My father acted in ways that defined himself as a father while still being a full-fledged parent. He didn’t act as an extension of my mother. At times, we certainly wished he did, but he didn’t.
Here’s one major bit of evidence.
Dad came home from jogging one day, carrying a two-foot-long blacksnake. He wanted to show us what it looked like, allowing us to hold it, look at it and otherwise keep it from biting us.
Bottom line, Dad didn’t mind introducing us to danger. By danger, I don’t mean anything that could kill us or maim us permanently. I’d call that mortal danger, which is much different from plain, run-of-the-mill danger. Mortal danger involves safety ropes, parachutes, oxygen tanks, and rabid dogs, cut brake lines and ticked-off grandmothers. These scenes of mortal danger are not the issues that my Dad took on for lessons. My Dad, to put it bluntly, has an equal fear of heights and angry octogenarians. Thus, he only taught us about the danger around us.
Run-of-the-mill danger represents the normal, every-day things that a boy might encounter. In our world, a black snake was a normal “danger.” Where we lived, snakes were common and snakes needed to be encountered. And Dad brought it to us. Taught us how to hold it. Not poisonous. Not deadly.
And that was the message. “Go ahead, take it. It’s NOT POISONOUS.” Dad’s reason for bringing us a live, two-foot black snake was simple: he wanted to show us danger in a father-controlled way. He showed us to see what black snakes looked like, to hold them safely, and to admire the power and beauty of such an animal. He wanted to ensure that we would be able to recognize real danger in the woods where we played and in the backyard where we spent most of our time. “This black snake won’t hurt you in a serious way.” Dad’s lessons were real for our lives as young boys who loved the outdoors. The snake was a moving, writhing lesson in a controlled environment.
Unfortunately, the environment changed. For some reason Dad had to leave to go to work, and Mom hadn’t gotten back from her job, so it was my older brother’s task to “hold down the fort” until Mom got back. By the way, if you want to have a snake in the house, and you want your fourteen-year-old boy to “hold down the fort” until Mom gets back, then tell them what to do when—not if—someone gets bitten by the snake. Namely, tell the boys to keep their traps shut.
Dad must have been confident in his snake safety lesson, because as he was leaving, Dad said, “Just throw that snake outside when you’re done with him.” With that, he skipped out of the house, confident that we had learned the valuable lesson of snake handling. Unfortunately for Dad, young boys don’t usually hold to “safety” lessons for long after the safety person leaves.
Needless to say, I began doing something stupid with the snake—I honestly don’t remember what—and the snake didn’t take too kindly to such treatment.
Now most of the time, black snakes are not very aggressive. They avoid contact with animals larger than mice and other vermin they eat. Black snakes often squirm off to safety whenever humans come around and they usually don’t mind being handled, but only when the handler has respect for the snake.
I didn’t have respect for the snake.
Thus, the snake craned its body around to my hand and sunk its fangs in my young flesh. A surreal pause in my life occurred there, with the snake buried in my hand, and I…..began…..to….run.
I sprinted outside, disconnected the snake from my hand, and threw it in the open field beside our house.
I ran back into the house and yelled with triumph, “I got bit by the snake! I got bit by the snake!” My brothers crowded around me with jealousy. The two small puncture wounds had begun to bleed and the real envy flowed. They wanted a snakebite too.
By the time the envy had subsided, however, we really hadn’t had the lesson on “what to do when you get bitten by a snake.” So my older brother had the great idea to call Mom to ask her what we should do.
I shall now explain a phenomenon that most people experience, but do not often see explained. This phenomenon occurs when two dissimilar groups attempt communication: Male to female, Parent to child, Voter to Politician. One group may communicate a message, but that doesn’t mean the other group hears the same message.
Thus, the problem with my older brother’s phone call revealed an early lesson in communication. This is what my brother said, “Dad left a snake here for us to play with and it bit Matt. What should we do?”
This is what my mother heard: “Dad brought home an ultra-poisonous black mamba snake and it swallowed Matt. We can see him through the snake’s body. Oh look! Matt’s waving to us through the snake’s skin. Isn’t that neat that Matt can be swallowed whole like that by a snake that Dad himself brought home? Does this mean we’ll have better vacations now that Matt is no longer taking up all that money with his clothing and food requirements? What should we do?”
Mom was nonplussed. As she began questioning my brother, he began forgetting a few details, like, what kind of snake was actually in the house in the first place. Not good. Not good at all.
Mom quickly got off the phone with Joe and called Dad. After a number of intense conversations, Mom and Dad came to an understanding. You might think that Mom demanded that no more serpents be invited into the home. You’d be wrong. You might think that Mom demanded that we, as boys, never be allowed to encounter wild animals picked up on the side of the road. Wrong again. You might even think that Mom would require Dad to temper his “danger training” to us boys. You’ve just struck out.
No, Mom knew that Dad’s training was important, not only because it allowed us to recognize dangerous situations, but also because it taught us how to handle them when they went wrong. Sure, I was bitten by a non-poisonous snake. But we didn’t hide it. We didn’t even try to lie about it. Joe said it the way it happened. “Dad brought a snake home for us to play with.” That’s what happened.
Mom knew that, while bringing a snake home is unusual for many parents, it allowed us to know more about our surroundings. After he brought that snake home, we could recognize a black snake (nonpoisonous), but we could also recognize other snakes (poisonous) that we may have encountered. We went away knowing what could hurt us and what could not hurt us.
Mom simply wanted to notified. That’s it. If Dad was going to bring something home—and he often did—she wanted to know about it. She even wanted to be in on the experience.
Happily, the result of the calls and intense conversations did not include what many television shows or movies include. At the end, Dad wasn’t an idiot. Heck, he wasn’t even wrong. Mom saw to it that we didn’t consider our Dad an imbecile simply because he viewed parenting differently than she viewed it.