For many years I have been simultaneously fascinated and scared to death of snakes.
Living in the woods has greatly increased my number and variety of experiences with
them, some poisonous and some not—but all strikingly beautiful.
Pine Snakes in the Windows and Trees
There was a time when I loved to clean house, even windows. One day when I noticed
something on the window of my back door that was out of place I scurried over to take care of whatever it was. It was a pine snake and since it was on the window I was privileged to see the underside. The X-shaped windows provided wooden strips for it to latch onto so it was happily perched with no intent of leaving. I was able to come up close and observe it in a way not usually done in nature. It was gorgeous.
Another time I had relatives coming into town and I was about ten or fifteen minutes late getting home. They had been a bit early also. As I drove up I noticed they were gazing upward high into the trees. I thought maybe they just weren’t used to our tall Texas pines. But soon I found out there was a huge pine snake wrapped round several branches up very high in one of our trees. My brother in law was having the time of his life just watching it. We were not in much of a rush to go into the house when we saw it. Those moments were the definition of majesty as we watched the enormous snake moving a bit here and there while it enjoyed resting in the upstairs portion of that giant pine tree!
The Year of the Coral Snakes
Coral snakes are rather rare, but one year they seemed to be everywhere in my south Texas life. People were usually aware of corals but no one was afraid of them since they supposedly couldn’t open their mouth wide enough to bite a person. . .
The first coral was at the school where I taught. It was recess and the kids were running foot races from a place near the building to the edge of the playground, and back. We kept hearing yelling, and as I rushed toward the sound the racers all talked at once while they described a pretty snake. One said, “My dad said the pretty ones can be poisonous.” I walked calmly over to where they were pointing, sure I would find a garter snake (sometimes called garden snake).
That was the day I taught my students the rhyme:
Red and yellow kill a fellow.
Red on black, friend of Jack.
That same summer our cat Tigger Wigger was on the kitchen window ledge holding a penetrating gaze on something outside. After about 5 minutes of not losing her stare, my two sons and I finally decided to check it out. It turned out to be a record sized coral, 2 1/2 feet long. We were so amazed that we saved the skin so I could show it to countless school children through the years.
But those corals didn’t hold a candle to the one I stumbled on to in my kitchen early one Saturday morning. I had done lots of housecleaning the night before, and woke up still tired that day. I made my way to the kitchen, wondering what I would eat for breakfast. My pre-dawn consciousness got a rude shock into full blown wakefulness as I saw a small coral snake in the middle of my freshly waxed kitchen floor. I panicked after I watched it writhe for a couple of moments, so I ran to the room of my son who was home from college for the weekend. I screamed, “Help! There’s a coral snake in the kitchen!” He replied confidently, “Mother, there couldn’t be. Let me sleep!”
Desperate, I ran into the utility room while keeping my eyes on the snake. I worried where I would live if it got under my fridge! The only thing I found was my mop applicator which was dried stiff since I had been too tired and forgotten the night before to rinse it out. I took a deep breath, marched to the kitchen, stood as close as I dared, and poised with the wax stick in my hands. I lifted up ready to come down hard and a hand reached out and took over. My son couldn’t sleep from wondering what was really happening. Also, he knew I knew what a coral snake was, and he remembered he had left the door open while unpacking lots of college stuff from his pickup. As soon as he struck it once and hard with the hard wax applicator, he turned around saying, “Don’t wake me again” and went his merry way back to bed.
Field Trips Are for Hayrides – and Snakes
Every year our small school took an end of year field day at Pine Tree Camp. We all loved making “horse appointments” and planning out the day with family and friends when we had the camp to ourselves. This time it was a bit earlier in the year so they were still doing hayrides. I cautioned the kids about safety and made sure their legs weren’t dangling off near the wheels. Then I spaced out the adults to further assure a safe and fun ride. Little did I know what an adventure it would be!
The ride was great fun with the students enjoying the thrills and smells of nature and the opportunity to see places in the park where they’d never be able to go otherwise. Even the adults seemed fascinated. As we rounded the last bend to come back into the main section of the park, we slowed way down. Soon the tractor driver stood up, looked upset, then ran back and waved to me to get off. When I did he frantically whispered, “Keep everyone on the wagon!! I’ll be right back!!”
I calmly made it happen, yet wondered what the heck it could be. I even got the group quiet so we could “listen for birds” to enable myself to figure out what was going on. Also, I figured if I had to yell out some type of information they would hear me better. Then he reappeared from the direction of a shed.
I suddenly called the attention of the class in another direction, realizing he had gone to get a gun! Before long it was all over and a largest pine snake I had ever seen had been killed for no good reason. (I’ll kill a poisonous snake in the house, but never a non-poisonous one.) Once the parents realized what had happened and everyone knew they were safe each they went home with a story to tell.
Copperheads in the Classroom?
One fall afternoon my husband and I were looking at the back of our property. Suddenly he grabbed me in a very forceful way and I gave him a strange look since he had never touched me in that almost harsh way before. He pulled me toward him and then pointed at where my feet had started their next step. There was a copperhead, well camoflauged in the leaf-covered grass of autumn.
One leisurely trip to the store turned kinda crazy when we were unloading the car. We had gotten lots of groceries that day. It would take all three of us to unload the car. My older son had already gotten inside with his sack when I gave one to my other son and I grabbed my load and jumped out of the car.
My younger son was not moving—just holding quite still by the car. This was not like him as he had never balked at any request before. Exasperated, I said, “Bring the sack in!” He still didn’t answer. In my confusion I glanced where his eyes were looking and there was a big copperhead just ahead of where he was standing! Smart kid. He knew when to hold real still.
That same summer in the small private school where I taught was the scene of a copperhead classroom combat! In retrospect I remembered we had brought in some materials that day and the patio door had been open for a few minutes. A sweet yet highly energetic gal rushed over to me and screamed, “There’s a copperhead by my desk!” My first thought was that she was joking, as this was not unlike her. However when I expressed doubt she said, “Look!” And look I did.
Having no herpatologist handy or hunters to help, I grabbed a short 2 by 4 board, had her go to another room and initiated teacher to snake combat maneuvers. It was over very soon but I waited a few minutes before going to get her (till I could quit shaking!) since I didn’t want to make children scared of snakes, ahem, like I was.
Chased Home By a Big Snake
I raised my two sons in the suburbs with forest on four sides. One summer day I heard my older son yelling at me from down the road. He told me to get the door open for him. But the next instruction confused me. He hollered urgently, “Be ready to shut the door as quick as I get there!”
As I stood by the door he dashed down the driveway, jumping in the house in a dash. I shut the door immediately, only to hear a thud as something hit the door. It happened that, in his love for fiddling with snakes, he didn’t realize that water moccasins were aggressive. He had pushed a stick toward the snake and it had chased him home!
It was a good while before we used that door. Thought we’d give that snake plenty of time to return to the wild. . .
Water Moccasin for Lunch Anyone?
The most challenging snake story came in that very classroom. One day a student had a much bigger lunch box than usual, more like an ice chest. I thought maybe they just hadn’t had a chance to clean out the other one so I didn’t think too much about it. During the morning, I walked over to that young man to give him a note to take home about a meeting his mother had asked me about. That’s when I became a bit suspicious. He offered, a bit too quickly, to take care of it.
Later in the day I had a field trip notice to hand him. His hands were full, so I started to put it in his lunch kit. He seemed perturbed and said he’d be glad to take care of it. Well, by then I had to know. The next time he took a rest room break I peaked in the lunch kit. There was no lunch but there was a huge water moccasin!
It seems his lunch was stuffed in his desk with his books. Hmm, I knew there must be an explanation. This student had several snakes and had far more snake savvy than to put a poisonous one in his lunch! Eventually the truth came out: his friend had found this amazing specimen (did I say it was alive?) by the ditch near his house and thought his school buddy would want to add it to his snake collection, not knowing it was highly dangerous.
When he came back from his restroom turn, I did not let on. However, after getting everyone busy I stepped out of the door and called his mom saying, “You need to come now and get a lunch box filled with a huge water moccasin! Do not ring the doorbell. I’ll have the curtain closed so the students won’t see you. Do not open the lunch kit till you get away from the school.” I understand that was the most shocking phone call she’d ever gotten. She found a neighbor man and picked up the snake in minutes.
That ranks up there as one of the most tough moments in my many years of teaching. Right up there with the real grenade during history class. But that’s another story . . .
Copyright by Hildra Tague. Request for republication in print or online require permission of the author.