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  • August 14th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Indiana Jones summed it up so succinctly when he said “ why does it always have to be about snakes?” after he was dropped into a pit containing a couple thousand snakes, including a cobra with a bad attitude. Indy was harking back to a traumatic incident in his past which left him with an overwhelming fear of snakes.


Depending on your point of view snakes have been creating problematic situations for a long time. There was that pesky serpent who whispered provocative suggestions to Adam and Eve about what they could do with their spare time which, if you believe that led to sinful behavior, means either that sex or eating apples is bad for your health. On the other hand, without sex none of us would be here, and without eating apples every day, we wouldn’t be keeping the doctor away.


The fictional Indiana Jones actually was a contemporary of my mother (both of them, the fictional character, and the real one, my Mom, without whom I wouldn’t be here), were born and thrived about the same era the early part of the 20th century). Mom shared with Indy such a powerful snake aversion that she could not look at photos of snakes in books without shuddering and breaking out in a cold sweat. Where Indy managed to overcome his fear long enough to escape and indulge in other hair-raising adventures, my mother never conquered her fear of snakes and perhaps that is where I acquired my less overpowering aversion to elongated reptiles.


It’s not that I share the feeling that all too many people have that the only good snake is a dead snake. I recognize that they are citizens of the natural world, equal with me in their right to be there. Many snakes provide useful services including providing jobs for herpetologists. I like to think that snakes and I have a mutual understanding. I will leave them alone if they leave me alone. I welcome our mutual wish to eliminate noxious rodents and I share with every little kid on earth a fascination with snakes, especially if they are confined behind sturdy glass or remain out of sight, out of mind.( The snakes, not the kids.)


When I am exploring the wilds, I never think about the possibility of an encounter with a reptile, especially a venomous one, but it’s like the old saying that you can’t not think about elephants if someone tells you not to think about them. Either someone says, “watch out for snakes around here,” or I glimpse one and from then on my path through the wilds somewhat resembles the male half of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I have been known to leap tall buildings with a single bound.


I recall a dark and not stormy night on the Current River when a friend and I were returning after dark to our vehicle when he said “they say cottonmouth moccasins smell like watermelon.” Immediately my imagination kicked in and everything smelled like watermelon. The darkness was filled with the overpowering scent of watermelon like that at a Fourth of July church picnic. We were about 100 yards from the vehicle and it is entirely possible that I traversed the entire stretch of river without my feet ever once touching ground.


I also recall another possibly erroneous folk legend that moccasins tend to roost in trees overlooking the river, like birds, waiting only for an unwary canoeist to drift beneath the tree, whereupon they drop into the canoe and create the kind of havoc that only an imagination as fevered as mine can create.


Although I have paddled hundreds of miles on many rivers, I can only recall one time that I think I saw a snake in a tree above the river. I immediately recalled a story my father once told me about a time he was fishing in Wisconsin and saw a swimming snake and injudiciously cast over it and hooked the aquatic reptile which immediately began following the line back to its origin—the Pflueger Supreme reel in my father’s hand. Had it been me, I suspect I would’ve set a new record for how far you can throw a Pflueger Supreme reel, but with presence of mind, he cut the line. There are no water moccasins in Wisconsin, so the snake was undoubtedly nonvenomous, but who wants to take a chance with it being the first venomous immigrant from a Southern swamp? The snake I think I saw on the river, if it was there at all, may have been a harmless one, but I paddled at the extreme opposite edge of the river.


In fact there is one snake that I actually do think about periodically, like wondering whatever happened to an old friend. It is a small green snake that I found one day lolling in the sun above the door to our basement. For some reason, instead of looking for a 20 foot long stick with which to encourage the snake to go sunbathe somewhere else, I opened the door to go inside and the snake took that as an invitation to come live with me. It slithered into the basement and vanished into the clutter of my office which is, I confess, so cluttered that there may actually be people lost in there, as well as uninvited reptiles.


The snake may have died of old age by now or found some way to get out of the house (mice seem to have no trouble finding a way in when the weather turns cold) I can only hope that some of the invasive rodents have encountered the green snake which, while not noted as a rodent predator, Is welcome to munch on as many rodents as it wishes.


Then there is the black rat snake that took up residence in our sauna. Apparently this was a reptile that enjoyed social occasions. I built a sauna a number of years ago and it only took me a decade of occasionally cutting a cedar log fitting it into an approximation of a log cabin, installing cedar benches, siding and ceiling (you might infer here that I have a liking for cedar, especially if you see the sign at the entrance to our driveway “Cedar Glade” and the sign at the top of the hill for the blacktop which reads “Cedar Grove”). I cut a hole, installed a stovepipe and all it lacked was a stove with which to heat my sauna.


After another few years of searching junk-associated establishments, I spied a likely candidate at a yard sale in the Ozarks, negotiated a cheap price and came home bearing a cast-iron stove. All that remained was to fire it up, heated to many degrees, and park my puny rear on one of the benches and soak in the heat. The purpose of a sauna is therapeutic. The idea is to bake the body in hea After an extended bout of self-inflicted torture, one bolts for, in our case, the nearest body of cold water which is our pond some 15 or 20 feet from the sauna, plunge in, and rise from the depths, steaming and snorting like a grampus—or,in my case, a grampaw. That normally would send a sane person pell-mell toward the nearest air-conditioned ice cream parlor.


I enjoyed whatever therapeutic benefits there are in taking sauna and even enlisted the kids one time when there was several inches of snow on the ground. The idea was, after having absorbed great amounts of heat, we would roll in the snow and presumably live to be 100 or more. Instead of thanking their father for seeing to their health, in unison they cried “child abuse!” And, after threatening to report me to the nearest authorities, they fled to the house.


I even have witnesses as to how healthy the sauna made me. Once, emerging from a session in the heat, wearing only a grin, I heard a voice from above which at first I thought was God complementing me on self torture, kind of like a religious fanatic beating himself with whips.  The voice said, “looking good down there!” But when I looked toward Heaven, I saw only a hot air balloon full of gawking spectators perhaps 50 feet high, drifting over the pond. While mutual nudity is common in Scandinavian countries while taking sauna, the Vances have opted for swimming suits when entertaining company.


Aside from attracting folks who indulge in the equivalent of being lashed by a cat o’ nine tails, an unheated sauna often seems like an ideal home for members of the mouse family.  At the time we did not have a resident acquiring and installing a house cat and therefore lacked the requisite predator to restore nature’s balance in my sauna.  I considered loading the place with mousetraps, but knowing myself, I figured my toes would be the first victims . Acquiring and installing a family cat might have worked except that I once inadvertently shut the sauna door on the family dog and by the time I realized what I’d done and freed him, he was dehydrated and, not for the first time, gave me a look that made me happy it was me that carried the shotgun on our outings, and not him.


The solution to the mouse problem was apparent one night when I was luxuriating in the sauna heat and a six foot long black snake dropped out of the ceiling on the floor beside me. Never mind traps and cats, if you want rid yourself of a mouse problem, import a six foot long black snake. Mice are T-bone steaks to black snakes. I was more than happy to have the snake gorge on mice when I wasn’t in the sauna, but was more than a little uncomfortable sharing sauna time with the reptile. Apparently, he was not a snake of Scandinavian heritage, heat loving and brought up in the sauna tradition, because when I screamed and kicked the door open he quickly slithered out and vanished. That is a fact, established by empirical data, worth noting, because the chances are I will wind up in the eternal sauna of afterlife. While I may have to contend with little red demons with pitchforks, I’m pretty sure I won’t be dealing with snakes.


I figured that either the snake would abandon the sauna forever or, when I began to preheat it, would quietly exit without disturbing me. So, one night we invited two friends to share dinner and a sauna with us. I did take the precaution of telling our guests that we might encounter a snake, but not to worry about it because it would flee the heat of the sauna without an Indiana Jones moment.


We were luxuriating in the gathering heat of the sauna which was reaching the optimum temperature when we would exit for a dip in the pond when my reptilian resident dropped from the ceiling onto the shoulder of the male half of our dinner companions, draping around his neck like a scarf. Had that been me at that moment I would have created an instant alternative exit by ripping out a two foot by four foot section of cedar logs, averaging five inches in diameter. Instead, my guest gently disengaged the writhing black snake, stepped to the door pushed it open and set the snake outside, closed the door and sat back down. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out.


In the good old days of black and white television, the Conservation Department’s weekly show on KOMU TV, was broadcast live, no delay tape or chance for correcting mishaps. I used to sub for Woody Bledsoe, the regular host, when he was on National Guard duty and I can only be eternally grateful that I was not the host when what happened to him happened. For some reason he had a live rattlesnake as a prop on a show about reptiles and, in the middle of it, he dropped the snake on the floor of the studio. Whereupon his cameraman, abandoned not only the camera, but the entire studio. The camera was on a movable tripod so it could be adjusted. Without human guidance, the camera slowly began to sink toward the floor. Woody gamely followed the lens downward, contorting to keep himself in the picture. Before the producer was able to cut to an announcement, Woody’s nose was virtually on the floor. And then he had to corral the snake and secure it before they came back live on the air.


Another Conservation Department employee, a conservation agent, was a herp enthusiast from childhood. He often use snakes in presentations including rattlesnakes. During one presentation he was bitten by rattler, hastily wound up the presentation stopped at a nearby filling station for a bag of ice, kept the bite iced down, and had an no repercussions—apparently the snake had not injected venom.


But he was not so lucky when he was in the armed forces, stationed in California where he pursued snakes in his spare time. Reaching onto a rocky ledge, he was bitten several times by a rattlesnake, managed to get back to his vehicle and drove to his base, increasingly closer to death from the venom. He was flown to a naval hyperbaric facility in the ocean where he spent several days in a decompression chamber, a by-guess-and- by-God attempt to save his life—at the time it was only the second time it had ever been tried. It worked. He later became an undercover policeman, dealing with drug cases, involving society’s most violent criminals. Talk about courting danger!


Another friend, retired Conservation Department education consultant Rodney Greene, participated in the ultimate snake story one which, when I reported it, made him nationally famous. Rodney is a renowned teller of stories, many verging into the category of “tall” and he has been known to take the basic facts of an incident and gently amplify them to create a more entertaining storyline. But I believe implicitly that this happened exactly as Rod recounted it and as I reported it.


Rod was giving a natural history program to a large group of Girl Scouts and their mothers. He had brought along as a prop a bag full of nonvenomous snakes with which he intended to introduce the adolescent ladies to the world of reptiles.


First out of the bag was a bull snake which Rod had handled many times but this time snake perhaps having slithered out of bed on the wrong side, chose that moment to bury its fangs in Rod’s hand. Thinking to make this a teaching moment, Rod said, with blood streaming down his arm, “notice that the snake’s fangs are recurved, making it difficult to remove them. Would someone hand me a spoon so I can pry the god, er’ gosh darn thing loose?”


Gamely continuing on with his presentation Rod next delved into the bag and withdrew, shades of my sauna snake, a black snake of 2 or 3 feet in length. Like the bull snake, it had been handled many times and supposedly was docile. A moment later as Rod passed the snake across his body, it reached out and fastened on his crotch. Surprise, Rod let go of the snake dangled from him, swaying back and forth.


The little Girl Scouts in unison burst into howls of laughter while their embarrassed mothers dithered and shushed in the background. I wrote the story as a “light bright” item in the Conservation Department’s weekly news release package. Shortly, it appeared nationwide, including in the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated. “I heard from people I hadn’t heard from since high school,” Rod said.


During my 21 years working for the Conservation Department, I gave many programs, but I can say, with no regrets whatsoever, that none of them ever involved snakes. Thanks Mom and Indie.











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