The large stand of trees beside our house on Chestnut Ridge was known as Half Acre Woods, although I’m not sure why. As I recall, the woods must have measured a mile square, but I was only seven at the time and you know how it is with remembering things as being bigger than they actually were when we were kids.
Whatever its size, Half Acre Woods was what you would call a perfect woods. It was the sort of place you could imagine a weary traveler stopping by on a wintry evening to watch the woods fill up with snow, while pondering the tasks he still has to complete and the miles he still has to go before he sleeps.
Half Acre Woods belonged to the farmer up the road, as did the little house we rented, and all of the fields and hillsides that surrounded us. In those days there were no “No Trespassing” signs so we – my brothers, sister, and I – assumed it all belonged to us to explore at will, so long as no one told us otherwise.
Spring would find us climbing to the top of young maple trees near the edge of Half Acre Woods to ride and sway in the breeze. In the fall we waded through great piles of leaves shed by the trees, sometimes lying down in them to soak up the autumn sun as we watched puffy white clouds slowly drift by; and in the winter we would stockpile arsenals of snowballs behind large trees for snowball fights.
But summer was our favorite time to play in Half Acre Woods. By mid-June the canopy was so dense it made the woods cool even on the hottest of days, which was perfect for playing tag or hide and seek. The dense canopy also made summertime the deepest, darkest, and most foreboding time of year in Half Acre Woods, which brings me to the point of this story.
I have always been a sound sleeper, but for some reason one summer night in 1953 I couldn’t turn my brain off. The fact that we had no air conditioning, which made it sweltering hot in the top bunk, no doubt contributed to my sleeplessness. I tossed and turned as the cuckoo clock in the living room plaintively called out the hours – first ten cuckoos, then eleven, and finally twelve. And at the very moment the cuckoo clock sounded midnight, as if it were some kind of omen, I remembered I had left my backpack at the base of the old oak tree in the deepest part of Half Acre Woods.
The giant old oak was the largest and no doubt the oldest tree in those woods. Over the years several of its giant limbs had given way to the winds of time and fallen to the ground; and the base of the old oak was so eroded a small boy could sneak under it to conceal himself while playing hide and seek, which explains why this was the location of my forgotten backpack.
Fully awake, I decided to go to the woods and retrieve the backpack. I quickly dressed, then paused just long enough to decide that tip-toeing into Mom and Dad’s bedroom to get their flashlight was not a good idea. Instead, I slipped out the back door, went straight to Queenie’s doghouse and unchained her to go with me. It’s not that I was afraid to go into Half Acre Woods at night by myself, but it did seem like a good idea to have Queenie, our German Shepherd Border Collie mix, go with me just in case I met up with a varmint of some kind.
If Half Acre Woods was scary on moonlit nights, it was even scarier in the pitch black darkness of a new moon. As Queenie and I entered the words, I heard an owl calling overhead. He seemed to be saying, “Whoo-whoo-whoo-r-you”, and he followed us into the woods, repeating his call several more times as we made our way to the old oak tree.
When we arrived there was my backpack right where I had left it. Placing it over my shoulder I turned to head toward home, at least I thought I was heading toward home. The problem was that paths led in every direction from the old oak tree and in the pitch black darkness all I could see was the glow of Queenie’s eyes, and she apparently was counting on me to find our way home. After about five minutes of walking I found myself back at the base of the old oak tree. I had gone in a circle.
I sat down with Queenie at my side and managed to hold back tears of fear as I tried to decide which way to go. Suddenly I felt something cold and slimy on my neck. In one motion I jumped to my feet and grabbed for the object on my neck. As soon as I touched it I knew it was a snake but it had already wrapped itself around my neck and I could feel its tongue flickering on my chin. Apparently the snake had found its way into my backpack. Now, its sleep having been disturbed, it decided to escape, but, unfortunately for me, its escape route was around my neck rather than around a limb of the old oak tree.
Meanwhile, with all the commotion Queenie had started barking, which only made the snake squeeze even tighter around my neck. I got hold of it with both hands and pulled as hard as I could, but the snake was getting the best of me. I was starting to have a hard time breathing and thought I was going to pass out when from somewhere up in the oak tree I heard, “Whoo-Whoo”, and then a soft swooshing sound as the big owl came flying down, grabbed the head of that snake in his talons right in front of my nose, then flew back up into the oak tree.
I stood there half dazed for a minute rubbing my neck, gathering my nerves, and trying to decide which way to go. Luckily, this was answered for me as I spotted the glow of Dad’s flashlight off in the distance. At first I thought someone had discovered I was gone and Dad was coming to look for me, but then the light disappeared and I realized he had just made a trip to the outhouse. I walked in the direction of where the light had been and, sure enough, it reappeared for a minute as Dad made his way back to the house where both he and the light disappeared inside.
As I reached the safety of our yard I heard the owl call one last time. This time he seemed to be saying. “Whoo-whoo-good- chew.” Apparently the owl had appreciated the meal he had made of the snake as much as I had appreciated him saving me from it.
Mom thought it strange when I slept in late the next morning but with my backpack hanging in its usual place no one suspected I had been gone. I decided to keep the story to myself, thinking the rest of the family would just say it was a crazy dream or another one of my tall tales.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.