Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dad Steps on one and Mom Beheads another (anniversary repost of the week)

While pulling weeds with my eldest girl in the yard this morning I was reminded of a summer in my childhood when my siblings and I were supposed to be helping our lovely mother in the vegetable garden. We were lazin' about, of course, and while we were thus engaged, Mama encountered something that gave her a real fright. But, of course, that story cannot be told without setting down first the very scary incident of Dad's encounter with a similar cold-blooded creature.

This was a story I always wanted to tell, and I think I did it justice.

I will embrace this summer, destined to be terrible like any Arizona summer, 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 Reuben 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 over him.

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

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 from the painful sensation.

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.


Dad's experience explains the enormity of my mother's reaction to her own confrontation with a slithering reptile. The image of Dad stepping over the log and saying, "Honey, I think I just got bit," and his subsequent misery were no doubt still fresh as Mom knelt in our family garden later that summer, tending the bean plants and unaware that she had company.

I feel some guilt in the telling of this episode, for I remember our dad adjuring my siblings and I to help her before he left to work a neighbor's farm.

We kids were being particularly unproductive, listening to music and rocking on the couch or the floor in a general state of ennui when Mom burst open our front door and said, "Oh, s--t! There's a copperhead in the garden!"

All four of us froze in horror, not because of the presence of a snake in the garden, but because of the word which had escaped our virtuous mother's lips. It was Vinca who finally stuttered, "Wha-waa-what did you say?"

Mom omitted the word and cut straight to the point before adding in wide-eyed frenzy, "I need something...anything! I've got to kill it!"

It was very unfortunate that Mom spotted the rifle on the living room shelf. She ran out of the house with it and the ammunition before we could prevent her. Nate was close on her heels, however, urging her to let him shoot it (he was a good shot and had actually handled it before).

"Stand back, all of you!" she ordered.

After promptly doing so, we kids watched as our mother blasted not only the bean plants, but the corn and tomatoes as well. Upon inspection, the snake was found to be unscathed.

Having depleted the sparse ammunition, Mom yelled desperately, "Get me rocks! Bring me rocks! I need something to throw at it!"

My sister Annie dragged an enormous rock from the flower bed wall, laughing and winking at me and Nate as she lugged it between her legs. Our mother, still powered by adrenaline, lifted the considerable weight over her head and hurled it like She-Woman in the general direction of the bean plants.

But the snake, not surprisingly, survived the bombardment of stones, though it had lost much of its cover. Our flattened garden was a sad testimony to the presence of the iniquitous reptile that had, despite the assault, hardly moved from its original position. Mom decided the time had come for close combat. She marched to the side of the house, grabbed the hoe propped there and returned to the very place where she had first discovered the copperhead while kneeling in its proximity. She then did what she should have done at the first by quickly and precisely chopping off its head.

By the time Dad returned home that evening, our mother was her usual calm and ladylike self, and we kids were impatient to relate the story of our adventure. We met him at the car, and Mom stood behind us with folded arms as we all spoke at once. Somewhere in the telling, one of us burst out with, "And Mama said a bad word. She said the s-word!"

"I did not," Mom spoke firmly.

"But, Mom, you did!" said Nate. "When you came in the house."

"I would never say that word." Her voice was very quiet, and her large eyes were narrowed. We didn't dare argue with her.

At least not until she went back into the house. Then we all turned to Dad and began whispering, "She said it, Daddy. She really did."

Dad was skinning the miscreant snake in the driveway. He looked up, and his pale green eyes were bright with amusement when he said, "I believe you. But it's our secret, okay? Don't make your Mama angry."

It's strange that our mother's use of a bad word should capture our imaginations more than the image of her firing a rifle into the bean plants. I can only say it is a testament to her beautiful manners, and I need not add, I have never heard her say it since.

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