Our 7-year-old burst in the back door sobbing, holding his finger and shrieking, “Something in the bush bit me!”
With a decade of motherhood under my belt, I’m usually pretty calm in the face of children’s first aid emergencies. But this time, I felt panic welling up. Between the uncharacteristic hysteria of our son – a kid so tough he barely grimaces when his big brother pile-drives him into the hard ground of the backyard, a bruiser who was nicknamed “Mad Dog” by his peanut football coach – and remembering what had happened to his father on this very farm many years ago, the only conclusion my racing mind could come up with was “snake.”

When my husband was a wee lad of 6, a copperhead sprang out from under a sheet of plywood on which he was playing in the garage. It struck so fast that Harvey had no idea what had happened. All he knew was the sudden, searing pain like two finishing nails being driven into his big toe. Only after he came screaming into the house and his parents went to investigate was the snake discovered. Harvey’s father killed it, and, following a trip to the hospital, Harvey made a full recovery. So naturally, when my son came in screaming about an unknown attacker in the boxwood, The Legend of the Snake That Bit My Husband was raging through my brain in 3-D Technicolor and Dolby surround sound.

Honestly, when I think about some of the stories Harvey has told me about growing up on a farm, it is a miracle that I – a nervous city girl – was willing to bring children into the world at all. I grew up in a house full of sisters in a safe and cozy suburb of Birmingham, Ala., completely unaware of the potential dangers of farm life. My husband, on the other hand, grew up aware of the dangers but largely unconcerned. This disparity in our life experiences occasionally leads to, shall we say, some rather lively discussions about what does or does not constitute a safe activity for children. Recurring topics include Riding in the Back of a Pickup Truck, Driving at the Age of 6, Using Power Tools, Fishing Alone Even If the Pond Is Near the House, Do Wild Turtles Carry Salmonella? and Dirt Bikes.

At these moments, I long for the counsel of my late mother-in-law. She died 11 years ago when I was pregnant with our first son, but I would dearly love to compare notes now. What I’d most like to know is how that poor woman, who was also a city girl, ever survived the heart-stopping terrors of raising seven children – including four boys – on this farm.

Instead, I am left to imagine how she coped on occasions such as, oh, the time Harvey’s little brother blew up a truck. Then a teenager, John had gone to dump the family’s garbage into the trash pit on their property deep in the woods (a standard method of trash disposal on farms back then). He backed the pickup down into the pit and threw the garbage in. Then he tossed in some empty fertilizer sacks lying in the bed of the truck, set the trash on fire and got in the truck to leave. It wouldn’t crank, so he started walking home. About halfway there, a tremendous explosion rocked the farm. The sacks of anhydrous ammonia – the same fertilizer used in the Oklahoma City bombing – had touched off a blast, which in turn ignited the truck. Hearing the explosion back at the farmhouse, one of the girls jumped into the family station wagon and tore out for the dump, mowing down a barbed wire fence in her haste. The final toll: two vehicles and one fence. Miraculously, no kids were hurt.

That was not always the case, like the time Harvey got a fishhook hung in his bare back. As he tells it, he was still holding the fishing pole when he walked into the emergency room to have it cut out. There was also the incident when he was about 15 and helping his father install dairy equipment at a customer’s barn. He jumped down onto an old board full of nails lying on the ground, and a 16-penny nail plunged straight up through the sole of his tennis shoe into the joint of his big toe. At age 51, the toe bothers him to this day.

Still, none of these mishaps can remotely compare to the time Harvey went up in flames. When Harvey was 19, he and some buddies were barbecuing on the farm’s sandy beach along the banks of the river. The barbecue pit had gone out, so Harvey did something any farm boy must have known was really dumb. He tried to re-light the coals by pouring gasoline on them. Unfortunately, the coals were still smoldering. When the gas hit them, flames shot up, and Harvey ignited from the shoulders up. He spent three weeks in the burn unit of Baton Rouge General Hospital. There was some question of whether he would lose an ear. In the end, however, he was incredibly fortunate. Nowadays, the only reminder of his ordeal is a little scarring and a
few smartass pals who call him “Torch.”

I have not even begun to mention all the things Harvey and his cohorts did for entertainment – typically without adult supervision – that could have easily ended in death or injury yet did not. Their exploits make those described in The Dangerous Book for Boys sound about as dangerous as Vacation Bible School. They raced bareback on horses. They raced bareback on horses against one another on minibikes and go-karts. They rode bareback on horses that were swimming through ponds. Once, when he was just a boy, Harvey’s father made him jump from the back of a galloping pony onto the back of a running mare because it was the only way to catch her.

And that’s not all. Harvey and his friends divided into armies, crouched behind sand dunes at the river and shot at one another with bottle rockets. He and his brothers hunted for squirrels and rabbits in the woods with BB guns and shotguns. They dammed up swimming holes in creeks where they could hear the snakes slithering away through the weeds. They camped overnight on a secluded beach beside a treacherous river.

Yes, I know. It all sounds like rip-roaring fun –  unless you are hearing it through the ears of a mother whose boys might very well attempt the same stunts one day. Mostly, however, I choose not to look that far ahead, and I don’t go borrowing trouble. Besides, I’m too busy freaking out about what could happen right now.

As for the snake in the bush that I was so sure had bitten my youngest son? Turns out it was nothing more than an angry wasp. Until that day, I never knew it was possible to feel so relieved that a vicious insect had attacked your precious child. I consider it one more snakebite/ bullet/ fishhook/rusty nail/bottle rocket/explosion dodged.

If my husband made it out of childhood in one piece, I have to believe my sons will, too. But I can tell you this: Raising boys on a farm just may be the death of me.