Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


Porch Tales     




by Ulmer Speed



At first the pain felt like I had snagged my toe with a blackberry briar or had been stung by a yellow jacket.  When I looked down, however, I saw Jake no-shoulders coiled next to my foot tasting the air with his forked tongue like he was trying to decide whether to take another bite.  I undoubtedly made the decision for him because he didnít bite me again.  I donít remember exactly what I did to discourage that follow-up bite but Mama remembered.  She said that I jumped straight up and screamed to high heaven. 

Hearing my screams, Aunt Flora and Doug came running to learn just how Mama had hurt herself.  Aunt Flora believed that anyone younger than 12 wasnít old enough to feel pain so all the screaming had to be about Mama.  Making sure that Mama, her baby sister, was all right, she turned to examine me.  Seeing the purple knot forming on my right big toe with its two puncture marks on top, she conceded that I could be telling the truth about being bitten by a poisonous snake and maybe should see a real doctor.   

With Doug hanging on for dear life in the front seat, Aunt Flora drove us the 15 miles to the hospital pushing her late husbandís Model T Ford to its limit.  Thinking back Iím sure that she bumped up against 30 miles an hour from time to time.  She couldíve gone faster if she would have known how to manipulate the spark advance and the fuel mix but we got there soon enough.  Mama sat in the back seat hugging me and praying to the Lord to let her baby live.  I suspect that her praying was a little bit for me and a lot for her own safety since Aunt Flora had never driven a car before and it showed.  Mamaís wailing and Aunt Floraís driving scared me more than the snakebite did so my bawling only got louder.   

At the hospital, Doug, Mama, and I began to protest as we slowly circled the parking area several times while Aunt Flora fiddled with the controls of the Model T.  On the third time around she admitted that stopping the car was beyond her ability so she moved to the running board whilst Doug slid under the steering wheel.  She ordered him to guide the car around the hospital grounds until either it ran out of gas or he found a lever or pedal that would stop the darn thing.  Knowing instinctively what had to be done, Aunt Flora stepped off the running board and yanked Mama and me out of the car onto the cement pavement.  The tumble didnít hurt me much but Mama favored her right hip for several months afterwards.  We must have been a sight to look at, for I remember the nurses at the hospital looking at each other with bemused smirks as Mama and Aunt Flora ran barefoot through the emergency entrance pulling a crying five year old limping on one foot.  The nurseís looks gradually turned to alarm, however, when they glanced from my dirt-streaked face to my ankle and foot swelled to twice the normal size.  Before they had cleaned my foot sufficient for the doctor to examine it, my toe split between the two fang punctures.  I never learned whether the nurses jumped because they had never seen a toe spontaneously split down the middle or from the jolt of Doug running the model T into the wall of the hospital.  While I lay in bed recuperating, Aunt Flora made Doug practice driving around their yard so he could learn to use the brake pedal rather than having to run into something to stop.  He told me that Aunt Flora gave him his first driving lesson; she gave him a good whuppiní for running her car into the hospital wall. 

The doctor released me from the hospital after a ten-day stay with a stern warning not to step on any more copperheads.  He cautioned Mama that a bite from any poisonous moccasin could kill a small child and that I had been extremely lucky to have gotten treatment as soon as I did.  He didnít mention the crack that Doug left in the hospital wall.  Mama did.  She made it the grand finale of her snake story.  

When Mama began telling the story of my snake bite, she said that I screamed like a panther, jumped straight up in the air, and ran squalling to where she stood poking at the clothes in the boiling wash pot.  With each of her telling, though, my scream became louder, my jump became higher, and my run faster.  Her laughter definitely became heartier.  She enjoyed telling the snakebite story so much that I didnít have the heart to ask her to stop embarrassing me.  She probably wouldnít have stopped anyway.  I soon learned that part of the adult visiting ritual (gossip sessions) including telling the latest shenanigans of their youngíns and since I was an only child I could count on Mama eventually telling my snake story to every woman in our church congregation.  She even told the Raleigh Spice and Flavor salesman.  I think she told him every time he stopped, which was about once every two months during the summer months.  I got so skittish about Mama telling that story that whenever I heard a strange voice on the front porch I would instinctively run out the back door of the house and sit in the edge of the woods behind the beehives until the company left.  Occasionally, but not often, she would catch me before I could get out of the house, get a firm grip on the back of my pants, pull me in front of her visitor, then take an eternity to tell the story, adding her latest embellishment as she went along.  Sometimes she would out and out lie, but I knew better than to call the exaggerations to her attention.

The author is Mr. Ellis Ulmer Speed, a 1970 engineering graduate of Mississippi State University.  He currently works for the Defense Technology Security Administration in Alexandria, Virginia.

His e-mail address is

© 2003, Ellis Ulmer Speed, All Rights Reserved