Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Tyrrell County Story

Grandpa Wit, Henry Willis Liverman, sold everything from horse collars to women's apparel, a line of staple groceries and Swift fertilizers. His general store was situated at the junction of the Loop and Swamp roads.

One Saturday, several men made their way to the store. One of them was Great-great-uncle Willis Armstrong. He was dull-witted and easy prey for pranksters. Uncle Willis was leading his battered tom-cat Woodrow (Wilson) by a length of cotton string garnered from a last year's guano sack.

Uncle Willis's tom-cat was a neighborhood nuisance, and when Grandpa complained for the hundredth time to uncle Willis about this, uncle Willis said he didn't know what he was going to do with the ornery animal. Grandpa replied, in his typical nasal twang, "If you'd get Jerd Ainsley to trim the stinking rascal, that'd be the end of our troubles.

Cousin Jerd was frugal, industrious, and innovative. He was his own cobbler, carpenter, demolition expert. He was also the community veterinarian and treated animals for everything from snake bites and bloat to dislocated stifle joints. Neighbors always called on him to castrate their various farm animals. A firm believer in the signs of the Zodiac, he never lifted a hand at surgery when the sign was in the heart or head; his most favored time was when the sign was in the foot. He, too, set out for the store on foot with an egg basket on his arm.

In the meantime, Uncle Boney Armstrong was engaged in his favorite pastime—stropping a razor-sharp pocket knife on his leather boot uppers.

It was half past eleven and the warm sun shone down on the ageing men congregated on Grandpa's store porch, bathing their arthritic joints and priming their still fertile minds for some form of amusement.

Uncle Willis Armstrong's tom, Woodrow, was stretched out on the porch adjacent to the wood box, soaking up the sunshine, no doubt dreaming of his next conquest amongst the neighborhood felines.
Grandpa Bill Dillon stuffed his pipe with more Union Leader tobacco. He pointed the cat. "Ain't got a worry in the world, has he, ge'mens? But tonight him and my old tom will be parked under my bedroom window, screaming their heads off. I do wish they could bury the hatchet."

Uncle Boney spat a stream of tobacco juice in front of an inquisitive toad that had ventured from under the porch. "I can tell ye how to make peace up there in the Back Woods, Bill."

"How's that, Boney?"

"Talk Willis Armstrong into letting Jerd Ainsley trim his old tom. That'd make the rascal stay home and mind his own bus'ness."

Grandpa Bill looked over to uncle Willis. "How 'bout it, Armstrong? If the sign's right, Jerd will mighty well do the work."

Uncle Willis looked down on his tiger-striped tom. One of the cat's ears was chewed off, tufts of hair were missing around the head, and on his tail end the tom's maleness was unmistakable. He breathed slowly and easily as he slept, oblivious of the plotting against him.

Uncle Willis cast a cautious eye at cousin Jerd. "Ainsley," he said, "can ye make it quick and painless?"

Cousin Jerd's shoulders shook with laughter. "Hee! Hee! If I had a sharp knife I sure could—sign's in the feet today."

Uncle Boney reached for his pocket knife. "Mine's sharp as a razor," he said. "You're sure welcome to it Jerd."

"Who's going to hold the cat?" cousin Jerd wanted to know.

Uncle Boney pointed. "Willis Armstrong, he's yours, and you're the one he trusts."

Uncle Willis was skeptical. "Reckon will it hurt my Woodrow?"

Cousin Jerd was confident. "No more than a flea bite. I've trimmed shoats in a half minute by the watch and they never squealed once."

The operating arena was set. Uncle Willis reached for his tattered tom and held him in his arms, stroking his ragged coat. The cat was accustomed to his master's rough handling and did not object when he was held out by the hind legs, his head dangling between his master's knees.

With on fair slice, cousin Jerd exposed the first of the tom's testicles. The sting of the sharp instrument alerted Woodrow that something off color was happening. An instant later cousin Jerd's knife clipped the spermatic cord, a structure that contained not only blood vessels but—more importantly,—the nerve to the organ now severed from the cat's body. As if electrified, Woodrow came to life. Screaming and scratching, he turned on the man with the knife and nailed the farmer-turned-surgeon in the hand with his fangs. More bites followed, and cousin Jerd screamed, "Let your tom go, Armstrong!"

But the incensed Woodrow had turned on uncle Willis, walking up the old man's belly with his sharp claws. "I can't!" he fired back. "Somebody pull him off me!"

Woodrow made his way up his master's chest until the two came eye to eye. He paused only long enough to swipe his master down each side of the face, then he appeared to take a deep breath and, as his last hurrah, spat at him with such force that the old gentleman's hat fell off. With one mighty thrust of the arms uncle Willis was at last shed of the violence.

Cousin Jerd was nursing his chewed-up hands and uncle Willis was busy wiping blood with his shirt sleeve.

Grandpa Bill interrupted. "Jerd," he said, "did ye git both of old Woodrow's stones?"

Cousin Jerd shoo his head. "Nope. And I hear tell that a tom with only one can make more fuss than two with both.

Woodrow was well up the road as the perpetrators of what he no doubt deemed a crime against nature continued to plot his dubious future.

Grandpa Bill puffed on his pipe as the others tried to devise a method to restrain Woodrow. No one was able to provide anything enlightening. Then Grandpa removed the pipe from his mouth, belched loudly, and said, "ge'mens, what I'd do if I was you is to put that tom-cat in a boot—head and front feet fo'most—then ye can trim him with ease."

Source: High Days and Holidays: Scenes from a Tyrrell County Childhood by H. Joe Liverman, 1994. Joe Liverman wrote this book from stories told to him by his father and from his memory. The story above took place about 1916 in Tyrrell County, NC.

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