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A snake in the house: lessons learned


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Prior to moving to the plains of north-central Montana, my only knowledge of rattlesnakes came from an incident when I was a teenager.

One afternoon Mike, a friend of my parents, called my dad in a panic to say that he was out of town and talking to his wife on the phone when she let out a classic blood-curdling scream, and then the phone went dead. He asked Dad to go check on his wife, Laurel.

Dad, having honed his law enforcement skills in the rougher 'hoods of Los Angeles before becoming a Montana Fish & Game warden, went right into action. He grabbed his badge and service pistol and headed straight to their house, lights and siren blaring.

He really comes to life in an emergency. On the way, he radioed the local dispatcher to say that he was going to investigate a possible situation.

Now, the plain truth of the story is this: Laurel had grown up in a faraway land called Eastern Montana which was inhabited by fearsome and poisonous rattlesnakes that were the source of Laurel's only deep-seated phobia: snakes. All snakes. Even in Western Montana where poisonous snakes do not live.

While talking to Mike on the phone that day, a gartersnake slithered past Laurel in the kitchen. She — well, I'll be kind and just say, she completely freaked out like an insane berserker.

Her efforts to kill the nonpoisonous gartersnake destroyed her home in the time it took Mike to phone Dad and him to drive the four country miles at high speed to their house.

I did say she was phobic, right, so when I say destroyed, you should understand that means several thousands of dollars worth of damage. In less than five minutes.

Of course, when Dad tells the story, which he did quite often in subsequent years and still does 30 years later, the details are vivid and dramatic. Very dramatic.

When he speaks of overturned tables, couch, chairs and beds, he looks as if he's miming King Kong upending the contents of a train yard.

When he says that items normally on counters or tables were strewn across the floors and that blood was everywhere, his arms flail wide like he's belly flopping onto the ice. He grimaces at the word "blood."

When he describes how every panel and cushion of the couch was slashed open by the butcher knife-wielding Laurel, he holds his imaginary knife like a slasher-movie psycho or a street fighter or an enraged sous chef. Whichever gets the biggest laugh from his current crowd.

After he describes finding Laurel hiding in the bedroom, panting from her exertion and adrenalin overdose, he ends with: "She chopped that defenseless gartersnake into a thousand pieces. I couldn't find one bit of him over one-inch long." He holds his finger and thumb about a half-inch apart, then adds, "The poor, sweet thing didn't stand a chance against that crazy woman. And she wouldn't leave her hiding place until I got all those ittybitty pieces cleaned up." As he dissolves into laughter, yet again, he ends with, "I should've radioed for backup," and pulls out a hanky to wipe the tears from his face.

So everything I learned about rattlesnakes in my youth is summed up thusly: A) They are terrifying. B) If you ever see one, keep your wits about you or the humiliating story will become humiliating legend as it is re-enacted for family and friends for decades to come.

Lesson B is the second thing I thought of when I encountered my first rattlesnake.

Of course, the first thing I thought was: "Holy #@*%!! I just STEPPED ON a rattlesnake!"

But that's a tale for next week


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