By George Brown
I’ve carried a backpack when hiking for a very long time. Doing so, especially on short day hikes, may seem unnecessary, but each time I pause to retrieve something from a pouch or pocket of my pack I’m thankful to have brought it along. But mostly, I’m thankful because of the many times my backpack has been all that stood between me and uncertain peril, or even death. It may seem peculiar that one ordinary guy could have so many incredible encounters while hiking, and each time somehow manage to save myself by using my backpack.
This is the story of how it all began. In the fall of 1952, I began first grade at a one-room schoolhouse in Perry County, Ohio. My family lived in an old farmhouse about a mile down a gravel road from the school. Because there was no school bus service I and my older sister and four older brothers walked to school each day, as did 20 or so other children. Each morning at precisely half past seven Mrs. Roberts would ring the large school bell announcing that school would begin in half an hour.
We could hear the bell from our house and a half hour was ample time to arrive by eight o’clock. With lunch pails and books in hand we would head in the direction of the echoing bell. I was the only one that did not carry my books held together with a strap. At my pleading, Mom had given me her old clothespin bag to carry my books. I slipped a piece of clothesline rope through the hooks on each edge of the bag in a way that allowed the bag to hang over my shoulders. It was, you could say, my first backpack. I wish I could say the idea was mine, bur it was an idea I had borrowed from Harvey, an older boy who rode a white mule to school instead of walking.
Mom had instructed my older brothers to look after my sister and me, which to them meant making us walk ten paces ahead of them all the way to school. One morning, just as we were about to leave the house I had to pee badly, so I told the others to go ahead and I would catch up. Well, my trip to the outhouse took longer than planned (because of an unexpected #2), so by the time I’d made my way back to the road my brothers and sister had already rounded the bend. Instead of running to catch them I decided I’d be a big boy and walk all the way to school by myself.
it was an unseasonably warm fall day. Most of the leaves had fallen from the trees, nearly covering the gravel road. I kicked at the leaves as I walked along, not even thinking about how much time I still had to arrive at school. I had gone about half way when I stepped on what felt like a large stick hidden by the leaves. With my foot still on the stick, I bent over to pick it up and fling it into the woods, but as I did the stick began to thrash about and rattle. It was a rattlesnake alright, and every bit of two feet long, but miraculously the snake couldn’t strike because my foot was resting squarely on his head.
I stood there for a long time too frozen with fear to move or even cry for help. I realized the snake couldn’t bite me as long as I had my foot on his head, but I had to do something before it wiggled free. I slowly stooped down and took hold of the back of the snakes head with one hand, while grabbing hold of its still thrashing body with the other – exactly the way I’d watched one of my brothers grab hold of a garter snake a few weeks before.
Then, keeping a death grip on the snake’s head, I slipped my clothespin backpack off wit the other hand, dumped my books on the ground, slid the snake inside the pack, and tied the pack shut with the rope straps. I thought about going home but then imagined the looks on the faces of the other boys when I walked into the classroom with a rattlesnake in my pack. so I left my books and lunch pail sitting at the side of the road and half ran the rest of the way to school.
You can imagine the reception I received when I arrived holding my clothespin backpack as though it was a live hand grenade with the pin pulled, and excitedly began telling Mrs. Roberts and all of the children what had happened. At first no one believed me because there was no movement or sound coming from the pack, but when my oldest brother took the pack from me the snake began to move and rattle. The girls started screaming and I thought poor Mrs. Roberts was going to faint dead away.
My brother carried the pack outside with everybody following close behind. I thought he was going to dump the rattlesnake on the ground and then catch it, but instead he grabbed a big rock and began pounding on my pack until the movement and rattling sound stopped. Some of the girls gasped when blood began oozing through the cotton cloth, but when my brother dumped the half mutilated snake on the ground everyone began to cheer, and I was the envy of all the boys for the rest of the day. At recess they walked back to the site with me to get my books and lunch pail, and insisted that I repeat every detail about how I had caught the rattlesnake.
Looking back, it indeed was a scary encounter for a 6 year old boy, but two good things came of it. I was no longer afraid of snakes, and I had learned an important lesson about the value of carrying a backpack.