Note: This particular anecdote is in response to a Facebook posting about the time Robin Hardy killed a cottonmouth. Robin is the person who deserves the credit, and the blame, for my writing being first published. Welcome to Fred is dedicated to her. I will be eternally in her debt, which is to say I will never repay the favor. ;-)
Time: Sunday morning, 1975. Location: Fred, Texas.
I was a freshman in college, home for the weekend. In my first semester at college, unbeknownst to my parents, I had taken up smoking cigarettes. Now in my second semester, I had become adept at sneaking the occasional smoke when home on leave.
When the family loaded up in the car to drive to church, I was intentionally late so as to have the opportunity for a smoke on the quarter-mile walk through the woods from the parsonage to the church.
I finished my morning ablutions, left the house, and fired up a cigarette. About a hundred yards into the walk I encountered a snake on the path. Not a first for me. You can’t live in the Big Thicket for long without running into snakes. I’d caught a hognose a few years earlier at the same spot on the trail, and stepped on a rattlesnake one afternoon while storming through the woods in a pique at having been conscripted to paint the pump house.
I peered at the snake, conjuring up my mnemonic rhymes to determine that this particular specimen had the appropriate color combinations to kill a fellow. It was my first chance to dance with a coral snake in the wild. During the long dark watches of the night in my bedroom I had frequently wondered if I had the nerve to deal with a coral snake bite.
In case you're unfamiliar with the ways of the coral snake, it’s one thing to pull out your Swiss army knife, cut two Xs in your leg, and suck out rattlesnake venom. It’s another thing to amputate your hand. Unlike the venom from vipers, which travels through the bloodstream, the venom from a coral snake is a neurotoxin. It travels through the nervous system, causing your respiratory system to fail within hours. You can’t suck venom out of your nerves. Outside of antivenin, the only remedy is to cut off the poisoned limb, hopefully before the venom has passed the particular joint you are chopping on.
Yes, quite gruesome, but such is nature, red in tooth and claw. I had a morbid imagination. I went through my requisite Poe, Lovecraft phase, as one does.As an adolescent I also wondered such things as whether I could withstand torture for my faith like Brother Andrew.
So here I was face-to-face with my long-imagined foe. I couldn't sanction ignoring such a deadly presence on my home turf. I purposed in my heart to capture it, admittedly without a clear long-term strategy. I dashed back to the house, retrieved a five-pound Folgers coffee can, and returned to the path, where the snake patiently awaited my pleasure. I peeled the plastic lid from the can, requisitioned a nearby stick, and balanced the snake on the end of it. After a few attempts I had the coral snake in the can and the lid snapped down tight.
I did all this one-handed while still holding my precious cigarette in the left. I carried the can back to the house, secured it in the pump house, and proceeded to church, savoring the forbidden weed. After the service and after lunch, my chauffeur to college CRJJr, aka CJ Hecker from Welcome to Fred, arrived. [Note: CJ Hecker is one of only two characters in the Fred books based on a specific real person. The identity of the other is left as an exercise to the reader.]
I stowed my bags in back, set the Folgers can on the passenger floorboard between my feet, and buckled in.
CJ asked about the can. I showed him the coral snake. He was not amused.
Despite his displeasure, we arrived at my dorm three hours later without having to amputate any of our limbs to halt the dreaded neurotoxins.
I took the snake-in-a-coffee-can to my dorm room where Fred, my roommate (Yes, I grew up in Fred and had a roommate named Fred. What’s your point?) and suitemates Ken and Pat were similarly unamused. I slept soundly that night. I can’t speak for the other inmates.
The next day I took the can to the science building, showed the specimen to my biology professor, and got his verification that we were indeed looking at a bona fide coral snake. I then told the professor I that the snake occupied space I required for other purposes and that he could take possession for his natural history collection. Like all those before him, he was equally amazed but not amused. I walked out, satisfied in my vague quest to make Fred, Texas safer in my own small way.
I don’t know what the professor did with the coral snake. Perhaps it is on display in the lab even to this day with a small plaque commemorating my service to humanity. Or not.
Maybe in a future installment I'll tell you the story of how I housed a baby possum in my dorm room for a week. Or not.