My father had ALWAYS had a fascination with snakes, especially Rattlesnakes. He let most snakes go. But Timber Rattlesnakes, Eastern Cottonmouths, and Northern Copperheads were the ones that were doomed to death when their fate rested in his hands. Now, don’t be going and calling PETA. This was back in the day and way out in the boonies. Dead snakes (the larger the better) were carried around on the backs of men’s pick ups like trophies to be showed off to anyone they saw at the local general store or around town. Sorry, but it’s just the way it was. And if it was a rattler, the rattles were cut off and hung from the rearview mirror. No one would have dared to kill a nonpoisonous snake because they kept vermin under control. Poisonous snakes were killed because they were a threat to the children playing outside and the dogs and cats etc…
This particular event happened at my Big Mama’s house. Big Mama was my father’s mother. It was not uncommon to find a Rattlesnake (or a black or garden snake for that matter) in her yard. It was so common through the years, the relatives wondered if there was a Rattlesnake den under the house, but no one dared to go searching for one! All of the relatives met at Big Mama’s house every Sunday for dinner. This Sunday was no different from any other. The women were cooking, the men were shooting the breeze, and the kids were spread all over the two hundred plus acres getting into all sorts of mischief.
My cousin and I (we were probably about six years old at the time.)were searching for jack rocks in the red clay dirt road just in front of the house. We went to show off our treasures and as we rounded the huge cacti we saw a Rattlesnake coiled (meaning it was rattling and ready to strike!) at the base of the bush at the edge of the yard. We started screaming our fool heads off. My father came racing over and grabbed the snake. Yes, he picked the dang thing up with his hands. No, he didn’t throw rocks at it or hit it with a stick. He taunted the dang thing. I remember being mesmerized by the rich brown and the black diamond zig zag stripes running down it’s back. It was beautiful. I was scared to death because I also knew it could be deadly. I was afraid it was going to bite Daddy.
I ran up to the porch screaming for my mother. As she scooted out of the house, Big Mama pulled my cousin and I in and locked the screen door behind us. I guess it was her way of shielding us from what was happening. All of the grown ups were glued to the action outside and were covering our eyes with their hands so we couldn’t see what was going on. I kept pushing the hands away because if Daddy was bitten, I wanted to know it.
My mother yelled for Big Mama to give her a shot gun. In all her naïveté, she retrieved the gun, cracked the door enough to hand it to her, and relatched the screen. Now, how she thought my mother could actually hit the snake is beyond me. Then my aunt yelled, “Oh, my Lord, she’s going to kill HIM!”
I shoved the hand out of my face to see my mother aiming the gun at my father and words to this effect came out, “If you don’t put that blame snake down, he won’t be able to bite you because I’m going to shoot you!”.
“Well, I be drop dead! Well, da Lawd she gonna kill my son! Lawd, Lawd, Lawd, what have I done? Lawd how mercy on me!” Big Mama was wiping her hand across her forehead and wringing her apron with her other hand. I was torn between the spectacle my grandmother was putting on and the drama going on outside.
I watched my father take both hands and twist the snake right below the head. Then he reached in his right pocket and pulled out his pocket knife and sliced the head right off.
I have never heard so many sighs of relief at once. It was almost as if silence and chaos crashed for a single second in time.
My mother started crying and accused my dad of almost making her kill him…not that she was really going to she explained. She just thought that was the only way to get him to put the snake down. So, I guess she thought he’d put the snake down if he thought he was going to die at the hands of his wife?! Oh well, it worked. Of course, I had been crying originally thinking my Daddy was going to die from a snake bite and then my thoughts moving on to my mother killing him and going to jail thus leaving me parentless!
Daddy then laid his rattler on the ground for all to inspect. Everyone oohed and awed, and he became the infamous hero of the day. He placed him in a paper sack, and stopped to show it off to everyone we met on our way home. I swear it was still moving without it’s head. A labyrinth of blood absorbed into the paper and dried into a crimson memorial for the snake’s tomb. My knees grew weak and I shook every time Daddy yanked the snake from the sack. I put on a brave proud face until we got home and then I quietly cried into my pillow that night. I had nightmares about snakes for days.
I tried my best to keep a safe distance between myself and snakes from then on. I’ve only killed one Rattlesnake. And then only because it was about to strike at my cousin (same one) and I when we were teenagers. I dropped a huge rock on it and then she tossed another one on for good measure. We were afraid to lift the rocks to see if we’d killed him. We got my aunt to check out the damage for us.
Now, I don’t want you to think I go around killing snakes ‘cuz I don’t. I have grown up with an intense fear of snakes. Any of them. I’ve been taught how to identify which are poisonous, but I try not to get close enough to know the difference! Being near them causes me extreme anxiety. I’ve gotten a little better but not enough to stop avoiding them because I just don’t trust them.
I think that the Timber Rattlesnake, Eastern Cottonmouth, and Northern Copperhead are the only three venomous snakes found in Virginia. And of course, all three were prevalent in the area where I grew up.