Having been mule deer hunting every year since I was twelve, I figured squirrel hunting might be some fun and an adventure, albeit with smaller game, squirrels instead of mule deer, Fiji woods instead of the awesome Espy Ranch, and .22s instead of 30-30s.
I was right, but for the wrong reasons. It was surely an adventure but ended up being a brush with death, not for the squirrel, but for me. Here’s the story.
At the Fiji Lake Club, Dave Gardner and I loaded our .22s and went into the woods, slowly walking in tandem, well apart, looking up in the trees for squirrels. We had not gone far when I felt something hit me above my left ankle, surely more than an insect bite.
I had stepped on a snake!
There he was, red and slithering, definitely a poisonous treacherous copperhead that unlike the rattlesnake, gives no warning before it strikes.
I shouted to Dave to come quickly, and then put a shell in the chamber and killed the snake.
Dave Gardner was probably more scared than I was. I had never been even a tenderfoot in Boy Scouts, but I knew how to make a tourniquet, which we did with a long sleeve and a stout stick. Then Dave took out his pocket knife, fortunately sharp, and with trembling hand cut an X where the copperhead had struck me, just above my right ankle bone. After that he sucked a lot of blood and spit it out, which was the accepted treatment for poisonous snake bites at the time.
I had no feeling in my lower right leg because of the tourniquet. Dave helped me hobble back to the car and we headed for Seton Hospital, Dave speeding while I held the stick to keep the tourniquet tight.
The doctor on duty at Seton Hospital was manifestly untrained. He wanted to be helpful, yet he came across not at all sure of himself, like trying to throw darts at a target in a dark room. He sent for a large dose of antivenin and mentioned after reading the directions that it might, just might cause an allergic reaction in some people, perhaps one in a hundred, if that person was allergic to horse serum. He gave me a shot of whatever the serum and kept me overnight, intending to send me “home” to Brackenridge Dormitory at the University. I was feeling fair.
But three nights later the horse serum that was the carrier for the antivenin hit me like a ton of bricks. I had drawn the black bean. I was that “one in a hundred” allergic to horse serum!
My lips, my eyelids, ear lobes, and other soft body parts were swollen. My back was covered with welts ─ hives, as some people call them. Joe ran downstairs to the pay phone to contact the doctor who told him to call an ambulance and get me to Seton Hospital.
What happened next one might call “gallows humor.” At the time it sure wasn’t funny to me. I felt as though I was about to die; and, I was.
In the late 1950s it was permissible for undertakers to operate both an ambulance business and a funeral parlor together, which today would be too big a conflict of interest. When Joe called Cook Funeral Home, he learned its ambulance was out on another call. The only person on duty at that hour was an embalmer with but one vehicle available, a long black funeral hearse used to transport corpses. Apparently the embalmer (we’ll call him Malcolm) decided it was expedient to come after me in the hearse, so as not to miss any business.
I responded to the rap on the door, “Who is it?”
“I’m Malcolm Passmore with the Cook Funeral Home, and I’ve come for David Smith,” he said in cascading funereal tones.
Adrenalin kicked in. I raised myself and said, “Look, mister, I’m pretty sick, but don’t you touch me. And if you think I’m gonna be one of your customers, you’re plumb crazy.”
Joe returned to our dorm room in time to help me down to the hearse. I insisted on sitting upright in the front seat and off we went to Seton Hospital, me angry, sullen and feeling horrible but intently watching the undertaker drive the hearse. We checked in at the hospital and were directed to an elevator, since it seemed that I could walk, but weakness overtook me and I ended up sitting on the floor. That’s when I asked myself and, most importantly, God, “Has my time come?”
By the grace of God, I gradually got better, and in two or three more days felt nearly well, for which I was profoundly grateful.
Around the Phi Gam house I got a new nickname, “Snake.” Fortunately it didn’t stick for long.
Then a few weeks later, during a fraternity retreat at Mo Ranch, some of the boys played a trick on me relative to my snakebite experience. They found a small harmless garter snake and put it on my chest one afternoon while I was napping. (I’m good at naps, a skill inherited from my grandfather, David Smith.)
The boys’ laughter woke me up. Startled, indeed terrified by the garter snake, I jumped up and drop kicked the steel cot next to mine, bruising my shin while the other boys roared with laughter. They sure got more than just a rise out of me. I had had one encounter with a snake and I didn’t want another one. As the old saying goes, “Bit once, cautious twice.” Who was it that said, “All’s well that ends well?” I guess it was Shakespeare, wasn’t it? Well, maybe a good joke once in a while, even at your own expense is okay.
But I’m sure glad that when I stepped on the copper-head that bit me, it was not the end that might have ended my earthly life those many years ago at The University of Texas, at Austin.
(For more by David Smith’s “Texas Spirit,” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or www.amazon.com.)