My father-in-law was a man’s man, a railroad mechanic, a builder of houses, a catcher of fish, a raker of those Rhode Island clams called “quahogs.” He was afraid of nothing. Well, that’s not true. Everyone knew he was afraid of one thing. Russell Major was petrified of snakes.
“Petrified” is the wrong word. It means “turned to stone.” I watched one day as he saw a snake in his vegetable garden. I never saw an old man move more quickly. High-stepping away, he uttered an ungodly sound, a tiny squeal that belied his size and strength.
I thought of him the other day as I sat on my driveway watching birds frolic and feed near our oak tree. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught something sliding down the lawn from the house to the street. It was about 3 to 4 feet long, sleek and black.
I am no herpetologist, but it looked like the common, nonvenomous black racer. Its appearance, near dusk, was a reminder that we in Florida are in the middle of snake season.
The serpent in the garden
I understand arachnophobia. Those eight-legged freaks are scary. But I can’t figure out exactly what makes the snake the object of such mythical dread. I suppose movies have something to do with it, horror films like Anaconda or Snakes On a Plane, where those slithering creatures swallow humans whole.
Even in children’s stories, such as the Harry Potter series, the evil wizard Voldemort has snakelike features and keeps the giant reptile Nagini, a name derived from the Hindu word for snake, as his chief assassin.
I don’t remember when, in childhood, I saw my first real snake. Maybe at the Bronx Zoo. But I clearly remember the first picture of a snake.
My mom gave me some magazines for young readers that contained illustrated Bible stories. The first story, no surprise, was Adam and Eve. Two things interested me: the suggestion of a blond, naked Eve; and talk about temptation, the evil influence of the snake, the manifestation of Satan, with all his wicked guile. It was not Eve’s fault that we lost paradise, I tell you. It was that darn snake!
Watch your step
Think of me in the summer of 1994 in the hills outside the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. It is just three months after that country’s first free elections. I will be working with schoolteachers under the direction of educator Michael Rice, who invites me to his cabin in the hills. It’s a strange and alien landscape. Our Jeep comes to a stop to allow a flock of ostriches to pass by. They show no signs of sticking their heads in the sand.
We hike down the hillside, along the river, and near an outcropping of rocks. “Be careful there,” said my host, without urgency. “The other day there was a cobra sighting. Just where you’re stepping.”
Travel with me now back to St. Pete, Florida. I play at the Mangrove Bay golf course, where over the years I have seen some interesting wildlife. Flocks of roseate spoonbills. Turkey vultures circling something dead (maybe my short game). A red-tailed hawk near my ball trying to lift a dead rabbit. Crows and raccoons stealing food from my golf cart.
Golf balls are expensive, and weekend duffers hit a lot of them into ponds and woods. Lots of golfers scrounge for lost balls along the edge of wooded areas, even in defiance of signs that say “No hunt.” Why? I got the message in the club house one day where they were displaying a sloughed skin from what was probably an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, about 6 feet long.
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One day, on the unlucky hole No. 13, I hit a good drive, maybe 200 yards, right down the middle. As I approached my ball, I saw something writhing across the fairway toward the woods and the water behind it. The rattler sounded like the tambourine sizzle in I Heard It Through the Grapevine as played by the Florida A&M marching band.
My partner, from out of town, rushed to take a video. I danced back, looking a lot like my father-in-law.
What is it about that distinctive snaky sound? It has a technical name in language study. It’s called “sibilance” and denotes the sizzling noises created by words composed of the letters “s” and “z.” Words like “snake” and “serpent” and “hiss.” As the snake slithered its serpentine path through the grass, the golfer took a pass and stepped stealthily to safety.
A swarm of snakes
My most dramatic encounter with a snake took place years ago, when all three of our daughters were still living at home. It was dad’s job to mow the lawn. I was on the side of the house, bending over to unlatch the grass catcher, when I looked up at something moving. From a vent into the garage rose the sleek head of a good-sized black snake. About 2 feet of snake was visible, its head up and tongue flicking. I stepped back. It retreated into the garage. And now I had a problem.
A mature snake had, I feared, made a nest in my garage. It was now hiding somewhere behind the washer and dryer. It could make its way in and out through a space near a vent. I knew the snake was not poisonous, but I still felt a responsibility to liberate our living space — including the garage — from creatures that sneak and hiss — and yes, bite.
I was improvising. I got a flashlight and slithered across the top of the washer and dryer so I could look down behind the machines to where it might have gone. I peeked over the top. I pointed the light. I screamed. I fell backward. All I could see was a swarm of black snakes!
What had terrorized me, of course, was not a nest of vipers. There was nothing back there except for the swirling crisscross of black wires and hoses connected to the appliances.
Call of the wild
As the sun set, we noticed that our black snake had begun to wriggle back toward the house, under the edge of the oak tree. Bad idea. We watched in amazement as a tiny mockingbird — either protecting a nest, or just having fun — dropped from a branch and hovered like a drone over the snake, sending him racing toward the bushes for cover. One, two, three times, the mockingbird — our official state bird! — swooped down and pecked at the snake’s tail.
“Oh, my goodness,” I said to Karen, quite excited. “Look! That bird is kicking its asp.”
You may be wondering if I have ever touched a snake. The answer is no, not counting my mother’s feather boa.