I spent the first decade of my life in Paoli, Indiana. Paoli, two hours south of Indianapolis, is a small town situated on the northeastern edge of the Hoosier National Forest. It’s a few miles east of French Lick, probably the most well known town down there due to the recent revival of its resort, casino and winery. You could argue Paoli is known for its ski hill, Paoli Peaks, even though the running joke is that you ski through more tobacco chew and mud than actual snow.
When I was small, probably in pre-school, I had a babysitter in Paoli named Anita whose house I went to everyday. Anita took care of me and my younger brother plus a few other kids both older and younger than me. At Anita’s house, I learned how to look for locust shells at the bases of trees. I learned how to tie my shoes, the bunny ears way, out on her back porch. During nap time, I learned about patterns. Refusing to sleep, I stared at the swirls on the ceiling in her daughter Jackie’s room, finding new pictures and faces in the plaster everyday. I’ve never been one for midday sleeps.
After nap time the group of us, led by Anita, would go outside in the front yard to pick up stray bullets. I didn’t know then that they weren’t actually bullets, but shells, mostly small copper ones from rifles or shotguns. Calling them bullets made more sense to my 4-yr-old mind. Anita’s husband, Lawrence, owned a gun shop right on their property. Their house was at the bottom of a hill and the gun shop was closer to the road, at the top. It was just a small house on the side of the road, a few yards away from their long driveway.
Because of this, there were strict rules about playing in the front yard and if I’m remembering things right, it wasn’t until after Lawrence closed his shop that we could finally go out to hunt for those locust shells, for acorns, rocks, arrowheads and of course, the bullets. We walked with tender steps through the yard, chins tucked and eyes peeled, calling out “found one!” each time we caught a glint of copper in the leaves. We pretended they were Civil War bullets, little pieces of history no else had yet discovered. We collected them in our pockets, having a contest before our moms picked us up to see who found the most. Most days we handed them over in fistfuls to Anita, but once or twice I’d whisper in her ear, “Can I keep one?”
We didn’t hear gunshots that often, and when we did, we were never too concerned. But one day, a clear shot rang out, a little bit louder than normal, and not a minute later, Lawrence camp tramping through the front door telling us we should come out and take a look at this. We zipped up our jackets and hand in hand we marched up the hill to the road along their house. As we reached the crest of the hill, I could see something sitting in the road. “Don’t touch it,” Anita instructed. I stepped a little closer and saw it, a snake. A dead snake. A dead, Copperhead snake.
Before I had a chance to get too scared or grossed out or anything of the sort, it was time for a lesson on identifying snakes, courtesy of Lawrence. He showed us the markings and how you could identify a Copperhead by the shape of its skull. I imagined the snake chasing Lawrence down the street, threatening him with fangs and venom and a sinister hiss. I saw Lawrence turning quickly on his heel, drawing the pistol from its leather holster, firing a sharp, clean shot and the snake stopping dead in its path. I heard the echo of the shot ringing out through the forest and Lawrence, successful, blowing smoke off the barrel of his gun.
In reality, the Copperhead was probably just minding his own business, lying on the pavement to digest a meal or maybe because it was warmer there than in the wet leaves of the yard, I’m not sure. But Lawrence was smart to get rid of the snake. Copperheads are so camouflaged on the ground they are virtually invisible to their prey, or to little humans, searching for acorns. Even though they prefer to leave humans alone, they will sometimes bite when stepped on or touched. And even though their venom isn’t the most poisonous of the snakes in Indiana, no venom is better than some, in my opinion.
Since then, I’ve had a few more snake encounters in Southern Indiana, all harmless, but this is the one I remember the most. The image of that Copperhead burned into my mind for better or worse. I had quite the story to tell my mom when she picked me up that afternoon. And I was happy to report that the next day, even after the previous day’s events, our bullet hunting went on as scheduled, uninterrupted.