Monday, November 10, 2014

Bye Bye Birdies

If you’ve read my little book, Wry Bread, then you already know me to be a man of exceptional courage.  Those exceptions include bears, sharks, wolves, high school principals, feisty aunts, Godzilla and any other real or fictitious creature which may inadvertently (or advertently) bring me harm.  Some throw caution to the wind (and when you think about it, we’ve never been offered another place to throw it) and do things like attend Yankee games, as if they had never heard of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  But it’s not through such recklessness that I’m just one day shy of reaching the ripe old age at which, as I was told by my high school mentors John and Paul, every summer Donna and I can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear) with Vera, Chuck and Dave on her knee.  In high school it didn’t seem preposterous that at sixty-four we could put three grandchildren on one knee.  This snake adventure highlights the caution that has served me so well yea these many years.

It was a warm evening in early summer; the Katydids were chattering and the lightening bugs flashing---wait, maybe they weren’t.  I can’t remember now.  But I remember I happened to look out our large front picture window and see a long black something on our white porch railing.  (Why we call it a picture window, I don’t know, as there’s no picture on it---I just checked to make sure.  All I could find is an ADT™ sticker left by the last occupant.  I suppose I should have removed the sticker sometime in the past ten years, since ADT™ has never received a dime from us to protect our home, but as I didn’t put the sticker on there, I felt no constraint to take it off.  The only person it might mislead is one intending to rob us, or one trying to sell us a home-security system, and I have little sympathy for either of those fellows, who, now that I think of it, may in fact be the same fellow.  The ADT™ sticker really has nothing to do with the story, so why don’t we just move on?  We’re almost at the snake part.  We’d have been there a lot sooner if not for the sticker, but remember, I’m not the one who put it on the window.)  

You’ve probably guessed by now that the long black something on our white porch railing was----a dog leash.  Wrong.  It was a snake.  Don’t you remember when I called this a snake story?  Not only was it a snake, and black, but it was a Black Snake, which makes it doubly black and doubly snake-ish.  He or she was about 3 feet long, and about two inches in diameter, and shall be referred to hence as “it.”  It seemed to have an inordinate interest in the small cylindrical wooden birdhouse hanging from the porch roof support, about two and a half feet above said snake.  You may have already deduced, from the snake’s interest, that the birdhouse was occupied by a family of-----dog leashes.  Wrong again!   It was occupied by a family of birds, including several recently hatched chicks.  

If this were one of Aesop’s Fables, the crafty snake would be stopping by to invite the bird family to his place for a late supper, and the craftier birds would consent, as long as they could bring their friend, Mr. Goose.  The snake would agree, picturing the small birds as appetizers and the goose as the main course.  The birds would arrive with their friend, Mr. Mon Goose, who would promptly eat the snake.  The moral of the story would be, “If you ever invite someone to supper, intending to eat him based on his last name, be sure to also get his first name.”  (Aesop has already used up the best morals.)

But I was pretty sure that the snake v. bird drama on my porch was happening in real life, so I grabbed a broom and knocked the snake off the railing into some bushes in front of the house.  A few hours later, as I made my normal rounds before bed, checking all locks and ADT stickers, I saw the same snake (or an imposter with an uncanny resemblance) back on the railing.  But this time it was what you might call standing, with about half of its body somehow perpendicular to the railing, and its head getting perilously close to the birdhouse.  I pushed it off with even more vehemence, and gave it a severe tongue-lashing.  That should do it, I thought, having the presence of mind to place my thoughts in italics.  By now that snake has learned its lesson.  Our porch is off limits. 
But we awoke the next day with less confidence, half-expecting to find the birdhouse abandoned and in pieces on the porch.  To our relief, we found it still intact, hanging where it belonged.  It was Donna who noticed something wasn’t quite right. 

“Why does the birdhouse look black inside? You don’t think the snake could be in there?”
Oh Brother, I thought.  To understand how ridiculous this was, you would have to know that the interior diameter of this round wooden “house” was only about 4 inches, and the house was just 12 or 14 inches high.

“Honey, there’s no way a 3 foot black snake, maybe two inches in width, could squeeze into that small a birdhouse.  I’m not even sure he could fit his head through the opening.” 

She didn’t get it----it was a simple matter of Geometry----or Physics----or Calculus; I was pretty sure it wasn’t a simple matter of Algebra.
“I don’t know; it doesn’t look right.  You’d better take a look.”

Fine, I thought, I’ll humor her. 
“Why don’t you humor us for a change,” said Pretty Boy. 

How did he get into this potential story? I thought, so flummoxed at that moment that I didn’t have the presence of mind to think in italics.
I went out on the porch for a look, and sure enough, lo and behold, shiver me timbers, who’d have thunk it, inside the birdhouse, tightly coiled, and apparently unable to get out, was----Aesop.   No, it was----a mongoose.   Just kidding, as you might have guessed, it was----the dog leash.  Wait----on closer inspection, it was the snake.  

“I can’t believe it!  How in the world did he get his entire body in there?”  (At that point I hadn’t yet resolved to call him it.)
I had a suspicion that the birds were still, in a sense, in the birdhouse, but that their flying days were over---but enough about them.  My dilemma was----how do I spell dilemma?   No, it was what do I do with the snake?   Donna, who had been (somehow) right about the snake getting into the birdhouse, was of the impression that it might find its way out of the birdhouse, and back onto our front porch.  This was unacceptable to one of us, and that one expected the closest thing to a man around to do something about it.  What I decided to do was place the entire birdhouse into a 30 gallon heavy duty trash bag, and seal it tightly before the snake decided to vacate the house.  My thought was to take it to the woods that adjoin our church, where it could run and jump freely with Bambi, Thumper, Eeyore and all the other forest creatures.  There the snake would learn that birds are our friends, and they are not to be used as food (unless of course they are chickens, in which case they should be fried, baked, broiled or grilled as soon as possible).

But the distance between our porch and church is about ten miles, so I was anticipating a ten-mile drive with a snake.  As anyone who’s driven with a live snake knows, the snake doesn’t actually have to slither out of its container to give you the heebie-jeebies.  Slithering in your imagination is sufficient.  I pictured its head poking through the plastic bag as I drove, recognizing me as the one who pushed him off the porch railing (twice) and taking appropriate snake action.  This would result in my being distracted and wrecking my little red car.  So just to be safe, I put the plastic bag containing the wooden birdhouse and its uninvited guest into an ice chest, closed the lid, and set the ice chest on the front passenger’s seat, where I could keep an eye on it during the nerve-racking twenty-minute drive.  Even then, I could imagine the snake somehow opening the lid.  As far as I knew, this was the Houdini of Black Snakes.  It had already coiled itself like a Slinky™ in the birdhouse.  Why couldn’t it spring out and coil around the freaked-out driver?  
I was about half way to the church when I thought the lid to the ice chest might have moved ever so slightly, but I dismissed the thought as just my imagination playing tricks.  Then out of the corner of my eye I saw it----dark and sinister and moving slowly and relentlessly on my right, giving me a sudden chill; black and shimmering in the morning light, there was no mistaking it now, it was----a hearse.  I was passing a funeral procession.  Oh wait----did you think it was the snake?   You have to get hold of yourself.   I told you, the snake was in the birdhouse, the birdhouse was in a sealed plastic bag, and the bag was in an ice chest.  The snake was evidently content to lie still and digest its late night supper.  When I arrived at our church, one of our college students, Ben Hancock was there, and after I explained the situation, he consented to spearhead the Black Snake Release Committee, and serve as its only member.

Reflecting on the Snake Affair has left me thinking about true courage.  In the final analysis, who is the truly brave man, the one who, when confronted with a snake in a birdhouse, simply unscrews the bottom, yanks the snake out by the tail and tosses it into the woods?   Or is it the man who, having taken extreme measures to ensure the snake will not emerge during the trip, chauffeurs it ten miles away, creeped-out the whole time, and then finds someone else to handle it? ----OK, when you put it like that, the answer is obvious; the brave man is clearly the first guy.  Let’s try this:  Maybe true courage is not the absence of fear, maybe it’s finding someone who’s not afraid and asking him to do what you’re afraid to do.  No, that doesn’t sound right either.
All right, it’s pretty clear----I’m a wimp.  If my parents had wanted me to be tough and reckless, they’d have named me Clint or Buck or Ben.  They obviously wanted me to be safe and even-tempered, living long enough to have 3 grandchildren on my knee.  In all those westerns I watched as a boy, there were no gunslingers, sheriffs or Texas Rangers named Russell.  But there were enough Bucks, Bens and Hancocks to fill a wagon train.  If a Russell made it into a western at all, he was a greenhorn who came from back east, and he high-tailed it home when he saw his first rattlesnake.  

If this brief visit to Wimpville makes you want to read a story about true courage (in order to, as it were, reboot your brain), you might consider I Samuel 17.  David was only a youth, the youngest of eight, when his father sent him to bring some provisions to his three oldest brothers, encamped with the army of Israel in a showdown with the Philistines during the reign of Israel’s first king, Saul. There hadn’t been much action for a while, because one of the Philistines, Goliath of Gath, had challenged the Israeli army to send out someone to fight him.  He said, in effect, “Why all this bloodshed?  Let’s fight it out, man to man.  If one of your men can defeat me, we’ll be your servants.  But if I defeat him, you will serve us.”

That was easy for him to say.  He was a mountain of a man, over nine feet tall.  (Interestingly, if you research the tallest man for whom we have medical evidence, you’ll find the account of Robert Wadlow, born in 1918 in Alton, Illinois, and widely known as "the Alton Giant."  He grew to 8 feet 11 inches and weighed 490 pounds.  Until the time he succumbed to an infection at the age of 22, Mr. Wadlow was still growing.  Presumably, had he lived a few more years, he might have reached the height of Goliath who according to Scripture was about six inches taller.)  Goliath wore bronze armor weighing over a hundred pounds, carried a spear with an iron point weighing about fifteen pounds, and he had his own shield-bearer.  So facing him would be like fighting two and a half men. 

Not surprisingly, after forty days of challenging Israel, he had no takers.  David overheard his challenge, saw it as an affront to the Lord, and offered to face Goliath himself.  The king got wind of David’s offer, and sensing something in David (the Spirit of God, no doubt) that led him to think he just might pull off an upset, he gave him permission to represent Israel.  He offered him armor, but David chose to face Goliath without it.  He took with him only his shepherd’s staff, his sling and 5 smooth stones.  Goliath mocked him as he approached. 
“Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed him with his gods.    And      the Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”  Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin.  But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (I Samuel 17:43-45)

When God’s honor is at stake, believers can (and should) be fearless.  David’s boldness brought him mention in the list of men and women of faith in Hebrews 11, and it remains an example to us some 3000 years after he faced Goliath.  Is there a challenge in your life now that requires a degree of courage, perhaps a difficult conversation with someone that you know you should have but you’ve been putting off?  Let David’s boldness be an encouragement to you.
As you know, David won the day, and when he was done, he still had 4 smooth stones left over.  Some think he brought the extra stones for protection from snakes, of which he had an inordinate fear, but I have it on good authority that David always traveled with his pet mongoose on a leash.  My sources say his name was Aesop.   


  1. Regarding the man referenced above who was known as "the Alton Giant," it's a little known fact that the illustrated book series, "Where’s Wadlow?" was a commercial failure. I suspect it may have been because it was always so obvious where he was.

  2. I was reading this post and saw "Yankees" and had an immediate visceral reaction and vivid flashback to the 1996 Orioles / Yankees debacle which has now become a hissing and byword among all true Baltimoreans:
    I will now enjoy reading your post!