all the kitchen staff stopped working and both Sal and Jimmy leaned over the counter to look at the lion. In a flash they reached over and started to feed Brandy every kind of raw steak they had in the house. I saw Jimmy open the fridge and take out a handful of thawed minute steaks for the cat. There was no question but that cat was a real crowd pleaser, and from then on Tommy took Brandy everywhere we went on the weekends.
One weekend there was no Brandy, Tommy sadly said that she had accidently choked herself on some straw in her cage. I have to admit, I missed that big purring mountain lion lying on our laps while we drove around. But, we were young and I don’t think Tommy thought for a moment that one bite could have ended it all for us.