I recently unearthed a short story I started writing many years ago when I was in college at the University of Miami. I grew up in South Miami along with four brothers and two sisters. There were ten of us altogether, including my Mother and Father and my Grandmother on my Mother’s side. I was number six of seven children.
My parents both worked so my brothers and I had plenty of free time after school.
One of our favorite things was to catch snakes in the abandoned tomato fields near our house. We made an arrangement with Dr. Haast of the Miami Serpentarium. He would give us a dime for each non-poisonous snake we brought in. So we spent our afternoons catching snakes and almost every Saturday morning we would take them out of the cages we had made for them in our backyard, put them in an old pillowcase and take them to Dr. Haast. Many times, we had ten or twenty snakes in our sack.
My poor mother was terrified of snakes and I know she worried that we would get hurt or bitten by a poisonous snake when we were out in the fields, but she allowed us to set up our snake cages in the backyard and drove us, snakes in a bag in the back seat to collect our bounty. She was in cahoots with us, part of the gang.
I’ve often wondered why she would let us pursue such a dangerous venture. I think it’s because she loved us so much. She was willing to set aside her fears because she knew how much we enjoyed it. She went to work every day and I know she would much rather have stayed at home and spent time with her kids. Looking back on it now, I realize my mother trusted us. I think this trust made us feel responsible as kids and helped us grow up to be responsible adults.
My brother Pete was by far the best snake catcher. He was fast as lightning and fearless. For every snake I would catch Pete would catch ten, but when we split up the money on Saturday Pete made sure we split it evenly. Pete was just a year and four months older than me. Many people thought we were twins.
As we grew older our interests changed. There were sports and girls in high school. As it turns out Pete was as fast as lightning. He held the state record for the 220-yard dash for a while. I could never come close to Pete’s speed, but I could run for a long time.
Later in college, I would take up long-distance running, something I have enjoyed my entire adult life. Isn’t it funny how two children in the same family so close together can be so different?
While we were in college Pete married. He and his wife lived on Quail Roost Drive near where we grew up. A very winding and up and down the road so much so that even if you drove slow it felt like you were on a roller coaster. By the time you got to the main road, your stomach felt as if it was in your throat. When we were young my brothers and I would be in the car with my mother driving down that road singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” one of her favorite songs. Now that I look back on it, Quail Roost Drive was my favorite road as a child growing up.
One summer afternoon there was a ruckus in Pete’s front yard. Cars had stopped on the side of the road and people from these cars and some of his neighbors were throwing rocks at something. It was a twelve-foot Python. Pete got them to stop throwing rocks and, of course, caught the Python. The police came and took the snake to the Miami Serpentarium. The next day Pete got a call from Dr. Haast. Would they like to come and see their snake and be their guest for the day? The answer was yes, of course!
Pete called and asked if I would like to join them. So the three of us went to spend Sunday afternoon at the Serpentarium. It would be like the good ole days.
We went to look at Pete’s snake first. It was in a large cage that had a glass front. There was another Python in the cage about the same size. For a while, we had trouble figuring out which Python was Pete’s, but eventually, we did, to our satisfaction anyway. It was a very large snake.
We walked around the Serpentarium for a while. The sun shone brightly and it was so hot the air was hazy. We spent some time watching young alligators in their pit chasing turtles in the water. This one gator would try to bite the turtles but every time he did the slippery thing would squirt out of his mouth, just like someone spitting watermelon seeds. Though the alligator didn’t tire of this we finally did.
We went to the pit that held the really large alligators and crocodiles. Years before we had brought Dr. Haast a speckled caiman we caught while fishing off Old Cutler Road. We wondered if he was in the pit, but that’s a different story.
Dr. Haast was getting ready to “milk” some poisonous snakes. Risking his life once again for the research he does and for the anti-venom that has saved so many lives around the world. We were going to watch but decided we had seen enough. Much of the magic of our childhood snake-catching days was gone.
I guess I liked tramping through the fields so much as a boy I decided to become a biologist, an ecologist actually. Pete became a psychologist. He worked with troubled children. He was always giving so much of himself to bring happiness to others, just as my mother did. Pete died very young. He left behind a wife and three young children.
I think about Pete often and how life is sometimes like a serpentine journey. A little bit like my favorite road it sometimes leaves you with your heart in your throat.
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