Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Survival Lessons of the Rattlesnake

Survival Lessons of the Rattlesnake
Charlie Sellens
Last Reviewed April 9, 2013

The following story is, unfortunately, true.

Growing up on a Kansas wheat farm was, looking back on it, not a bad way to get a start in life.  It really didn’t matter that my town friends got to spend the summer playing baseball, swimming in the municipal pool, and getting tasty ice cream treats at the Dairy Queen while my brother Jason and I worked the farm.  Without even knowing it, I was learning valuable survival, tactical, and life skills that continue to serve me well to this very day.

We learned to appreciate the rewards of a day of mind-numbing boredom called work.  We also learned to be self reliant.  The isolation of the vast, wind-swept prairie, which is an old Native American word that means middle of nowhere, teaches one to use their imagination, like imagining running away to California.  The farm and surrounding flatlands also offered nearly limitless opportunities for exploration and adventure.  Mostly we explored ways to escape the farm so we could have adventures.

Our time on the farm was marked by long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme excitement and terror, which we called rattlesnake killing.  I don’t recall ever outfitting ourselves with supplies and setting out on an organized rattlesnake safari, but I do remember trying to organize an expedition once. One of my earliest efforts to organize, equip, and lead a patrol didn’t get very far when Jason refused to carry around month’s worth of food, water, and comic books in the 110 degree heat.  This was not the last time that one of my grand schemes came to an abrupt end because of his refusal to carry out my orders.  

For those readers who were spared the agony of growing up on a farm in Kansas, and may be ignorant in the ways of rattlesnake killing, I thought a few brief descriptions of the roles, responsibilities, and equipment would be helpful.  Of course, one of the most important ingredients of any good rattlesnake killing is to find a rattlesnake.

RATTLESNAKE:  (Crotalus viridis)  The Prairie rattlesnake generally has a chunky body, wide head, and rattles made of keratin at the end of its tail that is usually, but not always, sounded as a warning.  They range in length from 18 inches to seven feet.  They have two hollow fangs that fold back against the roof of their mouth when not in use.  Venom is stored in glands attached to the fangs, and injected into its prey or possibly some idiot kid trying to smash it with a stick or something.  I have heard newbies describe rattlesnakes as being as big around as a firehose, with heads as wide as a dinner plate, and fangs the size of railroad spikes that can inject venom into concrete.  This type of gibberish is to be dismissed as the ramblings of a tenderfoot who has not faced the rattlesnake with the cool, calm, steady nerve that Jason and I displayed.   

WEAPON:  Since rattlesnake killing was not an organized type of deal, but rather a spontaneous fight to the death, there was no specific weapon of choice.  Improvisation was a necessary trait for any rattlesnake killer worth his salt.  Large sticks were my personal preference, but in a pinch, almost anything could be used.  I remember on one occasion, in what seems now to be a poor display of sportsmanship, defending myself with a 1979 Ford Thunderbird.  Certainly an adequate weapon, even though it had a tendency to pull to the left a bit.  

But I digress.  If given a choice, I always liked a stick long enough to avoid overextending my reach and falling onto the snake.  Fifteen feet or so would be about right, but most of the time I had to make do with a much shorter stick, as Kansas has a shortage of long tree branches just lying around.  The stick should also be sturdy enough to withstand repeated impacts with the ground or Jason’s head, as I tended to get a little wild during my rattlesnake killing, and self-control really wasn’t my thing.  Usually when I was fighting a rattlesnake there was a lot of hissing, venom flying, and rattling going on.  The snake would generally do those things too.
DOG:  A good snake dog was a real asset in a close quarter battle with a rattlesnake.  A good snake dog circles the snake, barking and racing in with teeth barred to distract the snake, allowing the snake fighter to flail away furiously.  Not to brag, but I sometimes scored as many as two direct hits on the snake for every 134 flails.  

But I digress.  Anyway, that’s what a good snake dog is handy for.  Our dog, however, had once been bitten in the face by a rattlesnake, and her head swelled to the size of a basketball.  She came out of it alright, but she was never really keen on fighting rattlesnakes after that.  Her main contribution was to maintain a healthy distance from the snake, about the length of a football field or so, and bark like she was getting ready to mount a charge.  To this day, Jason believes that it was not actually a snakebite that caused her head to swell.  He thinks that I whacked her in the head during a flail.  In any case, her barking helped to fuel the fury we unleashed on the snake.  After being cooped up on the farm for months at a time, we had a lot of fury to unleash.

DAD:  Our dad pretty much served in the same capacity as the dog.  When present, he circled the combatants at a healthy distance, probably not so much because of the snake, but because he feared that having killed the snake, we might still be looking for another outlet for our fury.  By keeping a healthy distance away, he always had a good head start in case he had to make a run for it.  As a side benefit, he was also in a good position to take one of us to the hospital if the snake killing didn’t go according to plan.  This was actually a really good idea, as all my flailing would have made killing a garden hose a dangerous proposition.

But I digress.  As it turned out, neither the dog nor dad, however useful they may have been, were essential to killing a rattlesnake.  Neither were present during what would turn out to be our most memorable snake killing.  Jason and I were out picking up bales of mowed grass one fine August day, when we encountered the largest rattlesnake I ever saw in person.  
If you have never had the pleasure, and by pleasure I mean back-breaking, hot, sweaty work, of picking up bales, allow me to give you an idea of how it works.  These weren’t the large, round bales that are pretty much the standard now.  Those are so large that you need hydraulic lifts on a tractor or pickup truck to pick them up and move them.  Our bales were smaller, but almost as heavy, and you picked them up by hand, stacked them on the back of a trailer, and then moved them to the barn or wherever you were storing them.

Rattlesnakes generally don’t like to move around in the heat of the day, preferring to hunt at night when it’s cooler, so they like to find a nice, dark spot to spend the day, snoozing and waiting for their chance to grab a bite to eat a little later.  One of the spots they like to rest is underneath a bale, which means that there is a technique to picking a bale up.  If you simply reach down and pick the bale straight up, you risk exposing your legs to the snake’s fangs, which in case you have forgotten are connected to large sacks of venom.  Not good.  

The trick is to lean over and grab the twine on the far side of the bale, then pull the bale towards you, keeping it between your legs and the possibility of getting bitten by a rattlesnake.  That’s an important little trick to remember.  Of the thousands of bales I checked and moved, there was never a rattlesnake underneath.  Except once.  On this one occasion, when I pulled the bale towards, me, leaned over and checked underneath, not really expecting to see anything, I came face to face with a very large, very upset Prairie rattlesnake.  

He squinted at me with cold, black eyes.  His forked tongue flicked out to test the wind for the smell of my fear.  His rattles made a dry, scrapping sound, like a six-shooter clearing leather on a dusty street in Dodge City.  I’m pretty sure he sneered at me with barely disguised contempt.  With a calm that showed the ice water in my veins I dropped the bale and spoke softly to Jason.  “Brother,” I said, slow and easy, in my best gunfighter voice, “There’s a rattlesnake under this bale.”

What Jason would later claim he heard was a high-pitched sort of squeal that sounded something like “RRRRATTTTLLLLLEEEESSSSNAKKKKKEEEE!”  In my defense, the two or three miles that now separated us would have made it difficult for him to understand exactly what I said and how I said it.  Jason has always been quick on the uptake, able to grasp subtle clues in a given situation, so from our tactically sound position in the next county we came up with our battle plan.

We were in the middle of a large grass field.  There were no flailing sticks to be found but there was a large toolbox in the back of the pickup, full of impact throwing weapons like wrenches, pliers, and hammers.  We started our assault on the snake, throwing every tool we had with great determination and zeal.  Unfortunately, we did not throw them with great aim.  We had thrown everything we had, and had not inflicted any real damage to the snake.

The situation was now grim.  The snake was in possession of every weapon on the battlefield.  It had enough tools around it to build a tank.  We briefly considered the idea of abandoning the field of battle and leaving the snake the tools, spoils of war.  “Where are all my tools?” My dad would ask.  “Tools, what tools?” I would say, looking mystified.  

We eyed the snake warily.  It glared at us evilly. Rattlesnakes really have only one look, the evil glare.  Any good tactical commander understands the importance of remaining flexible and the ability to improvise, so we adapted to the current tactical situation and started looking for other possible weapons.

A reconnaissance of the area turned up an old discarded role of barbed wire, left behind who knows how many years before when someone had taken down a fence, leaving the wire propped against a stone post.  Holding the wire in front of me like a shield, I advanced cautiously on the snake, and then, screaming my battle cry, I charged.

My snake battles were like being in a pirate fight, without as many rules.  Having come alongside a crippled ship and pulled her close with their grappling hooks, the pirates would swarm aboard.  In the sprawling, bloody chaos that followed, no quarter was expected and none given.  Hack, slash, and slay.  The bloodlust upon them, it was easy to confuse friend with foe.  I continued to shout and flail with my barbed weapon, beating the ground and occasionally the snake.  Jason circled, waiting for an opportunity to administer the death blow, or a tourniquet should I happen to impale myself with barbed wire. 

The snake continued to coil and strike.  Coil and strike.  And then, as if by some act of magic, the snake simply disappeared.  It took a moment to realize that the snake was not a mutant teleporter, but that the barbs of the wire and caught the snake and as I had  jerked the wire back to flail again, the snake had been launched into the air.  Which meant that at that moment, there was a rattlesnake as big around as a firehose, with a head as wide as a dinner plate, and fangs the size of railroad spikes that could inject venom into concrete whizzing around somewhere over our heads.

A concept that has gained much popularity in recent years in tactical circles is Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop.  The OODA loop is not a breakfast cereal, as one might imagine.  It is a decision making process, based on Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action, that, if applied properly, allows you to outthink your opponent and gain a tactical advantage.

In the case of a just wounded enough to be incredibly upset rattlesnake twirling through the air somewhere overhead, the OODA loop process would look something like this.  Observation:  I observe that the snake is no longer on the ground in front of me.  Orientation:  The snake has now gained the tactical advantage of the high ground overhead.  Decision:  I need to create space and distance between myself and the threat.  Action:  Communicate with teammates and run like hell.

“Brother,” I remember yelling, “Run.”  Jason would later claim what he heard was, “WHHHHAAAAAGUURRGGLEE”  Years after this incident, I spent quite a bit of time in Iraq, working as a team leader for a Protective Services Detail (PSD).  On occasion, our compound was the target of insurgent mortar fire.  I don’t know how that feels for other folks, but for me, there was always this weird clinching and fluttering of the stomach muscles, and a hunching, tightening of the shoulders as my head tucked down between them, waiting to see where the next round would impact.

Whenever that would happen, it always reminded me of that day in a Kansas pasture.  On that day, I added another technique to my bag of snake fighting tricks.  I called it the run and madly wave your arms over your head while shrugging your head down between your shoulders so far that you are looking out a buttonhole in your shirt technique.  A highly specialized technique for sure, and one that you might only need once in a lifetime, but still good to know.  I still practice it from time to time.

As with any tactical situation, luck generally plays a role, and luck was with us that day.  The snake didn’t land on our heads, and when it did return to earth, it was far enough away from the pile of tools that we were able to retrieve them and continue our aerial bombardment.  Jason finally dispatched the snake with a well placed crescent wrench.

After the din and chaos of battle has faded away, the silence that replaces it can be almost deafening.  We gazed at the carnage, each of us lost in our own private thoughts.  Quietly we began to gather the tools.  My mouth was dry, and I remember being tired.  Very tired.  I also remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, a 1979 Ford Thunderbird wasn’t so unsporting after all.




  1. What a great peice of writing! Thanks for the fun mental trip... live from Olathe, KS, your fan for life!

  2. Thank you very much for the kind words. Having fans for life is awesome.

  3. Love it, cuz. That story always makes me smile & bring back memories. KB

    1. Thank you very much. I'm glad I could make you smile. Makes me kinda shudder.

  4. You know -- I grew up not far from you -- in Woodward, OK and we, too, have a lot of rattlesnakes. I never ever got close to them. Period. Not even at the annual Waynoka, Ok annual rattlesnake hunt. I stay away -- far away. But this had my laughing because I have seen react the way you did. I am LOLing.

    1. Creating space and distance between yourself and the threat is always a good idea. That's why I now live in Virginia. Glad you enjoyed the article.

    2. I can NOT wait until I retire and come live in your basement. LOL -- no rattle snakes is just another benefit.

  5. You should join SOCNet www.socnet.com; you would find a bunch of guys that you know and would enjoy your 'experiences' ;-)

  6. I've actually been a member of SOCNET since 2005 or so, but have never done anything with it. For whatever reason, I've just never had much interest in forums. Have been making more of an effort recently to start taking an active part on them. This is already posted there in the humor section.

  7. Snake hunting is fun, and Kansas is under rated, which is a good thing! The less people
    that migrate here from the coasts the better.

    1. I miss Kansas quite a bit. I'd like to move back there someday, but the wife has this thing about tornados, so we'll see. Thanks for the comments. Good hunting.

  8. I lived in Arkansas, and the only snakes I could ever turn up were blacksnakes. Working in Iraq as a contractor, the insurgent mortar fire was so regular, by the second month, we no longer sought cover and just kept working. Figured random mortar rounds have the same probability of landing in our trench as anywhere else.

  9. Really your post is too wonderful, carry on your work and sharing your information with us.
    I really love snakes even venomous snakes

  10. I am genuinely thankful to the owner of this website who has shared this fantastic piece of writing at this place.