April 27, 2014

Cattails not cat-o'-nine tails

Thanks to all who responded to the “old saws” column.

Let’s get this straight. Cattails are not cat-o'-nine tails. As kids, we used the terms interchangeably.

I have seen cat-o'-nine tails in museums and used my vivid imagination to picture doing something bad enough to be flogged “within an inch of my life,” as my mother would say. She called me “Peck’s Bad Boy.” I hoped she would never use such a device on my bare back or bottom. A swat on my behind with her open hand was enough to send me into fits of wailing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” she would say, quoting scripture each time.

In days of old, cat-o'-nine tails inflicted real punishment on ships, in prisons and elsewhere.

Cattails are completely different and I don’t guess anyone was ever struck with one.

In Massena Center, we often grabbed our pocket knives, made pointed tree branches, grabbed Boy Scout mess kits, lard from my mom, salt, stick matches and a tarp for shelter and headed for the nearby woods. We speared frogs and cooked their legs in lard. We ate wild leeks, caught fish and feasted like kings.

We soaked cattails in kerosene and lit them for use as torches.

Those were often overnight forays and were always (well, almost always) fun in the marshy areas adjacent to the Grasse River. One time, when it rained during the night, I trudged home, dragging by soaked blanket all the way.

My mom, trying to teach me “life’s lessons,” handed me a dry blanket and sent me back to our camp along with another of her “old saws.” “Never give up,” she said. “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” she said. “This is a learning experience you’ll never forget,” she added. I never did. Call it stuff and nonsense, if you will, but that’s what living the good life is all about.

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