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10: RATTLESNAKES AND REPTILES

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It has often been said that a rattlesnake is a gentleman and will not strike without warning you. Those people have probably never looked one in the eyes when he was cocked and primed and ready for business. I would not trust anything (or anybody) with eyes as beady as a rattlesnake's are. Do not forget a snake spends his time out in the rain and on cold ground and is likely to develop an arthritic personality! They will usually warn you when they feel that it is to their best interest to do so. Genesis 3: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel." A snake with his tummy full of rabbit or squirrel is not nearly as anxious to strike you as a hungry one would be. One of the greatest dangers is in stepping over a log or surprising one.

    Bob Akins, whose father was a scout during the Seminole War, tells of his father waking up one frosty morning and finding a big rattlesnake on his blanket. He got out of the blanket very quietly, shook the snake off the blanket and watched it crawl away. When his buddy asked him why he did not kill the snake his reply was, "He didn't hurt me when he could have and now I ain't going to hurt him." Snakes do have a tendency to move slower on cold mornings and I don't believe are quite as dangerous.

    The cutting of palm buds has for generations been a partial livelihood for a few people around here. They cut all winter and sell to a central depot where the buds are packed and shipped to the northern markets, where they are used on Palm Sundays. This could be dangerous work, for you have to be continually looking up instead of studying the ground. We haven't sold any long poles or wide chisels lately so maybe they are not cutting the buds out of tall trees anymore. Garland Strickland told me he was looking up when something hit his boot and when he looked down, there was a rattle snake. He backed up and pulled off his boot to find that the snake had hit the boot where it was reinforced and the fang did not go through. Then he took a stick and killed the snake.

    Willie Brazeale tells of cutting buds with an ax when a rattlesnake ran between his legs. He cut the snake in two before it could get out of range. Makes you wonder what would have happened if the snake had struck. Many dogs have been killed by snake bite, but comparatively few people. There was a little girl getting some heart of palm for breakfast in South Jacksonville Beach when she was struck in the stomach by a rattler. Her brother brought her to the doctor but it was too late. Nobody ever worked harder to save anyone than did Dr. Earl Roberts.

    It is generally agreed that if you are going to be bitten, it is best to get it on your lower extremities, for the higher you go the fewer volunteers to help suck out the venom.

    The late Pete Dickinson was struck on the leg by a rattler and was fortunate enough to have Frank Johnston, a real woodsman, along with him. Frank put on a tourniquet and got all the venom possible out of the bite. Incidentally, a tourniquet can be a dangerous thing if left on too long. Pete recovered and I don't believe was any the worse for the experience, except he could have been a mite more cautious.

    Rattlesnakes generally don't like to swim but they can and will if need arises. They swim higher in the water than other snakes, giving you the impression they are trying to keep their rattles dry. We saw one coming from Goat Island across the St. Johns River to St. Johns Bluff and formed a reception committee for it. Never has a snake been more warmly greeted than was this one. Figured that Goat Island had become overpopulated and this particular snake liked peace and quiet.

    We have the diamond back rattler and the ground rattler, and I have seen some strange ones that I could not identify but they did have rattles. Ben Robertson tells of coming out from under a house and meeting a carpenter who was preparing to do some work under the same house. "Any snakes under there?" the carpenter asked. "Only one, and he is a baby, because I saw him playing with his rattles!" was Ben's reply. That slightly unnerved the carpenter. The ground rattler has a tendency to be a little sluggish and slow of action; but there is nothing slow about a diamond back, they strike like lightning when they make up their mind to strike.

    Generally, a rattler will not run after anyone, but someone saw one along the roadside just north of Ponte Vedra, Florida, and he was about to get away when we came up. We threw sand at him to keep him coiled until he got so mad that he started toward us. If he had kept coming he could have had lots of room, but he changed his mind and just stayed there and rattled until someone came up with a rifle. One shot through the head and that made a good snake out of him.

    Snakes are like anything else, when they use up their venom it takes a while for it to be replenished. A boatload of fishermen were crossing the canal when they saw a rattlesnake swimming across. After beating the snake with an oar until they thought it was dead, the rattler was brought closer to have a look-see. The snake bit the oarsman on the finger but the man suffered no ill effects from it. It is my opinion that the snake had bitten the oar until he had run out of venom, and the fact that the man was loaded with shine had nothing to do with it.

    One old gentleman by the name of Webb thought he saw a button on the ground and picked it up - only to find that the button was attached to a ground rattler. He was bitten on the finger but it apparently did him no serious harm. He did quit worrying about loose buttons after that and lived to a ripe old age.

    Our Georgia relatives. Henry and Wiladel Howard, were visiting us and, as usual we were going to have a fish fry in our back yard. There was no shortage of oak firewood, for free, out across Penman Road, so we headed for the woods and soon filled the trunk of Henry's car with good firewood. We had a good fish fry and the next morning our visitors headed for Savannah, Georgia. The car was stopped in front of the hotel and the porter reached into the back of the car to pick up the bags. He was jerked violently back by Henry, who was as pale as a sheet, and was pointing to something on the floor. There was a rattler! We had picked up the snake the night before in our wood gathering and it had spent the night, plus a nice ride to Savannah, in the car. That snake never made it back to his happy home in Florida.

    It was Sunday morning on Pablo Avenue in Jacksonville Beach and the bars were not allowed to open until 12:00 noon. When the whistle blew, the thirsty crowd flocked into the bars to get something to slake their thirsts, and among the crowd was one Tommie Kelley. Tommie was carrying a croaker sack with something in it. After two or three drinks, someone looked down and there was a rattlesnake on the floor, fully alive and wiggling. Nobody stopped to ask questions but stampeded for the door. After things quieted down, Tommie just sat there watching the snake and refusing to hurt it until someone killed it with a tire tool. When he was asked by the police about the incident, he told them there was a hole in the bag, and there was. That is how he had gotten the snake into the bag in the first place. Some of you will remember the old Bamboo Bar where the incident took place.

    Sometime later, one of the participants in this stampede told me of visiting Tommie's home and finding cages everywhere with rattlers in them. He would accumulate snakes of a certain size until he got enough for a trip to Ocala where he would take the snakes and sell them to Ross Alien. He apparently had no fear at all of snakes, and it was through this carelessness that he was finally killed by one. Dr. Earl Roberts told me this about Tommie: "When he was a kid he was brought into my office on a door, with a bullet lodged in his heart, and for days he hovered between life and death, finally taking a turn to the better and getting entirely well." This same boy became a ranger in World War II and served his country well in the South Pacific.

    How big does a rattlesnake grow? I've read authoritative magazines telling that the maximum length of these snakes was nine feet, and I'm sure they should know, but recently a picture was uncovered in South Florida showing an eleven foot rattler. I have in my files a picture of a rattler killed by George Mills of New Smyrna Beach in 1938. This rattler was shot on the highway and here are its credentials: mouth expansion thirteen inches, circumference thirty inches, weight three hundred pounds, length seventeen feet. Boy, what a barbecue you could have with that fellow!! I wish that the picture was of sufficient quality to reproduce well.

    There was a time when rattlesnake meat could be readily bought at the gourmet section of the A & A grocery. I don't believe it is available anywhere at the beaches now. It came in small cans already cooked and ready to eat, but somehow I just can't want any. Some of my Georgia relatives came across a man who had run over a canebrake rattler and was in the process of finishing the job with a stick. The snake was beyond this vale of tears when they picked him up and carried him home. Ouida Dearing, my niece, told the boys to clean the snake and she would cook it. The meat was cut into strips, buttered and fried, just like they do chicken in Georgia, and from all accounts it was delicious. I'll stick to chicken.

    Quite often you hear people say that when you see black snakes, you will see no rattlers because a black snake can and will kill a rattler. I have heard people tell of seeing a battle between the two species. Their explanation was that the black snake was a constrictor and wrapped itself around the rattler, pulling it apart. I can think of nothing less appealing to me than to be wrapped around a rattler, but then, I am not a constrictor. Hogs get rid of snakes if they are placed in woods where snakes are plentiful. They augment their daily diet with snake meat. Strangely enough, a hog will dive into the water after a snake and out swim him. My brother Frank tells of having seen this; sorry I missed it. Rattlers are tough, and running over one in a car does not always kill it. So, many drivers lock their brakes and slide over one. That really lacerates the hide and usually kills him with a little help from a stick. I have killed them by throwing rocks (out in the Ozarks) with sticks and by shooting them with a revolver, but somehow their beady eyes make me nervous when drawing a bead on him with a pistol. I think the ideal weapon would be a shotgun, although I have never been fortunate enough to have one when I needed it. My friend, Mrs. Mable Weaver, met a rattler in the road and since there was not a stick handy, she took off her rubber boot and killed the snake with the heel of the boot.

    Mrs. George Mickler tells this story of snakes. She and her first husband, George Ortagus, had built themselves a small one-room shack down on Big Cypress in St. Johns County where they went from time to time to spend a few days fishing. This Big Cypress section has been famous for its fishing for generations, and the Ortagus always enjoyed good fishing there. Mrs. Mickler said, "When I went into the shack one day I saw the tail of a snake disappearing through a hole back of the little wood pile inside the house." This scared her so much she told her husband they would have to chink up every crack or she would not stay there. They got busy nailing and chinking up cracks and making the cabin tight and had practically finished the job, except for a few minor details which she was doing while her husband went back to his fishing. This is what happened next:

I was standing in the middle of the room, with the hammer in my hand, when I heard something that sounded like someone dragging a bag of flour along side the shack and toward the front door. A big six foot rattler came crawling in the door with his mouth open; his tongue flicking from side to side and his rattles singing a melody. The snake looked from one corner to the other as he came in and made no attempt to strike me as he passed within three feet of me, as I stood screaming. It was very noticeable that the snake was crawling on the middle portion of his body with his head and tail held high. The snake crawled under the bed and stayed there while I screamed bloody murder because there was only one door.

My husband, down on the dock, heard me and came running to see what was happening. George was a little hard of hearing and didn't hear the rattles as he stood near the bed—and I could not stop screaming long enough to tell him that the snake was under the bed until the rattler had struck at him twice and caught his fangs in the bed springs each time. Then, the snake crawled over into the corner and lay there; apparently at home, until he caught a load of shot in his face.

    We figured that the snake had been accustomed to coming up through the hole in the floor and had made his home in the cabin. That is, until he found the hole blocked, and the door open—and then he came in looking for his happy home. Mrs. Mickler said that it was some time after that before she could even comb her hair because of the scare. The next morning, after she had been to Mass, she came home and found her husband hunting his shoes. She looked down, and for some unknown reason, she had worn his shoes to church!!

    For years it was customary to call Jim Burroughs when someone saw a snake or gator and generally, Jim would come up with the critter. Apparently, he loved to catch them. The story is told that Jim was bitten by a rattler and someone gave him something to put on the bite. Thinking it was the usual snake remedy, he drank it and was caused some discomfort by the effects of the medicine. Ivory Rice tells of being invited to lunch with Jim and as he walked into the house he heard a familiar sound; rattlesnakes rattling. The nearest exit was a window and Ivory went through it taking sash and all. The snakes were in cages but Ivory did not wait to see, he knew the sound.

    Ross Alien gave a demonstration and lecture on rattlesnake milking before the Rotary Club in the Mayflower Hotel in Jacksonville. It was my good fortune to be sitting at the head table so I saw and heard it all. Ross had brought his snakes in a handbag, with each in a separate bag, so that he would not have two snakes to deal with at the same time. As he began the lecture, he would open a bag and pull out a so-called harmless snake and show it to the crowd. As the lecture proceeded, the snakes he was pulling from the bags looked worse and worse. Finally, the climax. As he opened the last bag, he remarked "got to catch him looking the other way." Out came a squirming rattler, held firmly by Ross. I'm sure he could not be as big as he looked while wrapping himself around an arm.

    Chairs scraped as people sat on the edges of them and the waiters stood in the doorways poised for a track meet. Bet you could have sold a wagon load of tranquilizers to that crowd, for they really needed them. Things have really changed.

    This same crowd, that became so nervous over watching an expert take a calculated risk, had among them men whose fathers and grandfathers had watched public hangings on Beaver and Market Streets before the turn of the century.

    Ross held a glass in his left hand and pressed the snake's mouth open over the edge of the glass until a white liquid came out. The snake was dropped back into the bag and the bag tied up. The venom is not poison to drink and Ross says that it has a sweetish taste. Long ago I swore off rattlesnake venom and meat, and I don't intend to break that pledge.

    For some years, we had a salesman from Connecticut who was always wanting to see a rattlesnake. This salesman was known by the affectionate title of D Y, and really wanted to see a real rebel rattler. One afternoon Gerry Adams came by the store with one on a string and pitched it close to D Y's feet. We had all of the openings we needed in the store and D Y was restrained from making another one. So far as I know he never mentioned snake again, not to Gerry Adams anyway!

    Bob Akins was going up Seminole Road when a rattler tried to cross in front of him. Being a carpenter, and a good one, Bob took his hammer and killed the snake on the road surface. That is mighty close for comfort. Henry Dixson tells of watching a rattler lying under a blackberry bush and eating berries; one at a time. He would rise up, pick one, then lie down and eat it until he had his fill.

    I suppose if it had not been for the rattlers in Florida, there would not be any game or much of anything else left in the woods. Fear keeps many people out of the forest and maybe that is a good thing. Ben Robertson tells of hunting squirrels late one afternoon. As he came to a small clearing, he heard a rattle and then another one. He killed seven rattlers in a little cleared spot about ten by fifteen feet. Fortunately, he was shooting a shotgun, but when things quieted down, he pointed himself toward his car and his shirttail did not hit his rear end until he made it to the car.

    Several years ago, four horned toads were s°nt to Mayport as souvenirs of Texas. The lady to whom they were sent kept them in captivity for some time, and then turned them loose to make their own way. Make their own way they did in grand style! It was not long before horned toads were running around sand dunes, and most anywhere else you could look. They kept the ant population to a bare minimum and since they were perfectly harmless, most people were glad to have them around. Then they began to slowly disappear until today it is difficult to find one in any of their old haunts. They were greenish in color and rather striking looking little reptiles. We have caught them on the sand dunes but never attempted to keep one for any length of time.

    About the time that horned toads were plentiful here, an article came out in the paper telling of a hundred year old building that had been torn down in Texas and there was a horned toad in the corner stone, still alive. Sounded "froqgy" to me, but when you realize that our herd, gaggle or covey of toads only lasted about ten years here; it was a truly fantastic feat. If there be a moral here it would seem to be that the longer you sat on your bottom, the longer you would live—if you were a horned toad and lived in Texas.

    The armadillo came from Texas as a gift to someone whose name I won't call since armadillos have not been nearly as acceptable as the horned toad. These critters can really dig and if you want to shoot one, you have to do it fast. The armadillo hasn't learned, as yet, that a pedestrian has no right of way in this country and, as a consequence, many of them are failing to reach a ripe old age. Caught one in the sights of my revolver and he was heading out of sight before he caught the second slug.

    For years we had heard how good turtle eggs were. Then, someone gave us a mess. They looked like ping pong balls and are about the same size except they have a dent in their soft shell. There will always be a dent somewhere, no matter how you press it. The thing that disturbed me most about eating one was that the whites never harden; no matter how much you cook it. Some people can eat them by the dozen but, after trying a few, I gave it up as a bad job. Guess I'm not enough of the old frontier type.

    We never had the pleasure of going turtle egg hunting before this sport (so called) was outlawed. But, somehow I have never been over enthusiastic about cutting down on the population of sea turtles, especially since I don't care for the eggs or the meat. They are pitiful looking after they have been turned over on their backs. They try so hard to right themselves with their flippers and by sticking their necks out as far as possible, trying to straighten up, all to no avail. They may not do so well on land, but I've seen them out in the ocean a long distance from shore and they really are graceful there.

    Turtles do have a hard time when there are people, foxes, coons, and other varmints to steal their only means of propagation. When a turtle leaves the water, she leaves a trail across the sand to the edge of the beach. There she digs a shallow hole and an enormous clutch of eggs is laid there. In due time, the sun will hatch the eggs through the light covering of sand, and then all of the little baby turtles can head for deep water and comparative safety. It does not take a bloodhound to trail a turtle from the edge of the surf to her nest. Then turning one on her back to lie there and die is just not cricket.

    Two drunks were fishing down near the canal bridge and caught a fair sized gator. They brought him in; konked him on the head, supposedly killed him, and threw him into the back of their car and headed home to make a pot of gator tail stew. When they got home and opened the back of the car, the gator came out to greet them. They finally killed him by beating him in the head with an axe. They then cut off his tail for the stew. A partially drunk spectator remarked that it was the bloodiest mess he had ever seen and would have no part of it. They did say that if you fried gator tail, left it overnight, the next morning it would be raw again. I can't verify this but I know one thing, I don't intend to eat any gator tails. It's illegal now anyway. There is no accounting for the taste or actions of a drunk, especially if he is drunk on homemade shine still retaining fuel oil.

    My friend Joe Jones, a full blooded Cherokee Indian, turned roofer and carpenter, tells of some of his experiences with gators. "We would row a boat along side one and jump onto his back, wrap our arms and legs around him and capture him." I expect there were times when it was a toss-up as to who would capture whom. A gator can and will bite you but he has far more power in closing his jaws than in opening them. He is like a politician; when he gets his mouth open nothing can stop him" Joe also tells of poaching gators by airboat and out-running the law until they could land and dispose of the gators, (usually in a pickup truck), until such time as they could be skinned and their hides sold. Saw an affluent gentleman in one of the bigger department stores trying to buy a pair of alligator shoes. He was told all of them had been shipped out, but the price had been $140.00 per pair. Sin comes high as Mama Eve could very well testify. When you listen to a bunch of bull alligators sound off on a clear night it makes you wonder how anyone would have the courage to go out looking for an alligator.

    It had always puzzled me as to how so many baby alligators could be found in the pet shops. Joe Jones (not the Indian) made a business of finding gator nests and taking the eggs from them while mama wasn't looking. Then the eggs were put into a barrel filled with muck and trash that would generate heat so that the eggs would hatch out. As soon as they were hatched, they were taken to a pet shop and sold for cash; a rare commodity at that time. Buster Jones says he and his father were in Mount Pleasant Creek looking for eggs one night when he saw what looked like a tidal wave coming his way. He knew that it was mama and broke some records for evasive action.

    Around here when someone speaks of a gopher they are generally referring to a dry land turtle, not the little pocket gophers of the west. On the authority of Ananias Kiel I can tell you how the gopher came by his name. Two Geeches were going through the woods and one of them pointed to a turtle. "Man, look yonder, what a turtle!" The other one replied, "That ain't no turtle, he ain't got no tail." "Well, he will go for one," said the first. Tradition has it that gophers, being cold-blooded and of the reptile family, were acceptable as meat on Friday in the Catholic communities. Thus, gopher stews became very popular on Fridays. They do make a good stew if you can just manage to keep everybody around the pot sober, and stop them from putting in so many datil peppers. It makes you wonder if it was a gopher that Aeschylus, the bald-headed Greek playwright, was brained by as the eagle dropped it on his head.


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