Laugh Lines: Snake Tales

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As a surveyor, how many times have you been asked, "Hey, y’all ever see any snakes when you’re out there?" I’ve certainly seen my share, and I have yet to meet a surveyor who didn’t have a snake story or two. Years ago if I saw a poisonous snake, I would hack it to pieces with my bush hook. Growing older, however, I have come to realize that the chances of getting bit by a snake while surveying are slim, and I leave all snakes alone. For the most part, snakes don’t want anything to do with us humans and they serve an important role in our ecosystem. They are quite content living in the shadows, catching an occasional varmint to eat.

Still, growing up in the South, most of the people I knew equated snakes to Satan. Many of the old-timers living in our farming community passed down the notion that "any dang snake of any color or size" was a "ground rattler," and to hear them tell it, it was straight from the pits of Hell. Fathers and grandfathers for generations back had passed down stories about the dreaded ground rattler, and there was no changing the newer generation’s mind on the subject. According to my Uncle Henry, a ground rattler is so mean that if you run from one, it will follow you home, sneak into your house at night, and bite you while you sleep.

Quick Reflexes
Ironically, the closest I ever came to being bit by a snake was not while surveying, but rather, while golfing. I was on a par four with a nice dogleg right. I had a driver in my hand and a gleam in my eye. I teed the ball up, took a couple practice swings, and commenced to slice the dang ball to the right. It flew all of fifty yards and landed near a pond in some grass that was about eight inches high. Being that it was unusual for me to shank a ball that way, (yeah, right) I got a little flustered and started stomping around in the grass, looking for the ball. Suddenly I felt something move under my foot, and looked down just in time to see a copperhead about to strike my ankle. According to my partner, I jumped straight up in the air, moved over about four feet, and came down lightly on both feet–kinda like Peter Pan. I’m not exactly sure how I kept from getting bit, but whatever I did, it worked. It must have been those lightning-quick reflexes that we surveyors develop over the years, based on our encounters with bees and snakes.

Great Uncle Dewell
One of the funniest snake stories I’ve experienced involved my dad and my great-uncle Dewell. On occasion Uncle Dewell would travel the 20 miles and come to our farm to fish. Since Uncle Dewell’s left hand never fully developed due to a birth defect, my dad would paddle the Jon boat for him. During these excursions Uncle Dewell would carry a sawed-off double barrel shotgun for protection against the dreaded "copper belly water-rattlers," which were considered by some to be even worse than a ground rattler. On one occasion Dad was paddling the boat along the shore of the Coosa River searching for a good fishing spot in the shade under the limbs of the big old oak trees that lined the shore. Because of the river terrain and the length of the overhang, the water was deep where they were trolling. Unbeknownst to Dad at the time, a water moccasin had dropped from a tree branch and landed in the middle of the boat. At that point the peace and quiet of that laid-back afternoon took a sharp turn. Uncle Dewell grabbed his gun. My dad’s eyes quickly focused on what Uncle Dewell was taking aim at. "Don’t shoot!" he yelled.

But it was too late. Uncle Dewell let both barrels go in the general direction of the snake . . . and my dad. Just before the gun went off, my dad dropped the paddle and ejected himself backward out of the boat. When Dad came up spewing river water, he grabbed onto the side of the dinghy and gazed at the damage. There was a nice-sized hole in the middle of the boat, the snake was completely unharmed, and Uncle Dewell was reloading the gun. Caught up in all the excitement, Uncle Dewell had forgotten that he couldn’t swim. Determined to not lose Uncle Dewell due to "snake shock," Dad swam around behind him, grabbed hold of his shirt, and pulled him out of the sinking boat. He dragged him to shore while the snake swam off in the opposite direction. Not only did Uncle Dewell lose his shotgun, fishing pole, tackle box, and a bottle of Old Crow whiskey–the dang boat sank! As luck would have it, the snake got away. Dad never took Uncle Dewell fishing again.

Far-flung Tales
Then there was the crisp fall morning many years ago when I was front chainman, Frank was rear chainman, and Mo was the party chief. The temperature was nippy, somewhere in the 50s. We were working along a tree line when I spotted a large king snake, about five feet long, moving very slowly across our path. Mischievously, I waited for Frank to catch up so I could scare him. Mo was standing about 20 feet away, absorbed with writing in his field book. When Frank caught up with me he saw the snake. Eager to show my fearlessness, I grabbed it by the tail and flung it at him. Frank took off running. Unfortunately, I flung it harder than I meant to, and watched in terror as the flying snake sailed straight for Mo, landing like a horseshoe on his neck. Mo launched his field book into the air and dropped into the bushes, rolling and thrashing around with his attacker! I really felt sorry for the snake `cause I knew when Mo got through with it, there wasn’t going to be much left. Mo finally came out of the bushes with a dead snake in his hands and fire in his eyes. I apologized profusely and tried to tell him it was an accident, but it was several days before Mo would even talk to me, and I don’t think he ever believed me.

I have yet to meet a surveyor who didn’t have a snake story or two. Next time someone asks you the snake question, just sit down on a stump and start telling the tales . . .

Thomas Wade Woodsmall is a registered land surveyor in Georgia and vice president at Development Consultants Group.

A 1.341Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE