Given my interests you’d think that the 1981 release of Raiders of the Lost Ark would have been a red letter day for me, but to be honest I was less than thrilled. Oh, the movie was great but unfortunately one aspect of the film was very disturbing and totally terrifying to me – and there were plenty of “eewww/eeekk” moments in the movie to choose from:
- Giant bowling ball chasing Indy down the mountain? (Yawn!)
- Face-melting-eyeball-rolling ark opening scene? (Eh…)
- The mechanic getting buzz-cut in half by the airplane propeller? (Next!)
- The snake scene?
- The snake scene?
- The snake sceeeaaaAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!
I’ve been caught in a thunderstorm cell while flying on instruments but stayed cool enough to fly my way to safer skies. I’ve had a tie-in fail during a climb and fell about 15 feet before my safety rope caught but still finished the climb. I was threatened with a shotgun while tracting in New Hampshire but kept my composure enough to wish the man a good day and “God bless you”…but just viewing that brief scene with all the snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark was enough to cause me to:
- wet my pants
- scream like a little girl
- run away continuing to scream
Where did this terror come from?
The first incident happened in the early 1960s while visiting my cousin Gary at his home near Grass Valley (CA). His house sat on a gentle hill among several fenced-in pastures dotted with boy-climbable trees. The trees were in turn surrounded by small holes dotting the ground but I thought little of them as we were cobbling together a tree fort that looked more like a nest than a fort. We took great care in stocking the place with “supplies” like scraps of rope, empty feedbags and horseshoes that served us in great stead as our treetop refuge became an airplane or a sailing ship during those long summer afternoons.
It was during one of those sessions (I think were fighting off imaginary Chinese pirates from the Disney movie Swiss Family Robinson) that I noticed a couple of black sticks at the bottom of the tree that hadn’t been there when we first climbed up. Suddenly one of the “sticks” briefly curled into a kind of question mark then slowly inched up to the angled tree trunk.
Looking back they were probably just black or bull snakes but at the time I was sure they were rattlers or cobras. One of them started to slowly slide up the trunk, its tongue flitting in and out as its head turned left and right, all of which convinced that the snakes were coming for us – and not just for a simple bite. I was convinced that Gary and I were the chef’s special on the day’s herpetorian dinner menu but was much too frightened to consider our only possible means of exit – jumping to the ground.
Determined to not go down without a fight, I reached for one of the horseshoes and let fly, only to have the missile impact a good three feet to the side of the snake. The second one I threw was at least aligned properly with the target but it hit the tree just above the snake and also bounced clear of my scaly target. Gary threw our third and last horseshoe which hit one of the serpents just exiting the hole at the base of the tree, but that first snake – which by now had assumed monstrous proportions – was still moving upwards towards us.
By this time I was crying serious tears as Gary was toggling between berating me for cowardice and feeling real concern for my safety. Suddenly he pointed at the brush line along the fence and yelled: “Hey Gus – look!” As I instinctively looked away from the tree I felt a hand shove me firmly out into a much shorter fall than I had anticipated from which I landed and rolled in cloud of dust. I made my own little trail of tears as I ran crying to a safe distance while Gary followed me out of the tree and then quickly dispatched the three snakes with a hoe that had been leaning on an adjacent fence post. From my new perspective I realized that the snake would never have been able to get to us, but the incident had made an indelible impression on me.
The second incident happened not much later at our own home in Little Shasta Valley in northern California. Late one afternoon my sister Robin and I embarked on great journey – a bicycle ride of two or three miles to visit friends from school. The route to their home made a long lazy loop up and along county road to the east then down our friends’ driveway to a cluster of wooden buildings that included their home, barn and storage area. The sun was low in the western sky as my sister and I started to coast down off the ridge and as my eyes began to squint the view of the driveway began to lose detail. For a second thought about walking my bike to the bottom of the hill but primary school chauvinism kept me from choosing the safe option in front of my sister and the other girls from school.
…and so it was that I didn’t see the stick lying across the road until I was on top of it. My first thought was “OH NO – FLAT TIRE!” but that inner monologue was cut short by a curious thumping and a hiss that was much too loud and went on too long to be coming from a bicycle tire. I twisted around and looked down and found to my terror that the stick had in fact been a large snake and when I ran over it had become entangled with the spokes of my rear wheel.
At this point my memory goes uncharacteristically foggy. Somehow I had gotten off my bike before it careened into the ditch running along the side of the road – my internal camcorder picks up again with an adult whacking the snake with hefty chunk of wood. I also don’t remember how got home because I wasn’t about to get back on a bike spattered with snake blood.
That’s when I started playing inside more often – and while I felt understandably sad at leaving my friends when we left for Alaska the next summer I was secretly delighted at the move when I found out there were no snakes in the Last Frontier. As I filled out the balance of my growing-up card learning a new set of outdoor perils ranging from bears to moose to mosquitoes I gradually forgot the sheer terror I had once felt when confronted by anything long, skinny and fanged, venomous or otherwise
My first impression of Southeast Idaho was that it looked very much like Little Shasta Valley. Rexburg and its environs had that same high desert, quasi-volcanic look we had in Northern California. There was that same smell of sage in the air, the same isolated stands of juniper trees and the night air rang with the same “yip-yip-yow” that the coyotes serenaded us with back on the ranch.
Past that observation my attention was focused entirely on course work at Ricks College so it wasn’t until the spring semester when I developed interests in both rappelling and black-powder shooting that I got out and away from town. The rocks and soil in the area had dried out enough to allow safe climbing and I found myself with a group of friends on a ridge ten miles south of town where we’d found both a suitable overhang to set up a rappelling point and an adjacent ravine where I could mark out a firing range. I had just started the long and involved process that is loading a cap-and-ball revolver when I heard a “YIP!” sounding like the aforementioned coyote coming from the group up by the ropes.
One of the girls thought she’d seen a snake. A &#@! snake!
KA-THUB! My heart jumped
Every stick, shadow, crevice and hole became suspect as I walked up to the rappelling point, revolver at the ready. As I reached the others my friend Doug chuckled and said “Relax – it was nothing – maybe a stick or a shadow. Its way too early in the season for snakes to be out – too cool and wet yet”….but as the little knot of people dispersed he whispered to me “Keep an eye out. I saw a rattler on the way up from the car. I just didn’t want to scare the girls”!
As with my earlier ophidian-related experiences I remember little of the balance of that afternoon, other than fact that I emptied my revolver twice at assorted sticks and shadows on the way back to car
There’s an old saying that a freelance artist wakes up unemployed every morning – and if you want to succeed you have to think that way. If I wasn’t actually at the drawing board I was collecting on invoices to present clients or prospecting for new ones and rarely took more than a day off at a time – but with both sons working on their Eagle rank at Scout Camp I felt that Skybox and Upper Deck could wait. I went to camp with my boys and had a great time up until the day I walked up to the environmental science station where Conrad and Sean were working on their merit badges.
Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of paw print castings and the leaf identification board, but when one of the attendants handed me a little yellow corn snake the boys went deathly silent. My sons were well aware of my phobia and expected a harsh response and a dead little corn snake. The other boys took their cue and shut up as well, leaving me in the middle of a ring of silent boys, all with their eyes on me in the center holding the snake.,
Once again I went into TARDIS time where events inside my brain were moving much faster than they were in the outside world; I looked around at the boys; there expressions running from concern to fear to slight amusement. I thought to myself: “OK, there’s a snake draped over your hand and forearm. A &#@! snake. On you. You’ve also got a number of young men watching you like hawks. Young men that are taking their cue in life decisions from watching you.”
A &#@! snake! “Did I mention that you’re on the north side of forty now?”
A &#@! snake! “Do you think that maybe it’s time to give up this irrational phobia?
A ….snake. “You know, he’s kind of cute. The little face. The way he’s wrapped across my forearm – it’s not a smooth curve but rather kind of …well, graphic.”
I will always be grateful to the young man who handed that snake to me. That moment of Zen-like awareness was enough to break the terror that had chained me for years. From that point on I haven’t been quite so terrified of snakes…though to honest I’ll still walk as far around them as possible if I happen upon one in the path ahead.