Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Down on the Farm 1

Deb and I were scouting for morel mushrooms along the Shunga (above) the other day. So crazed for this delicacy are we that both of us put our ophidiophobia in temporary abeyance while we searched the forest floor for this elusive fungus. When mushroom season is over, we both will once again avoid these jungles like the plague.

Perhaps there is nothing so very innate about a Kansan's fear of snakes, just phobias passed from one generation to the next. I have talked in past blogs on my theory as to why Kansas is perhaps the ophidiophobic capital of the world; it has everything to do with our ancestors. Since many of our earliest pioneers were from the northern states, few were prepared for snakes, shocked not only by the incredible size of the reptiles, but by their nightmarish numbers as well.

Though a brave man in every other respect, my Dad was terrified of snakes. He would do everything in his power to avoid them; should that fail, he went right to work killing them. Once, a snake of some sort had managed to get into our garage and crawled down a hole in the floor. Dad tried to drag the thing out with a hoe, but that was no good. He would have loved to use his shotgun but could not for fear that the pellets would fly all over the place. And so, since the only thing handy was a bottle of bleach. . . . The entire contents were poured into the hole.

When we went fishing or were running banks lines along the Kaw, Dad, chewing his unlit stogie, always had a pistol strapped to his hip. He couldn't hit a thing with it, but it made him feel safer. Once, when he pulled up a stringer of bullheads in a Missouri creek, he was horrified to see a snake attached to the last fish. Whipping out his revolver, he blazed away until all chambers were empty (nine), then just dropped the stringer into the water, fish, snake and all.

As a child, I remember the frantic screams of a next door neighbor when she found a snake wrapped around a kitchen chair. She was a young divorcee and my pop was the only man handy. Dad did his duty, but the shrieks from that poor woman! One might have thought that the very devil was chasing her through the house. Those sort of sights and sounds stick with a kid and when a parent or adult is nervous and scared over something, you can bet the children will be too.

Kansans may be terrified of snakes, but we never tire of telling stories about them. There is one tale, perhaps a rural legend, about a group of little boys who went swimming one hot summer day in a neighboring strip pit down along the Kansas and Missouri line. These pits are long, narrow coal digs that have filled up with deep, clear water and are first-rate for fishing. Kansas farm kids never "step" into anything; they jump. And so, when the first boy leaped into the pit, he was immediately swarmed over and bitten by fifteen or more deadly cottonmouth water moccasins.

Not far away, on the Missouri side of the border, I spent the first five years of my life living on a farm with my Grandma Goldie and Step-Grandpa Bob. After that, I would spend my summers with them. They had two ponds not far from the house; one was a large-sized body of water, and the other below it we called the "little pond." It was where the little pond's run-off ran through a culvert under a small gravel lane that my Grandma saw one day a huge snake crossing the road. She said it was at least seven or eight feet long, and that was just the last half of him; she never did see the first half.

"Aw Grandma, you're lying!" I would say in disbelief.

"No I'm not," she would insist, "I'm not kidding, it was that long."

As Grandma spoke in her goose-like voice she spread her arms as far apart as she could. She thought it must have escaped from a circus. About once a month I asked her to tell me that story.

But in the end, I always had the best snake stories and everyone, Grandma, Grandpa Bob, Mom, and Dad, would all listen intently when I told them about "Taffy." They listened closely because they knew all the stories were true.

(continued tomorrow)