So, I asked the kids, what was he going to do with those snakes?
Not that I expected them to know or care much. They've been afraid of snakes ever since, during a vacation at Hilton Head, S.C., the oldest one found a little snake in the swimming pool and another one on the path leading to the beach. She leapt from the pool, hopped on top of a bench, and boycotted the beach.
But now that we expect this young man, Louis Morton, 16, to recover from the near-fatal bite of a Gaboon viper--thanks to feverish and heroic efforts of doctors, police, a bus driver and zoo personnel here and elsewhere--one has to ask, as I asked the kids, what was he going to do with those snakes? I mean, what if you or I had been a passenger on the bus where the big, patterned vipers lay coiled, only temporarily inert, in that brown plastic garbage bag? What if they had decided to take a crawl?
But the real issue is the strangeness, in this urban environment where you find reptiles only in collections, pet shops and zoos, of a kid who is drawn to and fascinated by snakes. Is he isolated in his fancy for this species?
Pondering the mystique he must have sensed from serpents sent me to the research files of the newspaper to take uncomfortable note of a few facts about snakes.
First, there are a considerable number of people from great and not so great cultures around the world for whom cobras, boa constrictors, rattlesnakes, black mambas and other reptiles--some deadly, some not--have an utter fascination, and who have a very special affinity for snakes.
In Hartbeespoort, South Africa, the Hartbeespoort Snake Pit is a cage writhing with some of the deadliest snakes known to man. On a bed placed inside the 8-by-l0-foot glass-walled snake cage, young men lay their lives on the line trying to break the world's record for continuous sitting with highly poisonous snakes who undulate under the bedsheets and shove themselves into their ears and noses.
A New Yorker named Charlie Miller, a graduate of Yale, has relocated in the West African country of Liberia, where at last count he had 24 deadly poisonous snakes and has had more than 30 poisonous snake bites--five of them nearly fatal. He keeps a front yard pen of l0 crocodiles.
People who have affinity for snakes seem to have strange reverberations. Some families in India keep deadly cobras as pets. In Liberia and other African societies, traditional snake societies exist whose members supposedly have occult powers.
Then there are the religious cultists--in America mostly in the South--for whom snake-handling is an integral part of their Protestant fundamentalism. There, copperheads and rattlesnakes are the centerpiece of religious and social existence.
Hebrew and ancient Middle Eastern tradition hold that snakes are God's early, botched attempt to create intelligence. And there is the famous passage in Genesis when, after the fall of Adam and Eve, God says to the serpent, " . . . I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between thy seed and her seed; it shalt bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise his heel."
But most people in the world are just like me--they have scant fascination for scaly, creepy, crawly creatures. One little town in Oklahoma even made it official: Poisonous snakes were not welcome within the city limits.
Slithering away from the library, I was stuck with the uncomfortable conviction that there is something special about snakes and presumably about many people who are lured to them.
Testimony to being ordinary: I covered my eyes during the snake scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
As much as I beseech myself to act like a sane adult on this subject, I concede failure.
So while I hope young Morton is somehow able to turn his interest in snakes to positive ends, I am happy that this town hasn't had to face a similar problem before. For nonsnake-lovers who are forced to think about Gaboon vipers and their ilk, such thoughts are unsettling. They tend to dart up, strike out and whip away before we know what hit us.