The Great Sassafras Debacle

Often, my sister Kathi & I got into uncontrollable laughing fits. They would come out of the blue, based on nothing at all. Or, from incidents like The Great Sassafras Debacle. One Saturday in Great Falls, the rain poured down in hellacious sheets. We’d spent hours drawing, listening to records, dancing & telling each other stories. We were bored.

Suddenly I got a brainstorm: “Let’s make sassafras tea!!”
“How?” my 10 year old sister wondered.

“You pull up young sassafras trees, cut the outer part off the roots, boil them in hot water. I read about it in a library book on how hippies live off the land. There’s some growing in a ditch up by the Nichols’s house.”

I often baby-sat for the Nichols, a young couple with two little sons. Mr. Nichols was a lawyer. His wife was German. They had all sorts of books. I’d read “Mein Kampf” in two evenings while sitting for their sound-asleep boys. Manias help if you want to Speed Read!

Kathi & I put on our plastic rain hats, the kind that fold up & fit into a coat pocket. We pulled on rubber boots. Levi’s & sweat shirts kept us warm as we ran up Ellsworth Avenue, searching for magical sassafrass bushes.

There’s one! No, three!” I shouted.

We figured it would be cinchy to wrench such small saplings out of the mud. I took ahold of one, Kathi grabbed another. We pulled. We grunted, we tugged. I fell into the mud. Kathi burst out laughing. I caught the fever, both of us giggling like mad.

We would not give up–both of us had inherited the Elder stubborn streak.

Using bare hands, we dug in the slimy clay. Wrenched again. I looked up, toward the highway. “Oh, no! Mr. Nichols!”

The young attorney often worked long hours, including Saturdays. He was heading for his house & turned to glance at an odd sight down the street. His eyeballs were bugging out, seeing Kathi & me covered in mud, laughing & pulling on tiny trees.

Oh my God! He’ll never hire me to baby-sit again!”

“We’re mud creatures!” Kathi screamed. All of a sudden, both our sassafrass roots let go, throwing us back into a huge mud puddle.

That’s it,” I yelled. “Two has to be enough for two cups of tea.”

We ran back home, down to the basement double sinks beside the washing machine. We took off all our clothes & scrubbed them with hot water. I hung them up on the inside clothesline while Kathi wiped our boots off & put them in the proper place: beside the back door.

We washed off the roots, making them pure. Snorting with laughter, my sister & I went upstairs. I put on a pot of water to boil. Then we went to our bedrooms to get dry clothing on. Just as I was dropping the roots into the hot water, Mom came in the front door:
“Come help me with these damned groceries. It’s like The Flood out there!”  “Lordie!” Kathi whispered, laughing wildly.
“OK, Mama,” I answered in my best imitation of Eddie Haskell (“Leave It To Beaver”)

My sister & I dashed downstairs & retrieved two wet bags full of food. Our tea was nearly brewed. It smelled wonderful. “Tea!” I shouted. Kathi burst into peals of laughter.

It only took us 2 hours to make this.” I was laughing so hard, I fell down.

Mom appeared in the doorway of the kitchen. Seeing us falling all over the place, she snapped “Hebephrenic Schizophrenia.”

Our mother had worked with mental patients at a prison hospital in Pueblo, Colorado after being an RN in a Denver pediatric ward in the late 1940s. She often pronounced my sister & me insane with one or another type of mental illness she’d learned about working with mental patients.

Kathi & I  helped her unload groceries, then sat down to enjoy our bitter, unsweetened sassafrass drink. Never again, we vowed! Tea bags from here on out.

Kathi, MB, Susan Lake Fairfax 
My sister (back right) & her two best friends at Lake Fairfax.
She was a little older here than the day of the Sassafrass Debacle.
The 1960s!


Author: dixiewriter

Due to my father's job as an explorer/cartographer, my family moved 48 times before I turned 13. We lived where Dad worked: on mountain tops (in park ranger cabins), in deserts, swamps, along coastlines from Maine to Key West & other wild places. My father mapped parts of Antarctica, living there for 8 months in 1961-62. A mountain peak & a glacier are named after him (William C. Elder, USGS) As an adult, I helped Lars Eric Lindblad (then president of World Wildlife) find out about the migration path of Silverback gorillas (from Tanzania into Kenya). On my information, he chose to move Lindblad Travel's photographic safari camps to accommodate these wonderful creatures. I got a Jimmy Carter grant to teach after I graduated from Madison College. Grantees had to sign up to teach for at least a year in a severely impoverished school anywhere in America. I taught for 3 & 1/2 years in SW Virginia near Bluegrass Central (Galax, VA). I taught 7th-9th grade English, Drama, Journalism. I was the forensics coach. Moved to Connecticut & worked for Lars Lindblad, typing up the manuscript for his autobiography, working with Liz & John Fuller on this book. (They co-wrote "Ghost of Flight 415" & other books about unusual phenomenon. Moved to Colorado in 1982. Worked as "gal friday" for 12 detectives at the Boulder Police Dept. Set up files for DA to use in court amongst other things. Then at a law firm. Next, CU/Boulder for 10 years. At CU, workers could take a free course each semester. So I did 5 Master's levels courses in special ed' & many in creative writing/history/religion & other subjects at the Master's level. I taught "Drama for the Disabled" in Boulder, CO after the teacher had to quit due to health issues. It was wonderful! My last 7 years working, I helped adults/teens/children with various brain differences such as autism. I was diagnosed at age 45 with 3 types of seizures, manic depression (atypical, rarely depressions, mostly manias), OCD & PTSD. At age 67 (!!) this diagnosis was changed. The manias are most likely due to temporal lobe "disturbance." The other symptoms are due to "high functioning" autism or Asperger's. Shock!! I do Tai Chi 3x/day which helps me to calm down. My husband & I work out at a gym 3-5 times/week for balance mostly but also weight training, running etc. We climb the beautiful Rocky Mountain High places (like Long's Peak & Maroon Bells) in summertime/autumn. We love archaeology, so when we travel, it's in order to discover ancient sites. My husband is an actor with a "day job." He has performed in shows with Zero Mostel (Fiddler on the Roof, the road show), Dick van Dyke (Diagnosis Murder), Firesign Theatre/John Goodman/Annette Bening et al. (Wizard of Oz/radio show) & many other wonderful people since age 14. We have traveled to: Iceland, Scotland (twice), Germany (3 times to visit friends), Ireland & fascinating places in America. We usually spend a month when we travel. So we go about every 5-6 years. Otherwise, we stay at home in a town in Colorado, attending Poetry sessions, working in local theater, enjoying our shelter rescue cats, writing, painting & dancing.

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