Of snakes, sons and suns
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.”