On the windowsill in the kitchen of the old Nebraska farmhouse where I grew up rested a small glass jar. Inside this container were the severed rattles from twelve to fifteen rattlesnakes. They were souvenirs collected from the many encounters my dad and brothers had in the pastures and canyons north of our place. As a child, I thought these trophies were fascinating little toys. Sure, they each had a bit of shriveled flesh clinging to one end, but the big one with eleven rattles was a prize worthy of exhibition to childhood companions.
Rattlesnakes were out there, I knew, but I never thought much about the danger when I was a kid. Our cows were occasionally bitten; sometimes a calf would die. Every so often we'd hear about a person getting struck by a rattler, but the danger seemed far removed from me.
I remember the day I saw my first live rattlesnake coiled in the green grass and making his noise a few feet from our front door. Our black and white dog, Shep, barked excitedly. I looked at the snake with new eyes as it struck at Shep.
"Stand back! Stand back!" my mother shouted from the door. I didn't move. The snake missed our dog and recoiled with another shake of his rattle. It sounded like a happy cricket playing a song, but this was no mere cricket. The snake struck at our dog again and missed. "He's blind," my mother yelled. "Get back!"
She rushed to me, snatched my wrist, and yanked backwards. That's when my brother, who was working in his garden, hurried forward with a hoe and chopped at the snake, not once, but over and over again until he was sure it was dead. Then he picked up the carcass, with Shep eagerly dancing at his heels, and headed to the pasture to dispose of the brute and add one more rattle to the little jar in the kitchen window.
My dad had an aggressive eye for rattlers while driving through our pasture roads. It added quite a little excitement to the bumpy ride whenever he'd suddenly bail from the pickup, without even putting it in "park," and grab a stick or spade or post-hole digger-whatever was handy-and clobber a rattler. He did this one time when we had a carload of town people, showing them around.
"There's a great big ol' rattler out there," he said, and he was gone. Since we were traveling in the car, he didn't have a spade or scoop shovel available. There weren't any trees in the area, so he couldn't even find a stick. With the town people gawking out the car window, we all watched my dad pull a large sunflower and whap the snake over the head just as it struck at him. He killed it.
I couldn't blame my dad for being aggressive when it came to killing rattlesnakes. His livelihood depended on the health of the cattle, and he couldn't afford to lose even one. Not long ago, a rattlesnake bit a woman who lived south of our Nebraska family farm while she was on her porch. A week or two later, my brother found one on the front lawn of the farmhouse where we grew up. His old dog, Zeke, didn't pay much attention to it, but the puppy, Cooper, made quite a commotion. Luckily, no one got hurt, and the younger dog got the "big" bone that night.
My other siblings wanted to know where the other snake was hiding. Our dad used to say, "Where there's one, there's always two." Although it isn't a proven fact that rattlers travel in pairs, I suspect my dad would have known. After all, he'd had a lifetime of whacking rattlesnakes.