Worth My Salt

November 2, 2012

When I was in the third grade, I attended a small Christian school in Louisville, Kentucky. While focused primarily on the three R’s (that’s readin, ritin, and rithmetic), daily bible study was also in the curriculum. I remember many days spent on my knees during recess with Miss Laura Mae Bornwasser while she held my hands and prayed to the good lord that I might shed the mischievous urges that drove my many childish misdeeds.

Miss Laura, as we called her, was tall and thin. Flat-breasted, she wore dark, calf-length skirts and collared white blouses that were always freshly starched and buttoned to the top. Her opaque skin-toned hose were stuffed into masculine, laced shoes with broad and raised heels. Black, horn-rimmed glasses and salted-brown hair pulled straight back into a tight bun gave a look of severity that I learned was incongruous with her nature. She had a ready smile and a genuine laugh that was pleasing to the ear, and she knew the bible inside and out.

A plain woman, she was built sturdy. And while she wasn’t much to look at, a fellow could go over the mountain with a woman like that, I reckon. She hailed from Harlan, Kentucky, and thinking back on it, her Germanic name was extrinsic to that country filled with Taylors, Crafts, Sparks and Adams. I have no idea of her heritage, or how her people came to be there.

While she was kind, she was also a strict disciplinarian, and when she didn’t have the patience to try and pray away my transgressions, she was not above taking a paddle to my bottom or a ruler to the palm of my hand. I thought an awful lot of her. Curious, that. I credit it to her sincerity.

One remarkable thing I recall about her was her lunch habit. Every day she brought a peanut butter and pickle sandwich on rye. She varied it by utilizing a variety of condiments: mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and on occasion, honey – and I swear by the God she preached, the truth of this.

I remember one day in class, and I can’t remember why she needed it, but she asked, “Sherman,” – since there was no easily discernible difference between her pronunciation of Carl (one of my classmates) and Harold, and we often answered for each other, she called me by my middle name to distinguish between us. – “Sherman,” she said, “let me borrow your pocket knife.”

While I was loathe to admit an inability to honor her request, I said, “I don’t have a pocket knife, Miss Laura.”

She drew her head back in surprise, clinched fists on spindly hips, and said, “Why, Sherman Simpson, every boy worth his salt carries a pocket knife.”

Then she turned to George Mackey, a loathsome pig-eyed, fat bastard that had terrorized me the three first three months of third grade until I could take no more, shoved him over a desk when Miss Laura was out of the room, jumped atop him, and was beating the hell out of him when she returned. Miss Laura and I prayed a long time over that one, and I got my ass busted to boot. Anyway, George Mackey pulled out his pocket knife and gave it to her. I can’t tell you how much that galled me; George Mackey being worth his salt.

When I arrived home that afternoon, my father was sitting in the kitchen nursing his first beer of the day. “Dad, what’s it mean to be worth your salt?”

My father was a hard man, a drinking man, smarter and more learned than most college professors, and a hell of a lot meaner. “Look it up,” he said.

I hated that. He said it often, and while it never ceased to annoy me, I will admit that it helped to teach me a certain self-sufficiency with regard to my education.

Less than a block from my home on Twenty-third Street in Louisville was a library. I spent a lot of time there while we lived in the west end. I was a huge reader, and I knew each and every one of the librarians, and even at that age understood that they were not only the guardians of knowledge, they were also its ready purveyors.

I marched into the library and up to the librarian. “What does worth his salt mean?”

She shook her head at me and pointed to the ‘Quiet!’ sign that sat atop her desk, then leaned into me and whispered, “It is an idiomatic phrase that means valuable or worthy.”

As it is with much of life, answers often yield more questions. “Can you spell that?” I asked.

She cocked her eyebrow at me, perplexed.

“What kind of a phrase?”

“Idiomatic,” she repeated, and spelled it out.

“Thanks.” I turned and went to the unabridged dictionary that sat atop its own pedestal, and pulled over the step-stool that let me ascend high enough to thumb through its pages and find the term. While I don’t remember the precise definition, I do remember that it is a collection of words that mean something other than the words themselves, and is generally peculiar to a particular tongue and doesn’t translate easily.

That very weekend, I pestered my Grand-dad to buy me a pocket knife, and he did, and I have carried one ever since, and can’t tell you how many times a friend or family member has asked me to pull it out for one reason or another, cut some string, trim a broken nail, or peel an apple. Its uses are endless.

Miss Laura’s off-handed remark to the small boy I once was left an indelible impression on me, and while a pocket knife does not by itself confer my worth. I have, since that day, always striven to be worth my salt.

Thank you Miss Laura.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: