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Catching up with snakes

In previous columns I’ve written about the bothersome and sometimes dangerous critters found on the farm where I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. In those columns, however, I have omitted the wily and elusive snake.  

It was an oversight because we had all sorts of reptiles lurking around our house and in the woods, hedgerows and streams nearby.  

Our house was perched on the edge of a three-acre swamp, otherwise known as a branch head. It supported three year-around artesian wells, all of which came together to form a large branch, which emptied into a creek a mile away.  

The swamp was covered by large trees and dense undergrowth and stayed under water year-round. It was populated by water snakes, including the poisonous cottonmouth moccasin.  

My brothers and I were under orders to stay out of the swamp because of the danger of getting bitten by one of those snakes 

We drew potable water from a spring on the east end of the swamp, and it was common for us to find a water snake coiled around the sweet milk jug when we went to retrieve it before supper. 

We owe our maternal grandfather a debt of gratitude for teaching us to respect snakes but not to be afraid of encountering them in their own habitat. For example, on a warm, sunshiny day, he would invite us to go to the creek for a snake killing. He would spot a water snake lying on a bush over the water, pick it up by its tail and snap its head off with a whip-like snap of his wrist. 

He would then remind us that all the snakes in the area were under the banks, and we could swim as long as we liked without danger of getting bitten. 

His message came back to scare him a few days later when he encountered a black snake while we were prowling around in the rubble of a burned-out neighbor’s house. He spoke a cuss word, dropped his pants quickly and pulled the snake out of a pants leg.  

“You boys don’t need to be hanging around this place,” he told us as we headed to the house.  

A big, mean-looking rat snake kept us on our toes nearly every day we went to the barn to shuck corn for our laying hen flock. The snake was allowed to make his home in the crib to keep down rats, and we were under orders from our dad not to bother it.  

The first thing we’d do was lift the basket of shucks from the day before to see it the snake was inside.  If the basket was heavy, we’d take it outside and dump it. The snake would crawl back to the barn and disappear until the next day.  

We’d express our frustration while attending to another uninviting corn-shucking chore.