By now everyone in the world has seen the diamondback rattlesnake on a Hilton Head Island beach last week.
It rolled in on the surf in front of Jonathan and Lindsay Wiles of Virginia. They were walking on a sparse beach in Port Royal Plantation early on Tuesday morning while visiting family. Video taken by Jonathan Wiles has been shared on every existing media outlet, or so it appears from an online search.
We’ve had a couple of stories about rattlesnakes in the dunes on Hilton Head, usually near marshes where they can keep the rabbits and rats in check.
But nothing created a stir like the swimming rattlesnake at a busy Coligny Beach 14 summers ago.
The beach was cleared when the snake was spotted 30 yards offshore. They are shy creatures, so surely it was not expecting the welcome committee it found when it swam ashore. The 3-foot diamondback was greeted by about 150 of its best friends.
They kept a safe distance, but what they saw was certainly worth a good gawk. Two Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies came. Lance Cpl. Eric Ricker held its head down with a shovel as Sgt. Mike Moberly grabbed it. The snake was put in a tight box and taken to the Coligny Beach Park office. Moberly said he was going to take it to an isolated area on the mainland and set it free.
The photograph of that breathless action may have been the first time a rattlesnake was ever pictured in a Southern newspaper — alive.
Here in the Lowcountry, we know that rattlesnakes swim — sometimes from island to island, and sometimes well offshore. But like spotting the deer that swim around out there, it’s still a rare thing to see.
When the snake swam onto the beach in 2003, I shared its symbolism in history that seemed right for the time. And it’s still the same today.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the rattlesnake as an image of what beset our nation in 1941. Change some names, and it seems appropriate for today.
Roosevelt made these remarks in a “Fireside Chat” on a date that he had no idea would live in infamy. On Sept. 11, 1941, he spoke about a “rattlesnake” in the Atlantic Ocean. He spoke of destroyer USS Greer being fired upon by a German submarine.
“This attack on the Greer was no localized military operation in the North Atlantic,” FDR said. “This was no mere episode in a struggle between two nations. This was one determined step toward creating a permanent world system based on force, on terror, and on murder.
“And I am sure that, even now, the Nazis are waiting to see whether the United States will, by silence, give them the green light to go ahead on this path of destruction.
“The Nazi danger to our Western world has long ceased to be a mere possibility. The danger is here now — not only from a military enemy but from an enemy of all law, all liberty, all morality, all religion.
“There has now come a time when you and I must see the cold, inexorable necessity of saying to these inhuman, unrestrained seekers of world conquest and permanent world domination by the sword: ‘You seek to throw our children and our children’s children into your form of terrorism and slavery. You have now attacked our own safety. You shall go no further.’
“One peaceful nation after another has met disaster because each refused to look the Nazi danger squarely in the eye until it actually had them by the throat.
“The United States will not make that fatal mistake.”
He goes on to say, “We have sought no shooting war with Hitler. We do not seek it now.
“I assume that the German leaders are not deeply concerned, tonight or any other time, by what we Americans or the American government say or publish about them. We cannot bring about the downfall of Nazism by the use of long-range invective. But when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.
“These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.”