A story from long ago, written by Al (an eye witness) for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which published it this past Saturday.
My younger brother Wayne – who until recently was a regular on KDKA News — just sold the house in the country where five of us grew up. He had bought it when Mom died at 94 because he couldn’t bear to see it go and has since spent 16 years fixing it up, pruning the trees, mowing the lawn and a field that once served as a 1-1/2 acre “victory garden” during the rationing of World War II.
So the old homestead has served as the venue of choice for family reunions and other get-togethers ever since. But Wayne and his wife Rose live 80 miles away, and eventually the maintenance work would become too much. Sale of the property evoked a flood of memories by e-mail back and forth from the then-kids and their kids, and even their kids, culminating in some stories from my older brother Gib, who had just returned from a trip out west.
But one story went unreported, and I’m here to tell it.
Gib was maybe 15 at the time, so I was 12 and Wayne was 7. Sisters Connie and Carol would have been 14 and 11 but had already matured beyond any inclination to get involved in their brothers’ quixotic misadventures.
Gib was already a prolific inventor, destined to become an electronics engineer and earn a sheaf of patents for Bell Laboratories. At age 8 or 9, he had fashioned a miniature gas stove out of a large orange juice can and a smaller soup can, weighted for stability by pouring molten lead into the bottom.
He tapped the telephone party line from our basement and installed some kind of motion detector on the front porch so that when a visitor arrived, every Christmas light, inside and out, blazed into life. When there were snowball fights, it didn’t do much good to build a snow fort because Gib would make a catapult that would throw snowballs the size of basketballs.
At the time of my story, his ingenuity was challenged by the appearance of a monstrous blacksnake in the woods at the edge of the lawn.
I saw it as a six or eight foot snake – an awesome anomaly in our world — so it was probably four or five feet, and Gib fearlessly advanced on it with a shovel. I protested because I had heard that if you have a resident blacksnake, you don’t have to worry about copperheads or rattlesnakes, and Gib finally relented.
He went into the basement and found a hand-pump weed sprayer, put some water in it, then some kerosene, came outside, pumped it a few times and lit a match to the spray.
Have you ever seen a large snake look back over its shoulder?
Well, no, of course they don’t have shoulders, but pursued by a mad scientist brandishing a flamethrower, a snake may exhibit an extra undulation or two in its accelerated slithering. Gib solemnly walked behind the blacksnake as it slalomed frantically down through the woods and across the property line. Gib returned satisfied that his younger siblings were no longer in danger of being snakebit.
So much for the theory of copperhead deterrence.
But that may have been a folktale to begin with, like the companion legend that if there’s a copperhead in the vicinity, you’ll whiff the smell of cucumbers.
I never detected that aroma back home, even though we raised cucumbers, so it’s possible that cucumbers actually smell like copperheads, and no one can detect that.