DECEMBER 28, 2010 11:49AM

Snake-Proofing the Kids - Archive Post for Dad

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 My father died very suddenly, the day after Christmas, at the age of 80. He was a research biologist, a veteran of the Korean War, and an excellent parent to all four of us - my brothers JP and Sander, and my sister Pip, and a grandfather to all of our children. I first began writing about my family when I contributed to a mil-blog called Sgt. Stryker's Daily Brief in mid 2002. (Now it's called just The Daily Brief.) Readers really responded to the essays about my family, and my parents - and eventually they hectored me into putting them all into a book. Which led to other books ... and in all of this Dad was one of my biggest fans. So - I am going back and re-posting some of the very earliest posts for OSers to enjoy.

I'll be flying out to California for the usual observances, and to help Mom and my brothers and sister sort out things. They don't have internet at the house, and I propably won't have much time ... but then again, I might. In any case, I'll be back around the middle of January.

 * * *


When I was about three and a half, and my brother JP a toddler of two, we lived in a house away back in the hills. My parents had a penchant for howling wilderness, and any property at the end of a couple of miles of dirt road was their dream house, never mind that when it was going to rain heavily, they would have to leave the cars by the mailboxes, about a mile and a half away. The house seemed to me to be as large as a cathedral: it was actually a small cottage, as I discovered when we visited years later, and I could see out of windows that had once been far above my head. It had a graveled drive, and sat in a grove of trees, mostly manzanita and eucalyptus. There was a range of pyracantha bushes, with bright orange berries that Mom told us time and time again to NEVER put in our mouths. (JP, obedient and logical stuffed one up his nose, instead.)


Almost immediately upon moving in, my parents made a very unsettling discovery: the hillside was alive with snakes; primarily rattlesnakes of a dismayingly large and aggressive nature… dismaying because they did not stick to their usual habitat of brush and rocks, but sought out the sunny, sheltered flats around the house… where JP and I were likely to be playing. Rattlesnakes and toddlers are incompatible life forms, and no alternatives were viable. We could not be kept in the house all day, and Dad could not kill every snake on the hillside. He made a gallant try, his favorite weapon being a long handled hoe wielded with pinpoint accuracy and considerable force. Scarce a dent was made in the population, and Dad considered a revolutionary solution: knowledge.


JP and I were immediately enrolled in Dad’s seminar on “Snakes, General knowledge pertaining to, with special attention towards the dangerous varieties” and an ancillary course on first aid for snakebites.

He captured king snakes and the other harmless varieties with a snake hook, showed us the holes and shelters they preferred, let us handle them, lectured us on what they liked to eat. We were drilled on identifying them by their colors and markings, the patterns they made in the dust. For a time, there was a picture of me calmly handling a six-foot long specimen, about twice as long as I was tall.

“They eat rats and mice, “Dad lectured, “They are useful, keeping things in balance.”


Then he upped the ante and captured a rattler, keeping it in a large aquarium with a sturdy lid on the top in his study, so we could study it.

“Look at the diamond markings on the back…. Also it has a neck. In this part of the country the dangerous snakes almost always have a pronounced neck…. Listen to the sound it makes. “Dad tapped the side of the aquarium, and the snake coiled into a taut spring, tail rattling madly. “When you hear that sound, you should hold still until you see where it is coming from…. Then back away, slowly. They strike if they are cornered; given a chance they will go away. Be careful about large flat rocks, snakes like to lie out to get themselves warm. And never, ever put your hands or your feet into a place where you can’t see in.”


Grandpa Al and Granny Dodie were visiting, while Dad was keeping the rattlesnake in the den, and from the living room they could hear the sound of it buzzing distantly.

“What on earth is that sound?” Granny Dodie demanded, and Mom quickly replied.


First aid for snakebites was the final segment of the seminar:

“The bite would look like this, “Dad showed us the picture in the First Aid Book, “You would first need to make a tourniquet, and put it on your arm or leg between your heart and the bite. “
How to make a tourniquet from a belt or shoelaces, how to widen the wound and suck out the venom and blood, being careful not to swallow any of it, Dad drilled us and made us practice: it’s outdated practice now, but we were letter perfect. I honestly think if I ever did have to administer snakebite first aid, I would revert automatically to what Dad taught us so carefully.


It turned out that this knowledge was so powerful, we never actually encountered a snake in the wild, except at the end of Dad’s snake hook. And we grew up with no fear of them, whatsoever. In fact, I think the zoo snake house is really neat, and snakes are way cool. It’s spiders that give me the creeps, but that’s another story.


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teaching, memoir, family

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Ignorance is a dangerous thing. The eastern fox snake has just about been wiped out around here because nitwits think they're rattlesnakes (they look a little alike and shake their tails when agitated). They're actually harmless.

Good on your Dad for making sure you know all about snakes. I don't mind them, either.
In both the sadness and the celebration of your Dad's life---Here's to how well your Dad did the work of being a great Dad.
Cool Dad, knowledge trumps killing nearly every time.
I am so sorry for your loss, but this was a wonderful way to remember your Dad. My late MIL was known to be a mean one with the hoe for Hoosier snakes, mostly black snakes I think. RRR
Condolences to you on the death of your father. He sounds like he was a fine man.
I'm very sorry for you loss.

The sound of snake's rattle still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up but not as much as being chased by a cottonmouth.

A sensitive Dad who took the time to explain things to his kids. Mine was also just such a Dad. One time, when he was showing me how to service his car one Saturday morning, my friends from school hung around at the end of the block on their bikes. I remember spotting them and thinking, "I wish I was hanging out and being cool like them." At school the next Monday one of my friends said to me: "We were all watching you with your Dad on Saturday and we all agreed, 'why can't our fathers be like that and spend time with us, showing us things?'"

I never envied my schoolmates again. Best wishes to you and deepest condolences.
So sorry for your loss. May this time of grieving be full of happy memories of a life well lived.
How about transmogrifying snake-proofing toddlers into vitriol-proofing ourselves?

As with rattlesnakes there's no way to get rid of them: try as we may scarcely a dent can be made in their population. The revolutionary solution seems to be knowledge: how to identify them and what to do when you get hit.
D. H. Lawrence

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
i o And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

Taormina, 1923
Ooops, should have said, how to identify them, how to avoid them, and what to do when you get hit.