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.    




A 76-year-old woman was slain and her 43-year-old son was found suffering from slashed wrists and a drug overdose last night at their apartment in Beltsville, Prince George’s County police reported. Police said they obtained warrants charging the son with murder. — The Washington Post

How disappointing to be still alive,
your anger now a milder shade than when
it flared up high and messed with
you and Mom and everything. Had all

that you can take, a voice inside you said.
So late at night you finally let it out,
and later tried to put it out for good –
but somehow made a mess of that. And now

you’re sitting in this cell and wondering who’s
the luckier, you or Mom? You think it’s her,
for she’s not angry anymore. They’re through
with her, but only started in on you.

Hey, listen Judge, I’m not no kid, but damn
she bugged me every rotten day we lived.
Forgive me please. You hope you might
get off by using that, but know you won’t.

And stored-up memories take a toll these days,
for Mom keeps washing dishes, serving
meals all hot. And tears cried years ago
may be forgotten, but your wrists are not.


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.


The Shopper

Twelve eager rows of cars sat waiting while
an ooze of Christmas shoppers flowed across
their street beneath a signal giving right
of way but flashing now to hurry up.
She was behind them all and all behind

in general so it seemed to me who noticed
from the curb her death-like grip on tops
of bags that billowed out around her. And
like a sniper laid in wait frustration
watched until she got positioned in

the center of that busy place then let
the bottom of a bag break loose despite
her solid grip around its neck and someone’s
crockpot hit the street. She’d bought it
for the fact its liner came right out

and so it did and broke in shattered pieces
all across that space just as the light
above said go to cars who soon began
to honk because their go was now held up
by one poor shopper all alone in picking

up the bags her panic had turned loose
and all that glass. I watched her face change
through phases like the signal light above
embarrassed first and looking round as if
to make amends to honking cars who sought

a cop or someone anything to get her
out of there. Then pain appeared which dollars
wasted played some part I thought and changed
again and hung this time. A weary look I saw and
felt but soon away from there I then forgot.

Commentary History

Passing Knoxville

When I was a boy growing up in a small Tennessee town, Knoxville was the biggest city in the world as far as I could prove. To go to Knoxville with my parents was a special occasion. Actually I think it was somewhat special for them as well as me. Later on, to go there by myself was a brave adventure. I can still remember my first solo ride on the White Star Line bus from Maryville to Knoxville. Our town had no hospital then, but Knoxville had many of them. Our town had one high school, but Knoxville had no telling how many. Our town had a small college where my father taught, but Knoxville had the University of Tennessee.

The treasures of Knoxville included the Army Navy surplus store off Gay Street, my favorite. Knoxville boasted the first trampoline I ever saw or used. And the Court House lawn is where we waited with our packs and gear for school buses to come and take us to Camp Pellissippi on nearby Norris Lake. Near Miller’s Department Store was the S&W Cafeteria where men in uniforms carried the tray to your table, imagine that. Nearby was the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Store which started in Knoxville and then expanded in the Southeast. On the north side of town was the Whittle Springs Hotel, named for the nearby mineral springs that were said to have healing properties. Beside the winding Tennessee River sprawled the university, where our high school band was invited to march and play at halftimes when small crowds were expected. No small crowds are ever expected there today.

Although we had two movie theatres in my town, those in Knoxville were larger and more special. The Tennessee Theatre was my favorite, but there was also the Riviera and the Bijou. I always thought the Bijou had an odd name. 

There were two newspapers in Knoxville: the Knoxville Journal and the Knoxville Sentinel. My parents took the Sentinel. The two main radio stations (it’s hard to imagine, I know, but there was no television then) were WBIR and WNOX. My family listened to WBIR. WNOX was famous for its “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.”  It also hosted the “Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour” which Dolly Parton sang on when she was 10 years old. Dolly grew up in nearby Sevierville.

Orton Caswell Walker, always known as Cas, was a colorful and influential Knoxville figure. He owned a supermarket chain which featured a “Dollar General” type approach to selling groceries. He catered to lower income and working class customers, in his stores and in his political career. He served on the Knoxville city council and tried hard to become mayor but never made it. He was a hard-spoken, attacking style of populist, and all who knew him were either “for” or “against.” Cas opposed every progressive idea that ever came up, such as putting fluoride in the drinking water which he said was a communist plot against our children. My mother always did her shopping at the local A&P store.

Knoxville was also a place of anonymity, which my home town was not. In our town you might be observed at any time by someone who knew you. They could also know your teachers and your brothers and your parents. Knoxville was a foreign place where no one knew your face or name. People did things in Knoxville they would not do at home. What things those were I leave for another time.

Tonight I am passing Knoxville along I-40 on my way to Chattanooga. It is now, not then. I am passing by and thinking back.

Most of Knoxville is unfamiliar now. The GPS would have to help me find my way around.


It’s All Relative



Comparison is the thief of joy

                — Theodore Roosevelt


It’s an animal trait, which human animals share, to make comparisons among ourselves. A canine animal, when meeting another, will size the other up. A human animal will do the same. A woman will size up other women with whom she might be compared, and a man will do the same—or a boy, or a girl. We learn this early, and we do it often.

Most of the time these comparisons are fleeting and virtually unconscious. A quick glance, a quick conclusion, and no more thought about it. But other times the game is serious, with high stakes riding on the outcome. Sometimes there are winners and losers, with consequences attached to both.

Normal human beings have a sense of self worth. We rate ourselves, constantly rate ourselves, and our ratings may rise high or fall low. They may also get stuck in a high-risen or low-fallen position. You likely can think of examples of famous people stuck in the high-risen view of themselves, or the low-risen as well.

These self-ratings come from within us, from our thoughts and feelings, our reactions to daily events. They may be driven by external influences, by what we hear from others as it relates to ourselves. One negative comment we hear may sometimes hang around all day and into the night. These may be driven by comparisons such as: “He’s smarter than me,” “I’m prettier than her,” “We’re better than them.” In a more tribal society, including human ones, there are a lot of “we’re better than them’s.”

One’s dependence on favorable comparisons is a slippery slope. Except is rare circumstances, all comparisons are relative. Most of us are better than some, and inferior to many others. 

In the 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim of 2016, I finished in 2 hours and 36 minutes. Now, the great majority of people who swim can’t swim across the Chesapeake Bay at all. I’m a better swimmer than most people, then, at least in terms of swimming four miles in open water. But the swimmer who won this race finished in 1 hour and 24 minutes. In one way of speaking, that puts my effort to shame. But much depends on the comparison. That winner was 20 years old, and I was more than three times his age. When compared with others in my own age group, I did quite well. All is relative.

I love photography, especially nature, wildlife, and landscape photography. When I post my pictures on Facebook, friends comment on how they love them, and say I’m a good photographer. But I mustn’t take that too seriously. I know and follow some really good photographers, and I’m very average compared to them. My friends may not be aware of this comparison, but I am. All is relative.

When I took the standard IQ test on entering college, my score was pretty high and it made me feel good. I do consider myself to be fairly smart, and I do meet people I think are not as smart as I am. But I’ve also met plenty of people, and heard of many others, that are much smarter. There are other people whose smartness is in a different league than mine. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Fareed Zakaria, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Barack Obama, Charlie Rose, David Remnick, many others. All is relative.

There are two approaches we can take to this relativity. On the one hand, we can try to keep ourselves in situations where we compare favorably, as many do. We can flaunt those easy comparisons to make ourselves feel good. We can avoid situations where we might be compared unfavorably, keeping in the spotlight and avoiding any shadows. Play to our fans and avoid any critics.

On the other hand, we can deliberately do the opposite. We can seek the company of people who are smarter than us, faster than us, better spoken and better looking, better dressed, whatever all the “betters” are. We can learn to be comfortable in situations where we look up to others, and use the comparisons to learn better ways, and to motivate ourselves toward improvement.

You see, it’s always better for me to swim with the faster swimmers, feel challenged and inadequate, and struggle to keep up, than to swim easy with slower swimmers and feel superior. If I can, I want to rub shoulders with some of those really smart people and watch them perform. 

I knew a really smart man once. He was a brilliant speaker and writer, read scholarly works in several languages, and in addition possessed great social and interpersonal skills. As a student of his, my admiration came close to worship. But the remarkable thing about this man was his humility and down-to-earth-ness. He believed there was something he could learn from every person he met, regardless of their station in life. He could meet a janitor or cab driver or hotel maid and find something of value this person could tell him. Whatever it was that you knew and he didn’t, he would find it out and learn from it. He was a great man, but there was a humility about him that meant he had no need to prove himself better than anyone he met. 

You might say this is easier if you’re at the top of the heap and have less to prove. You might say it’s harder if you’re at the bottom of the heap and have more to prove. The point is not to think in terms of proving anything, other than to yourself. The point is that all is relative anyway, and that the most meaningful competition is all within ourselves.


On Seeing Where My Father’s Fingers Were Buried

Here in this valley grown with weeds, that hill
above us looking down, I see a mill

and feel its creak and smell the fresh-ground flow
that cooking made so sweet. And here I know

that echoes of a father’s past crowd in.
The old man’s memory hears it now as then.

Run quick and fetch a doctor round the hill
and mend the sudden damage of that mill

that chopped with cane the fingers stuck into
it by this boy. My thoughts on looking flew

past all those years I stared at its misshape
and though but little of a hand’s escape

through surgery done by gathered lanterns low
to serve my Dad these many years till now.

He pointed with it then. He showed the spot
where he and brother George next day took what

was left, two fingers dead, and with some care
dug in the earth and placed them wondering there.

A curious grave we’d come to see.
We went away, and left it be.                 

David H. Briggs

Because he had lost the index and middle fingers of his right hand, my father always shook hands left-handed. The mill that took his fingers ground sugar cane to make sorghum molasses. It was powered by a walking mule but had to have cane fed into it by hand.  The boyhood home site where this incident occurred was near Brush Creek, North Carolina.  Brush Creek is located near Asheville and today claims a population of 500. My father left Brush Creek to cross the mountains and attend Maryville College in East Tennessee.  After earning his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, he returned to teach at Maryville College for most of his life. When we visited my father’s home site, nothing remained of the original buildings, but my father still claimed that he knew the location of his buried fingers “within ten feet.”

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.


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