Averyell A. Kessler
During my senior year at Murrah, I was editor of Hoofbeat, the school’s monthly newspaper. The good, the bad and the ugly surfaced immediately. The good was missing a day or two of school when I drove to Keith Press in Raymond, MS, to proofread the galleys and make final edits. Yippee! I did not have to sit through another dissection of The Canterbury Tales, change into my fragrant gym suit or endure a somnolent study hall. I also had the privilege of skipping cafeteria lunches in favor a small local café with cheeseburgers hot off the griddle, homemade fries, and succulent peach cobbler. I also enjoyed watching my classmates reach eagerly for the latest edition of Hoofbeat.
The bad edged out the good as soon as I arrived at Keith Press. It was an old-fashioned establishment located in a tumbledown building fronting on Raymond’s graceful small-town square. The building is now on the Historic Register because a civil war canon ball once crashed through the rear of the building. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the ghost of a Confederate soldier emerged from the walls and shouted yee haw. There was no air conditioning, the floorboards were splintered and uneven, and the Keith brothers opened their tall front doors from dawn to dusk admitting a variety of bugs, birds, and squirrels, as well as wandering dogs and automobile exhaust. I sat close to the doors because of the constant clatter of two mammoth linotype machines. Unfortunately, the Keith brothers had no appreciation of punctuation and considered commas a useless intrusion into their workday.
The Ugly appeared on a January afternoon as daylight was fading. Thankfully another edition of Hoofbeat had been put to bed. I’d scrubbed the ink off my fingers, gulped down a Hershey bar, jumped into my Chevy and turned the radio up loud. The Beach Boys were singing Help Me Rhonda. I circled the square and turned towards home on a nameless country road that provided a shortcut to Highway 80. Within minutes, I was miles beyond Raymond, passing empty fields of winter vacant farmland………… Help, help me Rhonda, get her outta my heart. I sang very well when no one was listening! The Beach Boys were moving into the second verse when I saw him, a red tail hawk, frantically flapping his wings over a roadside ditch. He was huge, shaking his head and holding with something in his claws. For a moment, I thought he might have been injured as he struggled to rise without success. Then I saw it, a long black snake entangled in his talons. OMG! Help me Rhonda! I slowed my car to a 15 MPH crawl as these creatures battled it out.
The hawk was now airborne, but just barely as the snake writhed in a desperate tangle. My brain was in overdrive and Rhonda wasn’t helping at all. The hawk took a deep dive, and with herculean effort, swooped upward and flew directly over my Chevy. Then it happened. Boom! He dropped the snake onto my wind shield. I screamed as it fell under my wipers, stretching out end to end like a spotted piece of children’s modeling clay. This was not a situation I studied in Drivers Ed! Disposing of a windshield snake wasn’t discussed in biology class, the girl scouts, or my mother’s Red Cross first aid manual. The Beach Boys finished Rhonda and launched into Good Vibrations. The snake chased away any hope of excitation, so I snapped off the radio.
“What is this?” I asked myself, a harbinger of approaching death. A bad luck omen or Medusa hitching a ride into town. A sign from beyond that I should not pursue a career in journalism. Hopefully, I’ll be ok if he stays outside and doesn’t offer forbidden fruit!
What to do now? A snake was trapped under my wipers and except for his tiny tongue flicking against the glass, completely motionless. I looked into his tiny bead eyes and shivered. Cell phones did not exist, so I was on my own. Several choices came to mind. I could drive home and ask Daddy to come outside with an axe or a shotgun. I could pull into a gas station, roll down the window, and say “Hey, guys, could you please clean my windshield.” Or, I could turn on the wipers and hope for the best. Wipers won. I pressed the window washer button, flooded the windshield, and turned on the wipers. They did not move neither did he; the snake was still spread was out like a strip of taut elastic. I flooded the windows again, this time the wipers gained traction. On the third swipe, the captive was free. He flipped off the Chevy, landing near a barb wire fence edging the road. I floored my car and raced into civilization.
The next day, I told Mr. Hunter, Hoofbeat’s sponsor, about the snake adventure. At first, he thought I was joking, but my words were authentic as well as my vivid description of the hawk. “It’ll give you something to write about,” he grumbled. “If I were you, I’d stay away from woodpiles.”
I have not written about my encounter until this day, but the snake was my first serious adventure in figuring things out, especially in unexpected and outlandish situations. My journeys to Keith Press continued without incident until the last Hoofbeat came out in June and I passed the gauntlet to rising seniors. The good was still good, the bad still bad, but bearable. The ugly has remained in my brain because it’s a heck of a story, and I’ll bet the snake told his grandchildren all about it. So will I.
PS – Hoofbeat 1964-65 won a Pacemaker award from the National Scholastic Press Association as one of the top five high school newspapers in the US.