When I came home from summer camp in the Poconos in 1958, Knutt showed me a pair of turtles he’d caught in Queen Anne Creek. Silver-dollar-size painted terrapins basked on sunlit mats of watercress that grew against Queen Anne’s banks like barrier reefs beside the deeper, more quickly flowing clear-water channel midstream.

“They’re just like in a pet shop,” Knutt said, “but better, with these red-swirly edges.”

I turned one of the turtles over to check the bottom shell, the plastron.

“Two-year-old female,” I told him, passing on what Mr. Roger, the camp nature counselor had taught me.

A male’s plastron is deeply indented to allow it to mount the female, though Christian counselor Roger told us only that a female needed an un-indented plastron to press smooth the dirt it piled over its eggs. The concentric patterns on each segment of a turtle’s shell reveal age like tree rings. Grooves form during the slow growth of fall and winter, around the broad flat expanses of spring and summer. The turtles we caught were two-year-olds. A bumper crop of the 1956 hatch had survived, each with a groove-bordered square within the rectangle of each of the plates that made up a turtle’s shell.

Pants rolled up, I stood knee-deep in watercress while Knutt watched from the higher path for a turtle to dive from his approaching shadow.

“There,” he said, and I raked my fingers through the watercress where he pointed.

A turtle tumbled in the wake, and I grabbed when I felt it bump against a leg.

Out of the water, I started to pick at the leaches attached to my legs.

“Leave them on,” Knutt said, “We can stomp them on the street.”

After we popped the blood-engorged leeches, I rolled down my pants legs, soaked through by wicking action anyway. Then we headed into the neighborhoods with Knutt’s two turtles and the one I caught, to knock on doors.

Eventually, we sold a turtle to a laughing mother of two.

That took longer than we spent catching it.

Knutt suggested we go to Mr. Greene’s pet shop.

“Oh, I like this red marbling!” Mr. Greene said. “They’re perfect for the thirty-gallon display tank in the front window. Boys, I’ll pay you twenty-five cents wholesale for every turtle you catch.”

Queen Anne produced more turtles for Mr. Greene’s display. But, new to the pet-shop business, he knew nothing of its complex politics. We’d barely begun to fantasize about newfound fortunes before Pennsylvania State Fish and Game officers threatened to shut the pet shop down for selling a local species.

A combination of good rainfall and temperature, the growth of protective vegetation, food-chain production, low levels of predation against species fecundity had made 1956 a banner year for hatch and survival rates. In our greed, we could have set back painted terrapin populations in Queen Anne Creek and the lake it fed for generations. We could only nod agreement as our enterprise was ended.

“I found something even better,” Knutt said a week later.

Beyond the dam that held its lake, Queen Anne Creek was reborn to flow into the woods past St. Francis Cabrini Elementary. From there, it meandered through the Oxford Valley Golf Course. It expanded into broad, water-hazard pools at doglegs along the way.

The eight-hole hazard’s water was cool, almost cold on a late-summer day, and not as deep as it looked. After a short plunge beneath its flat, dark surface, my bare feet sunk into a silken ooze of black muck, where lost balls hung suspended like pearls in pudding. We found them as we prodded the ooze like winemakers stomping grapes. We plucked them from between our toes, churning water as we brought them to the surface to rinse them gleaming white.

Smart golfers used expendable balls for eight-hole shots: the battered and scarred, or striped ones taken from commercial driving ranges. Knutt and I sold those cheap to golfers at the water’s edge. A few golfers with egos greater than skills knocked in new balls that we sold back for seventy-five cents, sometimes a dollar or more each.

Harvey, the clubhouse manager, raced his red and white Ford Galaxy 500 across the course to interrupt our commerce. Along with half a dozen of our competitors, we waded out to where the water was deepest to jeer him as he cursed us from the bank. He swore he’d send us to jail before he’d be sued when one of us got beaned.

To avoid Harvey, we came and left through the woods over the upstream bank.

“Hey!” said Knutt one day, “My dad and his buddies golf. He says they’ll buy whatever we bring back. We can be off the course before anybody’s there, even Harvey.”

On the first Monday of September, the day before junior high classes were to begin, we were done before the voices of foursomes and the roar of Harvey’s Ford broke the peace. We climbed out of the eight-hole muck with a pillowcase full of balls, just as a snake headed down to the stream from the woods.

Knutt went to find the proverbial forked stick. I stood guard as the snake wound through a miniature rainforest of May apples on the black-loam bank. They were palm trees, and the snake the giant boa that swallowed the Swiss Family Robinson’s pet donkey whole. The great boa’s motion caused the trees to sway. I blocked the sixty-foot serpent’s approach to water with my wall-like hand.

Knutt returned to find me holding the snake behind the head with my right hand and sucking at a freely bleeding bite on my left.

The jaws I held bulged to give the snake’s head a triangular shape. Bands of red, edged in yellow and black, showed on its muddy, heaving sides. It wasn’t a copperhead and certainly not a timber rattlesnake, the only poisonous snakes known to live in Pennsylvania according to what Mr. Roger taught at camp. Still, there was something ominous in the shape of its head, and the red. Every kid knew that only poisonous snakes had red markings.

This thick-bodied, broad-headed snake looked similar to the poisonous water moccasin we’d seen at the zoo.

“Mr. Roger says that water moccasins only get up to the Swamp of Desolation (Dismal Swamp to those less biblically inclined than Mr. Roger) in Virginia, but maybe this is a stray.”

“We have to cut X’s into the fang marks,” Knutt said as he examined horseshoe shapes of blood-seeping pinpricks on the top and bottom surfaces between my thumb and forefinger. “They’ll be bigger.”

His eyes narrowed in concentration, and his jaw tightened the same way it did when he popped blood-fattened leeches.

“There aren’t any bigger ones,” I said, hoping he’d agree.

“Yeah, there are,” he said, pointing to a pair in the underside set, “Right here.”

“There’s no fangs in the lower jaw. Come on Knutt, put the knife away.”

He closed his jackknife and picked up his mother’s muddied silk pillowcase while I held the snake behind its head and continued to suck at the bite. We walked through the woods to the Fairless Hills Medical Center. A doctor needed to see the snake to know whether it was harmless and would make a good pet, despite my father’s admonition to let wild things be, that their lives were intrinsically linked to their environments and not in a box in a suburban bedroom.

The medical center, just a complex of doctors’ and dentists’ offices, was closed for Labor Day. A lone receptionist caught up on filing in one of the offices. Knutt explained the situation while I waited in the doorway.

“Don’t come in,” she called to me from behind her desk. “I can see it from here.”

“It’s big and fat and does have a triangular head,” she said on the phone. “No! That’s all I can see from here and I’m not getting any closer. Just send an ambulance.”

“Guess I’ll go home,” Knutt said as I sat down on the curb to wait.

A nurse peered out through the passenger-side window of the Cadillac ambulance that pulled up. The driver, a crew-cut volunteer dressed in white except for his scuffed black shoes and argyle socks, looked amused as he opened the back door for me, but stood clear as I climbed in with the snake. I sat on a white-sheeted gurney as he slammed the door.

I held the snake at arms-length toward the back of the ambulance and stretched the other arm out to the nurse. She shifted in her seat in front to dress the bite. Then she told the driver to use the lights and siren and get to the hospital pronto.

“I don’t like the looks of that snake,” she said with more irritation than compassion in her voice.

They left me on the Lower Bucks County Hospital emergency room loading dock and drove away.

Inside, a receptionist behind a window in a wall made a short, high-pitched sound as I approached.

Orderlies rushed over to steer me into a cubicle to wait for a doctor.

The snake had grown used to being held. It wrapped itself around my arm and didn’t fidget as long as I kept a fairly loose grip on its neck. Behind the curtain, sensing that it no longer intended to bite, I let it crawl passively from hand to hand, its tongue flicking. Fear resolved to curiosity as it explored the scents it found in the air around my now-relaxed hands.

“Shouldn’t you be holding its head?” a doctor asked, and then insisted.

He set down a tray of vials and a glass syringe with a long needle.

“The bite looks pretty clean; minimal erythema; no swelling. Antivenin will counteract the effects if it is poisonous. The sooner the better,” he explained as he examined my hand and arm. “But a reaction to antivenin can be as bad as any snakebite. Without toxic symptoms, I’ll need parental consent before I can take any action.”

I had no work number for either parent. The doctor seemed surprised. I wondered why. I was twelve, after all, and could fend for myself. The doctor left and returned with the police.

A nurse hefted a jar with the word, GOMCO and a scale in milliliters printed on its side. It had a black rubber stopper with clear glass tubes protruding, one straight and one bent. She handed the empty jar to one of the policemen. He put the big jar on an instrument table and stepped back.

“I need some help,” I said.

The other policeman stepped up, took the stopper out of the bottle and set it on the table. Then he stepped back.

I coiled the snake into the bottle tail first before I released its head, the way I’d seen Mr. Roger do. It retreated into its coils and I put the stopper back in the bottle. Only then did policemen, doctors, nurses, orderlies and other passers-by clamor for a turn to hold the bottle and peer at the snake.

“It’s a garden snake,” a man in a hospital gown said, but another said garden snakes don’t come that big.

“It’s a water moccasin.”

An orderly had seen a water moccasin when he was a kid in Georgia. Someone else had heard that sometimes rattlesnakes were born without rattles, and another insisted it was a cobra escaped from the zoo.

“They only show the hood when they’re mad.”

I sat in the waiting area and talked with a friendly man who showed me what he called his UPI card while the police took the bottled snake to the public library to sort through the possibilities in field guides.

Torn between a harmless southern species of water snake or a poisonous water moccasin, neither of which was supposed to be found within several hundred miles of the local golf course, the police took the snake to a veterinary clinic. The vet knew no more than they did about snakes. Told that a child’s life hung in the balance, he chloroformed the snake and dissected its head. He found no fangs or poison glands.

A friend was bicycling circles in front of the house when the police dropped me off.

“You’re on the news,” he called out.

My name echoed in junior high stairwells the next day. In other’s eyes, I was a hero.
 
 

Walker Thomas

WALKER THOMAS wandered into Southern Arizona wilderness and spent eight years. His recently completed memoir describes those eight years and the life that led him to live alone in a cave on a mountain. The Serpent of Eighth Hole is excerpted from a chapter of that manuscript.

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