Thursday, March 3, 2011

I Hate Snakes!

The title of this story says it all. The only good snake is a dead snake. When I say a dead snake, I mean a snake that is splattered all over the place from a shotgun blast or from being run over by a lawnmower. A snake that has been shot with a .22 and is not moving doesn't qualify. He might be playing possum and planning to bite your ass when you lean down to investigate. Note, I said when YOU lean down to investigate. That is something I would never do, even if the snake was in a dozen pieces scattered over a wide area.
I still have a vivid memory of my first encounter with a snake. My Uncle Cecil and Aunt Naomi had a dairy farm near Crockett. As a small boy I loved to spend time with them and be near all the animals. There were always several dogs and cats around, as well as a yard full of chickens. It was a great place to run and play.
Each morning they would get up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows. When I visited they would wake me up for breakfast at 8 a.m. when the morning milking was finished. After we ate my aunt would go to the chicken house and gather the eggs and I would tag along. On a couple of occasions she mentioned something about a chicken snake getting some eggs, but I never paid any attention at first. I was probably 4 or 5 years old and didn't pay much attention to anything I was told.
One morning my uncle had put a couple of calves in the corral and I wandered over to look at them. I was leaning over the bottom board petting a calf and he was licking my hand. I stepped back after a couple of minutes and stood up straight. On the board just above my head, now at eye level, was a four-foot-long chicken snake. I began screaming at the top of my lungs and everyone came running from the barn to see what was happening. I was too scared to do anything but scream as everyone yelled, "What's wrong?"
My uncle spotted the snake about the time he got to me. The snake hadn't moved an inch. My screaming probably had it in shock. Uncle Cecil grabbed a big stick and pushed it under the middle of the snake, then tossed it about 20 feet through the air and onto the sand driveway behind us. One of his workers ran up with a hoe and cut its head off while my aunt and uncle were trying to calm me down. They kept saying a chicken snake wasn't poisonous and couldn't really hurt me, but I screamed for several more minutes anyway. From that day on, every snake was a deadly cobra in my mind.
East Texas has a lot of copperheads, water moccasins and rattlesnakes, all of which are poisonous. After my encounter with the chicken snake I was always on the lookout for snakes of any kind when I was outside. As a small boy I would run screaming if I saw as much as a small grass snake. As I got older some of my idiot friends would actually catch grass snakes and play with them. I wouldn't go near one and would usually go home if someone caught a little snake.
When I was 12, my mother decided it was time to give me the .22 rifle my dad had for many years. It was probably a reward for never having successfully burned down the house. By then I was going to Mustang Prairie Ranch with John Rials on a regular basis. John would set up rows of tin cans for me to shoot. Eventually I became a pretty good shot with lots of practice.
The first live target I ever had was, appropriately, a snake. We were walking on top of the dam at a small stock pond. We were 10 feet above the water and there were several small cottonwood trees at the edge of the shoreline. I kept hearing something hitting the water under the trees. It was the sound of water moccasins dropping off of the lower branches into the water as we approached. My first instinct was to soil my underwear and run like hell, but John would have never let me live it down. Dozens of heads began to break the surface of the water as the snakes came up for air and started swimming to the center of the pond. I fired all fifteen rounds of my rifle at the fleeing snakes and never hit one. At least I felt, as Oprah would say, "empowered" with a firearm in my possession as I encountered the fleeing horde of deadly vipers. I was a little disturbed that I hadn't hit anything. That all changed later that year when I got my first shotgun.
John loved to hunt dove in the fall and thought it was time for me to accompany him. Mother gave me a 410 single-shot shotgun for my birthday in July, and John started training me to shoot it so I wouldn't be too dangerous when dove season started in September. The first place I wanted to go was back to the stock pond.
We quietly eased across the dam and positioned ourselves above the cottonwood branches. I peeked through the leaves and saw several water moccasins stretched out on the branches above the water. Along the shoreline there were at least 20 more coiled up in a pile in the cool mud. I took aim into the middle of the pile on the ground and fired. Parts of snakes went in every direction. After my shot the rest of the snakes were in the water in a split second. To my surprise, many more darted from the grass along the water's edge and into the pond. I reloaded and fired again as a few heads broke the surface. At a greater distance the shotgun pellets disperse quite a bit, but I finally hit one after a few more shots. The pile of bloody snake parts along the shore was one of the best sights I had ever seen.
By the next summer Charlie Jackson had his driver's license. On several occasions we took our shotguns and drove out to the stock pond. We would park a quarter of a mile away and walk slowly and quietly up onto the dam. Even though it had only been a couple of weeks since we were there last, it seemed as if more snakes were in the trees and on the ground than the time before. Charlie could fire five shots, so he accounted for many more kills than I did with my single shot. We felt like we were striking a blow for humanity each time we fired. On a couple of occasions we would come across a small grass snake slithering along as we walked down the trail. Charlie would say something about catching it and taking it home, just before I would blast it from three feet away. There would be very little evidence left that a snake had even been there. Charlie would whine and bitch at me about killing a poor little innocent grass snake. But I knew I was saving our lives and he was too stupid to realize it.
Summer visits to the stock pond became a ritual. When I was a sophomore in high school, Uncle Cecil let me use his single-shot 12-gauge shotgun. It delivered a greater punch than my little 410, and would kill a lot of snakes with one shot when fired from the proper angle.
Another friend of mine, Smitty Dean, had a farm about fifteen miles east of Crockett. We decided to go check out the stock ponds and see how many water moccasins we could slaughter on his property. There were no dams to walk across at his place, and the stock ponds were mostly a series of wide spots along a spring-fed stream that ran across the farm. The shore was lined with tall grass, which made me nervous. I didn't relish the idea of stepping on or near a snake. After an hour we hadn't seen anything. We were about to return to the car when Smitty suggested we fire into a clump of land in the middle of the stream. On the count of three we both fired into the tall grass.
Snakes that survived the blast began diving into the water, and we could see a bloody mass of snakes we'd killed. The snakes that escaped into the stream never surfaced where we could see them, so we never got off another shot. We decided we had done God's work for one day and began walking to the cabin where were going to spend the night.
It hadn't rained in weeks and the parched land was beginning to crack open from lack of moisture. It was late afternoon and the trees were casting long shadows across the trail. I was in the lead and Smitty was about five feet behind me. I was looking down at the trail as I walked, always guarding against snake attack. Suddenly I saw a long dark form in the grass about three feet to my right. I screamed, "SNAKE!" Half a second later I shot it in the head with a blast from the 12 gauge.
When a 12-gauge shotgun is fired into the dry earth at a distance of three feet, it produces a big cloud of dust and dirt, and Smitty and I were covered in it. Smitty almost had a heart attack when I yelled and fired at the ground so close to us. It took a minute or two for the dust to settle enough for us to see the ground. I was expecting to find the remains of a large deadly demon snake that had planned on killing both of us. Instead I had seen a large crack in the ground that looked long and dark due the late afternoon shadows. After our blood pressure returned to normal we had a good laugh, and I never lived that one down.
Years later when Teresa and I first married we went camping at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Reserve north of Lawton, Oklahoma. It is federal land and a snake is a protected species. They are of the opinion that a snake is a beautiful creature and can't be replaced. If you were to kill one they would lock you up, but if the snake killed you there'd just be one less tourist.
The reserve was built as a WPA project in the late twenties and early thirties. It encompasses two-thirds of the Wichita mountain range and is a beautiful place. The tallest mountain in the area is Mt. Scott, which has a paved road to the summit.
We were camping at the base of Mt. Scott in late September and were the only inhabitants of the camping area. The days were still warm, but it was rather cool at night and early in the morning. The snakes surely would be hibernating by then, or so I thought.
Early in the morning we decided to climb Mt. Scott. There was a trough of huge boulders extending from the summit to the base, which was the most popular avenue for climbers. There were lots of scrub oak trees and brushy areas scattered throughout the boulders as we made our way up the mountain.
Teresa knew of my fear of snakes, but she had never been with me during a snake encounter. We were newly married, and I was naturally going to be the great protector. Side by side we made our way up the mountain. We were passing a clump of brush about ten feet to our right when I heard a rustling sound. I looked over and there was a rattlesnake. He had probably been sunning himself on the rock and was in the process of getting out of sight as we approached. Wanting to warn my new bride of the danger I immediately yelled, "SNAKE!" At the same moment I yelled I was hauling ass up the mountain. By the time Teresa turned to look at me I was ten yards away and moving fast. She just started laughing at me. I realized how stupid I must look fleeing up the mountain at top speed. In my defense, I figured she had been warned of the impending danger and it was up to her to run like hell, as I was duty-bound to do. She has never let me forget it to this day. She now claims it was only a stick. I think she is losing her mind.
Teresa and I lived in Wichita Falls for the first year of our marriage. Being away from Crockett for a year made us homesick, so we decided to move back and hope for good jobs to magically appear where there had been none before. We moved into the house where I grew up. The backyard was in a low area and bordered a pasture that became a swamp after any moderate rain. That was the rainiest fall I ever remember in Crockett. It was much too wet to mow the grass, and by the time we had our first freeze the grass was out of control.
The following spring I faced the daunting task of cutting the thickest grass I’d ever seen. I gassed up the lawnmower and went to work. I pushed with all my might and the progress was minimal at best. By the time the first pass across the yard was finished I was completely exhausted. I was looking at the ground and straining hard when suddenly I felt something squish under my shoe. I had stepped into a pile of grass snakes the mower had just passed over without touching. I ran top speed for the house and grabbed my .22 rifle. When I returned to the yard all the snakes were still there. I began blasting away and the snakes headed into the tall grass. I killed a few, but most of them escaped. Not a single neighbor came to investigate the gunshots. After all, they had known me all my life and not much surprised them.
In the spring of each year the city of Waurika, Oklahoma has a rattlesnake roundup. This is an event that is common in West Texas and Oklahoma. It is always held in a carnival-like atmosphere, and in many small towns it is their biggest and most popular annual event. I, of course, had never been near one.
In April of 1984 we were living in Wichita Falls, Texas. My brother-in-law, Walter Husak, asked me to go with him up to the rattlesnake roundup in Waurika. My son Jamie was seven and my daughter Heather was five at the time. They were present when Walter asked me, and naturally they started begging to go. Not wanting to wimp out I said yes.
As we were walking to the courthouse square, we passed lots of vendors selling rattlesnake meat, skins, rattlers and various snake-related items. We passed one gentleman who was taking pictures of people holding a huge rattlesnake. The snake was very much alive and kept its neck pulled back as if to strike at any moment. It probably didn't have any fangs, and while pictures were being taken its mouth was most likely wired shut. At least that is what I kept telling myself as we walked by and there were shivers going up my spine.
In the main exhibition area there was a large area with a three-foot high plywood fence around it. Bags and boxes full of rattlesnakes were being dumped over the fence every couple of minutes. There were thousands of them. They were taken to another area a few at a time for processing. First, the snake was held over a bucket and the head was cut off. Next the rattles were cut off. The snake was then suspended by the tail and the skin was peeled off. Finally the body was cut into sections and the meat was packaged. At each stage of processing people were standing by the tables buying various parts of the snake. Needless to say I was shaking like a leaf, but the kids were loving it. They even got to pet a boa constrictor someone was passing around. After a few minutes I was ready to leave this viper hell and get back to Wichita Falls.
As we were leaving, we again passed the man taking pictures of people holding the rattlesnake. As a joke I asked the kids if they wanted to have their picture taken. Jamie looked at me like I was crazy and said, "No!" Heather jumped up and down and gleefully said, "Yes, please!"
I knew if I backed out she might whine all the way home, so I paid the four dollars and got in line. Every thirty seconds I would ask, "Are you sure?" She was sure each time.
She was small for a five-year-old, so when the man put the snake in her hand it looked like she was holding something from a horror movie. The snake looked like it was ready to strike, and it also looked rather pissed off at the entire proceedings. Looking back now he was probably bored and drugged senseless. As Heather got a firm grip on the snake and the man lined up the shot, his wife said, "Oh, she looks like she is going to cry! Daddy, come get in the shot with your little girl."
My first instinct was to say, "Like hell I will!" I decided that wouldn't be the fatherly thing to do, so I summoned all my courage and put my hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Of course I did it at arm's length and was nowhere in the picture except for my hand. Just as the camera clicked Heather began to think through what she was doing and was about to break down and cry. The shot captured a look of sheer terror on her face. The second the picture was snapped the snake was taken from her and she didn't even sob. We were handed the Polaroid snapshot and hustled aside to make room for some other deranged sucker. Heather loved the picture and could hardly wait to get back to Wichita Falls to show her mother and her grandparents. None of them saw any humor in it at all. They all fussed at me about subjecting that poor child to such treatment. I tried to point out my comforting hand on her shoulder but it didn't help the situation.
I've had very few snake sightings since that time. A few years ago while living in East Texas, Teresa found she had been walking back and forth past a poisonous copperhead all afternoon while going in and out of the well house. She was in the well house when she noticed, so she jumped over it. She called me to pick up some ammunition at Wal Mart on the way home so we could kill it. She handles snake encounters better than me. Snakes are why God invented shotguns.

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