I grew up in a rural neighborhood that consisted of a row of about twenty houses, isolated in the country, surrounded by farmland on all sides. Across the road from our split-level home ran an irrigation canal that carried precious, life-giving water to the nearby potato and wheat fields. The canal was relatively small compared to some of the larger channels in the area, but was an adequate source of entertainment and adventure for the children growing up on Crowley Road.
We built sketchy forts and swung from rope swings in the ancient Russian olive trees that grew along the steep, grassy banks. We assembled rickety rafts from rotten lumber scraps and old, leaky inner tubes. Most of these hastily constructed vessels would usually disintegrate shortly after an unceremonious launch into the murky currents from which always wafted a faint odor of mildewing vegetation.
After too many failed attempts at navigating the deceiving waters in our crude boats, we eventually resorted to assigning the task to our platoon of G.I. Joe action figures. Courageously, and with nary a complaint, the Joes made these voyages in crafts constructed of pop cans, sticks, and kite string. Incidentally, the action figures usually enjoyed much more successful expeditions than us kids. Although, there were a few casualties that were lost beneath the swift, opaque currents that often churned the same color as the chocolate Nestle Quik that our moms made for us on hot, summer afternoons.
I remember on one such afternoon being down at the waterfall, which was the geographical representation of my mother’s imposed limits upon where I was allowed to range. This was only about five houses away from my mine, so I must have been fairly young still—maybe seven or eight-years-old.
The waterfall was actually just a head gate, where boards could be stacked between two vertical concrete slabs in order to raise the water level upstream. This would result in a waterfall where the water would pour over the top board and rush, foamy and white across another concrete slab, creating a small section of whitewater below. Even the G.I. Joes knew not to float this section of the canal. And knowing is half the battle. (Sorry about that.)
On this particular day, myself and a few friends were hanging out at the waterfall, throwing sticks into the sun-dappled water upstream and watching them take the tumultuous tumble over the falls. I would often imagine that the stick was a small canoe filled with a few unlucky jungle explorers about to meet their demise over a one-thousand-foot cascade.
Our little game was suddenly interrupted when a water snake introduced himself to us by slithering out of the tall grass and into the canal. We watched, mesmerized, as the snake wriggled his body in a sort of whipping corkscrew maneuver to propel himself through the water. He wasn’t very big—probably less than twelve inches long—but at the sight of him, my blood ran as cold as that water flowing by.
I’ve always had an irrational fear of snakes. Even as an adult, just the sight of the smallest snake causes my breath to catch slightly in my throat and my heart to palpitate into a momentary arrhythmia. I blame my best friend’s older sister, Angie, for chasing us around one day with a big blow snake when we were really young—three or four-years-old probably. Pure terror, I tell you.
I don’t remember how long we observed the little reptile swimming there in the white-capped waves, just below the waterfall. Squatting along the bank, I was watching the water snake in such a state of horrified fascination that I didn’t notice the approach of Johnny Roadrash (as he will be known in this story) until he brought his beat up BMX bike to a skidding slide, locking up the rear tire, and spraying us with bits of gravel from the road.
Johnny Roadrash was a few years older than the rest of us, and to say he came from the wrong side of the tracks would be putting it mildly. Sometimes, I think the whole neighborhood was on the wrong side of the tracks, but that’s a story for another day. Johnny’s house was located down at the opposite end of the street, which was in the Forbidden Zone for me. Johnny was an emissary from that mysterious, unseen end of the neighborhood, where the older, sort of bad kids would occasionally emerge, like orcs from the Black Gate of Mordor.
Johnny was the embodiment of rebellion, with his long, shaggy, dirty-blond hair, weathered, sun-chapped face, and capacity for unpredictable outbursts of violence. He smoked, he swore, and he talked back to those in authority. This was a kid that was breaking all the rules and he knew it. He reveled in anarchy. The rest of us feared, and on some deeper level, kind of admired him for it.
I remember one time when Johnny came to our Cub Scout meeting. He showed up with his Cub Scout shirt unbuttoned, the shirt tail flapping behind him like a flag of war as he arrived on his battered bike with the squeaking chain and rusty sprocket. I’m not sure what caused the altercation, but within a short time of his arrival, Johnny punched another kid in the face, dropping him to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Our den mother was furious and evicted him from her yard. I’ll never forget the way he seemed to simply shrug off the enraged screaming of an adult woman, as he sauntered over to his bike, gave a flip of his wild hair, and rode away, like some legendary gunslinger out of a Sergio Leone western, never to return to Cub Scouts again.
I looked up from the swimming snake to see Johnny Roadrash flying from the torn up seat of his bike, allowing the abused contraption to crash in a sprawling clatter to the hot asphalt below. How that bike continued to function was always a mystery to me. I assumed it was just as tough and rebellious as its owner—angry, even. Johnny ran to the bank of the ditch, his bare knees poking through the ragged holes worn through the knees of his faded jeans.
My heart skipped a beat as he picked up a rock, a murderous gleam glinting in his eyes. Was I to be the target of Johnny Roadrash’s legendary rage? To my relief, he didn’t throw the rock at me but directed his aim at the water snake. Barely missing the animal, the rock hit the canal, ejecting a plume of water that sprayed droplets into my face. Another rock followed immediately after, followed by another, and another.
I swear to this day, I have no idea how a kid could find that many rocks and throw them in such furious and rapid succession. It was like a severe hailstorm had suddenly burst out of the perfect, blue sky above. Johnny’s arms whipped the stone projectiles with such rage and reckless abandon, you would have thought that at some point in his childhood water snakes had been responsible for killing his entire family.
Now, I may have an irrational fear of snakes, but I’m also quite the soft-hearted sap when it comes to animals. So I watched with a new-found horror as this poor little snake slithered this way and that, in an attempt to stay clear of Johnny’s vicious barrage of rocks. But the poor guy never stood a chance. Not against the likes of Johnny Roadrash. After churning the water into a literal froth, Johnny finally hefted a huge boulder, roughly the size of a Nerf football, up over his head and hurled it with every ounce of force that all of his ninety-eight or so pounds could muster.
The impact of this larger rock created a huge splash that nearly soaked me and sent a small tidal wave cresting against the bank of the canal. I wiped my eyes, and as the water cleared, I saw that there was no sign of the snake. I assumed the poor creature had simply disintegrated into a million pieces, but secretly held out hope in my heart that it had somehow made it to the bank and escaped into the grass and weeds.
Johnny stood up on the high bank, surveying the scene like some avenging god, arms hanging loose, each hand already loaded with a rock and ready to let fly at the slightest movement in the water. The movement never came; the snake was gone. Johnny sniffed, dropped the rocks, mounted back on his mangled bike—the front tire was still spinning—and pedaled away back to Mordor, from whence he had come.
A movement caught my eye then: a wriggling motion below the surface of the water. At first, I thought it was a strand of algae that had been dislodged from the bottom of the canal by Johnny’s attack. But upon closer inspection, I realized it was the snake. His tail had been pinned by that last big rock, trapping the animal under the water; he was writhing for the surface, just a few inches from his outstretched nose.
An immediate terror took a hold of me that I’ll never forget, rendering me immobile; paralyzing me with fear and indecision. On one hand, I was in empathetic agony as I watched this poor snake struggling to obtain the surface, precious air almost within its reach. On the other hand, my crippling fear of snakes was preventing me from reaching down into the water to remove the rock that was pinning his tail.
I so desperately wanted to help the snake. A couple of times I dipped my fingers into the water, intending to help him, but just couldn’t quite go through with it. In my frenzied mind I imagined myself removing the rock, only for the snake to quickly latch itself onto my hand and then go slithering and twisting up my arm. It was more than I could bear.
So I squatted there on the bank of the canal, watching in my paralysis, as the snake writhed, jerked, tugged, and struggled. Most people would agree that reptiles are incapable of expressing emotions, but I saw the fear and hopelessness in those small, oil drop eyes that afternoon, as the snake finally opened its mouth in a silent scream and exhaled the last of its air. The air bubbles roiled upwards, breaking upon the surface of the water. The little snake struggled for a few more seconds and then went limp. His lifeless body soon joined in with the long, hair-like strands of green algae that grew along the bottom of the canal, swaying gently in the smooth flow of the current.
I don’t remember anything else about that day. I suppose I left the canal, after a while, and went about occupying my time with whatever it is little boys do on hot, summer afternoons. But thoughts of the snake and its senseless demise did haunt me throughout my childhood, and continue to plague me to this day. As the years have passed, I have taken this experience and twisted a meaning out of it, I suppose. I look back on it now as a time in my life when I knew what the right thing to do was, but allowed fear to hold me back from acting. For the rest of my life, I’ve suffered the emotional consequences of this failure to act.
At a young age—too young, I think—I learned how deeply an internal conflict like this can twist itself up and burrow into your psyche. Everyone goes through life and has experiences like this; I’m in no way unique. But, I believe it’s these human experiences that give writers that insightful glimpse into the human spirit, which allows them to flesh out and weave interesting and believable characters into their stories. For that reason, I’m thankful to have been gifted the type of mind that latches onto these moments and stores them away, while looking for hidden meanings and interpretations. Even if it means I have to go through life with a bit more sensitivity to death, tragedy, and the cruelties of our human existence.
I’ve always wondered if watching that snake drown at a young age influenced my later decision to become a lifeguard. Is it possible that the numerous times I’ve snagged a drowning toddler or plucked a panicked kid out of troubled waters, have made up for my lack of action on that day? I’m not sure I believe in karma, but I’d like to hope that if such a thing exists, then perhaps I’ve managed to balance the scales somewhat in this regard.
Even now, I can’t stand to watch a creature suffer death by drowning. I will go to great lengths to rescue ladybugs, earwigs, hornets—even spiders—from perishing in our backyard swimming pool. My kids probably think I’m sort of nuts. I say, I’m just trying to make up for an opportunity lost, many years ago.
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