For many years, three young friends had enjoyed barefoot excursions to a small pond at the back of the pasture to catch a few fish. It was nothing big, just something to do in the sweltering days of the waning summer days before the dreaded start of school.
These adolescent adventures always began on the top of a red clay hill; starting with a short walk down the gravel covered County Road 123. With eyes furtively searching for the smoothest patches of gravel and toes moving like prehensile tentacles, searching for the blessed respite of smooth spots where the Mississippi clay had mercifully swallowed the rocks after the last rain to form a hard packed, smooth surface. The goal was to guide the calloused but tender soles of the boys feet away from the danger of the occasional fractured stone, broken chunk of Coke bottle or random pull tab, carelessly thrown from the window of a teenage beer run to Sherman, 20 miles away and across the County line.
The next obstacle, looming like the Great Wall of China was the black, layered asphalt ribbon of State Highway 248. On those hot August afternoons, the highway known as Center Road became a semi-solid river of wavering heat worthy of any Indiana Jones movie. Tar bubbled and oozed from the scars left by tractor tires turning off the highway and onto farm roads that teed off the highway like ribs from a spine. These little sun-blistered tar pots were to be feared and avoided at all costs because the tar not only burned the skin – it adhered and kept burning anything it touched. Peeling it off after it cooled was guaranteed to take at least three layers of skin with it, no matter how calloused the bottom of their feet were.
Crossing was a learned skill, best done on the balls of the feet and quickly, preferably in a shady spot.
Once accomplished, all that then remained was a fast run down the rows of mature corn stalks, negotiated to the sting of the broad leaves slicing at the bare skin of the chest and arms like swords of a medieval gauntlet and a crossing of the grassy pasture to the objective of the expedition, the cool water of the waiting pond.
Rotation of the livestock had left the lower pasture to lie fallow and the result was a heavy, knee high growth of fescue and St. Augustine grass. This combination had provided a great habitat for rabbits and other miscellaneous field rodents and they had taken full advantage by drilling tunnels all through the lower layers of grass. A network as vast and travelled as the London Tube, these bunny tunnels provided the ability to mover about the pasture freely without being spotted by the prying eyes of the local avian predators, a clutch of red hawks who had nested in a nearby tract of loblolly pines, planted by the WPA during the Great Depression.
But this bunny metropolis so close to the pond meant something else.
It was a veritable throbbing, pulsating, movable feast for the rhumba of rattlesnakes that had taken up residence in two abandoned rabbit burrows.
The snakes were beginning to branch out as the rabbits learned about the danger and as a result were ranging all the way out to the edge of the cornfield in search of food. Their presence was well established as three local dogs had suffered the indignity of swollen heads from the bites, a horse had been bitten and a couple of snakes had been killed out on the highway. The plan was to wait till the grass was dry in the fall and burn it off, then kill the rest of the snakes when the first cold snap slowed them down and sent them underground.
The boys were having none of that.
As the first boy reached the end of the corn row, he heard the ominous, raspy hiss followed by the telltale rattle indicating he was right on top of the snake. Alarm bells ringing in his head, he came to a dead stop.
He couldn’t see the snake but he knew it was there. He heard it. He held up his arms and yelled for the other two to stop, which they did by driving their heels in to the loose dirt on the side of the rows.
“Snake!” he screamed.
“Where?!” was the reply.
“He’s here somewhere! Can’t see ‘im but I can sure hear ‘im!”
“How do you know for sure if you can’t see it? How do we know you aren’t faking jus’ so you kin be first to the pond?” said the second boy.
“I know what a rattlesnake sounds like, dumbass. He is here.”
“Bullshit, I don’t believe you”, says the third boy, “You just want to be first.”
“I swear that there is a snake here”, said the first boy.
“Well, you can’t prove it”. The skeptical reply was issued in the form of a hiss the snake would have been proud of.
“I can’t prove it but I know what I heard and I know that animals have been bit here, so I ain’t going in there.”
“You are chickenshit, a scared little girl, you little lying shit – I’m going in.”
With that, the third boy pushed past the first two and jumped into the grass.
Three feet away and rolled up like a tensioned coiled steel spring, a rattler was patiently stalking a field mouse when 75 pounds of stupidity came crashing down less than six inches from his tail. Not having time to take aim, he struck, stretching out at an angle toward the sound.
He missed. Fangs struck the loose fabric of a torn pair of blue jeans that had been repurposed as shorts and the snake, sensing a miss, released immediately and slithered to the safety of the tall grass.
But that was time enough for the boy to realize his mistake, wheel around and tear out down the cornrows like a bat out of hell, followed on his heels by the other two.
Regrouping at the end of the rows, the boys decided that the pond was off limits until the snakes, seen and unseen, were gone.
Being the boy who actually did want to get to the pond first who lied about what was heard at the end of the cornrow, this, at the ripe old age of 11, was my first lesson in Kantian philosophy:
If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. And if he succeeds in doing neither (as often occurs), he may still ask whether it is in his interest to accept one or the other of the alternatives hypothetically, from the theoretical or the practical point of view. Hence the question no longer is as to whether perpetual peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real.
If you have reason to believe that there is a snake in the grass based on empirical or anecdotal evidence, it is best to treat the grass as if he is in there, not as if he is not.