Renowned Pentecostal snake handler Mack Wolford died during service Sunday. Immediately turn in your forensic pathologist badge if you think he tripped on some carpet and bumped his head on the pulpit.
Nope, he was -- get ready for it -- bitten by a rattle snake!
Adherents like the late Wolford, 44, believe the Bible issues a spiritual double-dog dare in Mark 16:17-18 where it says:
“And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So who’s to blame here? The timber rattler -- Crotalus horridus, if you’re fluent in Looney Tunes -- with a venomous bite that can kill in 10 hours if not treated by highly trained ER specialists or regular folks who, I guess, pray really, really hard.
Or should we blame the Bible for issuing such a flagrant challenge? How many hillbillies would be alive today if they hadn’t thought to pick up a snake the way sane grandparents pick up the young ‘uns?
I guess you could blame Wolford’s father. He was another West Virginia snake handling pastor who by the wildest of coincidences died in 1983 after he was bitten by another church snake.
What are the odds?
You have to think any surviving Wolford children are chagrined that the old man didn’t think to take to plumbing or some other trade for the family business.
Me, I hate snakes.
I find something endearing about all the whacky religions -- and every religion has some whackiness to those of us cursed with rational thought.
But I have trouble gearing up for church when I know there’s going to be a healing service because it’ll add about 10 minutes of tedium to the service.
There’s no way in hell I’m going to a church where the likely need for a healing service is scheduled for right after “the passing of the snakes,” in the church bulletin.
And I don’t think you’ll catch my kids’ school bus driver there, either.
The very day before I read about the snake-handler dying from following the mandates of his calling, our bussy drove up gesturing in a euphoric state.
As school wasn’t out for another four days. I thought maybe she was suffering from some occupational derangement. And that I would have understood.
Exposure to just two children each day has left me deranged. Multiple that by 20 and just imagine what it does to someone like her?
But I was wrong.
“I just ran over a snake on the way up the hill!” she said. “A big one! It’s down there on the side of the road! Killed it!”
After all these years of banal 12-second exchanges about weather and weekends, she was revealing a bloodthirsty side I’d never imagined. She enthused about killing the snake the same way parents do when the kid conquers potty training.
And there it was, just as she said, squashed flat but, really, without the telltale blood splatter, how could anyone tell? Snakes just go through life sort of squashed flat.
What surprised me was this snake had a nearly-identical 4-foot mate. And it was alive.
It lay there a few feet away. I’ve since tried to match the pattern and I think they were copperheads. At least that’s what I hope.
That way I could get the township to change the name to Copperhead Road, which would be much cooler because Steve Earle’s never written even a lame song called “Solomon Temple Road.”
I may be projecting here, but the remaining snake seemed sort of sad.
Before that day, I never would have imagined snakes had emotions. But this one lost its mate or perhaps its drinking buddy. I couldn’t tell if either was a boy snake or a girl snake. While some snakes may resemble penises, it’s impossible for the layman to divine if they have them.
I felt a sudden urge to warn the survivor. Trouble in a big yellow bus was about to come bounding down the hill.
I not only feared for the snake, I feared for my own children. I surmised from the tone of her voice that snakes were the McCoy to her Hatfield (and we’re loving that show).
She’d not abide another snake in the road. I worried she’d see it at the last second and swerve the vehicle so violently it might tip and slide down the road the way the train does in that iconic scene from Harrison Ford’s “The Fugitive.”
Instead, I just drove on and let nature take its course.
We live in the woods and snakes are unavoidable. I read one website that said the easiest way to discern the difference between poisonous and harmless snakes is the eyes.
A poisonous snake will has the kind you see on biker tattoos, deadly little diamonds with an evil menace all their own.
Harmless snakes have what are described as human eyes, which is reassuring because we all know humans are incapable of evil behavior.
But I don’t intend to get into any staring contests with any of the malicious-looking reptiles. And I’ll not pray that it tests my faith in Jesus by sinking its fangs into exposed ankle.
After what I saw on Tuesday, I think I’ll just summon the kids’ bus driver next time I encounter a serpent.
When it comes to snakes, I think she’ll know how to handle it.