My memories of a vacation in the Black Hills and a rattlesnake
The year is 1968 and I was seven years old. My family was going on vacation. We’re going camping. I can't believe it. We never go anywhere.
My dad had decided to borrow Uncle Stan’s pop-up camper and spend some time close to nature. Not just any nature. The type of nature you find in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had never been camping in my short life and I found out later that neither had my parents. The Black Hills had to be neater than west-central Minnesota. They even have mountains! I bet there’s not a cornfield in sight.
I was giddy with anticipation. I couldn't wait to see bears and mountain lions and Big Horn sheep. I knew they had these animals in the Black Hills because I watched Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” every Sunday afternoon.
I was transfixed by the adventures of Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler. I was especially fond of Jim. He does all the work. Marlin typically rode in a helicopter over a herd of stampeding water buffalo with a tranquilizer gun, out of harms way, while Jim was hanging out of a Jeep trying to lasso a 1200 pound beast that had just been tranquilized. Once the lasso was secured, Jim would ride that beast to the ground and subdue it by the sheer force of his will. He was a real man. He wore the khaki jungle outfit that all explorers and big game hunters wear. I learned many things about animals from this show, but as it turns out, not everything.
The morning of the second day of our adventure in the Black Hills dawned bright and sunny and loaded with possibilities. We might hike up a mountain, go horseback riding or swimming at a nearby mountain lake. We were surely going to see Mt. Rushmore before we left. That’s a National Monument. I had never been to a National Monument.
My feet barely touched the ground as I headed out. I saw vast expanses of pine forests, towering peaks and a little trout stream that ran right through the campground just waiting to surrender it’s treasure to a seven year old boy. It was a vast wonderland.
We were staying at a place called “ Gordon’s Gulch.” The campground was well equipped and had a little store for supplies and souvenirs. I was walking to the store that morning with my older brother when we noticed a little snake crawling across the dirt road. Finally, some wildlife! My first thought was, what would Jim do. That was potentially the beginnings of “W.W.J.D.” Only, Jesus was not yet involved.
I knew what Jim would do. He’d wrestle that snake to the ground and capture it. Since the snake was already on the ground, my part was easy.
I picked up the snake by the tail just before it slithered out of sight, and then quickly grabbed it just behind the head, because that's how Jim does it. I did not want to injure this snake. “Wild Kingdom” was all about conservation of wildlife and I wanted to do my part, so my grip was less than firm.
As it turns out, it’s not as easy as it appears on television. The show “Wild Kingdom” was broadcast well before any disclaimers or warnings to “not try this at home.”
The snake did not want to be held and made it’s feelings abundantly clear when it wriggled loose and sank it’s fangs into my thumb. Well,fang. We found out later that one fang had hit my thumbnail and did not penetrate the skin.
I don't know if you've ever heard a seven year old boy scream like fire truck, but it can be done. I hit notes that only dogs can hear. The noise echoed off the canyon walls and brought my dad running. Well, not running so much as striding angrily over to see what I had done now. Always the model of compassion and caring, my dad's words to me were,
" If you would just leave things alone, this wouldn't happen."
We did not know at the time, but it was a rattlesnake. A sneaky, little baby rattlesnake with no rattle at all. It had a little button for a tail that gave no clue to it's true identity.
Mom insisted on taking me to the hospital, just in case. That was the longest car ride of my life. Dad was driving like a madman. We were 25 miles from the nearest medical facilities in Rapid City. When we walked into the hospital, the doctor met us and said,
" I'm glad to see he's still walking."
Mom nearly fainted. The campground owners had found the snake. Evidently the force of my screams had pulverized it's brain. It was dead.
The owner confirmed that it was indeed a rattlesnake. That's when the real fun began. I was laid out on a gurney and the doctor sliced my thumb open with a razor blade at the point of the snakebite. This resulted in more screams. Traffic outside was moving to the right and slowing down certain that there were emergency vehicles coming. Nope. Just me.
I don't remember much else from that E.R./dungeon, I may have blacked out.
I spent four days in the hospital while the doctors and nurses made sure that all the poison had been sucked out and that I wouldn't die. I shared a room with a boy from Wyoming that had been shot in the eye with an arrow. My story was better, but he got to wear a pirate eye patch.
I had almost decided that most of the doctor inflicted pain was over, when he walked in with a needle the size of a javelin. Inside this behemoth was the snake anti-venom derived from horse blood. While I furiously tried to escape the room, my dad caught me and held me down, because it was "for my own good". That doctor headed straight for my thigh with the needle and jabbed it in while I was momentarily still. That needle went into and what felt like through my left leg. He pushed the plunger on the hypodermic into my leg. It seemed like an hour and a half later that he finally pulled the needle back out. The entire time I screamed like a entire fleet of emergency vehicles. It was finally over and I was hoarse and exhausted from screaming.
When I was finally released from the hospital, our vacation was essentially over. We made a few tourist stops on the way home, but never did go hiking or horseback riding.
Years later, I discovered the impact that vacation had on the rest of the family. My older brother had resented me for years because of the time I spent in the hospital when we could have been out exploring. I explained to him that it wasn't my fault. I blame Marlin Perkins of "Wild Kingdom." He and Jim had handled snakes many times and I had watched. I learned how to hold snakes from them. They just left out one vital piece of information. Hold on tight.