Snake Hunting in South Carolina

Albert Vetere Lannon

© Copyright 2019 by Albert Vetere Lannon

Photo of rattlesnake.  (c) 2006 by Richard Loller.
Photo of rattlesnake by Richard Loller

Growing up was terrifying during the Cold War Red Scare years, with Dad a Full-Time Functionary of the U.S. Communist Party. Consumed with their politics and the growing repression, there was little time for me, so I learned that if I couldn’t get positive attention, I would find ways to get negative attention. One of those was collecting and keeping snakes.

We moved a lot, and after a scary stint in Biloxi, Mississippi, for Dad to recover from ulcer problems, we spent some months in the Vetere Family house in Elizabeth, New Jersey. We moved back to New York City when I was 11, in 1949, renting an apartment on East 12th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side long before it became the East Village. The apartment took the whole second floor, and my folks rented out a room to one comrade or another to help make the rent. My sister Karen and I both had our own rooms, and I kept a snake or two in mine. I had permission, but was told emphatically nothing venomous – little did they know when later that happened since they rarely came into my room because of the snakes.

Sitting outside on the stoop – our social center – an older boy from across the street joined us as the screech of the Third Avenue El stopped conversation for a moment. I then bragged, “I’ve got a black racer in my apartment.” Carl Herrmann replied, “I’ve got a baby boa,” A baby boa constrictor!! That was every budding young herpetologist’s dream! Carl, who was five years older than me, had gotten it by visiting the United Fruit Company’s dockside facilities after banana boats arrive and unloaded. There were sometimes little stowaways, like the baby boa, or huge tarantulas.

That began a friendship that evolved into much more. Carl Frank Herrmann became my surrogate Big Brother, my mentor, my confessor, my idol. His German immigrant mother ran a boarding house with a large and warm basement, and that became the repository for Carl’s growing reptile collection which, became, I believe, the largest private collection in the city, often trading via the U.S. mail with herpers around the world.

Carl knew where to look for snakes, and he would hitch-hike with me and my best teenage buddy, Johnny-Boy De Maria, my paisan, to the South Jersey Pine Barrens which was the northern range of desirable snakes like king, pine and corn, to copperhead dens at Kensico Reservoir, and to the Ramapo Mountains across the Hudson River on the New York-New Jersey borders to hunt for pilot blacksnakes, timber rattlers, and hog-nosed snakes. For Carl, it was about collecting; for Johnny-Boy, whose father was the last ice man on the Lower East Side and rarely let his son get away, and for me, it was more about escaping the mean streets, the anger and the fear of our home lives, and being able to be just us, to be wild and free in nature.

Carl’s room was separate from his mother’s manager’s apartment, and had its own locking door. It was a small room, with bunk beds where I often slept in the upper to leave early on a hike. For awhile Carl had a raccoon living in his room as well, and when I slept over the raccoon, being a nocturnal animal, kept me awake with its roaming. Once it started exploring my face. I lay still on my back, mouth closed, as little hands pushed and prodded, and then grabbed my lips and yanked my mouth open and stuck its nose in to see if there was anything in there to eat!

With April’s Spring Break from school coming up in 1951 -- I was 13 -- Carl arranged a trip to the Okeetee Club in Jasper County, South Carolina. With 50,000 acres, Okeetee was the largest hunting preserve in the state’s southernmost county and welcomed snake-hunters to reduce the chances of confrontation with paying customers. Carl invited me to go, and my folks didn’t object – Dad’s arrest for “conspiracy to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. Government by force and violence” was two months away, although we didn’t know it. Top Red leaders had already been tried, convicted and jailed for violating the Smith Act.

Donnie Yurcak, a 15-year-old from our block with no particular interest in reptiles also went; Johnny-Boy’s father insisted he stay home to help deliver ice, coal, kerosene and kindling wood, with no allowance, so he couldn’t go. We took the Greyhound to South Carolina with backpacks, blankets, a Coleman camping stove, pillow cases for snake sacks, and snake sticks – broomstick handles with angle irons screwed to the bottoms. These served as both walking sticks, tools for turning over rocks or logs where we didn’t want to put our hands, and snake capturing essentials. A venomous snake’s head could be pinned down with the angle iron so that it could be grasped where it could not bite, or the angle iron could pull a harmless snake closer to be grabbed, or a snake could be lifted and dropped in a snake sack. My experience with venomous snakes at that time was pinning and holding one copperhead in Carl’s basement.

We were met at the bus stop by a caretaker who took us to a country general store for supplies, then drove us out to a covered picnic table next to a swampy lake, and we were there! We agreed to sleep on the cement table and benches, rotating for the table, so we would stay off the ground. We never had tents. We soon saw mudskippers, amphibious fish, skittering across the levy that bisected the lake, and heard alligators bellowing off in the distance. We were exhausted, having slept little on the bus ride due to our excitement, and eager to get going. It was mid-afternoon, and we just started walking, flipping rocks and looking for snakes.

The first snake we found was a disappointment. Turning over a rock there was a little, about nine inches, De Kay’s Snake, a species so common they could still be found in New York’s Central Park. I found the second snake, a usually-desirable king snake, but this one had deep canker sores rotting its tail. Carl said we should leave it, but it was my find, and I bagged it to take home.

About 4 p.m. we were on a little rise in the mostly flat and sandy pine scrub terrain. Donnie spotted a piece of shed snakeskin on a stump and went to investigate. He heard something clicking behind him, turned, and saw eight feet six inches of eastern diamondback heading his way and not about to stop. Donnie reached out to the snake with his stick and the rattler quickly pulled back into a defensive position, struck, and yanked the snake stick out of Donnie’s hands. Donnie hollered for help and removed himself from the scene.

Carl and I marveled at the size of it, and knowing it could strike longer than its length, stayed well away. It was too large to pin and pick up, too heavy to lift with a snake stick and drop in a pillow case, so Carl came up with a way. We would lay out a snake sack on the ground. I would stand behind it with two snake sticks to hold the front of the pillow case open. Carl would maneuver the reptile into the bag with his snake stick. Good plan. But no one checked with the diamondback.

The snake retreated back fast, right over the bag, using my leg as a brace to strike at Carl. I didn’t move, paralyzed with fear, but it was a learning experience. If you are too close to a rattler and don’t move, they’ll think you are part of the landscape. It took almost an hour of pushing and pulling. but Carl finally succeeded in getting the diamondback into the sack.

We rested. Dusk was settling and we were beat. But when we started the trek back we almost stepped on two more diamondbacks, nearly four feet long. Carl captured them easily, and we went back to our camp happy. That big snake, just three inches short of the known record size, earned Carl a job later at the Staten Island Zoo reptile house, which he donated it to when we returned home. It is the second-largest venomous snake in the Americas, with only the South American bushmaster, whose northern range ends in Costa Rica, exceeding it in length at about twelve feet. Both are pit vipers, with heat-sensing organs under their nostrils.

Alligators were bellowing in the lake, mudskippers kept catching our eye, but we heated some cans of spaghetti, had dinner, and slept uncomfortably on the cement picnic table and its benches. In the morning we set out again on a new path, walking, turning over rocks and wood, singing the new rhythm and blues songs that had had crossed over from “race music” to start rock ‘n’ roll, catching snakes, declaring our independence from the adult world..

The next day the caretaker took us to the general store again and Carl had a taste for salami and eggs, so he asked the clerk about salami. The old man looked at him quizzically, and repeated the word in his deep drawl. “Salami? Nope.” Carl asked then about baloney. “Baloney? Nope. But we got some-a what-chu call salomi.” His face brightened. We bought a half-pound of salomi, but when we cooked it up it was inedible. Even the caretaker’s dog wouldn’t eat it. But on the way back we stopped to turn over some pieces of corrugated tin laying off the road and caught another young diamondback.

When our time was up Carl had an idea. We would ship all of our camping gear home and hitchhike back with two large suitcases and a duffel bag full of reptiles, including now eight diamondbacks and two pygmy rattlers, along with harmless king, pine, and indigo snakes, racers, several yellow rat snakes, turtles, and I don’t remember what else. Carl always had good ideas, so we did that, sending the gear collect since we were almost out of money.

Well, not all of Carl’s ideas were good, it turned out. While hitchhiking was easier and safer in those days, three teenagers with big luggage was not a very good configuration for getting picked up. We only made about 100 miles the first day, going up Route 95. My hitchhiking lucky song, which sometimes seemed to get me lifts in the past, didn’t work. Les Paul and Mary Ford’s How High the Moon didn’t have any power in the South. We visited gas station rest rooms and diners, keeping comments to ourselves about the “white only” and “colored only” segregation. At dusk we were dropped on a lonely stretch of road, maybe alternate 17, in front of a motel under construction. We borrowed some tar paper rolls and rolled ourselves up to sleep off the road.

The next day was no better, making Myrtle Beach in the late afternoon, and then catching a ride towards Cherry Grove, about 23 miles away on Route 31. That driver eyed our luggage and then started telling us, “Be careful boys, the Klan’s been active here, and they don’t much like you northern boys.” He pulled onto a dirt shoulder and said, “Looks like I’m stuck. You boys get out and push.” We were not stupid; he planned to steal our luggage. Maybe we should have let him! So Carl, the oldest and largest of us, stayed in the car while Donnie and I got out to push. Of course the car was not stuck, and the driver, sullen now, stopped soon and told us to get out somewhere closer to Cherry Grove as night fell.

We gave up. We decided to go back to Myrtle Beach, stay in a motel, and call our parents collect to wire us bus fare. There were two houses close by us. One was clearly without any signs of life, and in the other we saw a man peeking out the windows at us. We knocked on his door and asked if he could drive us to Myrtle Beach, we’d pay him. “No, no,” he said, “my car’s in the garage, my family is sick, go away!” Five minutes later he and his family piled out into their car and drove away. The road was still, but a long distance away we could see flickering lights.

A school bus with just a driver came from that direction and we literally blocked the road to make him stop, then convinced him to drive us to Myrtle Beach. We settled into a cheap motel, called our folks, and the next morning collected the money at Western Union and bought Greyhound tickets back to New York. That trip was uneventful except when the bus stopped in Washington, D.C. When the luggage compartment was opened a black racer shot out, scattering people. We stayed silent, glad it wasn’t a rattler.

Finally home, we unloaded the reptiles in Carl’s basement and went to our respective abodes to eat, shower, and tell our stories. Carl and I decided to go to the movies on Sunday, our last day of school vacation, and saw Storm Warning, with Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers, Doris Day and Steve Cochran at the Academy of Music theatre on 14th Street. It was about a Ku Klux Klan lynching in the South, and we wondered if that was what those flickering lights on the road to Cherry Grove had been, KKK activity?

A few months later the New York Post ran a series on the Klan and, yes, what was going on down the road to Cherry Grove that night was the lynching of two black men.

Dad and sixteen other “second string reds,” three from our block, were arrested by the FBI on June 20, the day after my sister Karen’s seventh birthday. My mother said, “Go to school today, we’ll show them we’re not scared!” But I was terrified, and almost lost it when Ira Slade took a copy of the Daily News to show the home room teacher whispering, “That’s Albert’s father.” The monster diamondback never generated such fear in me.

Carl was immediately hired as a keeper at the Staten Island Zoo reptile house, and I was a summer volunteer, hiding out from post-arrest frenetic activity at home. Donnie went his own way. The king snake with the canker sores died despite my best efforts to treat it. The trip to South Carolina was history, but escapes into nature continued. Little did I know that at the southern end of South Carolina, not far from our adventures, the woman I would spend my later years with, then-five-year-old Kaitlin Meadows, was languishing in a Catholic orphanage not knowing she had a family in California. But that’s another story, and hers to tell.
Brother Carl's wedding.Dear Carl: I don’t remember what caused our break after your years of mentoring me, providing me a safe refuge from the Red Scare Era, teaching me so much. I know that I was on my way to becoming an alcoholic and could not let anyone get close to me, and you were closer than anyone.

I’m not that person anymore, and I sincerely regret pushing you out of my life. You had so much more to give me. And you gave me so much! You will always be in my heart. I have multiple myeloma, an incurable blood plasma cancer; maybe that’s what took you at 39, but there are more treatment options now so I’m still kicking at 81. Perhaps we’ll meet again in the great Collective Unconscious. I hope so. R.I.P. my brother. I love you. 

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