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Woster: The hair-raising rattle of those scary reptiles

It’s been years since I last heard the distinctive buzz a rattler makes when it gets agitated and begins to shake its tail beads, but I know I’d recognize the sound instantly if I heard it again.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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The other day, visiting the Reliance cemetery, I parked off the path in a patch of weeds, opened the pickup door and immediately began scanning the ground for rattlesnakes.

Old habits die hard. For as long as I can remember, since I was a young boy on the farm, I’ve paid attention to the ground ahead of me when I’m walking in prairie grass or weeds in snake country.

I grew up in what I consider to be rattlesnake country, the flat land south of Medicine Butte west of the Missouri River. My dad told me that the butte was so named because of all the rattlesnake dens it hosted and because the venom could be used for medicine. He was a little vague about how snake venom might become medicine, but I wasn’t a kid who questioned what my dad told me. He warned me to watch my step, and I did.

My mom warned me, too. Her warning was more universal. She warned me that there could be a rattlesnake pretty much anywhere, land or water, field, pasture or hard-baked road. My mom had some fears that were silly, maybe. Her concern about rattlesnakes seemed reasonable enough to me, especially when she told of the time a snake lay coiled under the front step of the first house she and my dad lived in after they married.

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Just the other day, I came up with a real Crackerjack of an invention. This one really could help people.

She told me that when Jim, my big brother, was just a toddler, he walked out of the house and nearly stepped on that snake. Or maybe it was that he might have walked out of the house and stepped on it if he had walked out when the snake was actually there. Either way, it made for a good story, and it reinforced her message of caution.

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As a result, I look before I step into weeds or tall grass wherever I happen to be. I scan the ground ahead of me when I walk through the yard or along the dirt road on our piece of bottom land near the Missouri here in Chamberlain. Since we moved to this place three years ago, I haven’t seen a rattlesnake. Perhaps that means there are none. Maybe, though, it means they are so sneaky that I haven’t seen one yet. Whichever, I’d like to keep it that way.

I haven’t heard a rattlesnake down here, either, and believe me, I listen as I walk through the grass and along the road. It’s been years since I last heard the distinctive buzz a rattler makes when it gets agitated and begins to shake its tail beads, but I know I’d recognize the sound instantly if I heard it again. There’s nothing like it in the whole world.

The first time I heard the sound, I was 5 or 6, walking with my dad through the north pasture. I was out in front, and heard the harsh buzz just before I saw the coiled snake. Dad says I jumped three feet into the air and a couple of feet back all at once.

My other close encounter with a rattler came when, stacking hay, I turned and saw a fat reptile slithering out of the latest buck pile of hay Dad had lifted up for me to spread and shape. I jumped that time, too, off the side of the stack and several feet to the ground.

I tell that story frequently, and it always ends with my big brother, Jim, being lifted up to finish the stack, knowing a rattlesnake was somewhere up there. I’d have hopped a freight for Chicago before I’d have gone back up. Dad said the snake was more frightened than we were. To this day, I doubt that.

Recently, I read in a news story that some rattlesnake experts have noticed some rattlesnakes are showing up without the ability to rattle their tails. In other words, they give no warning that a person is encroaching on their territory. The muscles in their tails have weakened or something, is what I heard.

That hardly seems fair. I want to stay out of their territory. They just need to warn me where that is.

Did you know Terry Woster lives in Chamberlain? Here are more Chamberlain-focused stories from our staff:

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