Here is the tale of a rattlesnake that mastered the Morse code, back when telegraphy and pounding brass was a fine and noble profession. It was soon after I first went to work for the road with which I am still employed, the Illinois Central, than which there is none finer.
I was sent to Way, Miss. as night operator. The name was about all there was to the station, except a water tank and day and night telegraph operators. Way is back in the Big Black River bottoms, where the nights get the blackest, the bullfrogs croak the coarsest and the hoot owls hoot the lonesomest of any spot in creation. It is only about 4 miles from Vaughan, where Casey Jones of song and fable pulled his last throttle some 40 years ago. My duties at Way consisted of reporting trains promptly and staying awake or vice-versa, and sometimes I dozed and as a consequence could not truthfully report that a string had gone by. When I failed to get enough rest during the day and was unusually sleepy when I came to work, I would find out when the next train was due to pass and then go out and pour a handful of cinders on the rails. If the passing train did not awaken me, when I did come to I could go out and see if the cinders were swept off, and if so, I knew the train had gone. This system had its disadvantages in bad weather.
I tried another old one, that of tying one end of a string to the coal scuttle in the office, stretching it across the track and tying the other to a stick. When the train came along, it hit the string and rattled the coal hod. This was not entirely satisfactory either, because a wandering mule or cow was liable to come along before the train. But fortune brought a happy solution to my problem. One night as I sat reading a detective magazine and had just reached the point where the villain was about to push the heroine over the cliff, I happened to glance toward the door and was amazed to see a good-sized rattlesnake crawling in the door.
As it lay there on the floor, I noticed a marked resemblance to our porter, Leander, who was long and svelte too. Well, I sat there, paralyzed with fright while the snake coiled, moved his head from side to side like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, his beady, unblinking eyes taking in everything in the office. I had used all my snake medicine the night before, so I was just where Moses was.
All at once a complete calm came over me. I rose, strode boldly to where the snake was and poured some milk out of my lunch box kit into a fruit jar lid, and set it where the rattler could see it. He took the hint and lapped it up greedily. After he had finished the milk, we eyed each other for a moment, and seemed to reach a complete understanding.
I had a practice telegraph set in the back of my office, and I went over and began tapping out slowly the alphabet in Morse code. Leander, as I called my visitor, crawled onto the table and was all attention—finest and most apt student I ever had. Soon as I would make a letter I'd pause, and he'd raise his tail and try to imitate the dots and dashes and spaces with his rattles. In an unusually short time he knew the entire alphabet. He had a little trouble with the letter "P" which consists of five dots. He seemed to lose control of his tail muscles on that one, and I thought he'd never quit making dots. But finally he mastered the "P" and his Morse was a joy to listen to. We spent many otherwise lonely hours, I with brass key and sounder, tobacco can and all, and Leander with his natural sounder. He told me he was one of twenty children, but that his brothers and sisters had been drowned in a flood. Leander was a handy creature around the office; he could grab up a broom with his tail, hump his back, put his nose to the floor and do as good a sweeping job as you ever saw.
But the biggest lift he gave was in helping me report trains. As you know, a snake's tongue when extended from his mouth is sort of like a radio antenna. Leander would crawl on the telegraph table in the depot's bay window (still there), stick his head out, poke his tongue out some more and get the vibration of a train 35 miles away. Then he would come over to the table where I was sleeping, touch my face tenderly with that sensitive tongue of his and I knew it was time to rouse up and exchange signals with the train crew and report their passing.
All good things come to an end. I got word that I was to be transferred, so one evening, as Leander and I were having our little chat in Morse, broke the news to him gently as I knew how. I told him how much I had enjoyed knowing him and how much he had done to keep me from being lonely, in his cordial, ophidian way and I invited him to go with me to my next station.
But Leander, after thinking it over for a while, tapped out "No" and explained that Big Black River bottoms were his home, where all his folks had lived since the Ice Age, and he was considerable of a homebody, and didn't think he'd get adjusted to unfamiliar scenes. He thanked me for teaching him Morse, and we had a parting of the Way.
As he slithered out he paused, looked back, transfixed me with those soulful and unblinking eyes and tapped out "73," which is the telegrapher's traditional symbol for good-by. I felt no shame as I stood there alone, with the shades of night falling fast, as tears trickled down my cheeks and Leander disappeared. He was a pal.
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