Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cold Snakes

Reverend Jim Casey reached confidently into the yellow pine box and pulled out a two-feet long timber rattler and held it up for all the congregation to witness. The serpent— seemingly undisturbed by the apprehension—coiled around the Pentecostal preacher’s hand as a song of praise echoed down that sleepy hollow in the foothills of West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. As his flock spoke in tongues, sang hymns, laid hands on the sick, and wept and moaned for the lost and the dead, Reverend Casey paraded around the church shouting praise and demonstrating his faith to their Lord and Savior—serpent in hand.

 This was a typical Sunday morning worship service but that day Reverend Casey was asking the congregation to pray for his only son, Little Jimmy. Reverend Casey said Little Jimmy was accident-prone and, once again, had fallen out of the family barn loft on Friday. Little Jimmy, sitting on the front row with two black eyes, several cuts and bruises on his face and his arm in a sling, bowed his head as the Reverend asked the Lord to deliver his son from the Devil’s hands. “My boy narrowly escaped many accidents in the last few years…the Devil is trying to take my boy,” exclaimed the Reverend as he waved the serpent upon high. “Please, Lord, deliver him from evil.”

Ever since Little Jimmy was six years old, a considerable portion of his weekly chores involved helping father prepare for each Sunday's service. Almost every Saturday afternoon, Little Jimmy would walk two miles to Pucker’s Grocery and buy three ten-pound bags of ice and carry them home on his wagon. One bag was for Mrs. Casey’s fresh lemonade that she made for the congregation’s enjoyment after the service. A cold glass of lemonade seemed to compensate for the church’s lack of air conditioning. The other two bags of ice were for the snakes.

 Any snake handler still walking about knows that a snake exposed to cold temperatures will go into a state of inactivity. The last thing a Pentecostal snake-handler wants is an active snake. It was Little Jimmy’s job to make sure the snakes were as inactive as possible for his father’s service on Sunday morning. The Reverend kept the snakes in a pine box in his barn in the summertime and in the spare bedroom of their home during the winter. Little Jimmy would feed the snakes barn rats every Tuesday, then every Saturday evening he would use a long pole with a hook on the end to place the snakes in the old whisky barrel that was half filled with the remaining two bags of ice. In the winter months, placing the snakes on the back porch for a few hours during the night—depending on the temperature—produced the same effect. But spring, summer and fall required a mile long trip to Pucker’s to buy ice. In any event, by Sunday morning the snakes were cold as stones and ready to prove the unshakable faith of Appalachian church leaders. This slight-of-hand was unbeknownst to the congregation.

This Sunday morning was no different from any other service except for one thing: the night before, Little Jimmy had taken the two bags of ice reserved for the rattlesnakes and tossed it down the embankment behind the chicken coop while no one watched. The whisky barrel sat empty as he left the snakes coiled up in their pine box, bathing in the Appalachian heat. That Sunday morning, Little Jimmy loaded the timber rattlers into the family station wagon as usual, careful not to strain his injured arm or soil his pressed white dress shirt.

Ten minutes into the service, the boiling Pentecostal fervor began to grow more intense—weeping, wailing and speaking in tongues—as they laid hands on Little Jimmy to drive out the demons that gripped the youngster's soul. “The Lord will deliver my boy from evil,” shouted the Reverend as he laid down his Bible and reached into the pine box to retrieve yet another serpent to prove his faith in the Lord’s ability to drive the Devil from his son. Some worshipers were shaking about wildly on the church floor in epileptic-like seizures as others shouted in tongues, crying uncontrollably and jumping pews. The six women who kept their hands firmly on Little Jimmy’s cut and bruised head began to sing Amazing Grace in perfect unison. Reverend Jim Casey, in the full charisma of Pentecostal commitment, reached into the box and began to raise a second snake above his head for the congregation and the Lord to witness. But fate and faith crossed paths. As the Reverend raised the second poisonous snake with his left hand, the serpent struck and hit him on the left side of his face, piercing the Reverend’s left eye and cheek with its fangs. The Reverend’s screams of agony blended perfectly with the fever pitch of the Pentecostal service and went completely unnoticed until he fell headfirst into the front pew—emitting an eerie cracking sound as his forehead gave way to the hardwood pew. The timber rattler coiled around the Reverend’s neck as the other serpent bit deep into his right thigh as his upper-body slid off the pew onto the tail of the other snake. Screams and mayhem echoed down that sleepy hollow while Little Jimmy just stared up at the lone stained-glass window like he had so many Sundays before. The Pentecostal church buried their pastor three days later. The minister presiding over the funeral said Jimmy Casey was a man of faith.

Little Jimmy’s mother raised him as a single parent. He grew up and developed into a fine young man but that summer’s Sunday was Little Jimmy’s last day in church. Miraculously, in light of the demonic possession that caused his many accidents, he never as much as slipped on a shoelace after his father’s death. Little Jimmy went on to attend college and became a lawyer with a successful practice in Lexington, Kentucky before eventually moving back to his hometown to take care of his aging mother. The town folk would always ask Little Jimmy—they still called him by that name—why he never came to church anymore. Little Jimmy never said much more than he was too busy with work or his mother wasn’t feeling well, but the town folk always reminded him how he was always so accident prone until that day his father begged the Lord to deliver him from the Devil’s hands.

“You should come to church…the power of God is real,” they would say, “The Good Lord saved your life.”

“Yes he did,” Little Jimmy would say as he walked away, “Yes he did.”


  1. Based on a true story? Or many?

  2. A very powerful tale. Looking forward to catching up with the other posts here. This is one is terrific - "we try to inspire all of those around us to care just a little more about others and the future of the world as is. You can believe whatever you want about life after death, but it would be a lot easier for all of us if we were a bit more concerned about life before death...and not just our own lives, but the lives of our fellow men and women." Thanks also for the excellent Dewey quotation on the sidebar.

    1. Amen!

      Dewey's statement for me really does encapsulate for me the point of natural piety: not simply one's own salvation, but gratitude for the opportunity to create a world "more solid and secure" for those who follow us. Thanks for appreciating it too.

  3. There's more truth than fiction in this little tale.

    1. Thanks for this, Dean!

      I know there are too many sad tales to tell just like this, coming out of the Appalachian hills - not to mention middle Tennessee. But I do take heart, and hope for a more enlightened future, from the reception Dawkins received recently at Eastern Kentucky, noted in my post here: http://osopher.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/i-believe-in-magic/