Column: The sound of a rattlesnake is something you don’t forget

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 20, 2002

In moments of extreme impatience my mother used to give voice to an ejaculation that went, &uot;Wake snakes in Georgia and a whoop to doodle doo.&uot; The origin of the phrase remains a mystery to me and it never seemed tactful to question her about it.

There is probably no connection between it and the fact that the first live rattlesnake I ever saw, I saw in Georgia.

The exhibit of rattlesnakes was conducted by a man, who cuddled them and bounced them around, and gave interesting little facts about them. He kept pointing out that they were shy creatures, more likely to run from you than toward you. The exhibit was designed to help people overcome their fear of snakes.

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It was very kind of my friends to share it with me, I thought, but snakes have never been on my list of creatures that give me the creeps. Rats and mice, yes. Snakes, no.

I don’t mean that there’s any likelihood of my converting to a church that demands snake-handling as one of its articles of faith. It’s just that a live snake doesn’t send me into hysterics.

Quite early in my life my father taught me to pick up a young bull snake or garter snake, pointing out to me in a matter-of-fact way that I could feel for myself that they were neither cold nor clammy.

He didn’t, of course, encourage me to pick up any serpent that rattled. Indeed I never saw a rattlesnake except in pictures. I knew they were about, however. My great-grandmother McGee had a reputation for striking off the heads of a number of them that had the bad judgment to invade her garden.

When I spent a week or two in the summer time visiting my cousins on their farm about 20 miles from where I lived, I was aware of the little holder of snake serum, renewed every spring, and posted in plain sight should there be a need for it.

My three cousins, the youngest of whom was my age, used to tease me by pretending to hear a rattler, but I realized they wouldn’t be so playful about it, if they really believed such a creature was close enough to be heard.

I’d heard that the husband of one of my cousins, a veterinarian in McCook, Neb., had a phobia about rattlesnakes, because he was so often called out to minister to horses or cattle that had been struck.

On one occasion he was thrown into panic, when he put his hand up against a bale of hay and felt a vicious blow against the hand. It was a moment of horror, but fortunately his attacker proved to be an old setting hen, who had hollowed herself a hidden nest in the side of the bale.

I didn’t think much about the snakes. My cousins, the ones I visited, and I swam in a creek that flowed through their farm. It was deep or shallow depending on how much rain had fallen, muddy as all get out, and full of leeches. Sometimes there were toads and frogs and minnows. I don’t think any self-respecting snake would have visited the place.

I used to question my maternal grandmother about the sound a rattlesnake made. Her answer was always the same.

&uot;I can’t describe it to you, but you’ll know it when you hear it.&uot;

In late May of 1964, 1 took my mother back to Nebraska to visit friends and relatives. There had been heavy floods in the region in which I was driving and at one point the perfectly sound paved road gave way to mud and my car sank in to the hub caps.

Not willing to ruin a pair of my favorite slippers, I left then in the car and started off barefoot to the nearest farmhouse for help. I was cutting recklessly across a field when I heard it and froze. My grandmother was absolutely right, when you hear its greeting you don’t need an introduction.

I made my way cautiously back to the car and we sat there until a kindly family, who turned out to be related to some of our relations, drove by and rescued us.

Love Cruikshank is an Albert Lea resident. Her column appears Thursdays.