Once in a while a memory slips through the cracks of time and startles me with the realization I missed something on my way to becoming an adult. (Let’s not have any wisecracks about “if” I reached adulthood.)
Along about my fifth year, we lived in an old farmhouse about five miles west of Shady Cove. One warm summer day, a rattlesnake slithered from the front porch into our living room. I heard the rasping sound from my pallet in a corner of the living room…where I was supposed to be taking a nap. The snake headed across the bare boards of the floor right at me.
I jumped up and hollered, “Snake, Mama. Snake.” Mom came rushing out of the bedroom in time to scare the snake back into the far corner of the living room. I can still hear the snake rattling away, all coiled up, ready to strike.
Mom put me up on the bed in the bedroom, grabbed her .22 pistol, and then shot the hell out of the snake’s corner of the living room. (I think she even hit the snake once, not that it stopped rattling. She shot six times, reloaded and put six more holes in the floor.) She told me to stay up on the bed, and then closed the door. I looked at the two inch gap under the door and stood up on the bed with a pillow, ready to “pillow” the snake. I heard a long continuous thumping that lasted several minutes, and then Mom opened the door and said it was all right. The snake was dead. She had taken a long pole and chased the snake into the other bedroom on the opposite side of the living room where she proceeded to pound the front half of the snake into a paper thin layer of snake skin.
I was scared of snakes after that and stayed scared for years. Finally, along about the 6th grade, I decided to learn everything I could about rattlesnakes. Know your enemy. I read up on “crotalus” and learned their habits, and while I never quite got over being wary in snake country, at least I wasn’t paralyzed by fear. And I learned first aid if you did get bit. When I was up in the hills, I carried a little metal box with a razor blade, a tourniquet, and a suction cup…to suck the poison out. That took care of one of my childhood bugaboos.
Another was ingrained through drills at school where we practiced hiding under our desk in case the Russians dropped the A-bomb on our heads. We had all seen pictures of Hiroshima by then, and even as children, we knew we would be incinerated anyway so the drill was just a waste of time. (And my wife tells a similar story from her grade school years, only she kept looking at the big windows and knew the glass would blow out and cut them all to pieces.)
Along about age thirteen, I started writing a novel about a Russian invasion and about me and my friends taking to the hills and fighting a guerilla war. I can still show you real places where “we” ambushed a Russian supply column. (You gotta smile at that.) It was a lot like Red Dawn and a heck of a lot earlier. Hmm. If only…
The A-Bomb fear lasted up to my college years. One roommate was a survivalist, so he kept a pack with survival gear ready at all times. If the Russians attacked, our plan was to run to southeast Oregon and live in a big cave I had heard about. It sounds silly now, but the threat felt real, and when the Oregonian put a map of “Ground Zero” with the center circle right on the west end of the Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland, we knew our fear had some basis in fact.
Polio was a constant threat as I was growing up, my fear driven by pictures of kids in iron lungs. We were told to wash our hands…and we did. When finally the polio vaccine was found (invented? discovered?) the fear washed out.
So what’s the point? Well, in a sense, I took charge of my life when I read up on rattlesnakes. And I think I must have been looking for a way to “do something” about the threat of Russian invasion and A-bombs when I started my war novel. The title was “Ambuscade.” My friends and I were really rough on the Russians.
And one night, I got tired of worrying about Russians and A-bombs. I unpacked my survival gear and decided if the Russians did nuke us, I’d just go down to the Canteen and drink beer and wait to see what happened. It was time to get on with life.
Now we have covid to worry about, but after reading articles about it, compared to earlier fears of slithering snakes, polio and A-bombs, I’m not too impressed by that threat.
Do you want see my really neat mask?