My Father, the Snake Assassin

I’ve been mowing the lawn at my parents' house as my father’s health has, for the moment, taken a turn for the worse. As he is the owner of the much famed and much accursed Smith work ethic, it has obviously been difficult for him to allow me to do the yard work in which he truly prides himself. Of course, it was never too difficult several years ago when I lived under his roof. At that time, yard work served as my daily meal ticket. Not only was I responsible for mowing the lawn once a week, but I also had to weed the garden, water the flowers, and tend to the no less than 80 rose bushes planted around the house. Forget my chores and I would receive the common lecture rating my existence as equal to those of the beloved flowers. “How would you like to sit in the sun without water for a week?” I often considered this as a viable option of getting out of my yard work chores, especially as I sat there, hose in hand, for hours in the blistering Utah summers, like a slightly more depressed Belgian statue.

But, far from being a taskmaster, my father was an instructor who taught me both the value of a well-kept yard and several important life lessons along the way. Landscaping lessons like how to fertilize rose bushes in the spring or the proper way to edge a lawn were combined with the valuable life skills of killing grasshoppers with fingernail polish remover and exploding tomato worms with a well-placed firecracker. There were also times that we threw around a football in the backyard or had batting practice with fallen apples. But the greatest sport, and one of the greatest lessons my father ever taught me, was the fine art of Olympic Snake Throwing.

Otherwise known as “OST”, “Slithery Shot-put”, or “The Beautiful Game”, Olympic Snake Throwing combined the thrill of competition with the thrill of cultish snake handling—something that many other sports would do well to incorporate. The game is played spontaneously upon finding a snake in the yard on any one of the many occasions when we were outside doing yard work. My parents lived behind a field that had a small irrigation canal running right next to their property line. This made for an ideal breeding ground for snakes and our backyard made for the proving ground for young snakes to do battle against the legendary human giants of my father and I.

The first rule of Olympic Snake Throwing is that you don’t talk about Olympic Snake Throwing. The second rule is that you always wear gloves. The object of the game is to hurl the found snakes from our backyard into the field behind our house. Points are awarded based on distance and bounce as well as style and overall technical composition of the program. The reason for the second rule is that the captured snake will take to urinating and defecating on its captor as a last line of defense, which interestingly enough is how I got kicked off of the junior high wrestling team.

In interest of full disclosure, I should point out that these were garter snakes, though I can see how this story would be much more interesting with rattlesnakes or pythons. There was no real danger of becoming a dead fellow with these snakes. Garter snakes are so named because in ancient times they were removed from a new bride’s upper thigh and cast into a crowd of drunken Neanderthals. But a snake is a snake, and snakes are pretty damn scary. Sure, we occasionally felt bad about our sport, especially when PETA drenched our family car in fake snake blood (it was actually just pig’s blood). But we felt that we were doing the world a favor by disposing of these menacing pests. We fancied ourselves the St. Patricks of Magna, Utah; only instead of drowning the snakes in an Irish sea, we hucked them into a rocky field for sport.

"You just pick 'em up and huck 'em." -The Beloved St. Patrick

I had many memorable moments playing Scottie Pippen to my father’s Michael Jordan. It always took me a great deal of courage to pick the snakes up myself, so I first learned how to do it by watching my father’s technique. On my first try, I ran toward the field, screaming like a girl as the snake writhed in my gloved hand, and threw the beast slightly less far than I needed to. It did not clear the chain link fence and was instead impaled on the top wires. After receiving the thumbs down from my frowning mother who peered through the kitchen window, my father took a shovel and flicked the pierced snake off of the fence and then, promptly, ended his misery. Yes, this was a blood sport, but that didn’t mean we were without mercy.

I also had one of my first lessons in sexual education when I threw what I thought to be an extra long garter snake into the field. The entire incident happened in slow motion and I swear that I heard a Verdi opera in the background. The two snakes flipped through the air, their entanglement in the throes of love being so rudely interrupted, until their unholy union was broken and each landed in separate spots of the craggy field. "Dad, what was that?" I inquired. "Ask your mother," came the loving response. The years went by and the snakes were hurled into the fields by the dozens. We knew that if any of them survived the catapult, they would think twice before entering Smith property again. That was, of course, until the snake uprising.

The year of the rebellion, the snakes began entering our house. We would find them in the pantry, under our couches, and hiding behind our toilets. We did not know how, but they came into our house through any hole they could find and they terrorized our family. This, of course, was unprecedented. We had never gone into the field hunting for them, yet they were brash enough to attack us where we lived. I burned through several pairs of gloves and my father blew out his rotator cuff in our efforts to push back the invaders. Wherever we turned, the snakes threw themselves under our lawn mower blades, wound themselves around the aptly named serpentine belts of our car, and conducted air raids by jumping out at us from the trees. Eventually, peace came to the land and we saw fewer snakes in the ensuing years. At first, their absence was welcome. But eventually, we would come to miss the gruesome sport and long for the days of the epic battle between snake and man, and prepubescent boy.

As I mowed my ailing father’s lawn I just happened to run into a very old friend. I nearly stepped on a medium-sized garter snake as it slithered onto the field of battle. Having my bloodlust atrophy somewhat with age, I was prone to let him go and continue to mow the lawn. That was until I turned the corner and saw the serpent eyeing me, daring me on to reignite past tradition. I turned off the engine and the snake took off, hiding in the long, untrimmed grass. I ran to the shed and rummaged through it without finding any gloves. I knew I would have to turn to what my father always called “Plan B”. I grabbed the shovel from the dusty spot it occupied on the side of the shed and bent down low, inspecting the grass blades for any sign of movement. After a few minutes, I tracked it to below the border of the pear tree. After kicking around, it made its way out and then promptly met its end after several blows of my shovel. After standing there like King Leonidas with Spartan sword in hand, I offered the deceased a respectful bow before burying his pieces in the fertile soil of the tree. “It is finished,” I said under my breath with adrenaline still coursing through the veins of my clenched fist. “The battle is mine.”

After finishing my mowing job, I hurried into the house to tell my father about the experience. Even while obviously suffering from his chronic and debilitating illness, and even with my mother berating me for once more killing another of God’s creatures, I could still see the feeling of pride well up in his eyes. Though I may have thought I was suffering under his tutelage when I was younger or dismissed his instruction as unnecessary, it is now clear that my father taught me more than I could have ever asked for. Aside from murdering reptiles, he taught me, by example, how to love and protect your family, how to know and push past your limits, how to give thanks and love to other, non-snake creatures, and how to be a good husband, father, and man. I can only hope to be able to teach my son half of what my wonderful father has taught me over the years, though my own son’s affinity towards snakes might prevent him from enjoying their execution when he is old enough. I will always be indebted to my dad. And even though advanced age and illness might prevent him from competing in future Olympic Snake Throwing competition, there will always be fireworks and tomato worms.

Try and tell me that you don't want to just blow this thing up.

3 comments:

Mary said...

PETA...

pigs blood..

totally laughed out loud

Marsha said...

Cameron,
This is quite a nice tribute to your dad. However, you may have missed the point. The whole idea of hurling snakes over the fence was to let them live another day. Your father is a major pacifist who's motto is "live and let live". I don't think he was ever as into the bloodlust as you apparently were/are!
Just saying . . .

Dimond24 said...

Good post old chap! The funniest line was "...which interestingly enough is how I got kicked off of the junior high wrestling team.".

Your mom's comment is pretty funny too!