White Oak Mountain Ranger: January And Woodpeckers

  • Sunday, January 29, 2023

“Whenever I hear the sparrow chirping, watch the woodpecker chirp, catch a chirping trout, or listen to the sad howl of the chirp rat, I think; Oh boy! I’m going insane again.” - Jack Handey

“Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon uniform tranquility.” - Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The darkness before dawn was just that, a black, still and dense black. Not the same as the level and depth of darkness at say, 02:30 AM. That time of night, 02:30 AM, is a different darkness. Disorienting, maybe even a little spooky, it’s so dark.

In this pre-dawn darkness you had to bushwhack through a patch that was thick enough to hide snakes. Thick enough that you had no need for a light. Even with a good headlamp, you would have struggled to see where your next footfall was about to land. The insatiable phobic fear of smashing a flat foot on a fat snake, making it mad enough to lash fangs through your waders, was a gamble at best when rumbling through this patch.

Anticipation of sunrise and rising fish will do this to you when the spring waters rise in the weeds and malevolent snakes stir. Anticipation likely never prevented a disturbed snake’s bite. Not every fisherman has this strange level of anticipation in him. There is the desire to roll the dice when it comes to the black dark traverse of potentially deadly snake laden patches.

This fear of being bitten by unhappy reptiles on the dark walk way to a fish may be one of the seminal reasons for the invention of the boat. But on this dark morning, wading is best. Boats have too many moving parts for this trip.

Standing on the waters edge, thankful for sleeping and fast moving, anti-aggressive snakes, more reptilian paranoia sets in. There’s little to do here but wait for light. The thought of being belly deep in the flooded weeds puts you eye to eye with the biggest of the surface cruising water snakes. It’s rather easy to believe that gentle warming of the climate over the last few decades has allowed the big and aggressive water moccasins to migrate to this place. The very thought of being struck in the head by a water moccasin stands me still.

The rod in my hand is stiff enough to lift a garage door, but I have doubts about flailing to death the meanest of moccasins with a wand of carbon and fiberglass. Casting a spook into the darkness is just a reflex with little expectation. The sound of the bait wobbling on the dark surface of the lake is comforting to one in the stillness and it relieves snake phobia. Just ever so slightly.

Light comes slowly. Gray hues allow the slip into the cool but warming water and the weeds.

Gar, unseen like fast torpedoes, erupt wildly, or glance about the legs without hesitation. If the walk in the dark patch hadn’t pumped enough adrenaline, a three foot gar splashing duckweed all over your face will take up any and all of the slack.

Somewhere, maybe 400 yards, likely further in the gloom, a big woodpecker jams his stiletto like beak into the a decaying tree at a million beats per minute. Out drifts a mellow and haunting morning sonata. It’s a little early for a woodpecker to be hungry in my mind.This bird is loudly and frantically playing some kind of orchestral instrument in the dead stillness of the creeping fade of the night. The melodious rhapsody is some strange amalgam of woodwinds and percussion that any white haired, black frocked conductor, of any reputable symphony, would lust for.

I convince myself that the woodpecker suddenly stopped eating early last evening, a result of a severe headache. He flew early with today’s light to catch up on his calories. This was more anticipation, this from some hungry, unseen bird. Maybe the bird had found a honey hole and was anticipating daylight simply because he was an opportunistic pig of a bird. This part of the lake was my honey hole. Large bass hide in the edges of the high water in this remote and snake infested spring hole.

Somewhere I read that the people who make obscene amounts of money from the game of football have hired scientists to study woodpeckers. These millionaires pay woodpecker scientists to try to figure out how it is that woodpeckers don’t die of brain damage.

How did the millionaires know that woodpeckers don’t really die of brain damage? Maybe woodpecker scientists will get to be millionaires before this novel little piece of research is over and done with.

That aside, this marvelous research project is designed to figure out how to put a woodpecker’s ability at avoiding severe brain damage into the technology of a safer football helmet. It’s a relatively wild little theory. Measure the force, or the foot pounds per square inch of blunt trauma necessary to remove bugs from trees, day after day. Then, kill the woodpecker for the requisite lobotomy and determine how the woodpecker doesn’t end each day with a blinding headache. Once science has figured that mystery out, transfer all that analysis learned and then design a headache proof football helmet.

I don’t think that football millionaires are really worried about dead or brain damaged woodpeckers. For that matter, I have my doubts that football millionaires are all that worried about old football veterans dying from scrambled brains.

Apparently, what bothers the millionaires the most about the potential for concussions players seem to inherent from the game, is the impact concussions have on the parents of the feeder system. That, and the players union, demanding large sums of money for negligence of the millionaires.

If mom and dad decide that young Bobby should play soccer because it won’t cause as many head traumas as pee-wee and high school football; then the football millionaires suffer the severe and long drought of the feeder system. The rise of soccer is the ultimate decline of millions of dollars to the football millionaire’s wallet.

There seems to be an awful lot of money riding on the shoulders of a few good woodpecker scientists.

My first practice helmet; 7th grade, came without a chin strap. Coach handed me a big Ace bandage and showed me how to wrap it around the place on the helmet where a chin strap was supposed to go. Four maybe five wraps and the helmet would pretty much stay put until you tackled somebody. After the tackle a rewrap was necessary.

The Coach was an impatient and red faced man. He often called the next play over my defensive position long before the completed re-wrap. The Coach called it character building. After one particular bloody practice and character building session, I went to the school’s librarian and asked for her help in looking up the word ‘sadist’. The dictionary had a photograph that was a striking resemblance to the Coach. It was right next to the definition. I finally learned something that day. Public Education is a fickle thing.

By the time the 8th grade football practice season rolled around, and my chin was a hairless bloody pulp; I slowly worked up the character to confront the equipment staff and demand a helmet with a working chin strap;

“Coach? I need a different helmet!” I stood before the sadist, bloody Ace bandage in hand and waited for him to finish his filterless Camel. He never looked up.

“Coach! I need a helmet with a chin strap.”

I flung the bloody Ace bandage at this feet and his sadistic eyes gleamed. It was like looking into the eyes of a starving wolf.

Coach had played football for Kentucky as a 4F freshman during WWII. He was a 4F legend because Kentucky lost so many players to the draft. The NCAA backed off on freshman eligibility rules and allowed freshmen to play so Kentucky could continue to play football while the University could continue to sell tickets.

He glared at me from under his sweat stained ball cap and growled, “What did you say Son?”

I started to repeat what I considered to be a rather reasonable request. But, before I got a good start he flipped his hot cigarette, a filterless Camel butt, square at my feet and watched me dance barefoot around the hot sparks.

“Son, you done been out here since August and you ain’t tackled nobody yet! Why, you’re so slow and skinny, I doubt you’ll ever tackle anybody where you’d even need a helmet. You don’t even need a helmet the way you practice!”

He threw me a clean Ace bandage and told me to go wash my chin up before it got infected.

I persisted with as much character as I had earned this time; “Coach I get the ‘swim-head’ every time the linemen slam their big forearms into my chin before they grind me in the dirt!”

The eyes of the growling sadist pierced my very soul. He exhaled a slow deep growl while he slowly ignited another filterless Camel, and said; “That’s a good sign your sorry @#$ won’t drown.”

We know we’ve come a long way in football technology when football millionaires are hiring woodpecker scientists to solve todays modern problems.

WOMR Note: When it rains in January I dream of spring bass in the shallows and wadding dark morning waters for shellcrackers on their beds. Who needs a boat? Thanks to all the hound owners that commented on being taken back in time with fond memories.

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