This expression came to me from my Uncle John Sherrick, rest his soul, who, besides being one of the wisest and kindest men I ever knew, had a wonderfully droll sense of humor. I don’t know the origin of the story–I seem to remember that he was retelling it from another source–but here, more or less, is the story as he told it to me:
A farmer woke up sometime after 1 a.m. to the sound of the cat meowing at the door. He got out of bed quietly so as not to wake his wife, and went to open the back door for the cat. As he stood at the open door, he noticed that the sprinkler was still going out in the back yard, so he slipped on his shoes and went to turn to the sprinkler off. That took him near the shop, which reminded him that he’d left off painting a bit of carpentry before dinner and not gotten back to it. He was awake now, so he went into the shop and spent fifteen or twenty minutes finishing his painting job. As he was putting away the paint and brush, he noticed a bunch of tools piled near the lathe, which he’d been meaning to sharpen for months—but what with one thing and another, he’d never gotten around to it. Figuring he’d sharpen just one or two, he turned on the lathe and dug around for his safety glasses. Forty-five minutes later, he turned off the lathe and put away the stack of newly sharpened tools. That reminded him of the wagon and tractor that needed greasing, so he reached for his grease gun…
As the farmer crept back into bed somewhere around 4 a.m., his wife stirred and opened her eyes. “Where’ve you been?” she asked.
He sighed, pulled the covers up to his chin, and closed his eyes. “Putting out the cat.”
Maybe later I’ll post the updated-for-the-24th-Century version of the story that I wrote a few years ago in homage to this one.