My grandson Daniel Price, age 9, out in Los Altos, CA, chose the name for this blog. When wife Gloria and I arrived out there for a recent visit, Daniel insisted on hearing about "wampus cats." And I, his "Pop Pop," was considered something of an expert. Which, immodestly, I reckon I am.
I didn't create the wampus. But back in the 1940s when I was a cub reporter for the Elizabeth City, N.C., Independent, I wrote some wampus "news" stories. Some local folks working in the shipyard at Norfolk commuted - driving along US 17 which ran beside the Dismal Swamp Canal (surveyed by no less than George Washington.)
On one early morning trip home - perhaps after pausing at a Norfolk beer joint - a carload of commuters reported seeing a strange critter dash across the highway. Was it a deer, a bear, fox, raccoon? Neither of the above, the fellows declared - and I dutifully reported in The Independent.
Within a week, we were besieged by reports of strange critters. And stranger and stranger critters! Before exhausting the series we had reports of hideous monsters with flashing eyes and smoking nostrils, long fangs and monstrous nails. Some had bodies covered with hair and announced their presence with blood-curdling screams. One even held an open umbrella as it jumped on the hood of a commuter's pickup truck!
What were these critters? Why, wampus cats, of course, we concluded - and dutifully reported in our news columns.
In the years that followed, I had gone off to college and into the Army and finally ended up as managing editor of the Goldsboro (NC) News-Argus. Wampas cats were a thing of the past - like my boyhood rabbit boxes and .410 shotgun and knee boots.
Then one day there was a story from nearby Sampson County. A strange critter had been spotted by a motorist. At night, of course, according to the weekly newspapers. Then, predictably, there were more sightings. And clawmarks were found on trees near the highway.
National Guardsmen and other volunteers joined sheriff's deputies in an ever widening search for whatever it might be.
I didn't volunteer for the on-ground search. But I offered my journalistic expertise. "This," I wrote in a front page tongue-in-cheek story, "obviously is a wampus cat." And I told of my experience covering them as a cub reporter years before. I reached into our file on horror movies and extracted a picture of the most horrible horror movie character I could find.
I inserted it in the center of the story with a cut line: "A Wampus Cat!" And the News-Argus went to press.
It had been a pleasant day. Followed by a terrible night!
At 11 p.m. the phone rang: "Mr. Price! You have to do something about this wampus cat business!" screamed the voice of a distraught mother. "I have two crying, tremblinhg children who are terrified that a wampus cat will get them!"
"Mam," I offered, "I understand. I'm in bed with three young'uns who are just as scared as yours."
The next morning, my office phone jangled. A school teacher friend, fighting his own hysteria, shouted: "Price you got to do something about this wampus cat business! In my 3rd grade classroom this morning, the kids heard a noise outside. One of the little boys ran to the window and shouted: 'It's a wampus cat!' and half of the kids in the class keeled over - I mean, they pure fainted!"
It can happen. And obviously did.
That day I wrote a story announcing to all within the limited "earshot" of a small town daily that there was no such thing as a "wampus cat." And that I never would mention them again in the Goldsboro News-Argus.
I left the News-Argus for good today. So I figure I have fulfilled my promise. And, besides, I needed to explain to my grandson Daniel, who named this blog, about wampus cats.
(But if you have a wampus cat story, don't hesitate to share it.)