Folks who have been reading this column for a while know that I’ve had some incredible near-death encounters over the years with an assortment of strange and fearsome critters – like bears, alligators, bobcats, and even a TSA agent at the airport that looked like a wrestler named Helga; and readers know that each time these strange encounters have occurred, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to save myself through the use of a trusty backpack.
Friends ask me from time to time if these stories are true. This doesn’t surprise me. After all, you can’t help but wonder how an ordinary guy like me could happen to have so many strange, almost outlandish, experiences. When asked, my answer is always the same. “Yes, as coincidental as it all sounds, my backpack critter stories are all true.”
I decided I would share with you the story of how it all began in hopes that doing so might reassure you of my trustworthiness, and possibly even sway the minds of a few avowed skeptics.
It all began when I started first grade back in 1952. We lived at the end of a dead end gravel road about a mile from where it intersected with a narrow paved road. At that intersection stood a one-room schoolhouse shaded by several old oak trees. The schoolhouse was red, but otherwise looked like an old country church with a steeple bell. Precisely one half hour before school started each morning we could hear the sound of that big bell rolling through the countryside, as Mrs. Roberts pulled the rope up and down to make the bell ring exactly eight times.
I and my older brothers and sister were among the 25 or 30 kids who walked to and from that old schoolhouse each day. With lunch pails in one hand and books tied together with a long strap in the other hand, we kicked stones and laughed at each others silly jokes as we walked the mile or so to school.
As a side note, I was the only one that didn’t tie my books together with a strap. I had asked Mom if I could have the old clothespin bag to carry my books in. She said yes, so I slipped a belt through the little handles on each edge of the opening in a way that aloud me to throw it over my shoulder like a backpack. I wish I could say that this was my idea, but I actually got the idea from another first grader named Jerry whose Dad had made one just like it for him.
As the youngest in our family and with this being my first year of school, Mom told my brothers to look after me. Their way of doing so was to always make me walk in front of them all the way to school. But one morning about six weeks into the year, as we were leaving for school I had to pee real bad. I decided to make a quick trip to the outhouse, figuring I could run and catch up with my brothers and sister. Well I took a little longer than I’d planned (an unexpected #2), and my brothers and sister were well out of sight by the time I’d finished my business.
I decided there was no need to run, I’d just be a big boy and walk to school by myself. So I headed up the road with my lunch pail in hand and my clothespin backpack flung over my shoulder.
It was late fall and the leaves were mostly off the trees, almost covering the gravel road in places. I kicked at the leaves as I walked, wishing I had coaxed our old hound dog to tag along with me. I was about halfway to school when I stepped on what felt like a large stick under the leaves. With my foot still on the stick I leaned over to pick it up to throw it in the woods. But as I did, I felt it move and it began to rattle. I froze in my tracks with my foot still firmly placed on the stick, except now I knew it wasn’t a stick, it was a two foot long rattlesnake that had crawled onto the road looking for some autumn sunshine.
The snake was thrashing around but not biting me because, as luck would have it, my foot had landed squarely on its head. I was too scared to move and too sacred to yell for help, and for a long moment I just stood there paralyzed with fear. But I quickly realized that I had to do something. Trembling, I stooped down, let go of my lunch pail, and took hold of that snake by the back of the head just like I had watched one of my older brothers do on a walk in the woods.
I slid the snake into my clothespin backpack and gave it a twist to close it tight. I left my lunch pail sitting in the middle of the road and used both hands to keep the bag closed, holding it out in front of me as I walked the rest of the way to school.
You can imagine the reception I got when I walked into the classroom holding my clothespin backpack like it was a hand grenade without a pin, and excitedly began to tell Mrs. Roberts and all of the kids what had happened. At first some of them didn’t believe me because there was no movement or sound coming from the backpack. But when my oldest brother took the backpack from me the snake began to move and rattle.
The whole classroom let out a shriek and Mrs. Roberts nearly fainted. My brother carried the backpack outside and with everyone gathered around he began to pound on it with a rock. When there was no more movement or noise coming from the backpack he opened it and dumped the dead snake on the ground. Everybody cheered, and for the next few weeks I was the most popular kid in school.
Well, that’s how it all began. It was a terrifying experience for a 6-year-old boy. But the good thing that came of that experience is that I’ve never really been afraid of having a close encounter with a critter, as long as I have a backpack with me. And that’s the truth.