|By: Paul S. Cilwa
|Page Views: 678
|Topics: #MatanzasCircle #St.Augustine #Autobiography
|My childhood near-death experience with a rattlesnake.
In June of 1962, I graduated fifth grade. Also, having sold our house on St. George Street, St. Augustine, Florida, for a brand-new one at St. Augustine Beach, my mom had a dilemma. The new owners of the old house wanted to move in right away; but our new house wasn't yet built. So Mom rented a house on Matanzas Circle, not in St. Augustine Beach but on the part of Anastasia Island that is still St. Augustine proper, for the two months' gap.
This was a smaller home than the one we left, as well as the one we were moving into. It was a three-bedroom house for Mom, Gramma and Grandpa, my two sisters, and myself. Gramma and Grandpa got the rear bedroom (which I don't think had its own bathroom), my sisters got the middle bedroom, and I had to share the remaining room with Mom.
But it was only to be two months.
Because we were expecting to move again in just two months, there was no point in unpacking all our stuff. Mom had the movers stack the boxes in the garage, organized into a spiral, which made it possible to get to anything we might realize we needed…as long as we knew which box it was in.
We had a huge back yard, which extended clear to the jungle, which itself was only a few hundred feet from the Matanzas River that separates Anastasia Island, the home of St. Augustine Beach, from the mainland. My sister, Mary Joan, wanted to put a tennis court in the back yard, it was so big. But where there had once been grass, was now just tangled roots and a few weeds, all that was left of the lawn after an infestation of grass-destroying chinch bugs.
But that didn't stop us from trying to water the grass. At my age of 11, playing with the garden hose was high up on my list of fun things to do. (We didn't have a television, and home video games were still more than two decades away. Perhaps that explains it!)
The other thing I loved to do was write. And I loved to write on special duplicator masters, the carbon-and-paper sandwich that was used in duplicator machines in school offices, a cheaper and less messy alternative to memeograph machines. A box of 100 sheets of suplicator masters could be bought for about $12, and I saved and saved until I could buy a box of my very own. Of course, then the thing was, what should I write? Or, more to the point, what should I write that would justify writing on a duplicator master?
A script for a radio play was the first thing I thought of, and I decided to adapt the first Hardy Boys mystery, The Tower Treasure, for radio. So that's what I started writing, while still in the St. George Street house, carefully going through the book, ccopying the dialog, and figuring ways to express, in dialog, the unspoken narration of the original.
So one day, in the Matanzas Circle house, when Mom and my grandparents and Mary Joan left to look at model homes in other developments, I decided that what I wanted to do…had to do…was continue work on my script for The Tower Treasure. The only problem was, my duplicator masters were still packed in a box in the garage.
But I was pretty sure I knew where that box was: All the way in the middle of the garage, meaning I would have to walk the entire spiral to its center. I opened the kitchen door into the garage, the humid, trapped summer heat wafting past me as I did so. With only a few, dusty, grime-coated windows in the garage wall, there wasn't much light to go by. But I didn't need much; I knew (I thought) where the box I wanted was.
So I followed the spiral path to its end; and, sure enough, there was the box I wanted; and there was only one other box on top of it. Soon I had the precious duplicator masters in my hand, and began retracing my steps along the spiral, to the kitchen, reading the completed pages as I went so as to remember where I left off.
I was suddenly startled back to reality, however, by a loud rattling sound directly in front of me. I lowered the script and saw, to my horror, a huge rattlesnake, about four feet in front of me, coiled in striking position.
I stood, frozen. Obviously I couldn't move forward; the snake was blocking the path. If I moved back, though, I'd be trapped, with no way to get back into the house. And besides, whatever I did I needed to do soon 'cause that snake didn't seem to have much of a sense of humor. Even at 12, I knew a coiled snake was fixing to strike.
And then a miracle occurred, though I didn't recognize it at the time.
I was standing, as I said, not four feet from this coiled, rattling reptile, each of us staring at the other. And then, with no gap in between, I was standing back at the kitchen door, still staring at the still-coiled snake, which then struck at where I had been a split-second earlier. With the perceived threat to it gone, it relaxed, stretching itself out to enjoy the warmth of the garage floor.
I was still staring, slack-jawed, through the doorway when my little sister, Louise, came into the house from playing outside. She headed right for where I was.
"Louise!" I cried. "Don't go in the garage! There's a rattlesnake in there!"
Louise scrunched up her face to let me know she wasn't about to be fooled by my stories. "There is not," she said, trying to push past me.
"There is! Look!" I pointed at the now-sleeping reptile.
Louise shook her head impatiently. "That's no snake," she announced. "It's a jump rope. It was by the washing machine this morning, and I want to play with it."
Louise could be very determined and, in my mind, I anticipated having to deck her to save her life. Fortunately, the snake, probably annoyed at the noise we were making, began to move. And that, of course, ended the dispute over its being a jump rope.
So Louise and I tore out of the house, running to the home of a neighbor. "There's a snake in our garage!" we screamed when the woman opened her door. "There's a snake in our garage!"
She called the sheriff's office, and only a few minutes passed before a squad car pulled up. The deputy had a snake catcher, a long pole with a metal loop on the end. I invited him to go into the house and get the snake. "But don't kill it!" I added.
Of course, by now, other neighbors had noticed the sheriff's vehicle with its lights flashing, and began drifting to our house to see what was going on. 30 or 40 people were gathered by the time Mom and the rest of the family returned from model home visiting. They couldn't even park near the house because of the crowd.
Since we were new to the neighborhood, Mom wasn't recognized. "What's going on?" she asked someone; but being only four-foot-eight she went unnoticed and couldn't even see that Louise and I were standing on the other side of the crowd, by the squad car. "He's in the garage," someone said to someone else. "…almost killed two children!" another voice contributed.
Mom was nearly beside herself. She had always, inexplicably, been certain that some stranger would come and kidnap her children; and now, it seemed like she'd been right.
It wasn't until the sheriff's deputy emerged from the house with a six-foot rattlesnake dangling from the noose on his pole that the crowd, and Mom, breathed a sigh of relief.
"I got 'im," the sheriff told me, feeding the pole through his open back windows so the snake dangled outside the vehicle. "But I think I cauight him a little lower on his neck than is best. So he may not live."
"What will you do with him?" I asked.
"We take these guys to the Alligator Farm," the deputy explained, referring to a local reptile zoo located less than two miles from us. Soon he had driven away; the crowd cleared, and Mom got to hug Louise and me, grateful we hadn't been killed or kidnapped, after all.
We heard the snake, a monster slightly over six feet long, died a few days later.
It wasn't until years later, however, that it occurred to me there was a mystery surrounding this entire incident. Not, why was there a snake in the garage—this was Florida, on the edge of the jungle, and there were plenty of snakes in the area. But…how did I escape the snake? I definitely did not climb over stacks of moving boxes. I definitely didn't walk past the snake.
My memory, while impossible, is also very clear: I was staring at the snake, coiled (which they only do when defending themselves from possible attack, or when attacking prey), not four feet from me. Then, as if in a movie with two scenes spliced together, I was looking at the snake, still coiled, from the kitchen door. As I watched, the snake uncoiled as if the danger had just…evaporated.
Was it a miracle? Was it proof that the mind has powers not normally used? Is my memory simply flawed?
I can never know for sure, of course. But I am certain ny memory, reliable or not, has not changed since the event, since I began telling the story that very day, to anyone who would listen.
One other weird thing happened at that house. If you look at the photo at the top, you can see there is a short brick extension to the front of the house, with no purpose other than to make it look a little wider.
One day we were in the midst of a nor'easter, with heavy soaking rains and an almost hurricane-speed wind. Obviously playing outside was not an option; so I was sitting in the living room, by the front window, reading a Justice League comic book.
Suddenly, the wind got even louder, and I looked out the window. What I saw was, again, impossible; but I saw it. The wind seemed to take shape. Now, we all know about tornados, which is an example of a wind with a visible shape. But the shape I saw was of a giant, human hand. This hand reached over past the living room, grabbed that brick extension, picked it up and threw it onto the ground with a whump!
I don't know what I really saw, of course. But that wall was gone, shattered into its component bricks, scattered all over the front yard. (and guess who had to pick the bricks up when the storm abated.)
In any case, we only lived in this house for two-and-a-half months, before moving to our new, custom-built home in St. Augustine Beach. But I never looked at rattlesnakes—or nor'easters—the same again.