Blast From the Past: Massasauga

Originally posted on April 9, 2015 at 10:53 am


Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #119, published in February 2006. Words by Nick Verstain. Art by Philip Newsom.

Socially awkward.

That’s what Mom used to say about me. She was only partly right. I was awkward socially, physically, romantically and spiritually. There were only 334 kids at Massasauga High, but I was able to disappear with just about no one noticing or caring.

If I had any claim to fame, it was as the little brother of Charlie Czerniak, the greatest football player in the history of the Massasauga Rattlesnakes, the guy who took this fading Western Pennsylvania town’s dreams on his back all the way to the 1996 Division A state championship game. Charlie got knocked out of the game in the third quarter and we lost by two touchdowns to Washington East, but in Massasauga, nothing goes as planned.

Charlie was the handsome quarterback; I was the unexpected little runt that ruined Mom and Pop’s plans for a secure future. Mom was 43 when I was born underweight and asthmatic. She had to quit her job at the Sears catalog store to tend to my medical needs. Dad had a logging and mill operation that supplied timbers to the local mines. Until I came along, he figured he had timber work for the next ten years, which would get Charlie through community college and him to early retirement.

Although he was eight years older than me, Charlie never tried to boss me around or tease me. We shared a bedroom and an old Golden Retriever named Flurry.

Charlie had lots of friends and things to do while I preferred to be alone or with Flurry. When I was seven, he taught me how to ride his beat-up BMX bike and those wheels became my wings. There wasn’t a lot to Massasauga, but Flurry and I explored every inch of the woods on that bike.

One of my favorite photos is of me riding past our white, wood-frame house on Penn Street, Flurry a blur of motion just behind my back wheel.

That fall, when the Rattlers were beginning their run at the state championship, I rode home from school and saw Mom standing in our driveway, her hands touching her temples as she stared at the mound of honey-colored fur at the curb. It was Flurry and I could tell he was dead.

I rode past Mom and the house and the dead dog and pedaled as hard and as fast as I could, hot tears touching my ears as I rode deep into the woods. My rage allowed me to ride over branches and clods, but I was stopped by a small log pile on the trail. I went down hard and the handlebar punched me in the gut. I lay in the cold, tall grass, my sickly breathing coming in short, wheezing gasps. The world collapsed around me and I was suffocating. I could hear laughter and tires squealing at the high school, but I could not make myself move.

Then I felt a strong hand grabbing my coat sleeve, turning me over toward the now-purple sky and the face of my brother, his blue eyes wide with concern.

He reached into the pocket of his red-and-gold letter jacket and pulled out my inhaler. He held my head as he placed the plastic nozzle between my lips and pumped an astringent mist into my lungs.

“Damn, damn,” he said. “Relax. Breathe slow. Easy.” He had tears in his eyes, too. We both cried softly in the woods, the he picked up my bike and we walked slowly through the growing darkness toward home.

“If you’re gonna be working out your problems on that bike, I better show you how to ride in the woods,” he said, his big hand on my shoulder. “I take my worries there, too. Makes me feel better, puts things in perspective.”

By the light of a flashlight, Dad had dug a hole next to the vegetable garden. We wrapped Flurry in his favorite blanket and slipped him into the grave. I was all cried out.

Charlie was true to his word and every Saturday morning that fall, even though he was sore from the punishment he had taken on the field the night before, he showed me how to ride trails.

“There are two things you have to remember,” he said. “One, a rolling wheel never falls. Two, look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.”

He made me ride over that log pile again and again. He’d stand on the other side of it, kneeling in the rusty leaves. “Look me in the eyes,” he would yell. “Don’t look at the logs!”

I kept my head up and looked down the trail at his ruddy face and the bike rolled over with ease.

“It’s when you stop looking where you’re headed that you get in trouble,” he said, patting the back of my Sears winter coat. “And there isn’t any trouble that you can’t ride out.”

By the time snow had covered the trails around Massasauga, I had learned Charlie’s lessons well. I took some bruising falls by hesitating before log piles and creek crossings, but speed became my friend. And that stuff about “looking where you want to go” had seeped into my life off the bike, as well.

I realized that instead of moaning about my role as an outsider, I had to stop grabbing the brakes and move toward the things that made me happy. I began reading more about the animals and plants that made up the Massasauga woods and this made my forays there more meaningful. I learned that there are real Massasauga Rattlesnakes, not just kids in football pads. I decided that when spring and warmer weather arrived, I would find such a snake. Not to capture and turn into a pinned specimen, but to meet a fellow resident of the Western Pennsylvania woods.

Not long after, Charlie graduated from Massasauga High. He was too small for the college football recruiters, so he took a few computer classes at the community college in Washington, Pennsylvania. But he soon heard another calling, and taking his own advice about rolling wheels, joined the U.S. Army and left Massasauga for training as a paratrooper and Ranger in North Carolina.

His letters from Ranger school were exciting and it was obvious that he had found his purpose in life. The skills that made him a star quarterback had also made him an outstanding soldier, a natural at leading men on dangerous missions in perilous places.

On Sept. 11, 2001, all of our lives changed. I was beginning my freshman year at Massasauga High when I saw the towers fall; in the pit of my stomach, I knew that Charlie would soon be in harm’s way.

He was now a Ranger sergeant, leading a team of expert soldiers somewhere in Colorado where they were training for mountain missions. His letters were always very upbeat, but lacking any specifics about his training or future assignments.

Not long after 9/11, he was sent to Afghanistan. Now his letters were few, but always full of wondrous tales from that exotic place of hookahs and warlords and tribal feuds. He had made friends with two Special Forces guys, both of them named Mike and both rabid mountain bikers. They cobbled together some bikes and had a few laughs and a few beers on the local trails.

In an email photo, Charlie looked very different. He had a thick, reddish beard and his shock of blond hair was hidden under some kind of woolen wrap. Charlie was smiling, but his eyes looked weary, or maybe there was smoke in the air.

We didn’t hear much from Charlie during the next two years. Mom got scared once and called the Red Cross, but all they could say was that he was on a special mission and was alive and well.

Late one night, the phone rang. I heard Mom gasp before she ran down the hall. It was Charlie; he was in Germany and little drunk. He had escorted a wounded comrade to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl and had just a few hours before his flight back to Bagram was taking off from Ramstein.

After Mom and Dad talked with him, I got my turn.

“Hey bro, wassup?,” he slurred. “They got this gal here, Louise, she can throw darts backwards, between her legs! I’m in love!”

He had never talked to me like a man before and I felt a thrill run through me as I imagined this contortionist vixen in a smoky German bar. Well, what I imagined that scene to be, since I’d never been in Germany, never been in a bar and had never been with a woman.

That situation would change soon. Her name is Jenny and we met in biology class. She didn’t squeal or scream when we dissected a frog together. Lab partners became friends who wandered in the Massasauga woods, poking under logs and scooping muck from stagnant ponds.

I was now 16 and feeling like a real human. The bike and brown-eyed Jenny were at the center of my life, and while I wasn’t a big man on campus, I could stand in the woods at dusk and look at the glow from the high school football field lights and not feel that I was missing something.

December was about to arrive and the critters in the forest were going to ground for the winter. The logs were a bit icy and I bobbled a bit as I rode my Cannondale over my old nemesis. I had to laugh at how things had changed, how much confidence I had and how the future looked so promising.

I’d outgrown my asthma years ago and my breath flowed in cloudy streams from my lungs as I pumped the bike home. I tuned the corner on to Penn Street and smiled at the golden glow of our kitchen and the anticipation of sloppy Joes and Tater Tots.

Then I saw the car in the driveway. My stomach flipped when I saw the government tags and “U.S. Army” stenciled on the door.

I kept riding, past my house, past the school, past Jenny’s house. Past everything that seemed so right and so stable. It was all flowing down a black whirlpool of fears as I pushed myself harder and harder, desperate to kill the panic with tears and lactic acid.

Charlie wasn’t killed by the roadside bomb, but when he woke up in a Landstuhl hospital bed, he wished he had been blown to bits. Through the morphine haze, he could see that his left leg was wrapped in a thick layer of gauze and tape. His right leg was missing.

That was his “chocolate” leg, the one he used to leverage those long touchdown passes. It was his anchor on the bike, steadying himself for leaps of faith and hard left turns.

Charlie was in Germany and his leg was shredded on the side of a dirt road in the outskirts of Kabul. After three years of stealth combat missions, it would all end in a banal Humvee run to the supply depot for toilet paper and Gatorade.

There was a Purple Heart medal pinned to his pillow, but all he could think about was his leg and what that loss would mean.

Charlie was sent to the Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, D.C., a long day’s drive from Massasauga. We got there hungry and tired, but didn’t want to wait a minute longer to see him.

We were escorted to his room after passing dozens of identical white, antiseptic rooms with corner TVs blaring ESPN, the occupants hidden beneath maroon blankets and tousled sheets.

Charlie was asleep when we walked in. He seemed smaller, his gaunt face still raw from the bomb flash, a rough pale stubble where his once thick beard had bloomed.

A nurse came in with a clipboard and a tray of pills and syringes. She wiped Charlie’s brow with a damp washcloth and his eyes flickered, then closed.

She touched his shoulders and rocked him slightly. He blinked awake, and tried to focus on our faces.

He struggled to speak, but the tears that welled in his reddened eyes and spilled down his cheeks needed no translation.

Mom cried into Dad’s shoulder and he slumped against the cold wall. I grabbed Charlie’s hand and squeezed hard. “Relax,” I said. “Breathe slow. Easy, easy.”

Charlie got his new right leg in March, but he had little interest in climbing out of bed for therapy. He spent his days sending email to his friends back in Afghanistan and trolling the Internet for news from the war. He didn’t answer my letters and messages, and barely spoke to Mom and Dad on the phone.

Mom talked with a counselor, who agreed with her that a visit to Massasauga might do some good.

That weekend, a green Army hospital van pulled into the driveway and Charlie rolled down the ramp, a black wool cap pulled around his brow and his right pant leg pinned above the spot where his knee used to be.

An orderly shouldered Charlie’s duffle bag and a case containing a new carbon fiber and titanium leg.

Dad had built a plywood ramp and tried to push Charlie inside, but Charlie shook his head and turned to me.

“Let’s go to the woods, bro,” he said. “I can’t stand being cooped up.”

We rolled down Penn Street and turned the corner into the woods. Spring was a few weeks away and the trails were still frozen mud. The branches were just beginning to show buds, so the high school building and the football field were visible through the trees.

Some kids were tossing a football around, playing tackle throwback on the hard turf.

Charlie tried not to notice their game, but he winced when he saw the ball spiral through the cold air.

We skirted the field and turned into the thick of the forest. There were tire tracks preserved in the frozen muck, Velociraptors from my bike.

Ahead was the log pile. Not the original, but the latest incarnation I had crafted the summer before. I tried to turn the wheelchair around it, but Charlie grabbed my arm. He aimed the wheelchair at the pile and pumped his arms furiously on the wheel rims. The front wheels began to climb the obstacle, the the rear wheels slipped on the skinned logs and the chair crumpled to the right.

Charlie fell hard to the damp grass and cried, “Noooooo!”

I reached for him, but he barked, “Don’t touch me!”

He pulled himself up to his left knee, then grabbed the chair and forced it down into the muck. Charlie raised himself into the chair and backed away again. This time he swiveled around and headed back to our house. He didn’t say a word as he rolled up the ramp that Dad built.

We had to share a room, but we didn’t share much else. Charlie sat in his wheelchair and listlessly watched Jerry Springer and Oprah on the tube. He would lift his head when there was news from Iraq and Afghanistan, but would turn away when explosions flashed on the screen.

He never went out, but Dad convinced him one Saturday morning to help with building a new shed for the lawn tools. Dad and Charlie and I took the old green Ford pickup to Home Depot, the wheelchair lashed to the truck bed with bungee cords.

Charlie seemed happy to be in Massasauga again, smiling at the new Dunkin Donuts and Borders bookstore that had sprung up around the Home Depot. He hopped out of the truck on his good leg and reached in back to unhook the chair.

Just then a loud-mufflered Silverado pulled into the parking lot, the crew cab stuffed with wide-shouldered young men in red-and-gold letter jackets. They hooted and hollered as the spilled out, then fell suddenly silent as they saw Charlie, his khaki pant-leg dangling empty and a wheelchair in his arms.

No one knew what to say, so they said nothing. The boys shuffled into Home Depot and Charlie set the chair back in the truck.

“I’ll wait here,” he said to us. “I’m not feeling up to this.”

Charlie didn’t come to supper, so Mom made him a plate of Salisbury steak and peas for me to take to him. He was propped up on his bed, just below the shelf of trophies and ribbons he’d won at Massasauga High.

He was wearing a pair of boxers, so I could clearly see the reddish skin that had been sewn around his stump. He had always kept it hidden with an elastic sock, so that was the first time I’d seen it.

I put the dinner plate on my cluttered desk and picked up a foot-long scrap of shedded snakeskin, blotchy with patches of grey and ivory scales.

“I found this in the woods last year,” I said, turning the skin over in my shaking hands.

“It’s from a real Massasauga rattlesnake. They’re pretty rare, you know. Their habitat is getting killed off from Ontario down to Morgantown.

“But they’re tough and are adapting to man’s intrusion by getting smaller, harder for predators to find and they need less prey to survive. I know about this guy and lots of other critters and plants because of what you did for me after Flurry died. Remember when you said, ‘Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go?’

“This is where I wanted to go. This is my calling. And I let off the brakes, too. Momentum. I’m a rolling wheel, thanks to you. I’m not preaching to you, Charlie, but I love you and believe in you. Go where you want to go. Mom and dad and me, we’ll be there with you.”

Charlie turned away and buried his head into the pillow. It hurt so bad to hear his muffled crying, but I stayed in that room until he fell asleep.

I’d like to say that things magically turned around that day, but they didn’t. But Charlie began working with a therapist at the VA hospital in Wheeling and started the long process of learning how to use his high-tech carbon leg.

His stump was often raw and throbbing after these sessions. On more than one night he sat on the porch and self-medicated with some kine bud. Mom and Dad didn’t mind.

Summer passed and Jenny and I were now seniors, seriously in love and looking to the future. One September afternoon were were leaving the high school when I noticed a figure moving between the tree gaps in the woods. It was Charlie and he was straddling his old blue Yeti, using the bike as a crutch as he and the carbon leg walked in the forest. I though I heard him laughing.

From that day on, Charlie devoured life in big gulps. He attacked the mission of walking with the same zeal he had for recon patrols. He was walking unaided by the first week in October and by Halloween the doctors had adapted his leg for use on the bike.

He came back to Massasauga High for Homecoming Week. Now twice a hero, he basked in the warm regard of his friends. That winter we tried a little log hopping in the woods. It took a few tries, but we laughed our way through it.

Spring followed and graduation came and it was time for me to pack my own bags.

My two-year study of the decline of natural habitat of Sistrurus catenatus, also known as the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, had won me a Western Pennsylvania Conservancy scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.

Jenny and I loaded our bikes on the roof rack and drove down Penn Street and past the woods, looking exactly where we wanted to go.

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