Nature Stories

A Rattlesnake Kill on Little Shuckstack


Down low in the Great Smoky Mountains is
Cades Cove where my wife’s ancestors once lived.
High up above it is Gregory’s Bald, where I
hiked and slept the night as a young Boy Scout.
My very first overnight hike.

And down the far side hovered over Fontana Lake is
Big Shuckstack. There a lookout tower stands tall above
the trees, and rangers gaze out over Sassafras Gap,
Ekaneetlee Creek, Piney Ridge, Proctor Branch, Cheoah
Lake, and Long Hungry Ridge for signs of smoke and
reason to call the fire crew into action.

Lower down still more is Little Shuckstack, the trail so
steep between those two that the knees let you know
right off.

But there on top of little stack is a level stretch
where knees rest, and a rattlesnake might too. Rest there
nearly under some dead leaves about his own color.
Where I hiked alone with thumbs hooked under the
pack straps, just putting one foot in front of the other until
motion caught the corner of the eye, a strange sound
in the ears, and short hairs stood up straight along
the back of the neck as DAMN!
mountain time slowed to frame-by-frame as I
tried to get the legs to MOVE or JUMP or
something, which they finally did.

I landed some distance away.

He was coming after me, NO. He was
watching me, YES.

Back off, he says, I can kill you.

Usually his prey is mice, rats, squirrels, birds, eggs,
lizards, toads, even insects if he has to. Coiled up tight
with his tail raised shaking at one end and his head pointing
fangs at the other. Forked tongue flicking out, eyes shiny
like beads as I felt behind for the hunting knife on my belt.

Maybe throw that knife like Tarzan. Pin his head to the
ground with perfect aim.

Not likely. Or maybe

quick as a cat I could fake him with one hand and then
grab him just behind the head with the other.

A kid like me would think such thoughts, then turn and go
safely looking for a forked stick.

No time to think of animal rights at a time like this.

Approach with the stick as the rattle gets louder and faster,
louder and faster. Just like my heart.

Swipe down there with the stick now. Swing and a miss it was.

Please now, once again for God’s sake and . . . and
THERE . . . got him, pinned down now. Just the head though,
the tail still going strong.

The head is still but the body writhing. My left hand is
going back for the knife as the right hand holds the stick
tight, and tighter.

And now comes the hard part because I must reach down
THERE with him, my bare hand THERE with HIM, and
hope to hell this works as was advised in the book someone
wrote. Someone writing with no snake whatever in sight.

And praise be to God it does work . . . somehow . . . and
the snakes head is OFF, cut clean although the wiggling
snake body doesn’t seem to know it yet.

I should get a merit badge for this, and a big ceremony
too. Mom and Dad both there and proud. What I
thought of in that trembling mountain air where a
snake’s head lay still down there on the ground.

So then I dug and buried that thing as the
Boy Scout manual said to do. Because some
good animal might eat it and get poisoned by that
bad snake.

Animal rights did play some part you see.

And after all those years now gone by, I still have
that rattlesnake’s rattle somewhere in its
proud little box.

It still rattles too.


This story from my youth needs a word of explanation. Although the story is true and I did in fact kill that rattlesnake, I do not now advocate their killing. Rattlesnakes perform important natural functions and pose little threat to humans. Rattlesnake bite deaths in the U.S. average 5-6 per year. With firearms in our own hands we kill ourselves and one another at the rate of 40,000 a year, exceeding the 38,000 deaths in car crashes.

I did not need to kill this snake. All I needed to do was say hello there and goodbye and walk on down the trail. I suppose I believed there was something grown-up and manly in my actions. I thought my father and my friends would see it that way.

I needed to add this explanation. I hope it doesn’t ruin the story for you. I do still have his rattler and wouldn’t think of parting with it.


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Me and PeeDab

About 10 minutes into my run I happened to notice a beautiful naked woman lying right at my feet.  I do see interesting things on my runs, especially in this nearby park with its deer and squirrels and herons and beavers and people having picnics and throwing frisbees.  But this was the first time I had seen a naked woman along my route. 

I picked her up to get a better look.  She was in a magazine called “The Girls of Penthouse.”  But why had she been discarded? And in this park of all places?  One does not often discard a naked woman.

Finding her recalled a boyhood experience on a Scout hike with Milton Bardin, who was known to us all as PeeDab.  I am guessing at how “PeeDab” should be written since I never saw it in that form.  PeeDab and I were friends because our dads were friends and teaching at the same college.  We never agreed about who saw the magazine first, but I know it was me.  The name of the magazine was “Eyefull.”  It was lying right beside the road we were hiking on. It had no actual naked women, but it did have the closest thing either of us had seen at the time.

You don’t know quite what to do with a naked woman you pick up off the ground.  Especially if you have 6 miles of running still ahead of you.  Nice as a naked woman is, you probably don’t want to carry one all that distance.  But I did roll mine up and carried her as I resumed my run, unsure about what to do next.

PeeDab and I had not been unsure about the Eyefull magazine.  I would grab it from him and start looking, and then he would grab it back and do the same.  Although we disagreed about who had found it or whose turn it was, we agreed on its value.  It was priceless and would be kept forever.

Eyeful was a men’s magazine published by Robert Harrison, starting in March 1943. The magazine had a bi-monthly, 65 issue run, ending April 1955. It was popular with soldiers during the latter years of World War II.  Its popularity dropped sharply after the initial publication of Playboy magazine in 1953. Playboy featured nude center-folds, which Harrison refused to do, and so Playboy soon put him out of business.

PeeDab and I knew nothing about Robert Harrison, but we could have advised him on the issue of nude center-folds.

It is hard to run and study naked women at the same time.  In a short while the woman had been moved about a mile from her original spot.  It crossed my mind to discard her in the woods beside the trail.

The Eyefull magazine was kept hidden in the traditional spot beneath the mattress, shoved far enough so Mother wouldn’t find it making up the bed.  Mother would not understand about the Eyefull magazine.

There were few people in the park that day, but I did keep thinking about meeting up with someone.  I rolled the magazine tightly enough to pass for Newsweek.  But still it seemed funny to be carrying a magazine while running.

When the Eyefull magazine was there under my mattress it meant it wasn’t under PeeDab’s mattress.  So I knew to expect that he would want it back.  And we would argue about whose turn it was and who had kept it the longest.

I decided not to put the magazine in the woods.  There was a nice, shady spot along the trail beside the lake, and I laid it down there in plain view.  Perhaps a young boy will come along and give it a good home.    


Commentary Stories


I met this man who trains dogs to sniff out explosives.  They call them bomb dogs.  He does this for the police department in Washington, D.C.  Of course, a lot of people both home and abroad would like to plant explosives in Washington, D.C. our nation’s capitol.  Even some people who work there in-and-out seem to want to blow the place up. It isn’t clear these dogs can save the day, but who knows?

The man I talked with told me they get the dogs from Germany, and a fully trained dog is worth over a hundred thousand dollars.  One reason is that it takes the trainer a year of full time work to get a dog ready.  An untrained dog will smell all the smells there are, and there are so many it must be hard to get a dog focused on the few things a bomb can smell like.

The trainer I talked with said they get very attached to their dogs, and the dogs to them. He said they even get bereavement leave if their dog dies or gets killed.  He said the thing that makes a bomb dog’s day is to do his job well and have the trainer pet him and tell him he’s a good dog.  But it has to be the trainer telling him that.  Anyone else tells him “good dog” and he’ll say “well who the heck are you?”  He has one master, and what the master says about his work is the only thing that matters. Bomb dogs are very clear about this.

It must be hard, working every day as a bomb dog. You’re trained you to go in where the bombs are so people don’t have to. People used to do this themselves, but now they have you to do it so they can stay safe. 

So you have to work alone in there where a bomb may be.  You have to make your own decisions.  There’s no such thing as calling over a fellow dog and asking him to take a whiff please.  Ask him what this smells like to him.  Have a conference on it there like those umpires do when they throw down their little flags.  They huddle together and try to decide why they did that.  But these dogs have to make the decision alone and in a hurry.

And speaking of in a hurry, it would be easy to get heavy-nosed while in a hurry. The bombs are lying there just waiting for a heavy-nosed dog to set it off. A bomb dog can’t get heavy-nosed or he won’t be staying on the bomb squad long. Rush in there and hard nose right down on a bomb and BOOM! His trainer who spent a year just with him wouldn’t appreciate this. Instead of “good dog” he’d be hearing something else.  Or hearing nothing at all. His memorial service would get scheduled.

When you’re in an explosive situation, the first thing you have to do is stay light-nosed.

Think about this.



Advice Not Taken

I went out running the neighborhoods on a Saturday afternoon. Soon after I started I heard the sound of helicopters overhead and discovered they were spraying. 

It gives you a funny feeling to be running along and have a helicopter fly over you and spray you.  But I kept on running.  And after awhile I came upon the woman who was directing all this.

She had a balloon way up in the air on the end of a rope and was sitting in her car with a radio talking in the sky with the helicopters.  I noticed she had all her car windows rolled up, hot as it was. 

She saw me coming and got out of her car as if something important was up.  She met me in the road and I thought maybe she wanted directions to somewhere else in the neighborhood.  Since I run these streets all the time I could have helped her with that.

But instead of this she had advice.  She said “It’s not a good time to be out running, because we’re spraying.”  And I thought fast and said, “Well, it’s not a good time to be out spraying, because I’m running.”  And I suppose we each had a point.

Well, they kept right on spraying. And I kept right on running.  And I’m alive to write about it all these years later.  So I guess no harm was done to me, and certainly not to them. 

People who try to tell you what to do may have a balloon and seem official, but think twice before you mind them. When you need to run, just run.

Commentary Humanity Stories

Meeting A Woman at the Pool

I drove to the pool with maybe a few problems on my mind. Eighteen strokes to the lap, thirty-six laps to the mile, half an hour of hard exertion, counting down, counting down.

My left hand is getting better. It used to start the pull too soon. The timing now is even and the stoke is smooth. It has taken years of daily swimming to accomplish this.

But what a feeling! To glide to the wall that last lap and let the body go loose. Let it hang free while the breathing slows to normal. While the day begins to form again, and the arms pull me up. Feet go under and the legs lift, and I am now like people suppose they were meant to be instead of swimming in water like a frog or fish. Hands take off the goggles and rub the eyes.

I headed for the small pool in the corner where you sit in hot water that churns at you from all sides. Good for the circulation but don’t stay too long and don’t use if you have a bad heart, they say. And I found a woman there, a woman all alone.

She was a friendly woman. Smiling and saying hello and wanting to talk. Talk I do not remember not much of, as you will soon understand.

For what I kept from that day till now was the sight of her body. Her body I tried not to be caught looking at. But whenever her head turned, or I dared a glance, I did look. Over and over I looked, as if forced and powerless.

And what I saw more of, each time, was always what I knew from the first. That she was a dying woman here in this water. Of cancer that was somewhere, maybe everywhere. A body looking dead already. As if nothing were left between her bones and the covering skin. Nothing.

It made me look strangely at the parts of myself I could see along with her parts. Mine were no stuff for a magazine cover, yet what a contrast. As if I were rich and famous and beautiful now. A different class of person from her. It felt good and bad both. Proud at first, then guilty. Conspicuous even, as if I was the one who should hide myself from view, not her. The lesser person there, and not the better one.

And I remembered there those troubles I’d brought. They came at me with a vengeance, as she smiled her bright smile, and chatted about the water and how nice the day was. Then said goodbye, pulling up to leave. And was sadly beautiful as she made her way.


Alcohol Places Stories

Breakfast in Payson

I’m a big fan of Garrison Keillor. He once said that if you drive around the country, stop in small towns, and sit down with the locals in their breakfast cafe, you never know when you may hear something interesting, surprising, or even profound. John Steinbeck also believed that. He took his dog and drove across America, talking with ordinary people and collecting stories. They went into a thoughtful and entertaining book titled “Travels With Charley.”

payson azWell . . . I came to the desert town of Payson, Arizona. I ordered breakfast in a small diner there beside the road. The adjoining booth was occupied by a local man, sitting by himself, talking on his cellphone, his voice lowered. He had long, unkept hair and a long, unkept beard. His clothes looked as worn and tired as he did, and his speech had the lingering of alcohol about it. I heard him use the word “innebriated,” a term less confessional and more respectable than the word “drunk.” But meaning the same, of course.

The man was talking with a woman. You could tell she was someone he missed, someone he owed something to, someone he needed to have around and planned to see again.

The man was doing most of the talking, mostly about nothing, until the end of the conversation. The woman on the line had apparently said, “I love you.”

Now, a man in those circumstances must say something. As a man myself, I know about this moment, that pause that needs a response, as the woman awaits one. I didn’t expect a memorable response from this man, but I heard one.

There was a moment of hesitation, and then: “I love you . . . no matter what I say or do.” …

Health People Stories Swimming

Surprised By Gratitude

Each weekday morning I go to the swimming pool to, well, swim.  I usually swim three miles, which takes me about an hour and a half. The lanes at my pool are 25 yards long. It takes 5,250 of these yards to make a three mile swim. That’s 105 laps, a lap being down to the end and back. Often I get in the water and swim non-stop. Now many of my fellow swimmers swim faster than me, but not many swim longer or farther. I catch views of others as I swim. Many do a few laps and then hang on the sides of the pool talking. Many of them spend more time talking in the water than swimming in it. When I observe this, I feel proud to be such a dedicated swimmer.

New Yorker swimming pool coverThese are my fellow swimmers. But there are a lot of others taking up water space in the pool who are not swimmers. I call them the splashers. They get in the water to wade, chat, clap, bounce, float, splash, act silly, and dance around. Often they do these things in groups and with an overweight leader, and to loud and lively music. I think they pay money to join these groups, and they probably imagine they’re getting in shape by doing this. From the looks of most of them, they have a long way to go. The New Yorker captured this phenomenon in a recent cover illustration. Count the number of individuals who are actually swimming, despite the inspirational image on the front wall. (click to enlarge the picture and better appreciate)

The men’s locker room at our pool is a communal place. There are no privacy curtains or individual shower stalls. We dress and undress and shower together; we hear and overhear conversations; we may not speak with others, but we do hear and observe things.

On morning I was there getting dressed and I heard loud panting and wheezing. I looked around the corner and there was a large, overweight, out-of-shape man trying to put on his clothes. Even putting on socks was a great effort for him. His breathing was so labored that I wondered how he could swim at all. Lazy bastard! I imagined him lounging on the sofa, watching TV, and eating potato chips and ice cream and drinking beer. I assumed he was one of the splashers. Why did he even bother coming here? …

Commentary Health Stories Swimming

Don’t Hold Your Breath

When I was a boy and aspiring to become a man, I spent most of my summers at Boy Scout camp. For me, this was Camp Pellissippi on Norris Lake in East Tennessee. I began as a regular camper and later became a camp counselor and handicrafts instructor. I was also the camp bugler. I played Reveille to get them up, Assembly to form them into rows before the flag, and Mess Call to bring them to meals. Other calls sounded throughout the day, and Taps was played at the end, when they were obliged to go to sleep.

The highlight of my week at camp was the Saturday morning swim meet down on the waterfront. We swam in the lake, but mostly inside a floating wooden “crib” as it was called. Wooden boards formed the side walls and bottom of the crib, and it was supported in the water by empty oil drums. Water from the lake circulated freely in and out. It was much like a regular swimming pool, having diving boards, walkways, ladders, and life guards. The crib was attached to shore and held in place with cables, and these were adjusted as the lake level rose or fell.

My favorite swim meet event was the underwater swim. The goal was to swim farther underwater than anyone else. Those entered went one at a time and the order was determined by drawing straws or guessing a number or something similar. I became good at swimming distances underwater. I learned how to hyperventilate and store up oxygen in my system, and how to dive in with lungs full and exhale most grudgingly. Another camper was good as well, and one or the other of us always won the event. Often it came down to the order. If he went first, I had the advantage of knowing just how far I needed to go to beat him. If I went first, this advantage was his. …

People Stories

Insiders and Outsiders

Years ago I knew an elderly couple living on a large farm near Winchester, Kentucky. The house was old and run down, the dairy was unkept, the car was old and smoked, and their clothes were plain and worn. To see them, you would never have guessed it about this couple, but they were worth a fortune. The owned a large tract of prime land that was smack in the middle of plans for a new interstate highway. They were cash poor but land rich. Very rich.

79292_Front_3-4_WebThe couple had a number of children, all grown up, around six as I recall. The couple was strong minded. They argued among themselves and with neighbors, and they argued with their children. The children fell into two categories: those in favor and those not. Those in favor would come around and visit now and then. The others never came around.

The mother died first, and the father soon afterward. 

When the will was read, it left $25 each to the out-of-favor children, and the fortune to be divided among the in-favor children.

The out-of-favor children took their money and went out to dinner together. There is no record of their discussion that evening, but one can imagine. Word of all this was out and about in the town and discussions took place in barber shops, beauty parlors, Sunday School classes, and whenever people met up on the streets. Some people laughed about it, others shook their heads. All wondered what would happen next.

None of the in-favor children had been very prosperous . . . until now. The cars they drove, the clothes they wore, and the houses they lived in were similar to those of their parents. But things began to change, and fast. Shiny new luxury cars replaced their old ones, new homes were built on estate size lawns, trips were made to Louisville to buy stylish cothes. A lot of showing off took place. It was the talk of the town, how the old couple had lived like poor folks all their lives, and now that they were gone their children were living like kings and queens.

Some of them, that is.

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