Dog Days Reading: George & The Cottonmouth
In Memory of My Uncle George Fager
The first thing I noticed when we drove into my Fager grandparents’ front yard in St. Paul. Kansas was not their small frame house, not the field behind it, nor the barn at the other end of the yard. The first thing I noticed was the outhouse. And I can still recall it clearly after more than sixty years.
The outhouse, the barn, the river and the snake, that’s what I remember best from that summer visit when I was about ten–in 1952, or was it 1953? The year, like a lot of the rest has faded from my mind, and since I can’t go back there anymore, I want to tell what I remember, so it all doesn’t fade away, or at least not as fast.
St. Paul was–and is–a little town in the grassy southeast corner of the state. It was such a small town that mapmakers often forgot to put it on the Kansas road maps. Even when they remembered, it was just a tiny bump on the thin black line connecting two other dots marked Erie and Girard.
We drove into town on that thin black line, Kansas State Highway 47. About the only stretch of Highway 47 that might interest a mapmaker, or any other grownup, was a mile or two west of St. Paul. There it crossed the shiny steel tracks of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, which was called the Katy Line, and then mounted a rickety-looking bridge over the muddy Neosho River.
I’ll get to the river and the railroad later. When our dark red Lincoln turned onto that highway, on the other side of town from them, we had driven almost two thousand miles from California. It must have been an awful trip; there were five or maybe six of us crammed into the car. It was hot, and we had been driving for across vast empty spaces in Nevada, Utah, and eastern Colorado, stopping to sleep crowded into undersized motel beds. The kids, of which I was the oldest, had probably been bored and squabbling much of the way.
Fortunately, that part of the trip has completely faded from my memory, and I don’t mind at all. After all the driving, St. Paul must have looked good to my parents, and I know it looked like heaven to us kids. It was strange, it was new, and above all, it was our destination. If nothing else, getting there would mean we could finally get out of the car and run around.
We came in from the east, and the first sign of the town was a big stone Catholic church built by missionaries who had tried to convert the Osage Indians. Converted or not, the the Osage Indians were long gone by this time, and so were the missionaries. But the big stone church was still there.
I had been inside the church, and recalled it as being mostly dark inside, with tall grey columns holding up a distant arched ceiling. Statues of saints stood on either side, their plaster hands raised longingly toward the big white cross near the front altar, their painted faces half-lit by glowing rows of candles that flickered in red and blue glass cups at their feet. I also remembered a priest’s voice, murmuring Latin words I didn’t understand, echoing through the dimness along with the drifting smell of incense.
We drove past the church, all the way to the other end of town, which was only half a dozen or so blocks away, to where Grandpa and Grandma Fager’s house stood on the corner. Grandma and Grandpa had raised nine children in their little house, of which my father was the oldest. They were all grown and gone now, scattered across half the country. All, that is, except the youngest, my uncle George, who was about nineteen, slim and muscular and tanned brown from working in the summer sun.
My other grandparents, the O’Briens, lived in St. Paul too, in a larger brick house a few blocks away. I was born in that house, while my father was away learning to fly bombers in World War Two. The O’Briens had had seven children, with my mother in the middle, and they were all grown too. On this trip, though, the Fagers were the main ones we had come to visit.
As I said, Grandpa and Grandma Fager were farmers, and behind their house was a field and a barn. The barn was where the first big excitement of our visit happened, when my sister and brother and I climbed up into the hayloft with our cousin Bernard–
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to go back to when we first pulled into the front yard.
Grandpa Fager was a tall, slender, grey-haired man in overalls. He stood by while Grandma, shorter, rounder and more lively, greeted us with wide smiles and big hugs. Then when the car was unloaded, Grandma took all the grownups into the front room to sit and talk for awhile.
The other kids wandered off, but I followed the grownups inside. There were a couple of big smoky blue overstuffed chairs in the front room, with white lace doilies draped over the back, and a couch of the same color. Nothing in the front room looked like it was used very often, and when I sat down on the couch, its covering felt stiff and bristly.
Within minutes I was bored stiff. I couldn’t follow much of the grownups’ talk about the trip and the weather, the Caseys across the road and various relatives. Also, sitting on the couch made my legs itch.
Looking for something else to do, I noticed that across the room an old sewing machine stood against the wall, one that you made turn by pushing with your feet on a heavy iron treadle underneath it.
Wandering over to it, I stretched out on the floor, to see if I could make the big flat treadle go with my hands. Sure enough, by pushing hard, I got the treadle started rocking back and forth, with a rhythmic hum-hum sound.
This was okay, and I started doing it faster and faster, like pushing a merry-go-round, and the hum-hum was getting louder. But then mother shushed me; too much noise for the grownups’ conversation.
So I stopped, and was sinking into boredom again, when suddenly I remembered what I wanted to do. Murmuring that I was going outside to play, I left and headed quietly out the back door, avoiding the sounds of my younger brothers and sisters, coming from over toward the barn. I’d play with them later. First there was some solitary exploring to do.
In a moment I was pulling open the big outhouse door, not worried that the grownups would hear the squealing rusty hinges.
This outhouse looked like the ones I used to see in magazine cartoons sometimes, built like a big phone booth of wide wooden boards, with a slanted roof and three small holes at the top to let the smell out. Inside was a flat bench seat with a hole in it.
The boards were sunburned a dark grey and sanded by the Kansas wind until the looping wood grain stood out in wavy ridges that looked like a giant’s faded fingerprints. I stepped in, pulled the door closed, and sat carefully down on the bench — yes, with a bare bottom.
Of course, my grandparents had a bathroom inside now. But the outhouse had been used by them and most of their children, summer and winter, for a long time before. To my parents, of course, this was just an old leftover, something to ignore. But I had never been this close to one before. The bench felt warm and ridged, but worn smooth, and much more comfortable than the prickly couch in the front room. Resting there, it felt like I was traveling back in time.
I looked around and listened. The air was dim except for slivers of light coming through cracks between the boards. The outhouse smell was not as strong as it must have been once. Beside me on the bench a thick old Montgomery Ward catalog leaned against the wall. The curling pages were yellow and brown, and about half were gone, used long ago for toilet paper.
It was warm and stuffy in the outhouse, but the sense of mystery deepened as I sat there, listening to it, hearing something I couldn’t quite make out.
I sat there until a big horse fly started buzzed loudly around my head. The buzzing made me think of wasps, and I wondered whether there were wasps nests under the bench. Wasps, you know, can sting and sting, and I suddenly thought there was probably nothing they’d like better than a fresh bare bottom.
That thought brought me abruptly back to the present. So I tore a crinkly page, finished and pulled up my pants, watching the horsefly warily. When it lit for a moment on a dim rafter above me, I jumped and ran, banging the door behind me as I hurried past the edge of the field toward the barn.
The field was not very big, because the Fagers’ farm was not very big. Only one cow was in it, which chewed its cud and studiously ignored us the whole time we were there. The barn also was pretty small as barns go, but it too had to be explored.
In the barn, tattered, dust-covered spiderwebs hung in the corners of all the rafters. They were more than a little creepy, but the smell of hay was strong and welcoming, and before long my sister Evelyn and my brother Clair and I were climbing all over the place.
As I said, it was in the barn that the excitement started a day or two later, but not on purpose, and it wasn’t my fault, really. It was Bernard who did it–cousin Bernard, who lived a few blocks back into town.
Bernard was an O’Brien cousin, and about as much of a city boy as you could find in little St. Paul. When his mother sent him out to play the next day, he decided to get a look at these Fager relatives who had driven all the way from California. We all soon ended up in the barn, which seemed as new to him as it was to us.
The ground floor of the barn was open in the center, where there was a large haystack. Most of this hay had been pitched down by Uncle George with a pitchfork from a hayloft. The hayloft was half-filled with big boxy hay bales, pale yellow and prickly and tied tight with wire.
We climbed up to the hayloft on a wooden ladder built into the wall at one end. After clambering over and around all the bales up there awhile, someone–yes, it was probably me–got the idea of jumping down from the hayloft into the haystack below.
It wasn’t very far down, only six or eight feet, and landing in the straw was fun. So soon we were making a circuit from the haystack, up the ladder, then to the edge of the hayloft for a cannonball jump into the closest thing St. Paul had to a pool. That was all right, but like kids at a swimming pool, we soon started horsing around, and somebody pushed somebody else off the edge of the hayloft.
I don’t know who did it first–it could have been me that time too–but then my sister Evelyn came up the ladder and headed for the edge. She stood near the edge for a few seconds, hesitating. Then Bernard jumped up from behind a hay bale and shoved her over the edge.
He didn’t mean any harm, but Evelyn was too close to the end. She missed the haystack and hit the wall as she fell. When she got up, her wrist was hanging funny and her face was turning white.
The fall had broken her arm. In a moment Evelyn was crying and holding herself, Bernard was standing wide-eyed and open-mouthed, and I was dashing to the house, yelling for the grownups.
When we all came hurrying back, I saw Bernard dart out of the barn, across the yard, and then turn onto the sidewalk, running flat out toward St. Paul’s two-block downtown.
I veered off and chased him, angry now that he would leave the scene of the accident. But the pursuit was hopeless: he had a good lead and knew where he was going, and soon vanished around a corner. We didn’t see him again during that visit, and I don’t think he ever came back to apologize.
When I got back to the barn, huffing and puffing, Evelyn was being walked slowly to the car, holding her arm and sniffling, still very pale. In a moment, my parents pulled out of the driveway, headed for the nearest hospital, which was in Parsons, twenty miles away, west across the river and then south.
But they couldn’t go west across the river, because when we had woken up that morning, the Neosho River was flooding, something I guess it did pretty often in those days, and the water was creeping up Highway 47 toward St. Paul. So they drove off the other way, taking a longer roundabout way to Parsons.
They were back a few hours later, with Evelyn feeling better and sporting a new white cast on her arm. Everyone crowded around her at first, asking if it still hurt and feeling the plaster that was still a little damp and smelled like wet cement. But my sister didn’t get as much attention as she would have otherwise, because now the flood was on everybody’s mind.
After supper, with evening coming on, we all walked down the highway to where the blacktop disappeared under the water. My parents gave strict orders that we were not to get wet, and that was an easy rule to obey because the water was brown and ugly, like a lake full of mud and trash.
Grandma and Grandpa watched the water with serious faces, but their voices didn’t sound too worried when they talked about it with the other grownups. They had seen floods before, and I guess they figured this one wouldn’t come all the way up to their house, or the town.
As we stood there, the sun sank behind some clouds on the horizon. With dusk falling, I suddenly noticed something flashing up ahead, red lights floating on the water. Pulling on a grownup’s sleeve, I pointed. Was somebody trapped out there? Was it a boat?
Mother shaded her eyes to peer into the gloom, and then, with the sun’s glow nearly gone, everybody could see them: two red lights blinking silently on and off, on and off, on and off.
I think it was my father who figured it out: they were the railroad signal lights where the Katy tracks crossed the highway.
The water had tripped the switches or something, and the lights were flashing nonstop. Their warning blinked on and off all that night; I could still see them from the upstairs window when we were sent to bed. And when the breeze was just right, it brought us the sound of the bell that hung just above the lights and rang when they were on, clanging urgently but faintly in the distance.
The next day the flood had crept farther up the road, closer to the house. By squinting carefully across its gray surface, we could make out the railroad signals in the daylight, still blinking faintly but steadily, as if the longest freight train in the world was going by on the Katy Line, all underwater. There was something spooky about those lights. Their silent, rhythmic warning added to the sense of menace carried by the spreading water.
That evening, after another somber sundown, some of us were walking back from the edge of the flood, feeling thoughtful and worried, when a child started screaming somewhere behind us.
It was the neighbors’ girl, little Annie Casey, who had been tagging along behind my brother Clair. She saw a rabbit hop into the grass by the roadside, and had followed after it. Now she was shrieking and running in panic towards us, yelling something about a snake.
A grownup whirled to snatch her up and hold her close, while others hurried back down the road to see what she had seen. Uncle George was in the lead, and he stopped short for a moment, then came sprinting back past us, going faster than cousin Bernard had when he fled from the barn a few days before.
“What’s the matter?” someone called out to him anxiously.
“Cottonmouth!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Water moccasin. Keep away!”
We did, but we were also curious, and we didn’t rush back to the safety of the house. A Cottonmouth Moccasin was a very poisonous snake, a relative of rattlers, nothing to fool with.
But how many of us had ever seen a real poisonous snake? What did it look like? Was there, I wondered, really cotton in its mouth? And where had George gone? To get some weapon–did he have a twelve gauge shotgun? A deer rifle?
George came racing back a moment later, and sure enough, he was armed. But not with a shotgun or a rifle; instead, he was brandishing a garden hoe. We held our breath as he slowed down several dozen yards beyond us. Then he bounded off the pavement, raised the hoe high over his head by its long wooden handle, and swung its metal blade down into the grass with all his strength. He raised and swung it again, again, and again.
Watching the slashing strokes of the hoe, I couldn’t stay away, and trotted back down the road toward him. The younger kids followed close behind. By the time we got to George, there was no hope of finding out about the cotton, because he had pounded the poor snake’s whole head almost completely flat. Blood was trickling from its crushed jaws into the dirt, and it was very, very dead.
Dead, yes; but not quiet. Uncle George prodded it with the hoe, and its long brown body twisted and turned over, showing a yellow belly with streaks of black.
We jumped away in fright from the long writhing thing. “Don’t worry,” George said confidently, “snake’ll do that when it’s dead.”
He scooped the hoe under the cottonmouth’s middle and lifted it up. It hung limply from it like some kind of giant dark shoelace, or a length of thick hose. George turned and walked back up the road, with the dead snake swinging out in front of him like a trophy of war, and us kids following as if he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
But here, with the sight of our motley Kansas victory parade, is where my memories fade out again, because I can’t recall what he did with that dead snake. And I don’t know what happened with the flood either, because we left soon after that, piling into our car and heading east on Highway 47, starting the long, hot, cranky trip back to California.
I suppose George threw the snake out in the field. And presumably the water quit rising and ebbed back into Neosho’s riverbed before it got to Grandma and Grandpa Fager’s house; otherwise, someone surely would have told me. Then the railroad lights must have quit their constant blinking, except when a real train went by. And in the barn, no doubt, the hay came and went from the loft, while the one cow continued to chew its cud and ignore strangers. The old outhouse still sat there, unused when there were no curious children around.
I’m guessing about all that, though, because as I said, I can’t go back again to check. Oh, I’ve been to St. Paul again, just a few years ago, in fact. As in the 1950s, it’s still small and sleepy in its grassy corner of the state, and it still gets left off the Kansas road maps sometimes. The Neosho River still flows, and the Railroad runs, though the Katy Line is gone and it’s now called the Union Pacific, I think.
In the big stone church at the other end of town, rows of candles continue to flicker red and blue under the faces of the saints, who reach longingly toward the big white cross above the altar. I know that too, because I did go there, and to the cemetery across the road from it, where Grandma and Grandpa Fager are buried now, along with my other grandparents, and lots of relatives I never met.
Everything else from that trip is gone though: instead of the Fagers’ house, there’s now a discount gas station, with an empty asphalt parking lot around it. The house, the barn, my citified cousin Bernard, the cast on Evelyn’s arm, the outhouse, the flood, and of course, the poor snake, who was probably just trying to get away from the water and didn’t mean anybody any harm:
All gone now. The only thing I have left is a cluster of fading memories. Those, and now this memory story.
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