Like most young boys, I was fascinated by snakes and lizards.  I would catch a garter snake by the tail and harass it until I got bored, then let it go. One day I spotted an extremely large garter snake slithering through the grass and decided to catch it behind the head like I had seen an older friend do many times. That snake was faster than I was. It bit me and hung on until I finally shook it loose. My finger was wounded and bleeding.  I wrapped my handkerchief around my throbbing hand and ran home. I doused the cut with iodine and did a wild dance when the sting became almost unbearable.

My mother saw the band-aid I had put on my swollen finger and inquired what happened. I lied and said I had snagged it on a nail. I didn't want to admit my stupidity. Then she wanted to know if it was a rusty nail. Not wanting to get a tetanus shot either, I lied again and told her the nail was new. My finger healed, but I disliked snakes from that day forward.

My friends discovered my fear of snakes one afternoon while we were swimming at a local pond we called "Bare Butt Beach". A snake swam across the water, and I almost hurt myself getting ashore. My buddies laughed and said it was just a harmless garter snake. I told them it could have been a poisonous water snake. They assured me there weren't any in South Dakota.

Our house had a half-finished basement that left openings for all kinds of critters. One such critter lurking down there was a large garter snake, which my mother killed with a shovel. My dad claimed that snake had been catching mice in the basement for a long time and was not hurting anyone. I was secretly on my mother's side as she exclaimed it did not belong down there.

I took my dislike for snakes with me when I joined the Navy. The Sidewinders and Diamond Back rattlesnakes native to California were reptiles to avoid.  My friend, John Duke caught them and made belts and billfolds out of their skins. I did not want one around my waist nor in my pocket!

Poisonous snakes were part of the environment overseas, and I heard many stories about them. They had exotic names like "Haboo" and one called "Step and a Half".  It seems if one bit you, all you had time for was a step and a half or a cigarette. This put the fear of the Lord in any sane person.

We were in Vietnam and the ship I was stationed on, the U.S.S. Tom Green County LST 1159  was beached and loading material to take back to Okinawa.

Marine Sergeant Tom Wilson, who was in charge of loading, approached and said,  "I got bad news."

He proceeded to tell me that the forklift operator had spotted a snake on one of the pallets he loaded, and it was loose on the well deck. I relayed this information to the Captain with the recommendation that we not off load. I suggested that we dog down the doors leading to the well deck and deal with snake issue in Okinawa.

The word about the snake spread through the crew like wild fire.  I jokingly told my men,  "I hope it doesn't get into the plumbing and come up into the stool in the head."

I later heard one of the men hadn't used the toilet the whole trip back.

The Captain asked my advice about the off loading in Okinawa, and I told him the snake had probably escaped out the well deck drains.

He replied, "Good! Let's just forget about it!"  Then he continued, "I've always had an aversion to snakes."

I exclaimed, "Me too!"

  2002 Maurice Karst

Plains Garter Snake