The Last Half Century

Grabbing Fear by the Tail

It’s pretty simple. I don’t like snakes. Some people have a fear of heights. I have a fear of snakes. I’m not exactly sure where this fear originated because I grew up in a colder climate where small garter snakes were the only ones I saw on our farm. I have a hunch it started when my dad bought some property in southern Tennessee.

My dad was a Navy veteran and he loved boating. The land he bought was on a river and he had this idea he would open a marina when he retired. I think I was 13 years old when my dad first took me to visit the property. “Watch for snakes,” my dad told me as we walked through tall grass near the river. “They have rattlers down here,” he added. My eyes instantly grew big as I recalled a picture I saw in the local paper with someone holding a large, eight-foot snake they caught in their garage. “That was no garter snake,” I told myself. My senses were on high alert.

The next day we visited the neighbors who had a house next to my dad’s land. I vividly recall sitting in their living room sipping ice tea as this older man in his 60s began to tell us tales of all his snake encounters. “I shot a big old copper head back in the barn there,” he said between sips of tea as he nodded his head toward the barn behind his house. “It was at least six feet long.” I wondered if the snake grew longer with each telling of the story. That trip made an impression on me.

Fortunately I married a nature lover who is not scared of snakes or most any critter. She rescued me many times after hearing my screams when I uncovered a snake in my garden or in the yard. “It’s just a garter snake,” she would politely smile and reassure me as she picked it up. “Yeah, but it’s still a snake,” I would remind her. Picking up a snake may have seemed like no big deal to her, but to me it’s a pretty heroic act. Pretty gutsy.

Just writing about my fear of snakes is making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It brings back memories of other snake encounters in the last half century of my life — like the large coiled one I almost stepped on when I was helping portage a canoe over a pile of rocks. Okay, that’s enough of that memory.

More recently I have been working on overcoming my fear of snakes. Last time I visited a zoo I actually walked inside the reptile house. I went up to the glass and forced myself to look at a big snake coiled up under a heat lamp. I looked it straight in the eyes and told myself, “You don’t scare me.” I’m not quite at the point where I would actually pick up a snake by the tail — I’m not sure I’ll ever get there — but I’m making progress. Sometimes you just need to face your fears head on and go from there.