As I have mentioned in other pieces I had a desire to be a naturalist. It was my dream from childhood. For my eighth Christmas, I asked for book on snakes and dinosaurs and was disappointed when Santa brought books for eight year olds. I had something much more advanced in mind. Nonetheless, my curiosity, and interest continued.
When I went to college, I met another guy who shared the same interest as I. Billy George Riley was from a small town in South Georgia, he grew up hunting.
My experience with the Boy Scouts, Explorer Scouts, and Walford Rentz had prepared me for wilderness adventures. Walford was a high school friend who kept quite a menagerie of snakes. He had a snake pit in his basement and a fascinating collection ranging from a totally benign hog nose snake to a big diamond back rattler. Of course, the rattler was separated from the others. Over the years of our friendship, I learned a great deal about snakes, overcame my fear of them, and even collected some of my own.
One of my snakes was a large gray rat snake. This species is not particularly aggressive, but will poop a foul smelling musk when threatened. Rat snakes will bite if pushed hard enough and while not poisonous they have hundreds of needle sharp teeth which do smart when they penetrate the skin. I kept my snakes on our screened porch in cages. Mother and Daddy tolerated my hobby until one morning my rat snake was missing. It had managed to push the lid off its cage and escaped through a drain in the porch. I searched for a while, but could not find it. That afternoon we heard screaming and ran outside. Our neighbor across the street, an 82-year-old woman was screaming and beating the ground with her hoe. Suddenly she grabbed her chest and keeled over. Poor thing had a heart attack as she cut my snake into pieces. She survived, but my rat snake didn’t. That ended my snake keeping.
Anyway, Billy George and I established a friendship almost immediately and managed to get a dorm room together. As we talked, Billy George told me about his experiences in the swamps. That sounded like something right up my alley, so we scouted around until we found a nice little swamp near the college. We spent every minute that we were free in the swamp up to our waists in swamp water. It was like being at home. The critters that live in swamps are innumerable: insects, arachnids, fish, snakes, beaver, possums, raccoons, deer, porcupines, skunks, bear, turtles, and of course, alligators, each with its own role to play in the grand scheme of things. (I am a Christian but I believe in evolution. I don’t believe in Darwinism, rather I lean toward the notion of intelligent design.)
Our objective was to observe and occasionally catch various critters to study more closely then release them. We caught lizards of various species, snakes and even a few very small alligators. An occasional leach would latch on; they especially liked the private places. We learned that if you just leave them alone they would drop off when they had eaten their fill.
We decided to make a trip to Colquitt, Georgia, Billy George’s hometown and get into the swamps big time. Billy George’s dad had told him that an alligator was getting a friend’s pigs from the pigpen. We thought we’d catch the gator.
That started the trouble. Hayward Williams had heard our tales of exploration and insisted that he go with us. We decided to take him because he offered to buy the gas. During our trip from Atlanta to Colquitt, we realized that Hayward had a digestive problem. Often the car filled with a rank odor. Thank goodness, there was no air conditioning so the windows were down. Repeatedly the purple cloud engulfed us. It was disgusting.
We finally got to Colquitt and after a night with Hayward, sleeping on the back porch we set off for our first real big swamp adventure. We used a large wooden johnboat with oars and set off into the heart of the wilderness. The deeper we got the more interesting things became; we saw more critters than we had ever seen before and the alligators were huge. Hayward sat in the front of the boat while Billy George and I took turns rowing. It was obvious that Hayward was getting more and more frightened.
As we travelled around bends in the creek, there were often moss pads on limbs that overhung the creek. Snakes liked to coil on them to warm from the sun. As we rounded a bend, Billy George casually mentioned that there was a large snake on a moss pad directly ahead of us. Hayward who was 6’4” tall and weighed 275 pounds stood up and literally ran backward through the boat knocking Billy George over the side and me down on the floor. Hayward’s quick movement set the snake off and it jumped into the boat. Fortunately, it was a harmless water snake and I quickly caught it and tossed it overboard while Billy George climbed back aboard. We then plopped Hayward’s big old butt in the back of the boat and dared him to move.
We had a double barrel 12 gauge shotgun in the back of the boat in case of an emergency such as an alligator deciding to climb in the boat with us or a bear attack. We ate lunch then continued on our excursion. Later that afternoon we headed back to the landing and as we rounded a bend, a snake fell into the boat. There was a plop immediately followed by a large boom. Hayward shot the snake and in doing so took the bottom out of the boat. Well, not the whole bottom, just a sizable hole. We tore a seat out of the boat, used our clothes as caulking, put the seat over the caulking and plopped Hayward’s fat butt on the patch then we rowed like the devil, naked as jaybirds (I never knew what being naked as a jaybird meant, but we were) to get to the landing before dark.
We got to the landing, pulled the boat out, and headed for home, Billy George’s house, where we got dry clothes, patched the boat, ate some dinner, and slept for a while. We planned to go out later that night to catch the pig eating gator. However, that’s a story for another time. Hayward and his purple cloud were on a bus back to college.