Accaponac Memoirs - 1935: The Snake Charmers (Bernie Lerner)
Charlie Cogan had somehow managed to convince Ma Greasy at the infirmary that he was highly allergic to the straw that filled the cotton ticks we all slept on. So Charlie‘s first claim to fame was that he was the only scout in camp who had a real mattress. The rest of us rustled at night and had trouble in the morning making hospital corners. Charlie’s second distinction that summer was that he was the one who gave Larry Segal his nick-name.
I was P.L. in ‘35, with first-year campers making up about half of my 8- man tent. The night that Charley re-named Larry was the night of the season’s first OA tap-out. The new campers had all been most impressed with the local “Indians” that they had seen at the fire that evening. So the conversation approaching Taps was more lively than usual, but as time went on, the chatter went downhill from serious to giddy. Finally, Charlie and the other veterans wound up taking turns making up far-out Indian names for the guys in the patrol, just in case. When his name came up, Larry was christened by Charlie as “Chief Ooch N’Twoo”. This was greeted with great hilarity, so much so that the name stuck, and Larry was known as “Ooch” for the rest of the season.
Ooch was a quiet, reserved kid, with an unusual talent that he didn’t know he had until he arrived in camp. Ooch attracted snakes. One of the first days of camp, Larry (as he was still called) had drawn waiter duty, and we were both late in leaving the mess-hall after lunch. As we walked alone down the trail to our tent, I watched with increasing interest as Larry dove into the brush just off the trail three different times to pick up a snake. Now, this was a trail that dozens of scouts had recently passed through at a sound level of at least 80 decibels. Rationally, no self-respecting snake should have been still hanging around waiting to be picked up. Let alone three of them. However, I soon learned, along with Ooch, that all the snakes in the neighborhood-his neighborhood- seemed to be just lying there waiting for Ooch to come along.
Ooch simply loved snakes, and from the reaction of the snakes, you could say that the attraction was mutual. When he first picked them up, the snakes were startled and excited, but in a few minutes, Ooch’s gentle handling invariably calmed them down to the point where they would curl lazily around his hand and arm. Ooch managed to pick up and gentle all kinds and sizes of snakes, garters, green snakes, milk snakes, hog-nose snakes, king snakes and a few only Ooch could identity.
The one snake that did not respond to Ooch was the black Rat snake. According to Ooch, the Rat was born mean and bad-tempered, which was pretty obvious when you watched the contest been Ooch and the snake. They just didn’t get along. Ooch’s favorites were the ring-necked red-bellied racers. Ooch was always very protective of his snakes and the only time he would show off a snake was when he would let a ring-neck or two loose to race along the service road. It was quite impressive to see the pretty little snakes slithering at high speed through the red dust on the road, heading for the shade of the brush.
Strangely enough at Accaponac that summer, there was a kid in the next patrol tent who had an affinity for snakes similar to Ooch’s. Stan Zimmer was a chubby, short kid, who was not the most popular scout around. Unlike Ooch, Stan was not emotionally attached to the snakes he picked up. He had the same ability to find them, but was detached and clinical in his attitude. He didn’t relate to his snakes; he collected and studied them.
Somewhere in his studies, Stan had learned that a snake’s reflex actions would persist long after they were dead. Stan claimed that if you cut off a snake’s head, the jaws would still work. ,To back this up, Stan arranged a public demonstration that he widely advertised in advance.
After he had assembled an audience of most of our two patrols, Stan went out in the woods and quickly brought back a snake: a ring-neck red belly. In front of the crowd, Stan held the snake on the porch of his tent platform, took out a hunting knife, and neatly detached the snake’s head. He then fed the tail to the head, and sure enough, the head began to eat the tail. It was admittedly fascinating, but also a bit gruesome, watching the tail slowly emerge from the back of the disembodied head. I noticed Ooch watching from the edge of the group and when Stan sliced off the snake’s head, I saw him flush, turn and walk away. After the demonstration, Stan began a lecture on the nature of reflex muscle contraction, but the audience rapidly dispersed without giving him a chance to finish.
The following night, Whitey Rossman, my home troop SPL, dropped by my tent with an invitation to share a salami at the mess-hall after Taps. We were sitting around chatting, waiting for the bugle to blow and for the patrol to settle down. Suddenly, we heard a high-pitched and prolonged screech from the direction of the next tent. Grabbing our flashlights, Whitey and I ran down the trail to see who was being so slowly and loudly dismembered. When we got there, under the light of the tent lantern, we saw Stan Zimmer standing by his bed, pale and shaking. He had dumped his blanket and sheets, and on the floor were the remains of a five-foot black Rat snake, with the head separated from the rest of it. Instead of short-sheeting Stanley, someone had snake-sheeted him - in two parts.
With the help of Stan’s P.L., Les Hauer, Whitey and I disposed of the two pieces of dead snake, re-made Stan’s bed and got him reluctantly back into it. We did a quick poll of all present, only to obtain a total denial of pre-knowledge and criminal intent. In the meantime, Taps had blown, but it took another ten minutes or so for us to get every one in the tent to calm down, particularly Stan.
When I finally got back to my tent, most of the patrol was still awake, but it was quiet. For some reason, nobody asked me what the recent uproar just down the trail was all about. In fact, no one said anything. I lit the lantern and was about to leave for the mess-hall, when Ooch sat up in bed and quietly asked,
“Bernie, were the jaws still working?”
I considered this for a long minute, and finally said,
“Yes, Ooch, I think they were.”
He nodded, and I knew what he was going to say next, so I said it for him:
“He shouldn’t have killed a red-belly.”
With that, I picked up the lantern and left for the salami-fest.