Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Boys became proficient in snake skinning to get a coat

I was challenged by a reader of a recent column in which I claimed to have been in on the deaths of thousands of snakes. Well, I’m a country boy, okay?

And as the firstborn son, I was handed the parental responsibility of killing snakes around the house and yard, so Big Robert wouldn’t have to worry with that any more. Back then, the yard more or less covered not only what I had to mow around the house, but the milking barn and pasture on the east, the haybarn and store and shop and pasture to the west, as well as the Mammy Grudge ditchbank which borders all of the above on the south, and which we daily skinny-dipped in.

Our hunting or frog-gigging escapades took in the next mile or so of the Mammy Grudge, plus the swamp woods to the southeast, and we had confirmation of how snakey those were by Official U.S. Sources.  A couple of decades ago we were spending a summer afternoon at the Swimming Hole, when a truckload of young men drove by, stopped, backed up, debated, then discharged the driver, who approached us.  

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“Mr. Neill?” he greeted me, “This is the coolest-looking place we’ve seen in weeks. Would you mind if we got in and cooled off a while?”

He talked nicely enough, but this was obviously one of the sweatiest, dirtiest, stinkingest young men that I had seen in a while, and his companions standing in the road looked no less disreputable.  

“Not like you are right now,” I replied mildly. “But if y’all strip off over by that hydrant under the cypress tree while Miss Betsy goes for a pitcher of mint tea, and wash off with the hose first, sure, you can jump in and cool off.”

They raced for the cypress.

Later, the leader told me that they were a survey crew for one of the Guv’mint departments charged with measuring the levels of the tributaries of the Mississippi River, out to about 25 miles of the channel itself.

“Mr. Neill, we’ve been all the way down the west side of the river this summer, and back up the east side from the Gulf to here, and you’ve got more big mean water moccasins down in those swamp woods than anywhere else we’ve ever been!”

I asked them back.

But being overrun with poisonous snakes isn’t why I’ve excelled at killing lots of them. No, I blame that on the actor Marlon Brando, who starred in a film (I think it was “On the Waterfront”) in which he wore a snakeskin jacket.

Troy was my across-the-pasture neighbor and big brother, and we saw that show together, which “flang a cravin’” upon us for snakeskin jackets ourownselves.

We approached Miz Mac right away.

“If we get the snakeskins, will you sew us snakeskin jackets for next fall, please, Ma’am?”

She was quite negative: “Not in this life!” and went on washing dishes.

So we went to Miz Janice. My mother was churning butter at the time, reading a book, and listening to the kitchen radio. Troy and I went to the fridge for mint tea, and as we headed back outside with cups, I stuck my head back in to ask, “Hey, Momma: if Troy and I get the skins, would you sew us a couple of snakeskin jackets, please, Ma’am?”  

She never looked up from her book: “Sure.”

Troy and I shot up probably a thousand 22 cartridges apiece that summer. We hunted ruthlessly for the poisonous moccasins and copperheads (we didn’t have many rattlesnakes around Brownspur), but we didn’t cull any serpent large enough to donate its epidermis to the Cause. Chicken snakes, rat snakes, blue runners, puff adders, water snakes, even large garter snakes were fair game.  

We became experts at snake-skinning: if one cuts the head off of a snake and shucks the skin back six inches from the neck, then sticks the still-writhing neck up to a sapling or fence post, the snake will obligingly hold itself to the object whilst one shucks its skin off. We then salted and dried them on the wall of Troy’s garage.

When school started that fall, we proudly marched up to my mother with two bales of dried snakeskins, cleaned and all ready for sewing into jackets.

It’s the only time that I recall my mother lying to me. She wouldn’t do it!