Dr. Sara Bailey is a writer living in NYC. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia University and received her PhD in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. Her most recent publications have appeared in Arabesques, Saucy Vox, Rumble, LitBits, and Big [T]ext.
My grandfather liked to shoot water moccasins in the middle of the night. He was a tall, strong, sinewy man, with a large straight nose, and sharp light eyes. My memories of him are linked to small town Texas, because in many ways I feel the two came and went in my life, together. They both remind me of Ennis, a tiny town south of Dallas, which was founded in 1891. The city grew up alongside the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Chisholm Trail, and later died along with them. My grandfather was born fifteen after Ennis, though it took him another twenty to make it through the barbed wire, across the dust bowel, and down into Texas. Somewhere between my grandfather's escaping the poverty of his home town in Hope, Arkansas, and avoiding his enlistment in WWII, he married my grandmother Peggy. He'd found both her and a job selling insurance in Texas. My grandmother always said she praised the lord for my grandfather's flat feet, which kept him home with her and out of that war. Together the two of them went on to buy some land in Ennis, beside the plots already belonging to Peggy's family, which is where they built their house, making it their home for the next seventy years.
Ennis, the name is one you might have heard of today, due to its high school football team—the Ennis Lions. They won the Texas state championship three times in the past decade. I remember because my grandfather always enjoyed going to these high school football games, and liked to call us when they won. My grandfather's main passion involved watching the Dallas Cowboys, until hit a permanent loosing streak in the late nineties; then I noticed my grandfather began to use their poor performance as an excuse to take a nap. Before shutting his eyes he'd tell whoever was in the room, "Wake me, if something changes."
My grandfather always went by George T. Crews, which appeared in bold black letters on his business cards. The "T" stood for Thomas, though everyone called him George, just George. My grandfather didn't believe in nicknames. Even as a grandparent, he went by Grandfather Crews, though sometimes we were allowed to call him Fatso Fox, during games of hide-and-go-seek, and tag in the back yard. George was the youngest child with three older sisters, the only boy in a large French family. I never met any of his siblings, my great aunts, all with names like Velma, Jean, and Norma. By the time I was born, George had managed to enter into a long standing silence with each of them, so these women still remain faceless, interchangeable to me. I have no idea what provoked the grudges between them, I only know that they probably originated from something my grandmother used to say out of frustration, "George, you're as stubborn and mean as a horse's ass." I don't think my grandfather was mean spirited; he was just good at raising hell, when he didn't get his way. I figured this came from his growing up as the youngest boy in a family full of women.
Last Thanksgiving, my mom's cousin, Chuck, told me how my grandfather took him out on the lake to shoot snakes during his first trip to Texas. He was three years old, and was impressed by both how loud the gun was, and how close the snakes came to biting him. Chuck said, "Their eyes would catch the glow of the lantern in the dark, which is how you could see the snakes, right before he shot them." Chuck said they'd used my grandfather's shotgun to blow the water moccasins' heads off. The shot gun now belongs to me, though I don't have it with me in NY. Unlike Texas, it's illegal for me to keep the gun in my apartment. So, for now, it's at my parents' house in Texas.
Before my mom's cousin Chuck came down to Texas for the first time, he'd never traveled anywhere outside of his home in Westchester. Chuck's father, my grandmother's brother Bob had moved to New York, after marrying his wife Alice. However, since all of Bob's extended family still lived back home in Texas, as soon as Chuck and his brothers were old enough, they all three were shipped down, to spend their holidays in Ennis. From all the stories that still get told at family outings by the boys, their experiences in Texas made enough of an impression that they're still talking about it forty years later. Spread across a five block radius there were their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all with homes that provided them with plenty of places they could stay. His first time in Texas, then, Chuck stayed with my grandparents on their property, which stretched out across acres of harsh Texas flat land.
Directly behind my grandparents' house, just beyond the back porch, there was a small grove of fruit trees. My grandfather planted them, because he liked having his own stock of peaches and plums in the summer. The fruit he couldn't eat, and what wasn't spoiled by the fruit wasps, was boiled in sugar and turned into preserves by my grandmother. My grandfather ate these jellies every day. He'd managed to store enough away that during the two years between grandmother's passing and his own, they'd stored enough of the preserves away that George still ate what they'd made together for breakfast every morning on his toast. Having grown up in the rural South during the Great Depression, a victim of the Dust Bowl, George believed first in self efficiency, and second in saving money. When my grandmother was no longer around to insist on his eating three balanced meals, my grandfather cut back to one a day. He always went to the Golden Corral, in the hours between lunch and dinner to get the Silver Senior discount. Regardless of who was visiting, or whether or not there was a holiday, everyone who visited George in Ennis had to eat at the Golden Corral, too. He flat out refused to eat anywhere else. George said, "It's got the all-you-can-eat-buffet, best damn deal in town. I'm telling you, no use going elsewhere." The rest of the day, George supplemented the Golden Corral with his fruit, handfuls of mixed Planter's Nuts, and dried toast smeared with Jiffy Peanut Butter.
George planted his fruit trees in the first acre behind the back porch. It marked the halfway point between the house and the lake. My grandfather always made sure the grass near the house to just beyond the tree line was mown short. I can remember I was in grade school when my grandfather finally bought an industrial sized lawn mower. It allowed him to survey his land, while riding up high enough to avoid all the problems involved with mowing through the feet of Texas brush. I'm not quite sure how he'd managed it before, avoiding rattle snakes, fire ants, and chiggers, as well as the many other unpleasant things that lurk below in the tall grass.
I learned early on to never go past the tree line. "The snakes live out there in the grass. You wouldn't know one was there, until it bit you, and then it would be too late." That's what I remember all the adults saying to me and my sister, something I'd always assumed was probably true. I was never interested enough to test out the validity of that particular threat. I do know that my grandfather's dogs used to go out into the grass, disappearing from sight, though you could still hear them barking and growling, the snapping of their jaws.
My grandfather always owned giant German Shepherds that were bred intentionally to be twice the size with twice the intelligence of a normal German shepherd. These huge beasts would lope along behind my grandfather's lawn mower, always catching the unearthed snakes on their retreat back into the brush, snapping their slithering bodies in half, all in good fun. I think the dogs understood that catching the snakes was a positive thing, because sometimes they'd go out on their own, braving the tall grass, and catch snakes themselves. Somehow the dogs instinctively understood how to kill the snakes, before being struck themselves. A lot of dogs in Texas die each year from rattlesnake bites, probably from pausing too long to determine what's in front of them. There's actually a new vaccination to help protect dogs living in Texas against Rattlesnake bites, because of how common the bites are today. With a lot of cities in Texas growing, expanding quickly out into the wilderness, things like rattlesnakes and scorpions often appear outside in people's backyards. Luckily now, with three part shot series, this allows the Texas family pets to survive the heart stopping effects of rattlesnake venom.
For whatever reason, my grandfather's dogs never needed any shots like that, though I was always curious how they got the snakes, before the snakes could get them. Maybe the dogs could smell the snakes, or were able to catch the snakes, while sleeping, that is if snakes sleep. Regardless, my grandfather's dogs were always how I knew for sure that the snakes were still out there. Most times when the dogs would disappear into the brush, they'd reemerge carrying dead water moccasins, or rattle snakes in their mouths. They always took them straight to the door by the back porch, dropping them near their food bowls, then scratching and whining at the door, until they caught my grandfather's attention. George always paid his dogs in treats, rawhide chew sticks, and pieces of meat.
The height of the grass past the tree line made it difficult to see the lake, before you came to the water's edge. I remember there was a back path carved out along the side of the house, which led directly down to the water, though I can't remember going down there much myself. My sister and I were only allowed to play in the backyard with the dogs, where we could easily be seen from the sliding glass doors, along the back porch. From the trees on, everything disappeared into a sea of yellow grass. The trees themselves stood only a couple of feet above the grass, being small for their size, stunted by difficult terrain. I think they managed to survive the Texas heat and other problems with the extra help provided by my grandfather. It seems George coaxed enough life into the trees to allow them the energy to produce their sharp smelling blossoms in March and sweet tasting fruit in July, before falling barren again the remaining months of the year.
When they were blooming, the trees' fruit blossoms always attracted a multitude of butterflies, monarchs migrating in the spring, back from their holiday in South America. I liked the flowers, and the butterflies, but not the bees, or the wasps that attacked the trees' fruit. I used to try to catch the butterflies in a net, so I could examine them more closely, but more often managed to get a bee or two instead. There were so many of them, the bees were impossible to avoid. Whenever I caught one by mistake, I'd drop the net before the bee could realize I was its captor. Running back a few feet from the net, I'd try to wait until the bee freed itself, before taking the net up again. If this technique failed, I'd usually make my dad or grandfather get the bee out for me. When my dad came out to help, he'd try to shake the bee free. If it was my grandfather, he'd stomp the bee flat first, and then shake out its carcass.
My grandfather, much like his dogs, seemed to have an old Texas understanding of how to deal with the problems presented by the land. Even in his eighties, my grandfather still walked slow, but could move quicker than a man half his age. Rather then wait or risk the chance of something getting you, he understood it was better to strike first. This was why George used to take his boat out to the lake behind the house, and wait for the water moccasins to attack. At night, the snakes were attracted to the lantern he brought, setting it out to rest on the edge of the boat. The snakes would drop from the trees into the water, or slither down the banks, all swimming towards the light. There was something about the lantern's reflection that drew them in, challenging the snakes to attack. Water Moccasins in general are one of the meaner vermin in Texas; they don't just bite, they chew their poison into you. Unlike Rattlesnakes, or Corral snakes, Water Moccasins don't try to hide either.They seek you out, chase you down, and strike.
In smaller Texas towns, particularly in the Hill Country, people try to keep the numbers of water moccasins down, to help prevent "toilet bowl" attacks. Because most of the lakes in places like Ennis are man-made, they work by feeding into the town's main water supply. So it's not unusual for a Water Moccasin to make its way from one of these lakes, up into the pipes and on into someone's toilet, usually waiting around in the toilet bowl, only to strike the unsuspecting toilet goer on the ass. In Ennis, these attacks happened most frequently at the country club. This is because of all lakes left alone along the golf course, they tended to remain unregulated, which is what causes the problem. I'm not sure if they've done anything new to help prevent this issue, though I heard these snake attacks happen with the same frequency as the alligator attacks in Florida.
This is just one explanation I thought that might explain why my grandfather liked to go out and shoot them, though I think maybe he just enjoyed it. The snakes usually came out at night to hunt rats and mice, happy to avoid the Texas sun in the cool darkness.So that's when my grandfather would take his boat out, wait for them to find him, and as they lifted their black heads out of the water, he'd strike them first. My cousin Chuck said you couldn't see them coming, until they were close enough that their eyes flashed, reflected by his lantern.
I don't remember my grandfather ever going to shoot any snakes during the last years he lived in Ennis. I'm not sure if it's because there was an ordinance passed, or whether my grandfather just quit. After my grandmother passed away, my grandfather gave up most things it seems, except for waiting around for his turn to go. He explained that everyone he knew, and everything he'd known in Ennis was gone, having disappeared in time, or passed away over the years. Slowly nature came to take hold of my grandfather's home, even as he continued to live there alone. The rat population flourished, though I'm not sure why. I just remember hearing them at night, the rats scuttling through the walls, gnawing at things unseen inside the house. My mother called the exterminator out to my grandfather's place a number of times to try to fix the problem, but never with any lasting results. On her last visit there, my mom said the rats had grown bold. They'd made their way out of the walls, and into the living room, building nests in the backs of the couches; the rats even darted across the floor in front of both her, my grandfather, and his dog. Apparently neither my grandfather, nor the dog reacted with surprise, having grown accustomed to the rats. After this visit, my mom insisted that my grandfather come to Austin to live her.
George, however, didn't want to leave. He had no interest in moving to Austin, or Dallas. Even though it had fallen into a state of decay, the foundation beginning to rot, the house was still my grandfather's home. When he was a young man, George had helped carve out the cabinets, doing all the wood work himself. All of this, he would be forced to leave behind. My mother also told him there would be no room for his giant German Shepherd, Dolly, though nothing had been determined in regards to where she would go. Though my grandfather refused to leave, there was really nothing he could do to avoid being taken. Two days before George was supposed to move away from Ennis, into a home with my parents in the city, his heart stopped, during a routine checkup on his pace maker in Dallas. The doctors explained there was no way the procedure could have caused my grandfather's death, which doesn't surprise me. I think he was stubborn enough to decide to make his own exit; I believe George T. Cruise made up his own mind that it was time to go.
I'm not sure what happened to the lake, or the snakes, or the trees, or the house, following my grandfather's death. I'd guess there maybe a new road running through the back area of his house now, paving through the snakes and the trees. The last thing my mother told me about Ennis was that the city of Dallas might usurp part of my grandfather's land, declaring imminent domain. I don't believe anyone in Ennis or elsewhere will probably object, or be too upset about the change; in some ways, I'd imagine current Ennis residents will be happy to make the progress. The new highway will probably breathe new life into the small town, much like the railroads decades before.
So while it's possible for most people reading this to have heard of Ennis, Texas, I've found it's almost impossible for anyone to remember traveling through it. Like so many small Texas towns today, Ennis looks like the rest of the big city suburbs, most of its land paved over and replaced with the requisite strip mall, Wal-Mart, and Dairy Queen. Like many places in central Texas, it's even hard for me to tell now where one town ends and another begins, as they all run together, nothing but Gas Station, McDonalds, McDonalds, Gas Station. Ennis, to me, looks the same as the rest of Dallas-Fort Worth, similar in its unfamiliarity.