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God's little birthday gift
By MARY JO NELSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2000
My friend Jim called me on his cell phone from the top of a hill in Goblin Valley, Utah. A rattlesnake had bitten him behind his right knee. He was alone. He was sick. He couldn't make it any farther.
He climbed to the top of the hill and pushed all the buttons on his cell phone, looking for help but finding none. He knew he was going to pass out. He lay down on the hill, maybe to die, in a pink sweater.
Of all the men I know, Jim is the only one who wouldn't mind being found dead in a pink sweater. He doesn't give a rip what other people think.
In the little house in northeast St. Petersburg, I listened to crackles and beeps on my answering machine. There was a distant humming sound. I erased the annoying noises. I had no idea who was calling or why.
Jim was in Goblin Valley doing research for a travel book. After he had gathered the information he needed, he decided to spend a few days out in the boonies. He loves to hike miles from civilization, and he's not afraid to be alone. It's his idea of fun.
He set himself a triangular three-day route into the wilds, packed his gear and walked all day the first day. Late in the day he climbed down into a canyon, using indentations in the rock as hand and foot holds. A few feet from the canyon floor, he turned face out to jump.
Jim's right heel was sharing a little cavern with a rattlesnake named Louie. Louie bit Jim in the crease behind his knee. It was Jim's 31st birthday. When Jim packed for his trip, he held the snakebite kit in his right hand and said, "Yeah, better take it" . . . (switch to left hand) . . . "Naw, I'm not going to need this thing" . . . "Yeah, maybe" . . . "Naw, I need the room." Tossed that thing back and forth. Landed on yes.
He knew immediately what had happened and was grabbing for the snakebite kit by the time he hit the ground. He had a glimpse of Louie on the way down, who remained, for a split second, attached to the backside of his knee. Jim said he knew if he panicked and let his heart race, he would die because the poison would circulate quickly. He made himself calm.
He got out the kit, a series of suction cup devices. Within 20 seconds of the bite, he had the first cup on and was sucking out the poison. It was not a convenient spot to get at. This is when Jim talked to the snake and when the snake got a name.
Jim said, "Louie, why did you do this to me? I wasn't going to hurt you."
Talking to Louie kept him calm. He worked on the bite for about half an hour. Louie sulked in the back of his cave, getting chewed out by Jim. Jim said he never thought of killing Louie. "He was just doing his job."
When he had done what he could, he started climbing. He figured he was a six-hour walk from the nearest campsite. He got out of the canyon. As he walked, he felt like a huge, heavy hand was pressing the air out of his chest. Night was falling, and he knew he was going to pass out. He climbed to the top of a hill, got the pink sweater out of his backpack, put it on and started pushing buttons on his cell phone.
He called all the numbers stored in his phone, including mine. (I bet my answering machine message -- "I'm baking cookies, I'll get back to you after the last batch" -- was annoying under the circumstances.) He couldn't get a local response to his calls for help.
As Jim was fading, he found a slab of gray sandstone and carved a stick man looking out over the horizon. He carved his name and the date. He turned the stone face down so rain wouldn't wash away the carvings.
When Jim told me this story, sitting in my living room, he said he didn't think he was going to die. But there are levels and more levels to this kind of knowledge, and I think he lay his head down on top of that rock not really knowing. Ready for either.
Jim opened his eyes the next morning. He was cold and sick. He said it felt like a combination bad-flu-hangover-migraine. He took a picture from his hilltop and he got a shot of the tombstone.
He dragged himself to the nearest camp, where some kind people took him to a first aid station. They said there wasn't a thing they could do for him except a blood cleansing procedure, and that would be of minimal help. If he had survived so far, they thought he would eventually be okay.
Jim called me from the medical center before he flew home. He didn't know what had come through on the answering machine and wanted to reassure me that he was okay. So I knew I had a story in the air on the way to the little house in St. Petersburg.
He was grumpy on the flight home and admits to grousing at some fellow fliers. If only they knew.
He looked puffy and yellow when he showed up at my door for the telling of this tale. I saw his birthday present from Louie: two pricks, barely visible, just in the center of the crease behind his right knee. They turn purple when he gets cold.
His birthday present from God is that he's here to look at it. Jim would disagree with me about that. He would call it fate. I stuck the tombstone picture on my fridge next to the smiling faces of my nephews and nieces.
* * *
Mary Jo Nelson is, as she puts it, involved in "unstructured work."
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