The Observer's boss, Uncle Alan, is something of a gentleman farmer on his spread up in Cabot, growing heirloom tomatoes and watermelons and crops of chiggers on property that looks like the perfect farmstead Lenny and George often fantasized about in "Of Mice and Men."
Alan doesn't have rabbits (not tame ones, anyway) but he does have chickens. The other day, he sent around a photo of what he found in one of the nests after heading out in the dusk with a basket to collect eggs: a large, black-blue snake, elegantly coiled there in the straw. After over two decades off the farm, the sight of that critter was enough to make The Observer recall some of our own snake lore.
The Observer's father was an accidental naturalist, having learned to love and preserve the land in the oldest of old-fashioned ways: by being forced to survive there from time to time. Let's just say Pa didn't have a picturesque childhood and leave it at that. He grew into a man more at home with turtles and trees and streams than he ever was with people.
The Observer remembers, us about 6 or 7, Pa having rescued a beautiful and very pissed off speckled king snake from the brush pile he was about to burn, subduing it with a gentle toe and then a thumb and finger behind its head. The beast coiled about his arm, tail flicking, glistening skin like a damp night full of stars. When we asked if he'd kill it, he said, "No, this kills the poisonous ones." He later let it go in the scrap iron pile behind his shed, where it would periodically scare the hell out of The Boy Observer until we saw that speckled hide and thought: friend.
The next one requires us to fast forward to 15. We'd just bought our first car, at a yard sale: a 1963 Chevy II two-door post, maybe the worst engineered car GM ever made. Paid $200 for it. The story went that the car had belonged since new to the grandmother of the owner of Bale Chevrolet. The guy running the yard sale had bought it for his teenage daughter, who, it turned out, didn't want to be seen in an automobile that was once powder blue but had since caught a nasty case of psoriasis. So it became ours, and The Observer loved that car until its dying day, barrel-rolled into a stand of oak trees.
Our brother drove it home, babying along the slipping clutch. Once we got there, The Observer discovered the hood hinges were frozen up, allowing the hood to only open up six or seven inches. So we shimmied in through the gap with a box-end wrench, intent on removing the four bolts holding on the hood. It was only after we got the first bolt out that we noticed, there in the claustrophobic gloom, that a hose, not six inches from our arm, had scales on it. Closer inspection found that it was softly breathing.
Did we actually wet our pants a bit in the 10 scrambling seconds that followed? We'll never tell. But we do know that eventually, our $200 car birthed a live, 6-foot chicken snake that had made the incredible journey home astride the straight six in our new ride.
Now, the last: The Observer was in college but still living at home. Ma and Pa's big farmhouse out in the boonies of Saline County was un-air conditioned, the natural world kept out between May and September by screens and screen doors.
We were alone there one summer day when, heading up the narrow wooden staircase, we encountered a visitor on his way down: a fat and lovely copperhead, draped from stair to stair. We actually continued on up a few more steps, close enough that it rared back to strike, before our brain finally sent a message to our feet, apparently by Pony Express, that said: Yes, this is actually happening. We don't know how we got down the stairs, but it probably involved a ninja roll.
That night, the snake dispatched and flung into the ditch, we laid awake and thought of the what-ifs: a hand, dangling from the bed in our sleep; feet jutting over the edge of the mattress; the blankets about us, so dark and inviting. How we ever slept again in that house without the benefit of a chain mail suit and human-sized hamster ball, we'll never know.
In retrospect, it's a good thing we had all these experiences as Young Us. We honestly don't know if the ticker inside of Old Us could take the strain.