That’s a weird fact because everyone who knows me knows that I am really scared of snakes. The fear started on a family camping trip to the Ozarks when I was 7. As I reeled in my Snoopy fishing pole, the snake chased my bobber until it was close enough to the shore that I started backing away and feeling slightly panicked. My dad picked up on the potential mischief of the situation and began teasing the snake so it would keep coming closer, never mind the fact that I was frozen in a mixture of fear and fascination.
The snake in question was a copperhead and very definitely poisonous. I remember my fear- kid fear is so raw. I remember what I was wearing- my favorite kitten sweatshirt that my mom had embroidered for me. I had a baggie of pretzels clothes pinned to the belt loop of my Lee jeans. I remember exactly what that river looked like.
I don’t know why I thought to be afraid of this thing. I had no reason to be scared of snakes. I had been around lots of different animals and for whatever reason, my heart raced at the sight of it wiggling toward me. When my dad remembered the whole 7 year old daughter thing, he managed to coax the snake back into the water using special dad powers.
As I cried uncontrollably all the way back to our campsite, my dad spotted a ranger and told him the story. He gestured toward me sobbing and described the snake we’d seen, saying “it was probably harmless, right?” (Wink, wink, guy. This kid is a wreck)
The ranger, completely unaware of his role in this social awareness play said (in a tone that reminds me to this day of the police officer in Wally World played by John Candy)Nope No, sir. That was a copperhead. That will kill you in a minute.” My dad and I still laugh about that guy but ever since then, I have been afraid. Snakes that can swim or climb trees hold special fear for me. I think they should only get one talent- you can either swim or be venomous on land. Don’t get me started on Anacondas. I am fascinated and will ogle National Geographic centerfolds of them stretched out to their full length.
I jump if I see a snake in a picture or sometimes even slam my computer shut. Sometimes a garden hose in tall grass will do it. My heart races and I can’t get it together. I am trying to break myself of this fear. I held a snake once in Australia. I make myself look at pictures of them for at least five seconds. I now see dead ones all the time here in New Jersey and I don’t even freak out.
I don’t hate snakes. I just think the way they move is creepy and I can’t shake it. I have had lots of people offer to fill my bunk with snakes in order to break my fear. I half consider it just because maybe I need to dive in the deep end. But when we were talking about snakes tonight, I remembered the time one saved my life and it hit me that they might be my secret good luck charm. I was surrounded by them on a clown trip to Morocco, where limp sad snake charmer cobras phoned it in at the marketplace. That very night, I chased down a guy who stole my camera and asked for it back in the same marketplace. He gave it to me. Maybe it was the snake charm.
In Panama, I saw a dead venomous snake coiled up on the sidewalk my first day alone in town, where I met the folk hero owner of a local Boquete coffee farm. Maybe there’s something about seeing one that makes me wake up a little and pay attention. Here in the shipyard, a rat snake actually crawled up on a tarp near the stern of the boat and my crew mate picked him up and released him. Apparently a snake was also found in the very kitchen where I am now typing this story.
The morning a snake saved my life I was biking from my apartment in Albany park to the bank. I was very broke in Chicago. I had a giant coffee can full of change to redeem to pay for food. As I teetered around the neighborhood, something made me pause and look at a bush on the corner that I have never once stopped at. Usually I would ride by with my head in the clouds. But this time I realized I was staring at the stumpy thick tail of what had to be a three foot snake. It seemed to be a pet that someone released or a pet that made a break for it because it was good sized. My breath locked up and I started to inch backward, away from the snake. It was perfectly still, just holding my attention for a long moment.
When I biked away, turning onto California Avenue like I always did, I was approaching the left turn lane but not quite there. Ten seconds later, the stoplight which hangs on the Addison and California intersection came crashing down into the left turn lane. Ten feet away, there was a stoplight in the road where my bike should have been if I hadn’t stopped to look at this mystery snake.
I lived the rest of that day in a haze of appreciation and total wonder. I haven’t thought about it for a long time and I don’t even think I told anyone what had happened. Maybe it’s one of those things that was between me and that snake, my mystery protector.