The Snake

It was the summer of 1994. My college roommate, Jeff, was working at a nature center, and I dropped by for a visit.

Most of the nature center was comprised of trails through the northern Pennsylvania woods. The whole operation was geared towards education... nature walks, learn about plants and bugs, that sort of thing. I certainly learned a lot that day. I learned a lot about myself.

Towards the back of the nature center, just before the rear exit that lead to the trails, sat a room filled with snakes. Real live snakes. Since the nature center's goal was to teach people about the woods of Northern PA, I'm guessing that these were the kinds of snakes found in the woods nearby. I don't know. All I know is that they were snakes - most of them big.

Jeff came out to greet me before I even reached the nature center. He gave me a quick tour of the grounds, explaining what he did there, and then we proceeded to kill time until the nature center closed at 5 and we could head out for dinner - or a movie. I don't remember.

What I do remember is a kid named Billy.

Billy was a volunteer at the nature center. 'Volunteer' was really a euphemism for 'cheapass parents looking for free daycare'. His mother was due to pick him up soon, but soon couldn't be soon enough because Billy was a pain in the ass. A pain in Jeff's ass mostly, because I was just visiting. Billy would bark insults at Jeff, being rude and generally in the way. But there was something about the kid that piqued my curiosity. Was he really a rotten kid, or was that the only way he knew to get people to notice him?

Jeff kept coming up with things to keep Billy occupied so we could at least carry on a conversation. "Hey Billy, why don't you go clean out the cages."

...and that's how we ended up in the room filled with snakes.

At first, I was shocked to see a kid reaching into the cages, but Billy seemed to know what he was doing, and Jeff was overseei...

"Hey let me show you something!"
"Hey let me show you something!"

...and Jeff was overseeing what Billy was doing. Yes, even in my mind all these years later, I can still pic...

"Hey, c'mere!!!"
"Hey I wanna show you something!"

...I can still picture that kid constantly interrupting us as we talked.

"Hey let me show you something!"

"OK Billy" I said. "What'cha got?"

Billy was hunched over a large cage at the far side of the wall. The cage had wood sides and a glass top. Since his back was facing me, I couldn't see what he was doing or what he was trying to show me, so I leaned in. And that's when it happened.


Before I realized what he was doing, as he grinned from ear to ear, Billy grabbed my arm and a very large snake latched on to it. Well, ok, to be fair, the snake was only large to non-snake holding people such as myself. Even more than the length of the snake, what I notices was its strength.

Jeff angrily scolded Billy, but Billy didn't seem to notice. His eyes were fixed on mine.

Somehow, that told me everything I needed to know. "This was a test" I thought. "If the snake wouldn't hurt Billy then it won't hurt me either." So, I decided to just stand there with it and see how the situation unfolded. Oh, I was definitely spooked, but I wasn't going to let Billy or the snake know that.

Of course, as the snake wrapped around my arm a few times, I realized that was pretty much the only option I had. Panic would have been a bad move. My brain was running a mile a minute, but as I thought it through, amazingly enough, I felt my tension melt away.

The snake's grip was strong, but I realized it wasn't squeezing me. It was just anchoring itself. It's tail end hung downward, and it's head rose high with a bit of a swirl. I watched it pivot like a submarine periscope, as it assessed the situation.

The snake swung around to look at me, as if to say "You cool?"

I gave it the best "Yeah, I'm cool" look I could muster up, and that was it. The snake and I were indeed cool. It loosened up its grip a little, and seemed to enjoy the view from its perch on my arm.

I have to admit, the snake was a beautiful creature. Once I got over my own fear, I really enjoyed holding it. I could feel its strength and see its grace. What looked to be evil turned out to be gentle and trusting. Truly a fascinating paradox.

Billy and I were the best of friends for the rest of the afternoon. His mother was running late, but I didn't mind.

...oh, if only I could conquer all of my fears so easily.

::::: | Sunday, Jul 17 2005 at 11:59 AM
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