And if you get a chance to read this, leave my Dad some love. It's working because he wrote another story for my blog!!!
Hank and the Milk Snake
by Bruce H. Mero
From our beginning days as gardeners, Gretchen and I have attempted to minimize the chemicals we use on our plantings and, over the years have managed to eliminate them completely on the vegetables we grow. Integral to this process is our encouragement of beneficial insects, spiders, toads and snakes in the garden to discourage the bad guys from eating our plants. This was easy to do in most cases. What gardener doesn’t delight in watching lady bugs munching on aphids or a praying mantis decapitating a grasshopper? Good bugs eating bad bugs. No problem. Admittedly, however, I am still a bit squeamish about allowing spiders and snakes the unfettered access to our place that this type of pest management requires. I know they are helping to keep my veggies free of pests, but my flight-or-fight instinct still engages momentarily when the black plastic beneath my knees moves and I can detect the outline of a patrolling garter snake as it searches for lunch. Intellectually, I am comfortable in the knowledge that the critter is doing good things under that plastic, but something deep inside of me still feels threatened and wants to run for a rake or shovel for protection. As irrational as it may be, innate fear always trumps intellect. Instinct is strong motivation.
Our daughter, Mitra, does not have that fear, or at least doesn’t exhibit it. The presence of a variety of insects, amphibians, reptiles and other fauna around the farm presented her with many things watch, talk to and play with. Her favorite thing was to capture critters and show them to others. During her childhood, a menagerie of frogs, toads, newts, efts, tadpoles, sunfish, mice, snakes, baby birds, baby rabbits, baby woodchucks, chickens, spiders, butterflies, worms and stray cats, among other things had been cradled in her seven-year-old hands and shown to whomever was around. On one occasion Gretchen was in the kitchen when Mitra ran through the back door carrying a large Milk Snake to show her mother. The Milk Snake she had captured today in the sweet corn patch behind the barn had been in the kitchen several times previously, and had once bitten her nose as she attempted to kiss it on the head. This snake had been around several summers and had grown to four feet in length. He was magnificent with bold patterns of tan and reddish-brown bordered in black. His skin was smooth and glossy. Gretchen calmly admired the trophy and then asked her to take the snake back outside. Mitra ran out the back door and to the back of the barn where she released it. The snake lay still in the warm sun.
It was the time for the second cutting of hay and the dairy farmer from the farm south of ours was bailing hay in a field just up the road and ferrying hay wagons back and forth. On one such trip, a loaded wagon had a flat tire and Hank had parked the rig in the road across from our front yard and driven the tractor to his place to get a spare tire. He had returned. Mitra rounded the corner of the barn just in time to see Hank crawl under the hay wagon with a jack to begin the tire change.
Hank was a 220-pound, muscular six footer wizened by a life of hardscrabble farming on this rocky hill. Mitra barely reached his waist when standing along side and was a quarter of his weight. Hank and Mitra were pals and they were a sight together. Naturally she wanted to show her friend her latest pet, so she ran back and recaptured the Milk Snake which was still where she had put it in the sun.
At this point in my story, I need to establish a little context for what occurred next. Hank hated snakes; he absolutely despised them. This fact was legendary. Needless-to-say, he didn’t share our philosophy about good critters controlling bad critters. Snakes were bad, period. Any encounter with a snake over his 60 years of farming usually ended with the snake dead and Hank evacuating. He detested nothing more than being surprised by a snake.
Mitra was short enough to walk upright under the hay wagon. She said hello to Hank who lay on his side, his back to her, jacking up the wagon. Hank grunted a greeting and went back to the task at hand. He had no time to visit.
“Hank,” she said, “I have something to show you.”
“I’m busy right now,” he replied, “show me later.” Mitra stood there for a minute or so and when she figured that it was now “later” she walked around to Hank’s front side, squatted and held the Milk Snake about two feet away and at eye level with her friend. Hank looked up at her. He looked at the snake. His eyes looked again into her eyes and then he focused on the snake. It was several seconds before he fully recognized what she was showing him, but when he did, his panic was instantaneous. With flight mechanism fully engaged, he attempted to stand-up. He thumped his head on the bottom of the wagon and fell back down. He tried again. Thump. Again. Thump. The gravel under his feet flew. With each head thump on the bottom of the wagon came an expletive. This was repeated many times more before he rolled clear of the wagon and ran a hundred feet down the road, holding his head and cursing.
His contortions and epithets under the wagon had frightened Mitra. She dropped the snake and ran back towards the house. Her mom, meanwhile, had seen the whole thing and was leaning against the kitchen doorway nearly doubled over with laughter. After a few minutes, Hank regained enough composure to climb back onto his tractor and retreat. Haying was done for that day.
The hay wagon stayed in the road until nightfall. Hank returned after dark to finish changing the tire and drag the wagon home; after dark and, hopefully, after a seven-year-olds bedtime. The Milk Snake survived the encounter. He lived several more summers; growing fat in our garden and making many more trips into the house.