Of snakes, sons and suns

The Covington News - - Opinion -

I don’t know what it is about snakes, but I don’t think there’s any mid­dle ground with those slith­er­ing varmints — you ei­ther love ‘em or you hate ‘em. Folks that han­dle snakes make fee­ble at­tempts to ed­u­cate the pub­lic into know­ing which ones are safe to be around and which ones aren’t. What I think is, if you’re close enough to make that de­ter­mi­na­tion, it’s too late.

As you might guess, I qual­ify as a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of “the only good snake is a dead snake” club. For you snake lovers, please don’t waste your time try­ing to con­vert me. Just keep your beloved snakes at your place, and we’ll all be happy.

Way back when I was young and in the Boy Scouts study­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween poi­sonous and non­poi­sonous snakes, I came upon the tale of how an Ir­ish priest cast all the snakes out of Ire­land. That’s when I be­came greatly in­ter­ested in learn­ing more about the char­ac­ter called Saint Pa­trick.

You see, as a young­ster grow­ing up in rural Ge­or­gia, the old­est Protes­tant son in a fam­ily of English her­itage, I didn’t know a whole lot about the Ir­ish, or about the Ro­man Catholic Church. Our lit­tle town had Bap­tist, Methodist, Pres­by­te­rian and Epis­co­palian churches, but no Catholic church. And the phone book, re­plete with names like Jones and Smith, didn’t have many folks named Fin­negan, Mulc­a­hey or O’Reilly listed, ei­ther.

As it turns out, Saint Pa­trick’s ex­pul­sion of snakes from Ire­land was the stuff of leg­end. But Pa­trick was a real per­son, who had been held cap­tive in Ire­land and while in cap­tiv­ity de­cided his mis­sion was to con­vert the Ir­ish to Chris­tian­ity. Af­ter es­cap­ing back to Eng­land, where he stud­ied for fif­teen years to ready him­self, the priest re­turned to Ire­land to ful­fill his mis­sion.

One of the shrewdest things Pa­trick did was to in­cor­po­rate an an­cient sym­bol of the sun — which the pa­gans in Ire­land wor­shipped — into the Chris­tian cross. This be­came to­day’s familiar Celtic cross. Talk about analo­gies. The pa­gans wor­shipped the sun; the Chris­tians wor­shipped the Son.

Over time, Pa­trick be­came the pa­tron saint of Ire­land. And as his­tory un­folded and the Ir­ish im­mi­grated to Amer­ica, they brought with them some of the grand­est cel­e­bra­tions of Saint Pa­trick’s Day to be found any­where. Lep­rechauns ap­pear in pa­rades from coast to coast, four-leaf clovers abound, folks who fail to ad­here to “the wearin’ o’ the green” get pinched, and rivers run green for a day from Chicago to Savannah.

And there are no snakes to be found. Cause enough for cel­e­bra­tion right there, as far as I’m con­cerned.

That’d be be­cause along about 1967 or so, two of my good Greene County High School friends picked me up one Satur­day night and we went rid­ing around, which is how nor­mal folks had fun, back in the day. Tommy Turner, son of a Gre­shamville farmer, had bor­rowed his older brother’s 1965 Mus­tang, and along with Jackie Perkins — to­day a Bap­tist preacher man — we three found our­selves on a county black­top be­tween Pen­field and Union Point, Ge­or­gia, where­upon we hap­pened upon the big­gest rat­tlesnake I’d ever seen. Af­ter run­ning it over half-adozen times, farm boy Tommy scooped the snake up and put it in the trunk. The plan was to take it to the court­house and have our pic­ture made hold­ing the 7-foot snake, with 15 rat­tles; the town pa­per would run our pic­ture the next week for all to see.

Well, rid­ing in the back seat of that ’65 Mus­tang, I was fully aware that the only thing be­tween me and the de­mon in the trunk was a flimsy vinyl seat cover. You can imag­ine my angst when, ar­riv­ing at the court­house and open­ing the trunk, the sup­pos­edly dead rat­tler was nowhere to be seen. Turns out the nearly dead snake had crawled up un­der the spare tire be­fore ex­pir­ing — but when the pic­ture ran in the pa­per it was Tommy and Jackie hold­ing the snake, with me an arm’s length off to the side.

And speak­ing of no snakes to be found…

I’m re­minded of a lovely lady who was my son’s sec­ond grade teacher at Fic­quett El­e­men­tary School. Al­though I’ve got­ten old, fat and bald, Lynn Carnes is still the pert, pe­tite, sassy, perky, ef­fer­ves­cent and charm­ing lady she’s al­ways been. Lynn still lights up a room and makes ev­ery­body feel bet­ter be­cause she’s there, and she’s still the one ev­ery par­ent would want their kid to have as their teacher.

At any rate, once upon a time, Lynn held a “show and tell day” in her el­e­men­tary class­room. By pure chance it fell — of all days — on April 1. As my son de­cided what to take to “show and tell,” he had no idea that his teacher — quite like his daddy — also be­lieved that “the only good snake is a dead snake.”

We can laugh about this now, in 2008.

But en­vi­sion, if you will, a room full of sec­ond graders. The teacher asked my son what he’d brought for “show and tell,” and he pro­duced a shoe box with small holes punched in the top, tied se­curely to the box. My son an­nounced that he’d brought a snake in the box, and care­fully un­tied the string. Be­fore the pet­ri­fied Lynn Carnes could make a move, my son threw the box top aside, and ex­claimed in a panic, “Oh, no, it’s GONE!”

My son had planned to then yell, “April Fool,” but, alas, his plan had gone badly awry. To his as­ton­ish­ment, his teacher had de­fied all New­ton held to be true about grav­ity, lev­i­tat­ing to a perch atop her desk, from whence she shouted for the chil­dren to get on top of their desks while she called for help.

Oh, the hu­man­ity. And we can laugh now, but in 1992 it took quite a while for my son to con­vince Mrs. Carnes that there had never been a snake in the box, that he’d done it all for an April Fool’s Day joke.

So come we now to March, and the an­nual ob­ser­vance of Saint Pa­trick’s Day. And as I think of snakes, and sons, and suns, and is­lands, I’m re­minded of that dead­li­est of World War II bat­tles — the Bat­tle for Ok­i­nawa — which be­gan in March of 1945. Many Amer­i­can sons, bat­tling the Ja­panese Ris­ing Sun, were ex­pect­ing to face the deadly Habu snake on Ok­i­nawa. Per­haps due to in­ten­sive ar­tillery fire, few ac­tu­ally en­coun­tered the Habu, and most threw away the cum­ber­some pro­tec­tive leg­gings they’d been is­sued to pro­tect them from its bite.

My daddy-in-law was in that bat­tle. Troy Drum­mond, all of 17 years old, got into the Navy be­cause he looked older, and he wit­nessed many of the sui­cide Kamikaze air­craft at­tacks on our fleet. Ja­pan threw 1,500 air­craft at the 1,300 ships, which in­cluded 40 car­ri­ers and 18 battleships. Amer­ica lost 72,000 sons, in­clud­ing correspondent Ernie Pyle, at Ok­i­nawa. The Ris­ing Sun lost 66,000 dead and 7,000 cap­tured. Mean­while, a heart-wrench­ing 140,000 civil­ians, many of whom were forced to com­mit sui­cide by the Ja­panese, per- ished in the blood­bath.

In 1995, the Ok­i­nawa gov­ern­ment erected a mon­u­ment known as the Cor­ner­stone of Peace Me­mo­rial, list­ing the names of all who per­ished in that bat­tle. And re­cently a dis­pute be­tween the gov­ern­ments of Ok­i­nawa and Ja­pan was set­tled, al­low­ing his­tory text­books to ad­mit that the mass sui­cides of Ok­i­nawa cit­i­zens — right in front of Amer­i­can troops des­per­ately try­ing to save them — were per­pe­trated by Ja­panese mil­i­tary or­der.

Af­ter the war, the Habu snake made a come­back on the is­land of Ok­i­nawa. De­spite all ef­forts to con­trol it, the Habu con­tin­ues to be a deadly pres­ence on that is­land.

It’s not sur­pris­ing to me, there­fore, that the Ir­ish are ex­cep­tion­ally pleased to cel­e­brate Saint Pa­trick’s Day, and to ex­ult in the ab­sence of snakes on the “Emer­ald Isle.” If he were alive to­day, Saint Patty would be in de­mand the world over, in­deed, for snake erad­i­ca­tion.

Come to think of it, I won­der if Saint Pa­trick could do any good in the halls of Congress with a dif­fer­ent kind of snake? Alas, I di­gress. So come we now, on the mor­row, to the an­nual cel­e­bra­tion of Saint Pa­trick’s Day, the one day upon which we are all Ir­ish. And as we cel­e­brate, let me leave you with a few Ir­ish wishes for you and those whom you hold dear.

“ May your bless­ings out­num­ber the Sham­rocks that grow; may trou­ble avoid you wher­ever you go. May your trou­bles be less, and your bless­ings be more; and may noth­ing but hap­pi­ness come through your door.”

“ May the evening find you gra­cious and ful­filled, and may you go into the night blessed, shel­tered, and pro­tected; may God calm your soul and re­new you.”

And fi­nally, even as we cel­e­brate the fes­tive oc­ca­sion that Saint Pa­trick’s Day has come to be, I’ll set aside some time to­mor­row to think on our many sons and daugh­ters who are in the field in harm’s way. And I in­vite you to join me to­mor­row, with our troops at heart, in this Gaelic Bless­ing:

“ May the roads al­ways rise to meet you; may the wind be al­ways at your back; may the sun shine warm upon your face; may the rain fall soft upon your fields, and, un­til we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

Nat Har­well

Colum­nist

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