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Bad Snakes and Red-Headed Women

Anderson Valley High School’s head football coach for the past 13 years has been Dan Kuny. His mother was a red-headed Arkie woman who died much too young from cancer. She was a vivid lady who told her son after his high school graduation, “Danny, I don't like that war going on in Vietnam. And, I don't want you to go there. But, if you are drafted, I want you to go to Vietnam and do your best because if you go to Canada and hide out like them hippies are doing, I will hunt you down and shoot you in the head like a sick dog. You have country and family honor to consider.”

I asked Danny if his mother was serious when she spoke those words to him. Danny said, “Yeah, as serious as a heart attack.” One reason we’re close is that I, too, had a vivid red-headed Arkie mother who once told me, “Never back away from anyone if you are right. If you are wrong, take your punishment without a whimper. And, if they call you an ‘Arkie’ you call them a prune-picking son of a bitch.”

I can remember when I was a little boy my mother telling me about “a handsome young man on a big red horse” who would come to see her on her pa's farm in Arkansas. “He had red hair but no freckles so he tanned very nicely. And he spoke like a gentleman should speak to a young lady. I was really struck by him. And, he was the only real competition your daddy ever had. And, I always wondered what happened to that handsome young man on the big red horse who came to visit me. But, suddenly, he just didn't come around any more. And, I never saw him or ever heard of him again.”

My dad was a fine athlete in high school in Amity, Arkansas. His best position was point guard in basketball. He was a left-handed point guard who averaged 11 points per game. (But, remember, an average winning score in those days for one team was 33 points.) My dad was offered a full-ride Division I athletic scholarship, but turned down the scholarship because he was afraid he might lose my mother to one of her suitors — especially, my dad told me, “some good-looking boy on a big red horse that she had mentioned a few times.”

My dad told me he really enjoyed geology and he liked basketball, but he really loved my mother and he had never, ever for a moment doubted his choice of choosing her over college.

My mother and dad lived in Mountain Pines, Arkansas, when they were first married. Mountain Pines is, as you might expect, in the pine forest mountains about four miles northwest and up in elevation from Hot Springs. He worked in a saw mill where he got his sleeve caught in a green chain just before a board went over a rolling pulley with my dad's hand beneath the board. When the steel bar went between the opening in the chain, the tip of my dad's finger was removed clean, like it had been sliced off. The mill’s doctor sewed it neatly back on during the lunch hour and my father went back to work.

Many years later, I was working at Hollifield Lumber Company while I was on a two-week leave from the Army after completing basic training at Fort Ord, near Monterey. I was the off-bearman. The man in this mill position pulled the slag and bark from the log carriage as the sawyer (Felton Hollifield) trimmed the log to a square cant. The off-bearman discarded the slag and bark by sending this unusable material down a chute where a chain carried the debris to the huge furnace in the pit of the burner.

When the cant was being pared down by the sawyer into depths of 1-inch or 2-inch or 4-inch planks, the off-bearman directed the wide planks to the edgerman on a chain that crosses above the burner chute. The edgerman decided on the width of the lumber the plank should be cut into. Felton Hollifield and Noel Hurst were both two of the best at this essential task; calculations had to be fast an accurate.

One day, while I was at work during my military leave from Fort Ord, a sharp strip of lumber beneath the wide plank I had sent to my dad, the edgerman, caught my dad's jacket sleeve and immediately sent his hand and arm into the many saws inserted into the heart of the edger. My dad jerked back the sharp sliver of lumber beneath the plank and only sliced open the ring finger on his right hand from one of the saws.

I tried to get my dad to shut down the edger and go to the doctor in Boonville because it was only forty minutes until 12 o'clock and lunch time; he was losing blood. My dad refused to leave his mill position — he was the millwright and foreman — until the lunch whistle. He fired up the welder and cauterized his own finger with the flame and continued to work until the noon break. During the noon hour, Dr. Bradford sewed him up, and he never missed a minute of work that day.

Felton Hollifield was Buster's other brother. He came to the beautiful Anderson Valley to help Buster build his lumber mill. He brought with him his wonderful wife Edith, his son Dennis (AVHS, Class of ’57) and his daughter Linda. Felton and Edith and Dennis and Linda loved Anderson Valley and loved working at Buster's Mill. But, after working for Buster Hollifield for the decade of 1947 to 1957, the family returned to the Hollifield Country in Hopper, Arkansas, because Mrs. Edith Hollifield had come down with breast cancer. The family did everything they could for their beloved wife and mother, but she died in Hopper three years after their return and was buried in the soft red clay of Arkansas beneath the brilliant green grass.

Like Olie Erickson recently, Dennis Hollifield was bitten by a poisonous snake in Arkansas in September of 1965. Dennis was married a fine Arkansas lady named Mary who worked in the Caddo National Bank in Glenwood, Arkansas. Dennis became a farmer in Hopper. One warm September morning, Dennis put on his high rubber boots to go milk the cows. The boots were made for safe walking in the barn and the barnyard because when your morning chores were completed, you simply got out the hose and sprayed off the rubber boots so that any unpleasant matter that stuck to the rubber boots was squirted off back, and back into the rich barnyard soil. But running in those boots was an act of pure desperation. They weren’t made for running.

That morning, Dennis had reached into a feed bag to feed the animals when the fangs of a large copperhead hidden in it sank into his hand. Dennis's wife Mary saw him running in his big boots toward her as he shouted, “I’m snakebit! I'm snakebit! Phone the doctor and call your brother. We'll go to the doctor with your brother.”

Mary Hollifield forewarned the doctor and Mary's brother drove them at about 80 or 90 mph in a dash of about 13 miles to the doctor's office. Dennis recalled that, “My hand was swollen up like a baseball glove and everything was swollen up to my shoulder.”

Dennis said he had a snake-bite kit that he had brought with him when he left California that had in its instructions “stay calm” as the number one instruction. “I blew that instruction when I began to run in those boots,” he says.

My mother, Mary Hurst, remembered that “Dennis's doctor was a jogger. He finished his run while poor Dennis and Mary waited. Then he took a shower, then he ate a breakfast of eggs and pancakes and orange juice. Then he drank a cup of coffee before he treated those frightened young people.”
Dennis said treatment for his copperhead bite wasn’t overly complicated. “Not much to it,” he said. “The doctor made two small cuts on the finger with a scalpel and then he squeezed for a long time before any drops of blood came out. I showed the doctor my California snake bite kit and the doc told me, “Don't cut your finger like that snake bite kit says or you'll sever some tendons and wreck your fingers.”

“The copperhead bit me deep with one fang,” Dennis recalled, “but it looked like the other fang mark had struck and slid a glancing blow off of my fingernail. So, the doc didn't do anything to the fingernail. He sent me home, but I felt real sick and very weak. After four or five days I thought I might be dying. I went back to the doc and he injected me with something. I don’t know for sure if it was anti-venom. But, I think it was. After a couple more weeks, I started to work again. But that fingernail that had that glancing blow from the second fang has never been right since the snake bite more than 30 years ago. It is always infected or out of whack in some way. I know now that you have to treat any place even scratched so that even a little bit of that snake venom doesn't get into your system.”

Cainey Creek fronts my property in Arkansas. It is supposed to be the snakiest few miles in Arkansas. In July of 1970 when my oldest daughter Story (Hurst) Holston was 11 months old, my wife Joanadel and my daughter and I went to visit my papa and grandma — my dad's parents. My papa grew yellow-meated watermelons (the first in Arkansas), peanuts and corn, and had a great wild-honey tree, a fine garden, and cows, chickens and hogs. We had range chicken eggs each morning, thick bacon and big homemade biscuits with homemade butter covered with wild honey dipped right from the big honeycomb. We ate lunch in the garden with nothing more than our hands and a salt shaker. We ate juicy, thin-skinned tomatoes, uncooked corn on the cob, bell peppers, chili peppers, and green onions and cantaloupe and watermelon.

I would help my uncle with chores in the morning, and we would swim in the Creek in the afternoon. One afternoon, I had Story in my arms near a bunch of roots in the water. I sat down in the creek so only my head and the baby's head remained above water. I felt a fish bump against my leg and move on. Then another fish (I thought) bumped my leg. But the thing stayed nestled against my thigh, and I felt the full length of a snake and its head along my upper thigh. I could feel its tail on my calf.

I thought, Be still. The snake will move on and probably it is not poisonous anyway. Then I felt it was fat — like only cottonmouths are round and fat. I felt I could stay still though the snake wasn’t moving except to get closer to my privates… But I stayed still because I thought the snake might kill the baby if I moved or the baby kicked her feet.

My wife was laughing on the bank of the creek. she thought I was putting on a minstrel show — my eyes were huge like saucers. Suddenly, I threw the baby high in the air above the creek and sprang upwards to catch her. I immediately felt the snake strike my kneecap. I made a pretty religious run across the top of the creek’s water to the safety of the bank.

My wife stopped laughing when she saw the perfect fang marks on my kneecap. I sent my grandma's snake dog into the stream after the snake, and soon we saw the cottonmouth slither up a tree next to the water on the far bank.

I went home and pulled crushed ice in a toe-sack up over the bit leg — from my thigh down to my calf. I made a cloth tourniquet and wrapped it above the bite. I made small cuts in the wound with a razor and I kept my torso elevated above my leg constantly for two weeks. I had strong sweaty, flu-like symptoms for two weeks and a swollen knee. I constantly cleaned the wound with peroxide, alcohol, and iodine. I was worried about the venom causing an infection or a weakness in my knee bone.
But after two weeks, I was fine. I think I was given a glancing blow by two fangs that were meant only to warn me away. I did have to cut off some rotting skin on my knee one time, but one time only. Dennis said he had to cut off flesh that had rotted on his hand a couple of times following his bite, and he was fine except for the untreated fingernail, which still bothers him.

* * *

Thinking back, the veil parts and something so completely fresh appears it feels like I’m there. Buster Hollifield's granddaughter Tanya and I had wondered, “What's the big deal about throwing a baseball over a three-story building?”

“I guess it was psychological 'cause it was always the tallest building in Hopper,” Tanya had said.

I remember talking to Buster on his Arkansas ranch near Amity after he returned to the red clay and Arkansas from Anderson Valley. Buster had then said, “I had to think of some way to impress Ruby. Some old boys had bet me that no one as classy as that school-teaching Ruby would date me. When I thought about it, I knew the impression I made must be at school where she worked. Throwing a baseball over the school would be too easy. And, if you practice, you can sail a football a long way. But, if you throw a basketball over a wide, three-story high building, that is pure arm strength and I knew that would impress Ruby.”

So, it was a basketball throw that impressed Ruby.

Charmian (Blattner) and Peggy and many others have told me about Buster's big water truck that he purchased in approximately 1953, way before we had a fire department in Anderson Valley. Charmian said that all of Philo might have gone up in flames had Buster not been ready with his big tanker truck full of water with hoses ready to put out fires that would flare up in the tall, dry grass of summer. “Buster put out lots of fires, and Wilma's husband Walter Brink would be right with him,” Peggy recalls. “Walter Brink was one of those wonderful men who did good things for his community and doesn’t want to be ‘fussed over’ because he is just doing the right thing.”

For a long time, Noel Burchfield, was gifted or lucky at cards — no one ever said he was a cheat. But he was a trickster. He took paychecks from many single men, but he usually let married men slide completely or pay him off in installments, or pay him with abalone, which he loved.

His tricks were minor league stuff like this: he would make his face tic when he had a bad hand of cards. He’d tic a few times until the other boys at the table thought they’d seen a pattern develop. Then Noel would catch a good hand, twitch his face in the telltale tic, and the inexperienced gamblers would bet their whole check on the hand because they thought Noel Burchfield was bluffing. Noel wouldn't be bluffing, of course, and he would get the guys’ payroll checks and then ask the guys if they wanted to borrow some beans money. “You got to eat until the next pay day,” he’d say.

Noel had taken my uncle Peppy's check and some other guys, too, and they were talking about shooting him. One night, as he passed my window while I was reading late, I warned him, “Hey, Noel. Be careful 'cause those guys are mad about losing their checks to you and are threatening to get you.” He took a colt revolver out of the big front pocket of his overalls and spun the cylinder and said coldly, “Tell those old boys to reconsider. I don't want to have to hurt them. And, tell ’em work is a sure thing, gambling ain't.”

Noel Burchfield never was got.

Noel had just had one leg cut off a bit due to his bone cancer after he returned to Arkansas to die in a small trailer near Glenwood where my Pa's old farm was located when my mother was a little girl. He could then still swing around Glenwood on his crutches pretty good. My mother called across Glenwood's main street and said, “Hey, Noel, how are you?”

Noel said, “Hey, Mary. How are you?” And Noel swung across the main street on his crutches to stand by my mother.

My mother said, “I just wanted to tell you that you we’re going to have a visitor tonight.”

Noel's face lit up, and he said, “That's great. Who's coming?”

My mother said, “Well, Noel Hurst. My Noel's coming to see you.” Noel Burchfield's face fell down sadly for a moment or two and Noel said, “Oh, Mary. I thought for a second you were going to say Cloi's coming to see me. But, it'll be good to see Noel Hurst.”

Cloi and Noel lived in a tent after WWII beneath the Sierra's snow-covered mountains near Nevada City in early 1944. Then in late 1944 they moved to the Merritt-Foshee Mill at the far end of the first flat plain of Mountain View Road in Boonville. It was Cloi who had outfitted their cabin by “running her face” at Rossi's Hardware Store.

But, Noel was a drinker, a card player, a timber faller, and a womanizer. Cloi left him and ran her face to start her own rest home farther north in California until she had the resources for a successful retirement. Then she, too, moved back to Glenwood.

But, the old card player, who played out his string after his luck had run out still loved Cloi, his wife, but he’d never convinced her of that while he was young and Cloi was young, and a good life was possible for them.

Noel Burchfield was the living definition of the term, “He walked softly but he carried a big stick.” And he left this planet with a torturous but painful grace.

When my father died of cancer a few years ago, my mother was grieving and I was concerned about her emotional and physical state. As Buster and Ruby, and Chili and Peggy, and Walter and Wilma, and June and Elmer, and Jeff and Caroline were perfect partners for life, so too were my parents. My mother was vivid and animated and full of fun and personality.

My father was cautious in most ways. He was a solidly moral man in every way. He loved to listen to my mother tell stories. He was a quiet man but he had a definite presence that was felt in a group of men. His favorite book was Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey who wrote of being a rookie Park Ranger in the Great Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. Reading that book after his death, I understood why he always wanted to be the first person to try to cross the river between Brown’s Mill and Anderson Valley Way.

After the mill work ended, my dad spent his last 15 years as the Ranger for the Bodega Bay State Beach and Park. He and my mother lived in the ranger residence beside the Russian River where it pours into the waves of the Pacific near the famous Goat Rock.

After his death my mother went to church on Sunday and Wednesday and Senior Citizen lunches daily. She sang at Mount Tabor Singing event where all the church denominations gather to sing together; she stayed busy.

One day after the Mount Tabor religious singing, my mother saw a man who looked familiar to her. He looked like the good-looking boy on the big red horse. But that had been more than 60 years before. “Surely,” she thought, “I’m mistaken.” But she approached the man and said, “Did you used to have a big red horse?”

My mother said, “His cup shook on his saucer because he was so surprised, and his knees buckled!”

He said, “Is that you, Mary? Is that really you?”

She said, “Yes. It is. Why did you suddenly stop coming to see me?”

He said, “Your mom and dad were set on you being with Noel Hurst. And all of your bothers liked Noel too, and they insinuated that you were taken. And I knew Noel was a good man.”

She said, “What did you do?”

He said, “Fought a war. Moved to California. And I ran packing sheds in Merced, California, and then I managed some other packing sheds in southern California. I got married, but she died young. So I came back to Arkansas. It’s sure good to see you.”

Together they talked about life, the good times, and the times that were very hard. They talked about religion. He would not join the Church of Christ and she wouldn't become a Baptist. The good-looking man on the red horse and the vivacious redhead became good friends and they helped one another gain some equilibrium, some solid emotional ground as they spoke of grown children, grandchildren and lasting friendships.

Eventually, they drifted apart. They were too different to be married. They could only be friends. And because their history was only the occasional daydream of the unrequited impossible love of youth, they could not even be friends because of the truth gleaned from a full life made even the old daydreams fade like a soft summer fog that just reaches Navarro.

The vivacious redhead and the good-looking man on the big red horse helped each through a grieving process. And, that’s a full load of mutual good.

“I was so lucky to find your father,” my mother says. “Daddy was lucky, too,” I answer.

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