The Tale of the Wilmore Snake

The Tale of the Wilmore Snake
Can you recall an episode from your past that you don't particularly enjoy rehashing? I am sure we could all come up with a few examples. It's possible you may not feel at ease reminiscing about the incident, or maybe you sense your audience feels even more uncomfortable listening to the details. War stories, a deep-seated family secret or just an unpleasant memory from your childhood all might fit this scenario.

Well, I have a tale that my cousin Lou and I were hesitant to bring up for years. The reason for our reluctance however, was not because it made anyone feel uneasy. Rather, it was because we felt no one would believe us in the first place. Not until the topic came up at a family reunion about 12 years ago, did I willingly acknowledge the tale of the Wilmore snake. Prior to this reunion, our discussion of the reptile's sighting was kept mum for about 35 years. When we finally did address the event, we were both relieved in discovering the incident was not part of our imagination.

Wading in the waters of the North Branch of the Little Conemaugh Creek in central PA was a favorite summer pastime for my cousins and me while growing up. Catching minnows, crayfish and large bull frog tadpoles for hours at a time, was a great way to squander summer days. The time spent along the creek sparked my first interest in the biological field and eventually led to my career as a life science teacher.

The following snake incident could have easily turned me against all considerations of studying biology, particularly the reptilian category of serpents. Fortunately this encounter only enhanced my interest in the outdoors, and now the time has finally arrived to make it known to others.

We were just kids, ages ten and seven or there about, when the snake appeared in the water not more than ten feet or so in front of us. The brown and greenish-spotted creature was huge. Its head was every bit as large as a regulation-size football. With a mouth so prominent, the aquatic monster gave the appearance he was smiling. Possessing a midriff girth equal to the diameter of a basketball, the beast was 17 feet long if it was a yard. Yes, he resembled evil - a demon in all its glory. Now, I know what you may be thinking. This did occur in the early 60's, but we were not under the influence of any mind-numbing spirits or chemicals. We were much too young for that! (That might be a totally different story, possibly reserved for another time.)

We had a witness, too. His name was John Bialas. Residing along the creek for years, Mr. Bialas lived alone in very close proximity to the water. With his large frame and tall stature, it was easy to understand how he got the nickname "Big John."

When we screamed at the sighting of the brute, Big John came running from his garden to the creek. He was dressed in blue overalls, blue work shirt, work boots and a large straw hat. He also carried a clothes prop in his hands. It was as if he knew what we had seen and he was prepared for its return. For those of you that can remember, a clothes prop was not made of metal and it wasn't something you might purchase in a store. It was made from a sapling or small tree with a "Y" left at the top to help support the line when it sagged due to the weight of wet clothes. About 7 feet long and 3 or 4 inches in diameter at the base, the prop was not light at all. Although we would have had difficulty handling this dry timber, Big John toyed with it like a golf club.

In an almost-routine manner, he calmly suggested that we step back, and then he attempted to trap the neck of the snake in the "Y" section of the prop. The water serpent immediately wriggled free, knocking the prop from John's hands. One giant swish of its massive body, and it slithered across the creek and up the weed-covered bank into the shadows on the other side. As the clothes prop floated in the creek, Big John muttered something to the effect that "it got away again," while Lou and I both stood there speechless in our bare feet.

The images of that snake and of Big John remain with me still. Their clarity is surpassed only by the memory of the look of disbelief that Lou wore that day.

Of course, we replayed the event in our minds countless times. But, we told few people. Who would have believed us? Big John has since passed away, and when we did reveal our secret to some members of the family, they (my dad, Lou's mom, and their siblings) never gave much indication that they believed our story. My dad did recall a time when he thought a train wrecked many years ago in the general area. He thought it may have been transporting circus animals too, but that story was never corroborated by anyone else that I know of.

To prove my willingness to give answers to any questions you naysayers and skeptics might have, I am gladly going to give you the contact information you may need to gather further proof of this story. If you prefer learning more about the Wilmore snake, give Lou Marsalko a call. Today he resides in Gallitzin, PA and I am sure he wouldn't mind adding a few details to the drama.

If you don't mind I will remain, along with the monster serpent, in the shadows and out of the spotlight.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA