Thursday, August 19, 2010

Part 1: Dad Stepped On a Venomous Snake

I am contemplating Autumn and all its offerings. It won't show its lovely face here for another two months, I know. Even then it will not sweep its palette of warm colors across this desert landscape, but it will bring the cooler eighties temps with it. And I feel ready to rejoice just thinking of that.

Before I turn my back on this season, however, I will embrace it by indulging in summer memories from the past. Those that are foremost in my mind at the moment involve, of all things, snakes.

My brother Nate and I used to sneak up on the garden variety to touch their slippery skins until they ejected their forked tongues at us. Our brave lab Rueben attacked even the venomous kind, rattlesnakes and copperheads, with vigor in the cornfield and woods-barking, circling and lunging. Twice he was bitten, and he would forever have the bare patches of fur as proof of battle.

The scariest encounter happened early one summer. We kids were swimming in the creek in the afternoon. There was a massive old tree which bent its limbs over the water. From one sturdy limb Dad had hung an old barge rope. When we weren't taking turns using it to launch ourselves into the water, we were having dog paddle races in the gentle current or adding rocks to the dam we'd built to deepen our swimming hole.

My parents came home early that day. We saw the car cross the culvert, barreling toward home. This was the first unusual incident, for Mom and Dad often stopped the car at the creek, especially if we kids were there, and they'd lie down in the shallows to cool off after a hot sweaty day in the woods.

We kids abandoned the cool water, jumping the spring as we followed the creek path before climbing to the road and dripping a trail down the dirt lane. As we rounded the corner by the mailbox, we were surprised to see our parents still by the car. And Dad was in the passenger seat. This was a new alarm; Mom never drove. That and the fact that Dad's face was a shade we'd never seen before as he leaned his head against the open car door told us something was very wrong. We all four ran to his side, our words and our limbs becoming tangled. He responded to this onslaught by asking us weakly to back up and give him space.

It was Mom who said in a strained voice, "Your dad was bitten by a copperhead."

The inevitable questions erupted from us in panic. "Is Dad going to die? Why isn't Dad at the hospital?"

Mom's big brown eyes were alarming in size, the rest of her face pinched by stress. Dad finally cut through the tears and mounting fear by saying in a firm if weakened voice, "I'm not going to die. Help me inside the house."

Once inside Dad cut the boot off his foot. There was nothing else to do; the foot was swollen to twice its size. We kids watched in anxious fascination as Dad laboriously pushed the sock down, his face tight with pain. When he finally collapsed against the couch, sweating from the effort, the foot was revealed to us: mottled with various shades of red and blue that had spread up his leg.

It was my brother Nate who spotted the fang marks. "Look!" he cried, pointing to the top of the foot. "I found where it got you, Dad!"

We all bent over the two tiny white marks.

"That's it, alright," said Dad. "Now someone turn down that air conditioner. I'm burning up."

That night I woke up to the sound of someone being sick in the bathroom. We kids straggled out to the living room where we found Dad sweating and miserable by the air conditioner. Mom was urging him to drink a tall glass of water, her cure for everything.

"Kids, go back to bed. There's nothing you can do," said Dad in a low voice.

But we didn't, because we didn't fully trust Dad's assurances that he wasn't going to die. He was shaking and sweating badly; we had to keep watch and pray if nothing else.

For two days my dad suffered from recurring fever and vomiting induced by the venom. On the third morning he got ready for work. It took quite a lot of duck tape to secure his work boot to his swollen foot, and every day he had to rewrap the shoe, but he recovered as he said he would.

And we learned the story by and by. As I have said my parents worked in the woods for a living. While they hunted for valuable roots to dig, Dad always walked ahead of our mother. This time he stepped over a large decaying log, breaking his own rule about looking before proceeding. The prick on his foot was virtually instantaneous. Luckily, Dad recognized the copperhead pattern on the snake's back as it slithered away, but the burning heat that surged through his foot quickly spread up his leg even as he stood in a nearby creek to gain relief.

Dad knew copperheads are rarely fatal, so he resisted Mom's urgent demands that they go straight to a hospital. But we prayed, too, and prayer is powerful.

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