Sunday, July 20, 2008
A couple of weeks back, I made mention of the Wampus Cat (Grendel? Wampus Cat? Larry Talbot?). Here's the answer:
The Wampus Cat is a critter out of southern folklore—originally eastern Tennessee, I'm told, but the legend also found a comfortable home in the mountains of western North Carolina. When I was a youngster and went to summer camp in the NC mountains, it was easily the most chilling of the many tales that counselors and elderly locals told us to scare us out of our pants. Let it be known that I left at least a drawerful of pants back at Camp Cheerio, circa 1968.
Now, I love me some folklore. The legend tells us that, once upon a time, a young Indian woman, curious about the magical powers of the tribe's medicine man, dressed herself in the skin of a mountain lion and followed him so she could watch him do his thing. Alas, in those distinctly non-feminist days of yore, women were strictly forbidden from witnessing acts of magic. The medicine man caught her and, to punish her for her wicked ways, turned her into a half-woman, half-cat creature, doomed to roam the Appalachian forests from there on out. Eventually, in her misery, she went insane, which—as you might guess—did not bode well for the local population.
Back at camp, nobody knew where the Wampus Cat came from. They only knew that it was real and preyed on youngsters who converged on the NC mountains every summer from points all over the country. My introduction to the Wampus Cat was the story of a couple of young campers who didn't heed their counselors' warnings and wandered into the woods by themselves late one afternoon. They never came back, so a search party went looking for them. Just as the sun was going down, the men came upon a big wall made out of fallen timber, and atop a couple of the posts were the heads of the missing children. About that time, a huge catlike creature that walked on two legs appeared and leaped right at the rescuers. One of them shot the thing several times—which didn't kill it but dissuaded it from attacking just long enough for the men to run to safety—with the monster on their heels the whole way.
The next story was accompanied by photographic evidence. In this one, a number of campers and counselors went for an overnight campout on Snake Island, which was a tiny little island at one end of the local lake (this was also the place where I saw my first copperhead in the wild; a cute little thing). Just at sunset that evening, a rustling noise came from the lake bank. One of the counselors produced a camera just in time to photograph a huge, catlike creature leaping into the air, onto the island, and then to the opposite lakebank. The photo was posted in the camp's main office, and was frequently passed around to show us kids that, yes, the Wampus Cat was out there, and, no, we ought not wander off anywhere on our own.
Sure, as far as I knew, the blurry photo of the creature silhouetted against the sky might have been some counselor's housecat that he tossed up in the air, but back in those days...holy canoli, it was proof. There really was a Wampus Cat, and that sucker could do some serious leaping. I was so impressed that, when our group went out to Snake Island for an overnight campout, I was not among them. I stayed safe and snug in the cabin that night and listened to great horned owls laughing at me.
I did, however, work up the nerve to sleep out under the stars one night right outside the cabin, along with several other intrepid campers.
Oh, it was a dark night; no stars, no moon; just a lot of nightbirds and insects yammering away. And the sound of something nearby going thump.
Thump. And THUMP! Getting closer and closer.
Yeah, there went one pair of drawers.
Then something went THUMP!—right on my little noggin, and young Mark screamed so loud people heard me at Myrtle Beach, 300 miles away.
Turns out that we had parked our sleeping bags right under an apple tree, and the apples were engaged in a series of Newtonian experiments, to which we were unwitting witnesses.
Apart from that really special photo, I never actually saw hide or hair of the Wampus Cat. But let me tell you, that pussy sure made a man out of me. From that night night on, I've never had the slightest fear of apples. I must wonder if those young campers who were with me could make the same claim.