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SNAKE TALES
by Newt Harlan



My favorite writer, Leon Hale, had a column the other day about ďhoop snakes.Ē Leon says heís had many reports of hoop snake sightings over the past fifty years. Most of the time the snake was minding its own business, just rolling across a pasture, or more often across the sand and scrubby brush of south and west Texas, but there were several accounts of hoop snakes actually chasing folks, all of whom seemed to barely escape by running through an open door or jumping on a handy porch as the snake missed them and came uncoiled and slithered harmlessly beneath the house.

The hoop snake is a resident of Texas and is quite unusual in that it propels itself by grabbing the tip of its tail in its mouth and forming a hoop, then somehow it gets upright and rolls at an impressive speed in pursuit of its victim. This unusual reptile has another feature that makes it most fearsome -- it is extremely poisonous, but its method of delivering its lethal dose is very unusual. Instead of biting, as is the case with most other snakes, it is equipped with a stinger on the tip of its tail through which it delivers the deadly venom.

This article got me to thinking about snakes in general, but particularly those we encountered daily as I was growing up on the edge of the Big Thicket country in southeast Texas.

According to the so-called experts I found on the Internet, there are only four venomous snakes to be found in the United States and all four are residents of Texas and most of the rest of the South. They list these as the rattlesnake, water moccasin or cottonmouth moccasin, copperhead and coral snake.

Obviously these ďexpertsĒ are naÔve or inexperienced when it comes to the snakes of this part of the country, or at least those that prowled around here when I was growing up some fifty or so years ago.

Of course we had to contend with the four poisonous snakes that they listed, so we always were equipped with appropriate snake protection. Whenever we were out and about, we could never tell where danger might be lurking, so we always had a slingshot or machete or hoe or shovel or even just a stout ďsnake stickĒ to dispatch whatever danger we happened to encounter. But rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and coral snakes werenít all we had to contend with.

Here are some additional snakes we had to watch out for that the experts arenít aware of, or if they are aware of their existence, they have no idea how very dangerous and even deadly they are.

First there is the hoop snake that weíve already discussed. Although they were rarely seen this far east, there was an occasional sighting of them rolling through the woods or across the road, and when one of the sightings happened we always hightailed it for home so as not to be in harm's way -- these are deadly snakes

What a lot of people, including the so-called experts, arenít aware of is that there are two fairly common snakes living right in this area that are cousins to the hoop snake and almost as dangerous. These two are the blue racer and the coach-whip. They are both equipped with the same stinger apparatus on the tip of their tails and while not as deadly as the hoop snake, both are capable of making you mighty sick.

In fact Claude Dufenbaker had an olí black dog named Whiz that got stung by a blue racer one time -- he was sick for three weeks. Olí Whiz wouldíve probably died, but we nursed him back to health by doctoring him with a mixture of ground up toad frogs and chewing tobacco. We could tell the dog was awfully sick because every time we doctored him, he would foam at the mouth. Anyway, I digress.

The blue racer is a very aggressive snake that hides in deep grass waiting for an unsuspecting boy or dog to pass by, then springs out and begins chasing you, swishing its tail from side to side trying to pop you with that stinger.

One time I was walking down a cow path to the pond in our back pasture to go fishing. I was carrying my fishing pole and a can of worms Iíd dug up at the barn. I looked up ahead and saw a blue racer lying in the grass at the side of the path, just a-waitiní for some unsuspecting boy to walk by to nail him with that stinger. I grabbed my dog Nellie by the collar before she could get up to the snake and put her nose in its business (which probably saved her life), and took my fishing pole and eased the tip up to where it was just about touching the snake, thinking Iíd wiggle the pole a little and scare the snake off. Wrong!

Just as I was about to touch that olí snake, he reared up his head and hissed and the next thing I knew, here he came right after me. I switched at him with my pole but the snake didnít pay any attention and kept on cominí. I chunked my can of worms at him next, but that didnít work either---that son-of-a-gun was gonna get me. I threw down my pole and Olí Nellie and me took off for the house. I ran and ran until I finally came to the yard gate where I fell down out of breath. Luckily Olí Nellie turned around and when the snake saw her a- holdiní her ground, he turned tail and took off. That was my closest near miss with a blue racer.

The coach-whip is almost identical in temperament and size as the blue racer. About the only two things that differentiate the two is that the coach-whip is brownish tan instead of blue in color and rather than just chasing after its victim, itíll run up real close then stop and whip its tail around like a coach whip whipping horses and try to catch an ankle to trip you up so he can sink that stinger or maybe even pop you with the stinger on the fly. The coach-whip also isnít as fast as the blue racer, so boys who were fleet of foot could outrun him. In fact, some of the boys who had faster feet than they did brains used to tease the coach-whips by letting them almost catch up and then taking off running in just the nick of time before the snake was able to sink his stinger. I was never that fast or that stupid, whichever applies, so I didnít mess with coach-whips.

I do remember hearing about a boy over in Dayton who was teasing a coach-whip in that manner and the snake got him -- hit him right in the butt and gave him a case of diarrhea that lasted over a week. Some boys from over at Dayton told me at the picture show that the doctor had to put a cork you-know-where to cure him. And he had to use it for two months before he got completely well.

So you can tell, it wasnít a good idea to mess around with blue racers or coach-whips. Mostly we just killed them by one way or another whenever we saw them.

Another snake we used to come across was the rattlesnake pilot. I learned about rattlesnake pilots from the Dufenbaker boys and, since they knew a lot about everything, Iím pretty sure this must be true. The rattlesnake pilot by itself isnít a bad snake; in fact theyíre pretty useful. The Dufenbakers told me that rattlesnake pilots bed up in the wintertime with rattlesnakes or even copperheads and water moccasins and by doing that become brothers with their poison bedmates. In the spring while the rattlesnakes are still waking up, they send the rattlesnake pilot out to scout out the food supply and report back. Then the rattlesnake goes out and kills whatever his brother snake has located and shares the food with him. What that means is that every time you see a rattlesnake pilot around, thereís sure to be a poisonous snake close by. Whenever weíd come across a rattlesnake pilot in the woods weíd keep our snake killers at the ready, just knowing we would encounter a dangerous snake shortly. The fact that we rarely did was only due to us being on the alert and probably scaring the dangerous snake off.

Iíve told you before about chicken snakes and how they used to coil up in the nest and scare the hell out of me when I was gathering eggs, but I didnít tell you about one of the dangerous things that chicken snakes can do. In fact I didnít learn about this particular aspect of chicken snakes until I was in my mid teens or I probably wouldíve tried to find an excuse to stay out of the henhouse. Jimmy Higgins told me this while we were out hunting and while I canít personally vouch for the veracity, Jimmy said he learned it from his Uncle Willy who is a game warden up in Sabine county and he ought to know.

Chicken snakes, when they get real aggravated or in fear for their life, will start rattling their tail just like a rattlesnake. When they start doing this, itís time to either kill them post haste or get away from them because, Jimmy said, when a chicken snake gets in that state, he produces a poison much like a rattler and will spit it at you with great accuracy. And, if any of this poison gets on you it will cause a sore like a boil everywhere it touches and the flesh will just rot away. Rue the day should any of the poison happen to get in your eye because it will put it out -- not just blind you, but put your eye out and just leave a big olí hole where your eye used to be. Thatís what Jimmyís Uncle Willy said. Iím sure glad I didnít find out about that while I was still gathering eggs; those damned chicken snakes caused me enough misery as it was.

Spreading adders or, as called by some, puff adders were another kind of snake we had to keep a lookout for. Actually there were two different brands of the same snake, differentiated by their color. The first was similar in color and markings to a copperhead and this one, after you figured out that it wasnít a copperhead, was a lot of fun. Weíd usually find him in the middle of a row in a freshly made up field. Weíd be walking along doing boy things and not expecting any snakes to be bothered with when suddenly there heíd be, looking at first glance like a big olí copperhead, coiled up ready to strike. It got my blood pumping every time I saw one, but after I figured out that it was a spreading adder, the fun began. You could get a small stick or, if you were brave, the toe of your boot and aggravate the snake. Heíd swell up with a hood resembling a cobra and hiss and strike at you with a closed mouth. If that didnít scare you away and you kept teasing him, heíd suddenly roll over on his back, close his eyes and lay belly up with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth like he was dead. Sometimes heíd even throw up whatever was in his gullet and empty his bowels. If you turned him upright, heíd immediately flip back over and lay still again, occasionally opening his eyes to check and see if the danger had passed. We occasionally made pets of these entertaining snakes, releasing them when we tired of toying with them.

Then there was the bad twin, the black spreading adder that was more than just a snake of a different color. This black demon resembled his mottled brother in every way except he was coal black AND he was deadly. Where the mottled spreading adder just puffed and hissed and harmlessly struck, his deadly twin would do the same except every hiss would release a deadly mist that if inhaled would cause almost instant death. This was a snake to be feared. In fact, if we even saw a black snake resembling an adder, we would immediately hold our breath and move upwind of him. Truthfully, I donít think we ever saw one of these black adders, but we sure didnít take any chances. I do know that Joe Tom Higgins had an older sister who lived over in Eunice, Louisiana, and she just got a whiff of the puff adderís poison at about fifty feet away and all her hair fell out and she had migraine headaches for three years after that.

Today, most of the area where I did my wandering is no longer woods, but covered with houses; snakes of any kind are rarely seen. However, you can be sure that no matter what the so-called experts may say, back in the days when I was exploring around here there were many more than four snakes to worry about in this part of the world. And Iíll say again, itís a damned wonder I lived to be twelve.

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Newt tells us about himself:

I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittiní distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of ďDixieĒ being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. Iíve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I canít get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ainít is a perfectly good word and donít plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ainít.

I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.

E-mail Newt at: Newt281@embarqmail.com

Want to read more of Newtís stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Juicing Bovines
Olí Red and the Armadillo
Earworms
Telephones and memories
Tastes like chicken
Remembering
Southern Words
Railroad Fireman
Funeralizin'
Curing Colds
Belly Waddin' Lunch

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Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.

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