(Snippets from Childhood Recollections, Donald B. McCormick)
At this age (nearly 78), I am retired from my vocation as a professor and nutritional biochemist, have a habit of writing (largely for scientific journals and books but more recently for newspapers), and am still blessed with a good memory. Because I recognize that age can lead to debilities of mind as well as body, it seems to me that if I am going to set in print any reminiscences of my childhood from the pre-school to early school years (before college and specific professional training), I should get on with it. So, for the record and if only for myself, here are some categorized recollections from among many. The occurrences I shall mention could only have taken place in the environs of small towns in the Southeast and in days of yore. Too many people, with too many urges to dispense with life other than their own, have removed the likelihood of others experiencing the same childhood. Of course TV, video games, and other pass-times that were not available in my early years, but are sought by many current American youth, provide a generally hedonistic life style that side-tracks many from what is left of "backyard" nature. Finally I should mention that the scientific names of creatures intercalated here and there are a result of my later learning and are for those few readers who are honest-to-goodness nature lovers who may be interested in phylogenetic relationships not indicated by common names.
Reptiles, Amphibians, and Spiders:
The First Copperhead---When perhaps four and living in Front Royal, VA on Edgewood Street, near the Randolph Macon Academy which my oldest brother James attended, I recall a cool autumn day when my youngest brother Bill and I were playing in our side yard. Among the leaves that had already started to fall, I saw a wondrous creature --- a rather colorful snake that seemed more intent in staying coiled rather than taking its leave from my grasping hands, as would probably have been the case on a warmer day. I ran to the house where I secured a low-sided cardboard box and a wire screen that had been inserted in the lower half of a window during warmer summer days. These items plus a handful or two of leaves constituted the home-to-be for my new "pet". Eager to show my mother, I hastened again to the house. She, of course, registered surprise and asked me to be sure to keep the snake in the screen-covered box and not to touch it until my father got home from work. At this rather distant point in time, I believe mother did a fair job (for her) in not showing such alarm as would disappoint me in my new acquisition. When Dad arrived, he too did a good job in letting me know that this was a snake, named a northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), that was not a safe pet; however, he would take him to the woods and let him go so he could find his way home. It seemed at the time that the garden hoe that Dad took with him was a bit strange, but I was told to stay home and could not witness what must have been the fate of my poor, short-lived pet! At least this event did not detract from my interest in snakes, especially if they were poisonous.
Other Snakes, the Second Copperhead, and Cottonmouths---There were a few harmless garter snakes (Thamnophis sertalis) encountered during my days in Clifton Forge, VA (fairly near the West Virginia border) where I went from my home on Bath Street to the Lee Elementary School. However, there was more snakedom for me to find in Buchanan, VA, which is down the James River and closer to Roanoke off US 11. While living in Buchanan, we had the bonus of a shared summer cottage (on stilts) that was just near the confluence of Clinch Creek, a major tributary of the James River near Eagle Rock, about half way in between Clifton Forge and Buchanan. This area provided fine habitat for snakes, frogs, toads, birds, and fish. There were a couple of large rat snakes, one a black snake (Elaphe obsoleta) and one a so-called chicken snake (Elaphe guttata), that enjoyed the rafters of our outhouse. I don't think they appealed to mother who complained to Dad who probably "removed" them. Bill and I had noticed what appeared to be a frog in a ground-level hole within a large stump near our cottage. We would check on this fellow from time to time by getting as close to the hole as possible for a "look see". One morning we came over to check and found that the neighbor had used a baseball bat to dispense with our "frog"; it was a large and new-skin copperhead that had come out at night to hunt! We did know there were also the more toxic cousins (cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus) of the copperhead in the area closer to the creek/river which flooded whenever the James River got the heavy rainfall from a gale or hurricane that blew up the coast of Virginia. James had killed a smallish water moccasin (cottonmouth) near the "Deep Hole" where he swam and where we could see large carp. One day my sister Mary, brother Allen, and I were sitting on a large rock near the creek when I happened to glance over my right shoulder. There only a couple of feet from my upper back was a large, open-mouthed cottonmouth, which was in the process of shedding its skin over the limb of an alder bush. I did not stop to reflect that this was only a threat posture from a snake that was still vision-impaired with old skin over its eyes. Rather the three of us tried to set a record in running away!
Spiders galore---Still on creepy, crawly things and still in the town of Buchanan, I decided that spiders were interesting and plentiful in close proximity to our house on Main Street near the local store. The under side of the store closest to our back yard on the upper left was an especially fine hunting ground. I knew this from our pet rooster, Big Boy, who liked to hunt for "bugs" and dust himself off in the area. So Bill and I set off with a mason jar to catch all we encountered. After filling the jar with an assortment of eight-legged nasties. I went in to show mother what we had found. A mistake I shall never forget within my allotted span of years! She screamed and told me to take the things outside and get rid of them, which I obediently did. That night I awoke around two a.m. from a dream in which all the spiders were crawling from the foot of my bed toward my head. I can today still see my bed, the window on the left side as I looked from my pillow, the door to the right ahead, and --- THE SPIDERS! The bottom line to this story is really a lesson on how a parent should not respond to an inquisitive child. My ingrained fear of spiders is still reflected in my sudden fright when one in suddenly on me before my now-educated sense takes over. In hindsight it is perhaps understandable that mother did not like spiders because she had experienced some painful bites from the large water spiders that frequented our cottage area at Willow Bend Camp near Eagle Rock.
Rattlesnakes, Water Snakes, and Scorpions---When we moved to Lookout Mountain, TN so Dad could help make TNT for Hercules in Chattanooga, there were more opportunities for examining the creepy-crawly world under our feet. In the small creek in our backyard on South Bend Avenue, there were some rather nasty water snakes (Nerodia sipedon) that were quick to bite the hands of too eager small boys and also adept at slithering up small bushes to eat baby birds Not forgetting the subject of spiders, I should mention that my first known encounters with a black widow (Latrodectus mactans) was in a hole in an oak tree in our yard at the same house.. More fearsome, however, were the occasionally encountered timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) that still clung to the rocky slopes of hillsides. One day as Dad was driving down the mountain, he quickly stopped the car, jumped out, and charged into the roadside scrub. He soon came back with the rattles of a sizeable snake he had proudly dispensed with by smashing it with a rock. I had also seen him do this earlier to an innocent young, harmless water snake that had the mishap of being in the stream near a group of picnickers in Virginia. It was clear to me even then that he not only disliked snakes of all types but that he sought adoration from like-minded rednecks! I also had my first serious view of a scorpion on Lookout Mountain in our second home there on East Brow Road when brother Allen had the misfortune of putting on his pants in the morning only to find the recent occupant was a scorpion which resented his intrusion and promptly stung Allen's fanny! To me it was funny but to Allen it was probably just another reason to dislike younger brothers. These arachnids liked to sun themselves, together with five-lined skinks (Eumeces fasciatus), on the outside walls.
More Snakes, Turtles, and Other Creatures--- After the fourth grade in school on Lookout Mountain, I moved to Oak Ridge, TN where Dad gained employment in the Atomic Bomb project of WW II. While there in our house on Outer Drive, Bill and I managed to find time away from school and yard/garden work, to explore the surrounding woods and streams. The observation and sometimes collection of snakes as well as turtles grew into a major effort. New acquaintances in the snake category included the Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos); turtles included the Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapen carolina) and those associated with nearby streams, e.g. Spiny Softshell (Trionyx spiniferus), Stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus), Snapping (Chelydra serpentina), and Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta). There also was a love for the mammals, e.g. rabbits, raccoons, flying squirrels, foxes, and skunks in the areas of my youth, but any stories of these can await another rainy day when and if I feel like reminiscing.