You know those fleeting memories from childhood that make no sense until you mention them to an attending adult to fill in the story – this is one of those.
It was a sunny afternoon. We were picnicking out in the foothills above Porterville. I have seen pictures of us out in the long green grasses of spring, spotted with oak trees and piles of boulder about, hunting easter eggs. So it is not a far flung thought that this memory is from this particular years Easter excursion. I can not be sure but I do not think knowing or not knowing will make any difference to this little bit of memory. (Picture taken in the winter of ’66 – I was just turning 4yo. Closest picture available when I was that age.)
One thing that I think should be mentioned before proceeding is that on this particular outing we had been joined by another family. Friends of my parents and their two boys. John age six and James age three.
The Setting ….
The wild grasses were almost half the height I stood at the tender age of four. That made them wildly fun but nothing to the excitement of the boulder clusters strewn about. Exciting because you could climb them, well some of them.
Being the agile age I was, climbing was a forte of mine and it only got worse as time passed. I wasn’t quite big enough to start training in the parental petrification of tree climbing but big old rocks were a good grounding start for those later exploits.
I most likely climbed more than a few sets that day under the watchful eye of the adults but there is only one small mountain of rocks that is important here. I say mountain because it was two or three times my height and that equals mountain to anyone my size and understanding of the world. But honestly my mother could have stretched up and lifted me down if needed, so a mountain to me, a larger than normal molehill to her.
The Memory …
The memory itself was rather brief. It only last a few seconds. I was on top of the rock with James who being the closest in age of all participants on the day was the one I played with most. He had clambered up behind me and we were standing on top. My mother whispered sternly. “Gina, stay where you are and don’t move.” James started to cry for whatever reason and I grasped him in a hug and told him don’t cry, momma said we should be still. Its ok I repeated several times and held him and the memory fades.
I asked my mom some years later when recalling this memory in my teenage years and she filled in the missing pieces. The memory only amounts to a few seconds but the story that surrounds it is rather interesting.
The rocks we had climbed consisted of several smaller boulders (anything bigger than a brick can be classified as a boulder when you are that age) around one larger boulder next to another boulder of similar size. It was a nice sized outcropping. My mother had come over to make sure we weren’t stuck and unable to get down when she heard the omnipotent sound that sends shivers through anyone who is old enough to know the dangers of being in the foothills of California on a warm spring day.
There at the base, where the two largest boulders almost met, was a rattle snake.
I guess some of this will sound strange but normal equipment for outings into the countryside when the weather begins to warm would include a standard shovel or an eighteen inch machete or even a hoe. My mother used to do the occasional cattle drive with the family that was outing with us – they owned a rather good sized cattle ranch and there were occasions when she had been known to hunt rattle snakes – so I was in safe company.
This time she had her machete along just in case it was needed which was a bonus, because it was. She didn’t approach directly but rather swung the machete at the snake to get it out of strike mode. In so many words to scare it off for a purpose. Rattlers generally only use their rattles to warn away intruders and then take up defensive positioning to do so. When hunting they are quite quiet.
The snake broke formation and headed deeper between the rocks. Mom took the opportunity presented – there was no way in hell she wanted that thing to just wonder away to hide and create a clear and present danger to all of us – she snatched the snake by the tail pulled it toward her and gave a chopping blow across it’s back, thinking she had cut it close to its head.
All of this happened while I held my friend on top of the boulder and told him not to cry, it will be ok.
She wasn’t as close to the head as she would like to have cut it. It was one of the largest rattlers mother had ever come across and she was sorely disappointed she only retrieved the last three feet of it. She kept the rattles and from the number of sections on it, the snake would have been roughly the ripe old age of seventeen – one section equally one year of life.
She gave me those rattles some ten years ago and I still have them, kept safe in a little medicine bag. With the story she shared and my brief memory of the day I have filled in the story and it almost feels as though I can remember it all but I don’t.