By DAVID MARK CHATOWSKY One fine summer morning my older brother Matthew and I went snake hunting in the field to the west of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church. Yes, there was a field there back then. A field filled with mice and snakes and all
One fine summer morning my older brother Matthew and I went snake hunting in the field to the west of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church. Yes, there was a field there back then. A field filled with mice and snakes and all manner of critters that call a field home. On this expedition, I caught a beautiful snake. This snake, which was in no mood to be messed with, bit me deeply on the thumb.
Now, the large field where I captured this snake was quite magnificent. At its northeast border, under oak and maple trees, rested an old farmhouse. The front of the house faced Cowesett Rd. I had a vague understanding this may have been Major Potter’s house. I was told Major Potter once owned all this land. Yet Major Potter’s identity and the ownership of the land and farmhouse was a rumor at best.
In any event, this beautiful field went west nearly a quarter mile from the farmhouse to Warwick, Fire Station #5. It then went south another quarter mile to be bordered by a deciduous forest. Directly in the middle of the field was a small abandoned concrete building. Painted on the roof of the building were the call letters WKRI. WKRI was a radio station that served West Warwick.
Naturally, we called this building the radio station. The morning Matthew and I arrived, the radio station, didn’t even have any doors or windows. The inside was trashed with miscellaneous debris. Some of its sheet metal roofing had blown off and lay scattered in the field.
Animals like mice, voles, and shrews were using this roofing for cover. Snakes looking for a meal soon followed. Near the entrance lay one such piece of metal roofing. Matthew lifted it up. Under it were the thick dark coils of a big northern black racer snake. Matthew sprang into action and caught it.
Proud as can be he held the black racer high in his hands. Black racers, like their name indicates, are very fast. Catching them in the open field is near impossible. There they are like a lightning strike. You see them for one second and they are gone the next. Yet we did catch them when they were coiled up under debris. For then we had the element of surprise on our side.
Matthew put his big black racer into a white bucket with a green lid and went off to my left. When he had gone a ways off, I spied a piece of roofing somewhat covered in grass. I lifted this up and saw the coils of a large, strikingly, marked snake. Without hesitation, I dove on it and grabbed the snake by the back. The snake immediately turned its head and grabbed me by the thumb. We then wrestled under the sheet metal roofing and into the tall grass. Finally, I got hold of the snake by the back of the neck so it couldn’t bite me again. I then held the snake aloft and called to my brother.
He came running over. “Nice job, David! ” he exclaimed, giving me a warm hearted slap on the back. We admired this beautiful new species of snake. Never before had we seen one like it. It was all of three feet long and very strong. I could tell its strength because it wrapped itself around my right arm constricting it. The snake had bold, sienna brown, markings all over its back and sides and they shimmered slightly with an iridescent rainbow made from the morning sun hitting the scales just right. The scales on the top of its head had a remarkable design like that of a king’s crown. It’s belly had markings similar to the varied markings of the Indian corn we decorated our doors with during Thanksgiving.
The snakebite on my thumb was bleeding down my arm. It hurt but I didn’t care. I was happy. I had just caught an amazing and unique snake! We continued our search. And after lifting up all the other pieces of roofing Matthew and I started home. To get home we returned through the grass, green, field. Then we crossed over two stonewalls with a cart path between them. These stonewalls were lined with cedar and choke cherry trees. Entwined around these trees was the bread and butter vine. Once over the stonewalls and through the trees we came to the parking lot of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church. At St. Gregs we continued walking east through the church parking lot. Then we dropped down a trail with a few trees on our right. One of these trees had a rope swing. The ground was bare beneath the swing where children’s feet had cleared it of grass. After these trees we walked onto a paved road and into a neighborhood. In this neighborhood we came to a small blue house. I knew the boy who lived there. His name was Travis. Travis befriended me when I collapsed against the wall of Cedar Hill Elementary School after another boy hit me in the head with the corner of his steel lunch box. In my semi-conscious state, with blood running down my face, I heard Travis say, “That cut is going to scar but don’t worry girls like scars.”
The second time, I met Travis, was when I was walking home after an unsuccessful turtle expedition. Travis saw me from his front door and asked what I was doing. I told him I was returning from St. Gregs’ Pond where I had been looking for turtles. He told me he had a painted turtle in his pool. I didn’t believe him until he showed me. True to his word, he did have a painted turtle swimming in his pool. It was an above ground pool, filled with rainwater, leaves, and one painted turtle. The turtle, sensing us, took a breath, scratched at the baby blue walls of the pool, and dove to hide in the oak leaves at the bottom. Those were the only two times I had ever met Travis.
Nevertheless, Matthew suggested we stop at Travis’ house to find out what type of snake I had caught. I was hesitant but sheepishly went along. Matthew went to the front door and knocked. It opened ever so slightly. Travis wasn’t home but my brother informed a shadowy figure of our situation. Using their pale hand they pointed to the side of the house and told us to speak to the man painting the fence. We walked over to the man. The man was smoking a cigarette in his left hand and held a paintbrush in his right. He was staring at the fence.
“Do you know what type of snake this is? It has bitten my brother and we have never seen one like it.” Matthew asked. At the sound of my brother’s voice the man turned and looked at us. His eyes zeroed in on the snake wrapped around my arm. He took a few steps back. “That snake looks like a poisonous copperhead!” He shouted.
With concern Matthew looked at me. The man took a strong drag from his cigarette and turned back to face the fence. With the man’s declaration, I was immediately saddled with the heavy knowledge that I may die from the snakebite on my thumb.
An adult, an authority figure, had just told me the snake, which had bitten me, could very well be a poisonous copperhead! I became dizzy and heard a sharp click. The click was from Travis’ front door being shut. It signified the house of Travis wanted nothing more to do with us.
“We should go.” Matthew said. Leaving, we followed the road east until it intersected a trail. If you went left on the trail you came to the back of Cedar Hill Elementary School where I then was a student in the first grade. We took the trail to the right, and went through a small grove of cedar trees. This trail soon emptied out into a cul-de-sac. This cul-de-sac was the end of a paved road that would bring us closer to our own neighborhood.
We took this road south and then east to the hills of Red Chimney Dr. Halfway up these hills and quite close to home I decided I did not want to die.
So, I shouted out to God, “I want to live!” but there was no reply. So, I began to shout even louder! A few cars drove by and I received puzzled looks by the passengers who, I imagine, were not mentally prepared to see a young boy yelling at the top of his lungs with a large snake wrapped around his arm.
My sister Joy did show up. She rode a pink bike with silver tassels coming from the grips of its handlebars. She had heard my wails. Warily, she circled us, sizing up the situation. Then without so much as a word she quickly peddled off in the direction of our house. The road became silent.
Under the hot summer sun my brother and I finished the last leg of the journey home. At our house my brother ran inside to tell my mother. My mother was already on the phone to my father, Anthony. For Joy, had peddled her pink bike ahead and informed her of my precarious situation. Outside, I waited with death wrapped around my right arm.
The overwhelming sadness of death taking me from my family was too much. I started to weep. In this nervous state my senses became hyper. The scent of tar from our warm driveway filled my nose. At the garden, near the front door, the orange of the dragon lilies was so intense they were more like flames than flowers. My breathing became faster and faster. My forehead started to sweat. The buzzing from the cicadas high in the oaks filled my ears.
Just then my brother Matthew ran down the front steps and shouted “ You are going to live! Mom called Dad and he says we don’t have copperheads in Rhode Island! Dad says, it’s a milk snake. And milk snakes are not poisonous!” Then he gave me another warm-hearted slap on the back. I started to relax. My breathing leveled off. I started to smile. I started to laugh. I did a little jig and held up my right arm with the milk snake coiled over it. Florence, my mother, came out of the house as I was doing my milk snake jig.
She quizzically looked at me and said. “Put the snake in the snake hutch.” I did. She then washed my snakebite with warm soapy water and told me lunch was ready. For lunch we had spaghetti with white bread and butter. To drink we had grape cool aid. Happy as a clam, I sat there eating spaghetti, knowing that God had heard my roadside cry to live. It was my Dad who answered this plea for life, by telling us, the snake was not a poisonous copperhead, but a non-venomous milk snake. Thankfully, my father was correct and to this day out of all the snakes, I love the eastern milk snake the most.