The Snakebite Kid and Other Dubious Honors

Soudthern Pacific Rattlesnake

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

My claim to fame, in my early days, was my propensity for getting bitten by the local rattlesnakes. I grew up in San Diego County, in California, and lived near a canyon. We were one of the first families to build in the area, my family was in home construction, and little did we know that the canyon in question had originally been named Rattlesnake Canyon.

We learned that piece of information long after the fact, the fact being I had been bitten not once but twice by the critters. The first time was in 1955, I was 8-years old and in the third grade, and playing in the canyon. I was in the midst of constructing a fort made of brush, where I could hide and imagine all kinds of nefarious misdeeds.

I suddenly experienced what felt like sharp needles puncturing my right forearm. I never saw the snake. It was later surmised that it was a juvenile Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (the most common and the most deadly in the area). I walked back up to the house and immediately began to show symptoms. Nausea and severe swelling of the arm. My mother noticed the fang marks (approximately 1/2-inch apart), and called the doctor.

This was long before 9-1-1 and she was instructed to rush me to the hospital where the doctor would meet us. Twenty minutes later I was wheeled into the E.R. on a gurney. A tourniquet was applied, I was given a tetanus shot and the first round of antivenin. This was in the Cut & Suck days. Out came the scalpel and the slicing began, two X’s were cut over the fang marks and four more X’s farther up on the arm. Today they don’t use tourniquets or the Cut & Suck method.

The sucking and antivenin repeated itself every few hours through the night and early morning hours. I didn’t know it at the time, and only found out years later, but I was in critical condition. People die from rattlesnake bites, even in the United States. Allergic reaction to the antivenin was also a real possibility, as was anaphylactic shock. I was pretty sick. I was in the hospital for almost a week, and spent another week at home recuperating. My school chums thought it was all pretty cool.

Western-Diamondback-Rattlesnake

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake 

After the first snakebite I was banned from the canyon. I loved the canyon, it was my refuge and my adventure. This was a profound hardship, and completely unfair as far as I was concerned. Two years went by, and finally in 1957, when I was 10-years old and in the fifth grade, my parents relented. Immediately my best friend and I headed down into the canyon for a couple of miles. I stepped off the trail, into some brush, and BANG it happened again. This time on my right ankle.

My best friend ran home for help and my mom arrived about thirty minutes later. She was not a happy camper. I was sick again and my leg was swelling quickly. She picked me up, no easy task for a five foot nuth’in woman, and carried me the two miles back home (uphill most the way). To this day I don’t know how she did it. By the time I got to the hospital a couple of hours had passed. I was really sick now. This was a big snake (even though I didn’t see this one either), because the fang marks were 1-inch apart (double the size of the previous bite). They suspected a very large Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, another potential killer.

Again the tourniquet, tetanus and antivenin. And again with the Cut & Suck, but this time without anesthetic. The doctor was a sadist and also our neighbor. Asshole. It hurt like hell when he began the slicing without benefit of a painkiller. Again in critical condition for all the same reasons as before. Again a long stay in the hospital, followed by an equally long stay at home. And again I was the hero of my chums. The Rattlesnake Kid and the legend therein were born. I still bear the scars, the story and the reputation.

Rattlesnake Fact (and I saw this demonstrated): A rattlesnake’s head severed from its body can still bare its fangs and bite. The sensory pits (they are pit vipers after all) will still function, and the warmth of a hand is enough to activate the striking reflex. If you’re in doubt look it up (or try to pick up a severed head)—this is absolutely TRUE. SFD

Antigua Steve WEB

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Lima, Peru

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6 responses to “The Snakebite Kid and Other Dubious Honors

  1. Whenever I’m in the southwest (my favorite place to be) I am always watching where I step while hiking….I really do not like snakes

    • The funny thing is, even after those two bites, I like snakes and am not afraid of them. You would think I would have been traumatized or something. Ran into Cobras, Pythons and Kraits while serving in Vietnam, and had a couple of close encounters with Eyelash Vipers in Costa Rica. Now spiders and cockroaches I absolutely HATE, and they scare the crap outta me. Go figure. 🙂

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