Probably the best place to begin is at the beginning:
The Angel And The Moccasin Can
A Story by Chris Queen
A CHERISHED WILDERNESS
It was after school. His favorite times of the day were, first recess, lunch, second recess and time to go home. And nothing has changed. Tommy and he had taken to their fairly usual exploration of the swampy woods behind Tommy’s house and to the South, in what would, not too far in their future be a new subdivision called Castle Manor, next to the new one they also lived in called Fountain Estates.
Not that long in the past it had all been wilderness behind the row of houses in which Tommy and his family lived. But recent to that day, and a fine day it was by the way, there in Slidell, Louisiana, indeed, the excavating crew had arrived, a few weeks before that day, with big yellow Caterpillar bulldozers and a big yellow earth mover to begin the final domestication of their cherished small wilderness across the street and a little to the north of the house his family and he lived in.
The stakes with yellow streamers to mark off the boundaries of the excavating guidelines for the streets of fair Castle Manor were driven and the sculpting was soon thereafter begun. The wilderness originally featured a landscape consisting of waves in the earth about two to three feet high alternating with the valleys about two to three feet below regular mother earth in elevation and these waves were six to eight feet, from high spot.
The high spots and low spots, altogether looking like the waves on the sea except for the lush vegetation. They’d been told these were the remains of some agriculture there pursued perhaps 50 to 100 years before, based on the assumed age of the oak trees as they stood. Dad had told him the land in question had been a rubber plantation. But, at six, he had no interest in any investigation to determine the original use of what perhaps 50 years later became their fantastic playground and zoological discovery laboratory at the edge of their neighborhood. Many years later he holds the precious views and memories of the place in his mind and in his heart. Parts of his heart break and other parts smile and sing with the birds of the place long gone now and forever more, except in the folds of memory and time.
THE NORTH SHORE
Tommy was six years old, as was he, on that spring day of his second grade year in Mrs. Tarnoc’s class and Tommy in Mrs. Jap’s first grade class. Mom had decided his younger brother, Doug and he were more trouble than she cared to single handedly oversee for another year and put him into school a year early beginning the first grade in Metairie, over in New Orleans, the previous fall at age five. Not long thereafter his mom and dad had begun looking to build a house on what is now dubbed the North Shore, those in Slidell, Mandeville, Lacombe and whatever other towns there are on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, now. The house in Fountain Estates in the Cape Cod style “The House That Jack Built” as the house plan, still in his possession somewhere, read. Jack being Jack DeWald, builder in Slidell, who was reaping the aerospace buildup windfall, many of the locals were exploiting as well.
Florida Avenue Elementary School was literally beginning to burst at the seams.
By the fifth grade in Mrs. Baker’s class there were 47 students and one teacher. Recalling they’d had to fill out paperwork each year with the teachers, beginning with Miss Rocket (3rd grade), Mrs. Contoise (4th grade), Mrs. Baker (5th grade) and Mrs. Scarf in (6th grade), asking their overfilled classrooms full of students, who, among them had fathers working on the government space program. This because the federal government subsidized school districts hit with huge costs per the glut of students. The massive project and economies of scale meant little to two six year old’s in their swiftly vanishing swampy woods.
Dad’s incredible engine. Zero-6,000 mph in 2.5 minutes! Above left is Rocket Assembly building at Cape Canaveral, like the one at Michoud.
THE CARNIVOROUS FLORA
Local plant life included sundew and pitcher plants, fascinating as carnivorous. A small stand, perhaps fifteen, pitcher plants was great fun touching the inside flap at the top of the vase-like tube and the plants would quickly close the flap entrapping whatever had made the error of flying into natures bug eater. Once inside the victim would fall into the digestive fluid filling the bottom. Curtains bug!
At every low spot of the earthen waves, was six to ten inches of water providing habitat for the citizens of nature who preferred it wet. As anyone, would walk along on top of the berm parallel to the tiny rivers, on either side, in the troughs, frogs would jump from the bank with a splash or be seen underwater pushing off and stretching full length, some of the bullfrogs a foot long, at full extension.
Then repeat the graceful orchestration of motion. There also, in the motionless water, were turtles from the mud turtles which had to be carefully handled because they would always bite, if given the chance. Most were in the 4-5 inches in size but in the harbor across the lake he’d seen them big enough to cover the tops of harbor pilings (looks like a telephone pole extending perhaps one foot to four feet above the surface of the lake). Then of course there was his favorite the legendary snapping turtle. Dangerous, and lightning fast, he’d once seen one two and a half feet across out in Bayou Liberty. A snapping turtle that large can do permanent damage if he were to get a hold of you. Legend, among the locals, has it, they don’t let go until they hear a thunder clap.
There were also toads five to six inches in diameter when crouching for a hop, in the insect infested swampy environment. A toad motivates with sort of a clumsy looking hop covering six inches, per iteration, rather than, by comparison, the powerful jump of three feet or more for the more graceful bullfrog. Chameleons, actually, Anoles, camouflage capable, able to turn brown on tree limbs and bright green when in the foliage were everywhere. Swift, such that only children were able to catch them, adults being larger and longer never had a chance, as he discovered many years later on his only visit there since he was himself a child.
And there were tadpoles everywhere in the troughs. Tiny ones the length of a child’s thumb to the first joint, the offspring of bright green tree frogs usually found to be about an inch and a half long as adults. Then the bullfrog tadpoles about four inches long, overall, with their head being an inch and a half long sometimes. The boys used to capture a few of them and put them in a large gold fish bowl and feed them fish food and bugs as they morphed over a few weeks into frogs about two inches long. At first they would develop hind legs and sort of wing looking gill structures at the back of their heads at the jaws. Then they would develop front legs looking like a frog more each day until finally, that was what they were. It was fascinating for a child to watch.
MY LITTLE FRIENDS
Where there are frogs we also find our deadly little friend the cotton mouth or water moccasin, as the Pre-European local tribes (Indians) called them due to their graceful swimming ability. They seem to walk atop the water when they swim in very graceful style. Poisonous, rarely deadly, as a relative of the various species of Rattlesnakes as well the copperhead, the copperhead, one of the most beautiful creatures there is to see because of its multi-toned bronze, brown and copper figured skin.
SNAKES THE FIRST NEAR MISS
As a boy of five he saw a rattlesnake in New Orleans which workmen had killed and hung over an eight foot high cyclone fence and it was just shy of touching the ground on either side of the fence. One of the neighbors in Metairie, i.e. New Orleans before the move, grew tomatoes in his front flower bed. His son, perhaps ten, was picking a tomato and there was sudden motion as a baby rattlesnake struck to bite him. Fortunately his hand was out of the snake’s strike range and the reptile missed. Of these cousins, all called pit vipers, the rattlesnake is the fastest, legend, has it, the fastest snake on earth with a documented strike speed of over 100 miles per hour. The water moccasin is a close second, it is claimed, yet a much more aggressive animal. They will pursue you, if cornered, and are far more territorial. Rattlesnakes have a rattle on their tail beginning at a year of age and they will warn you by rattling. The moccasin on the other hand is utterly silent until he is coiled and then he will hiss at you, an evil sounding breathy and powerful hiss, out of the big ones, and it is his last warning. He means business and will do whatever he can to bite you if you persist, pursuing you to do so. Time to run!
THE REST OF THE CROWD
The field of species there in the waters of the nearby swampy woods was rounded out by the minnow, food for the birds of the air, the turtle, the frog and other omnivores and carnivores. Then of course the craw dads called crayfish by Yankees. Yes the civil war was still being fought 99 years later in the south by a few die hard Rebel souls, though, the author has met far more hard core racists in the north than he ever did in the south. Back to the miniature lobsters a matter of cuisine to locals and tourists.
Nightfall finds them making their absurd racket, a sort of singing chirp and deadened clicks, as they rubbed their claws together trying to attract some pleasure in a mate. This from absurd little mud chimneys seen anywhere there was enough moisture to suit the builder. It was great fun to kick off like a football player while walking along sending the mud stack chimneys hurling into the air. And in the canal, as streams were called there by the locals, running beside the neighborhood, they would use a wad of bacon on a string in the deep pool of water, up near Robert Road and Fountain Drive, the divided boulevard leading into their neighborhood, to entice and catch five to six inch long bright red craw daddies.
CATCHING CRAW DADS
They were so interested in the bacon with their claws firmly closed and mouths devouring the meat that, they neglected to gather they were being captured by young children from above. They would let go and hit the ground with their one inch long red claws raised and opened for business or flop their tails trying to regain the water for safety. They could easily be picked up from behind by the body armor-like shell, arching to get you with their claws. No dice. Yes there were Alligators too. Over at the Bayou! A ways away. Special Occasions, not everyday. They are very quick. Gus Baldwin owned an estate out on Bayou Liberty, near Pontchartrain and had a pond full of them.
BIRDS OF THE AIR
Looking up toward the Spanish moss clothed oak trees and the southern yellow pines, a very sticky sappy, bleeding tree, there were birds of extraordinary variety. The red headed woodpeckers banging away after bugs in the bark and wood of the trees, yellow bellied sap suckers, cardinals and screeching blue jays, nest raiding pirates of the air. Egrets and also pelicans as you neared the lakes and the bayous. Of course the sparrows and robins, finches and a plethora of others, including the Louisiana state bird.
SONG OF THE SOUTH
At dusk, there was begun each evening through spring, summer and fall, an orchestra of nature to include the singing birds, the rhythm provided by the crawdads, bass from the bullfrogs and mating turtles some of the music lasting well into the dark night.
A FINE SPRING DAY
On this spring day, after exiting Mr. Crow’s bus, which they rode home from Florida Avenue Elementary each day, it was warm with the normal daytime sounds, much more about people than wildlife. The noisy machine sculpting of the workmen had progressed until the bed of roads in three directions from the original dead end perhaps reaching ten feet beyond Tommy’s families home’s property line the concrete there ending abruptly, remaining so for the first fall and winter we all resided in our brand new homes in Fountain Estates. Additional to these roadbeds exposing the clay, workers apparently, as tough as woodpeckers lips, had dug a deep sharp banked twelve or so feet deep valley perhaps fifteen feet across from the clay of the area. That clay was as tough as concrete, mostly gray with red and with nodules of beautiful white clay revealed wherever water flowed. Their swamp was there, now, a dusty clay expanse of perhaps seventy yards wide and five hundred or so long toward the south also cleared to the east and the north as well. Being readied for concrete streets with tar seamed expansion joints after a layer of shells, no rocks on the delta, dredged from waterways was laid and the concrete men did their irreparable harm. Lots were also staked off and the real estate and housing developers were soon to follow.
THE LAZY WALK
The ditch as they called the huge valley running all the way the length of the newly scarred and transformed swampland perhaps two thirds of the way from the eastern irregular boundary of the clearing, for construction, was an irresistible attraction to the pair of six year old’s. Tommy followed along, that day, up on the edge as the other walked along in the bottom of the ravine.
The water table in the ground in that part of southeastern Louisiana was such that any hole dug would fill with water within a half hour and the workmen had installed a pump fifty yards or so behind the dead end street to continuously work to restrict the water from refilling the valley. There was perhaps two feet of water at the deepest parts through the center with enough room to walk on either side of the water filled bottom on mud shoals. Watching the frogs jump and swim as progress down the valley was slowly being made, the boys meandered along.
Don’t know if the Angel screamed stop or held the leg suspended in the air for the required time to barely gather from the five or six senses there was movement below the right bare foot as it was about to be planted for another bipedal switch from one planted and the other lifted foot, but focus very swiftly returned to the daydreaming wanderer there in grave danger unawares. The little devil was there in the mud at water’s edge awaiting the next instant to defend itself, in potentially poisonous fashion, fangs displayed and at the ready for twin hypodermic delivery. Delivery of tissue destroying and neurotic serum of pain, and death to the boy who’d invaded its space. The cottony white mouth and tiny twin fangs, proving the snake was at the ready. The boy retracted his right leg and retreated, a step or two then called up to Tommy who’d taken two more steps along the ridge in the tense moment, “SNAKE!” “COTTON MOUTH!”
Tommy stopped above while his companion climbed the shear clay wall to the illusion of safety above the potent, painful near miss. The snake had missed in his first attack on a human being, as had long ago been written in the books. Soon standing on the edge of the ravine with Tommy looking down at the primitive creature below previously cursed to eating dust and crawling on his belly as the story goes. On that day and on the bank above the boy believed it all, the Angels, serpents, and had a graphic lesson about listening to momma and danger in that big ditch.
THE TABLES TURNED
The next words Tommy heard were, “Let’s kill it.” The boy picked up a nice sized dirt clod and let her fly toward the evil little devil. Missed him but he reacted and looked up to the edge where two murderous boys safely stood out of its reach. He let another one fly, this time landing on the snake’s body driving it into the mud a little bit. Tommy soon joined in dropping bombs on the actually innocent child of some serpent momma who’d recently been given reptilian birth and after a few weeks, momma watched her baby move off on his own for instinct to teach him the rest of the ways of survival in his world. But of two bombardier human children instinct had no solution or cure, once the biting and poisoning had failed, the snake was as good as dead.
A SNAKE’S LAST LESSON
The snake was learning his last lesson about dominion in the earth and who is actually possessed of it. After perhaps twenty more dirt bombs, from above, striking the snake completely buried from near head to tail, the next words Tommy heard were, “He’s dead.” Then, “I’m going to go down and get him so we can show our moms we killed the snake.” Grabbing a small sized discarded coffee can he found nearby the boy, also grabbing a small stick he saw, then beginning his climb back down the shear bank he approached the scene of the deadly airstrike.
THE MOCCASIN CAN
Carefully, yet carelessly, a matter of wisdom he was ever gaining, the boy picked up the dirt clods off of the formerly threatening small animal of perhaps twelve inches until the twisted and battered snake was fully exposed. Holding the coffee can in his left hand and the stick in his right he wormed the stick in under the snake’s un-moving body about the middle of its length and dropped the un-moving being into the can. Then making a one handed climb to the world above, he set the can on the edge while he completed his exit from the underworld, his kill in hand.
DRAGON SLAYERS’ MARCH
The triumphant dragon slayers then made their way the three hundred or so yards back to Tommy’s back patio. Setting the can on the picnic table they went inside to report success in battle to Tommy’s mom. Premonition, perhaps, and very concerned Tommy’s mom asked where is the snake now? Out here she was told her as they exited the sliding glass door out to the patio. As they walked to the table they detected movement in the coffee can. The can was holding a moccasin, an alert moccasin as mad as a moccasin has ever been. Attempting to strike when he saw their faces above the can, certainly disoriented and no doubt with a concussion and numerous contusions the water moccasin just wanted to bite someone to exact revenge.
TWO HORRIFIED MOTHERS
Soon there was a small piece of plywood over the can and Tommy’s mom was on the phone to the other boy’s mother in the Five O clock time frame, when carpooling dads would soon return from their rocket designing jobs, over at the Michoud Rocket Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
Next Tommy’s siblings, as well as the two horrified moms appeared to view the little P.O.W. in the can. Paul, Tommy’s oldest brother, then in junior high removed the plywood to find the same feisty murderously mad, hornet of a snake repeatedly coiling and striking at the movement of the gawking human beings way beyond his strike range. Tommy’s older brother Billy, then, a fourth grader, as well his two older sisters, Linda, then in high school and Marjorie also in grade school, the other boy’s younger brother Doug, then five, and the two horrified mothers were viewing the miniature horror movie awaiting two dads who no doubt would have their own take on all of this children’s folly; and new warnings, wisdom and perhaps belt lashings to share. Sheepishly Tommy and the other watched and waited as the scene unfolded.
Soon the white 1963 Ford Falcon station wagon came into view from the south on Cawthorn Drive. Seeing the gathering of both families in total there, in the back yard, from the driveway facing the portion of dead end, street, two fathers, exited the car to determine what all the excitement was about.
WARNINGS AND THE NEW FASCINATION
The next few minutes, perhaps fifteen of them, were filled with interrogations and the retelling of and by two young boys and their afternoon’s experiences in mortal snake combat and the partially successful, yet ultimately unsuccessful bombing mission to kill the snake. Merely, they had by their actions, made him mad and more dangerous than ever and barely missing his return to consciousness with the small coffee can and its poisonous cargo in hand. The dads seemed to be less about anger or horror, and as men understanding these were boys, and extraordinarily curious, they were not mad, as the two feared, they would be, until their arrival, though they were clearly concerned.
TWO FATHERS SPEAK
The boys had barely missed the fang treatment and then a trip to the hospital a few blocks away for administering of anti-venom. Tommy’s dad was the more vocal explaining the situation to all of his children and the rest of them in graphic detail. He said, “You could be messing with one snake while another one comes up behind you and grabs you”, making menacing fang attack pantomimes with his index and middle finger of his right hand while he spoke in ominous tone. Never to be forgotten, all understanding the logic of his words designed to strike a respectful fear of these dreadful, yet beautiful creatures and events into them. Memory of that day would remain for life, but not of being afraid, because a new fascination had been born that day for these poisonous vipers living in the edge of the enticing frontier.
Of course Tommy’s mom and the other boy’s mom added to the script with their fears, and terrors, buoyantly rising to the top of their conscious minds and trying to instill motherly fear into their sons. They tried to warn the boys away from the wilderness and especially the wet places around, and the poisonous threat they had been forced to see that day face to face. The other boy’s mother had already expressed her stress born of the fact that, usually her two would change clothes three times per day, due to being up to their wastes in the dark, mysterious muddy water filled with harmful things, as she now more clearly understood. She was happier if they sat on the front porch at dusk watching the flying squirrels glide between the house and the pair of live oak trees in the front yard. But all he knew was the next day he, perhaps with Tommy, would be back at the canal searching for the brothers and sisters or the mom and pop of this deadly little varmint in the can, still hissing and striking at any movement above the opening. Unbeknownst to the boy, it would take a few days to regain his swamp rights and freedom. The snake was viciously angry and looking for meat to sink his tiny fangs into.
Then Tommy’s dad carefully picked up the can and set it on the concrete of the patio and told everyone to get back. He got a ball bat, there leaning against the back of the house next to the sliding glass door. And with aggressive anger poked the end of the bat into the end of can and watched the little devil strike the bat a few times and then thrust the end of the bat down perhaps five times in a ferocious manner. Then he withdrew the bat from the can. He looked for second, then presumably for any movement and found none. They stepped forward to look and saw pink ball bat formed rings of moccasin meat his head also smashed to smithereens, like the majority of his long torso, if that’s how you, anatomically speaking, label the body of a snake?
The can was of course bent a little out of shape, the bottom no longer indented, in machine pressed concave, but the opening still revealed the dead snake and one of the two boys would never forget the finality in the ending of the snake’s life. Water moccasins became his favorite fascinating toy that day, later to be joined by two more menacing creatures, the snapping turtle and the alligators over at Bayou Liberty. Snapping turtles were everywhere for a couple more years near the developing neighborhood.
ALL LOST IN THE TWENTY NINE YEARS
Twenty nine years after returning to the Seattle area, leaving Slidell, August 16, (day before Camille hit and killed 137 people a few miles down the road at Pass Christian) in 1969, he visited the old neighborhood for the first time. All things were still recognizable though modified somewhat, except, Florida Avenue Elementary School looked exactly like it did that last day, temporary classrooms still there on the north end of the campus. He still remembers saying goodbye to Leslie that last day of sixth grade. The Fountain Estates pool looked the same even painted the same colors, he’d been the very first official swimmer in that pool, after testing it out unofficially before it was completed. But that is another story.
That is the story of the Angel And The Moccasin Can. I carried the can and the story is true. Chris Queen 2017.