Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Black Racer (excerpt from Growing Up Stories)


Black Racer

(from Growing Up Stories available at 

Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2012 Kenny A. Chaffin

You know how kids are; they get an idea in their head and won’t let it go. Well, maybe not just kids, I’ve known more than a few adults like that. I’ve never cared much for snakes, most people don’t and there are deep evolutionary and psychological reasons for that. When I was in about the first grade someone, some relative most likely a cousin or aunt or someone scared the bejeezus out of me talking about black racer snakes and how fast they were and that they would intentionally chase you down a road or trail just to bite you. I was just a kid so didn’t consider much about why a snake would want to do something like that rather than just stay away. I figured they were able to think and plan and chase and be mean like the bullies in school. I became a bit obsessed about the whole thing even though I’d never heard of anyone seeing a black racer and I’d never seen one myself. Every day I dreaded walking home from the school bus stop the mile or so on the gravel road that led to our farm. I just knew the black racers would be hiding in wait at the edge of the road for someone to walk by so they could chase them. In my fear I developed a plan which I saw as perfectly rational. I’d cross the culvert into the cattle field next to the road with its chest high weeds and Johnson grass and I’d run, run, run for my life all the way home rather than risk a black racer seeing me on the road, chasing me, and biting me!
Never mind that the field was more likely to have rattlesnakes, water moccasins or copperheads! It’s crazy how you can convince yourself to ignore real dangers in order to avoid imagined ones. We humans seem to do that a lot though, worrying about airplane crashes, lightning strikes, asteroids and sharks when the real killers are heart disease, stroke and car crashes.
Sometimes I think my life has been driven by snakes. Or maybe a snake is my ‘spirit animal’ rather than a Chinese dragon. I suspect though it’s just my innate fear of snakes, probably egged on by my mother. I don’t think she was very ‘snake-friendly’ in fact I’m pretty sure she was terrified of them. She certainly wasn’t very accommodating the day a six foot rattlesnake showed up in the flowerbed on the west end of the front porch. She managed to pin it against the concrete porch with the hoe she’d been using to work the flowers and was screaming for Daddy, “Kenneth! Kenneth! Help!” She was leaning into the hoe with all her weight and the snake was still managing to make some headway in escaping. I just tried to stay outta the way as the snake writhed and fought and tried to escape. Of course Daddy was nowhere to be found. He was off working. She told me I had to hold the snake there while she found something to kill it with. What else could I do? I took hold of the hoe-handle and leaned into it with all my weight but the damn thing still managed to wriggle a bit more free. By the time she got back it had slipped through another foot or so and was thrashing and hissing and trying to strike. I was thinking “nuclear bomb” might be the only way to kill it, but Mama returned with another hoe and a shovel. She chopped and hacked at it trying to sever the writhing head and it still kept slipping through despite my attempts to keep it pinned against the concrete. Finally she was able to pretty much chop its head off, but that mouth and fangs still dangled by a strap of skin. The rest of the body continued to writhe and struggle to get free. I let it fall to the dirt and it continued to knot and twist for a long while but it was no longer a threat. We both collapsed with sighs of relief. Certainly it wasn’t the first or the last rattler we’d see. I have no idea how many we encountered on the farm, but lots -- probably at least one a year. Nor do I remember how many rattles were on the tail of that particular snake, but something like six or seven comes to mind. Rattlesnakes were and are a fixture of the Oklahoma prairie. They were to be expected.
Fears are funny things. As a kid I was pretty much terrified of snakes. Spiders though didn’t scare me much. I’d dispatched a tarantula with my tricycle when I was only two or three years old.  And well before my teenage years I’d gotten past the fear of Hell-fire that was preached in the churches across the South. Snakes however were a different matter; I definitely projected into them minds of their own and gave them super ordinary physical abilities. My childhood bed sat under an east-facing window and I feared going to bed every night, bracing myself against the snakes. You see, there was a small gap between the windowsill and the wall. It couldn’t have been more than half-an-inch, but you could see light through it and feel the wind. I knew for certain that a snake could climb up the outside wall and through that hole into my bed. I knew it! I’d curl up into a ball as far away from the wall and the hole as possible. I knew there would be a snake climbing up the rough outside wall, I knew they could, I’d seen them climbing trees on National of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom! Despite my paralyzing fear I was still afraid to say anything to anyone. I knew they’d just laugh and ridicule me for my ‘silly fears.’       
It may be that my fear of snakes was set by one of the earliest experiences I ‘remember’ but I’m not really sure how much of it is actual memory and how much was fed to me by Mama. It was another flowerbed incident….hell it’s a wonder I didn’t develop a fear of flowers! As the story goes, I was probably about 18 months old – well before the killing of the tarantula. Mama was working in the yard or garden or maybe even in the same flowerbed in front of the house. I suppose she had put me in the dirt to play – when you’re poor you play with what ya got and we had lots of dirt. I remember reaching out to, or through the flowers which were growing at the back of the bed to pet the ‘pretty lizard.’ Then came the scream from Mama and my being jerked violently away. The pretty lizard turned out to be a four foot copperhead its scales glimmering like golden rainbows in the sunshine.
Despite many other such encounters during my fifteen years on the farm no one ever got bitten. There were snakes in the chicken house, hay barn, fields and sheds which either got away or got dispatched to the great beyond. Most of them we probably never saw as they really do try to avoid confrontation. We certainly didn’t live in peace with the snakes, but we did by necessity share the land.
My most recent snake encounter was actually in Colorado a few years ago -- quite far in both time and space from those childhood experiences. I was taking a lunch-time hike up South Table Mountain in West Denver when on the way back down what should appear in the middle of the narrow trail but a coiled and angry rattler. We have them here too in the Colorado eastern plains. This one was probably a good five footer, coiled and rattling to beat the band. I have no idea why he’d be there and it was a bit surreal in that there was a circle of large rocks around him as if they had been specifically placed or arranged that way. The trail was cut into a steep slope covered in scrub-oak so there wasn’t much of an easy way around the beast. You’d think I would have known better, but I picked up a few rocks and heaved them in the snake’s direction.  All that did was piss him off more and increase his threat behavior – hissing, rattling and striking at the rocks. Seeing as he didn’t see fit to move I thought maybe I was on Candid Camera or something, particularly with the ‘circle of rocks’ around him, but regardless I figured safety was the better part of valor and  took the cross-country route through the scrub-oak around him and back down to work. Thinking back on it now I guess it was not really that different than running through the field to avoid the black racers. His mate could easily have been in the brush that I bushwhacked through. Sometimes one wonders what it is they have learned in a lifetime, why one obsesses over certain memories, certain fears and why they are always there just below the surface ready to pop out, ready to guide you or return you to your childhood. The things you learn later can also put a different twist on those past events and one thing I recently learned is that black racer snakes are non-poisonous.

About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at He may be contacted through his website at