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June 22, 2021

Mike Wilson: My grandmother, scourge of the reptile kingdom

By Mike Wilson

My grandmother Ella was a very hardy sportsperson who once bagged a limit of squirrels when cruelly sidelined by Hodgkin’s disease from the porch of our Tennessee River cabin while my grandfather and I mounted a half-day expedition upriver, only to return with two pitiful and scraggly specimens between us. This was only one of the numerous episodes she would never let us forget thereafter. Her true calling, however, was dispatching rattlesnakes.

She kept a board with their rattles wired onto it, and the last time I ever saw it — if only I could have it now! — it surely sported at least 30 rattles, some with more than a dozen segments. Long, short, it didn’t matter: if it coiled up and rattled, it died. Her favorite weapon was a hoe, and I still develop a cold sweat when I recall how, as we picked wild blackberries for one of her delicious cobblers, she once spied a big fat one under a bush and directed me, then about 10 years old, to keep an eye on it while she ran to get her hoe. “Don’t let it get away!” she barked. Thinking back now, I am unsure what I was supposed to do if it moved, but luckily that didn’t happen. A couple of chops, some quick surgery, and another rattle joined the collection. Another day we saw one crossing a gravel road. She got out of the car and carefully directed me to run over it, pinning its head under the front tire, whereupon she got out her knife and cut off the rattle while it was still thrashing about.

My grandfather didn’t like snakes at all, but he was not an avowed assassin of rattlers like she was. One day coming back from fishing, she spotted a big one swimming across the river. (You can tell it’s a rattlesnake because both the head and the tail stick up when they are swimming.) She instructed Granddaddy to pull the boat alongside so she could whack it with the edge of a paddle. He wasn’t really very keen on the operation, but she insisted, so he followed orders. She took careful aim and caught the snake with a hard blow right below the head, and soon the inert snake bobbed harmlessly. She retrieved it in a landing net, and they headed back to the boathouse.

Once there, she showed it to her admiring neighbors, even holding its mouth open so they could see how long its fangs were. After laying it out on a fish-cleaning table, she went up to the cabin to get her camera and a knife to skin it. When she came back a few minutes later, the now un-stunned victim was coiled up on the table and rattling…

She was fearless with vipers when forewarned and armed, but I am afraid her instincts sometimes overrode her training. One late September day when the three of us were out fishing, we pulled over to a tree choked with wild grape vines to retrieve a lure and suddenly a big snake dropped right into the middle of the boat with us. It turned out to be a black snake, but she didn’t waste any time getting out her field guide to identify it! She was out of that boat and in the water in a flash, and the ensuing effort to get her back in the boat on the slick mud bank nearby is another mainstay of family lore.

She also collected hornets’ nests to decorate the cabin. One November we spied a perfect specimen, apparently deserted, about 10 feet up on a black gum sapling, and she asked me to shinny up there and cut it down. When we got back to the cabin, we put it in a black trash bag and brought it inside. The warmth of the gas furnace apparently interrupted hibernation, because we could suddenly hear an awful buzzing, and then we saw stingers poking through the bag. The better part of valor seemed to be to field-hockey it down the hall with a broom and leave it outdoors in the cold until we could get a good poison spray.

Life with my grandmother was hazardous sometimes, but she sure could cook fish, including the best hushpuppies ever, ducks, squirrel stew, and cobblers!

Mike Wilson is chairman of Modern Foreign Languages at Catawba College.

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