School has let out, as they say around here, and now commences the happy period when the Arkansas generality lights out in search of interesting ways to spend the so-called summer vacation.
In this season I've always enjoyed hopping on the ATV, or the 4-wheeler as it's known among the yokel cognoscenti, and tearing around the bottoms blowing up beaver dams.
There are more cosmopolitian summer amusements but blowing up beaver dams is hard to beat. It's more ecologically sensitive than using alligators to shoot off cannonballs as Old Hickory did at the Big Easy, according to Jimmy Driftwood. There's even a rewarding public-service element in it, as it helps save trees thereby increasing the value of timber harvests in the affected areas, warming you to think that you're coincidentally helping promote the good old free-enterprise system and doing your part to spur the economic recovery.
Sometimes if you get your charge mudded in just right, you'll get such a hellacious explosion that it'll fling a whole wad of cottonmouths in your direction, and I like to get a sharp stick and pretend like I'm sword-fighting with the individual moccasins. They'll lunge at me and I'll jab back at them. This is serious business with them, not idle sport. But I usually come out the winner, and not altogether because they are most times stunned from the explosion, which tends to slow down their normally lightning-fast reflexes.
If the moccasin is stunned to a high degree of lethargy — or if he is in fact comatose, for all practical purposes dead, or indeed dead — then there'll definitely be less of a thrill, less of a challenge, in the sword-play, or stick-play. It can be as unedifying as one of those mock jousts with a knight too drunk to hold his lance much less aim it or enstupored from having waited full-cuirassed in the sun too long.
Most times though the snakewad will zoom up out of the explosion not only alive but royally p.o.'ed and ready to rumble. They'll give you a spirited contest that'll last until you get tired of it and unsportingly call in your backup with Granny's old double-barrel 10-gauge. It's a pastime with only one real danger, and that's when snakes come flying up out of the explosion and slapping you about the shoulder blades and withers like good licks from a bullwhip, and you're still a little disoriented from the concussion and are therefore temporarily relatively defenseless.
Or one might hit you in the neck and wrap itself around there like a noose and start fanging you before you regain your bearings. That's never happened to me personally but I've heard of it happening and although it wasn't fatal it was touch-and-go and it sure must've been scary.
Dueling with cottonmouths may be the oldest known Arkansas summer-vacation tradition, traceable to Henry de Tonti, the “father of Arkansas,” back in the 17th century. You probably know that Henry was a famous cavalier, with an iron hook in place of his right hand. He was said to have lost the hand in battle, but what they don't tell you is that the “foe” he was battling was the meanest-tempered of Arkansas reptiles, in just the manner described above. It nipped a digit, and his surgeon said there was no choice but to amputate, which is what the surgeon always said back then
Two hundred years after that, right up through the Civil War, surgeons were still saying the same thing when confronted with a wound to a human limb or appendage. They cut off so many at Shiloh that laid end to end they would've reached to Antietam. And at Antietam again back to Shiloh.
That last claim may be more truthy than factual but here's one better sourced: In 1866, one-fifth of the Mississippi state budget was spent to provide returning Confederate soldiers with artificial limbs. Such was the primitive state of prosthetics that just about all of that went for wooden peg legs, maybe costing a dollar or two, with most guys opting to take the money and whittle the peg themselves. Something to occupy them during a lazy hazy crazy summer not so long ago.
If nuking beaver dams turns you off, there are some passable 4-wheeler summer-vacation substitutes. One is rounding up escapees from the state rehabilitative and long-term care institutions and taking them back so the authorities can resume abusing them, which is their main summertime entertainment. You used to could get a bounty for every old-timer or tormented wretch you returned, but you used to could get bounties on lots of things that you can't anymore — wolf scalps, for instance, and bobcat scuts. Coke bottles.
These wretch roundups are also rooted in the Arkansas past. When they got bored during the summer vacation, ancestors of Arkansas white people would go out and capture runaway slaves and return them to their rightful owners. They usually got nothing out of this except the satisfaction of seeing justice done, but it killed some time, and there was a lot of time to kill then, though you could count on spending
10 days of every month wracked with breakbone fever or some other variety of malaria. The good old days.