On the River

The morning was still and quiet, and we worked silently in the coolness of the early dawn. I was at the motor, keeping the nose of the boat against the current, tucked under an overhanging willow tree. Daddy was in the front of the boat, tying a new trotline onto the base of the tree. We would stretch that line across the muddy Hatchie River, bait the 20 or so hooks, and wait for the fish to bite. But only if we got this line tied.

I couldn’t see Daddy at all through the leafy mess. I could hear the words he was using as he struggled to keep his balance, and tie off the line. Some of the words I knew, some I didn’t. And so Dad had worked up quite a frustration when the very large cotton-mouth snake fell out of the tree and into the middle of our boat.
As a young man of 14 or so, I still thought of my dad as a fearless man of steel, sinew, and bone, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But the man I saw at that moment was anything but fearless. It was really more a case of self-preservation, I think. For when that snake fell into our boat and began frantically trying to escape by crawling toward the front of the boat, dad’s brain disengaged and his fear kicked in. He grabbed his trusty rusty .22 rifle, pumped a shell into the chamber and zeroed in on the poisonous snake.

And I watched this action unfold, it dawned on me that my dad was not fearless when it came to poisonous snakes in close proximity. I also realized that Daddy was about to shoot several holes in the bottom of our aluminum boat, while we were several miles down river from the boat ramp. With great poise and precision, I screamed like a schoolgirl and threw dad the paddle I kept in the back of the boat. And I backed the boat from under the tree, in case he had a twin brother. Or father. Daddy dropped the rifle, picked up the paddle, and with a savage fury began to beat the poor snake to a bloody pulp. With great, wood-chopping blows, daddy wielded that paddle like a 10 –pound sledge hammer, blow after blow, until there was nothing left but a slimy 6 foot black body ending in a bloody mess on the front seat of the boat.
I didn’t know what to say. Daddy was out of breath from exertion and, I suppose, fear, so he didn’t say anything either. For a moment, we sat looking at each other. Dad slowly reached down with the shredded stump of the paddle (that was all that was left) and scooped the snake out into the water, where it slowly disappeared beneath the muddy waves. I had to ask, “Daddy, were you really gonna shoot that snake in the boat?” I don’t remember his response, but I do remember- all these years later- regretting that I asked the question.

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