Monday, July 6, 2009

The Day It Rained Frogs
Travels with Charley (Popka

This is NOT Charley. Charley lived and likely
died nearly 5 decades ago. But this specimen looks
exactly like the old fellow.

Part I – We find Char

"David, we need to get ourselves a real snake. A real big one from down in Florida!"

My elder brother eyes were hard with frustration as we glumly freed yet another failed experiment into the forest. He and I were fond of snakes, so fond that we longed to keep at least one as a permanent pet. We shared a bedroom in a great, brick, Georgian style mansion with leaded windows and deep shady sills, perfect for the keeping of cages, bowls and tanks of a variety of creatures. This desire to befriend a member of the race of Adam's bane was not an ambition that recommended itself to my parents, however, so it was clear from the first that we would only be able fulfill our herpetological ambitions through our own efforts. Not for us the fancy boas of the pet store. We would have to find our own snakes. Living as we did on Long Island, in the relatively cold North of the country, we seldom saw the supple and sinuous o
bjects of our yearning. Odiferous and small Diadophis punctatus (ring-neck snake) and the common and therefore uninteresting Thamnophis sirtali (garter snake) were the usual occupants of our tanks.

"Something really really special!" I replied.

Occasionally we would find enmeshed in the cobwebs that festooned the corners of our dark and cavernous cellar a newly hatched, beautifully patterned Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum
(Eastern milk snake), which, eagerly freed of the clinging silk, would brighten our windowsill terrarium for a few weeks until set loose with great regret into the forest that surrounded our hilltop house. Although gorgeous and certainly filling the definition as "Special!" the milk snake is notoriously hard to keep in captivity and the other species seemed equally picky. We would lose confidence in the face of the little fellows' refusal to eat the hamburger and meal worms we proffered, impaled on the end of a toothpick, and so we would free them after a week or two to pursue their destinies in the wild.

"AND- something that's easier to feed than these darned milk snakes!" he growled, watching the little fellow slip rapidly into the leaf litter, "and you tell me how
we aregoing to sneak it home!"

At that time we spent our spring vacation in a relatively wild part of central Florida, a far more snakely site for the capture of our wriggly pet. Our family compound was a grassy oasis surrounded by pine jungle, swamps and the deep, water-filled pits of abandoned phosphate mines let return to jungle over the preceding 50 years. A more delightful place for the breeding of snakes would be hard to find, and they burgeoned. They bloomed and blossomed and were fruitful and ubiquitous. Scarcely a day went past during our times there when the cry of "SNAKE!" was not heard from one of the hordes of relatives and retainers there, as a snake of one species or another would be seen, sunning in the dusty, limey roads, slipping through the branches of the shrubbery, or gliding in and out of the surrounding woods and the canebrakes that were scattered about. Black and glossy racers, thick, evil-eyed rattlers, gorgeous and deadly coral snakes and their equally gaudy but harmless impersonators, the scarlet king snake, cousin to our saved babies were just a few of the many snake species we had seen. None of these were quite the snake we were looking for, either because of the obvious danger involved or because the creature was too fast to capture. No, we needed a new snake, one of sufficient size to impress our friends and our own sense of conquest, sufficient torpidity to be easily captured, and one of easy and undiscriminating habit of dining and a philosophy of life which would allow it to survive the long train ride North and to prosper on our windowsill for the pursuant year.

Early one burning April afternoon, as the Spanish moss hung limp in the windless heat and the dust on the road past our home lay as think and powdery as talc, my brother and I sat in the porch shade and gazed across the lawn, thinking of the cool water of the Pit (one of the aforementioned mining pits, one end of which was kept clear of weed for swimming) a
nd wondering if the sweat we would lose on the three mile walk there and back was worth the temporary relief of a swim. As we pondered and debated in the desultory fashion only possible in great heat with an adequate supply of fresh lemonade, I noticed a slow, rippling movement in the grass at the base of a line of oleander.

"Look there!" I hissed. "What do you think?"

A snake for certain, but what kind? We hastened across the lawn, slowing nervously as we approached the creature. It was a dingy brown-on-grey/brown chevron pattern, about 18 inches long, and chubby. As it became aware of us, it began a most impressive and disturbing display, coiling and writhing, flattening its head and neck like a cobra, rising into strike position, all the while emitting a loud, harsh, guttural hiss that seemed far too large for it. This was disturbing enough,
yet we stayed, watching, fascinated by the activity, keeping out of reach but not so far that the snake did not know we were there. At length, the snake seemed to think it had done its part but that we, somehow, had not. As a finale, in a perfect parody of the stand-up's “Hey, yah killin' me up here,” it rolled onto its back, stuck out its tongue, let its mouth hang limply open and, apparently, died. This should have disturbed us no end, at least filled us with tremendous guilt at having frightened the poor beast into an early and entirely unmerited demise. We were ready, however and, though the performance was entirely new to us, it was not unexpected. For we had seen the ridiculous but endearing upturned schnozz of the fellow and had early realized that what we had was a perfect specimen of Heterodon platyrhinos, the Eastern hognose snake. Playing dead for all it was worth. And once it decided to die on us, we had it. For even if you turn a hognose back on its belly, it will just roll over again and try to wait you out. It was only the work of a moment to pick the creature up, pack it into a box and take it home.

A Western hognose in the genus's characteristic pose.

Once we had it secreted under the bed (for this was to be a smuggling job all the way back to Long Island), the problem of naming it arose. My brother, who is 18 months older than I and so the leader in many of our early adventures, said promptly “Sally Popka!” This was in honor of nearby Lake Tsala Apopka. He had obviously been thinking about this for awhile.

"But what if it's a boy?" I demanded.

This proved a bit of a sticking point, so out came our field guide. My brother determined that it was a male, based on the shape of the tail. In 1960, no boy would name a male pet "Sally," so we were stumped for some time. After much thought and discussion, the name, “Charley Popka,” was unanimously approved.

Charley seemed to accept his captivity with phlegmatic philosophy. We kept his box hidden in a suit case under the bed until it was time to return to the North. We got him to the train station and onto the Silver Meteor (the overnight train between Florida and New York) secreted in his box in the bottom of a paper back purportedly filled with the comic books we carried for on-board entertainment. Once in our roomette, we immediately gave him a bath
in the sink in the fold-down sink. We then stashed his box, a clear plastic container with air holes bored in with a steak knife, in a small closet cabinet in the roomette, which kept him hidden safely from our parents, but not from the kindly old black porter, who found Charley when he went to make up the bed. Fortunately, we were in the corridor waiting and, alerted to the crisis by the shriek that rose shrill and (we thought) excessively loud, like the whistle that sends the miners home from their day in the hole, we were able to intercept him before he got took off down the corridor. We were, however, forced to pay over every cent of our snack allowances as an ameliorating to keep him mum and to convince him to return to our room, despite the fact that we were able to demonstrate Charley's harmless and even friendly disposition. He utterly refused to handle the snake as proof, though I think the experience would have gone far in curing his Ophidiophobia.

"Suh," he said with immense dignity,"You will have to take that critter out of my sight before I go back into that room!"

We agreed to his demands, although that meant smuggling Charley temporarily into my cousin's roomette and back again, greatly increasing the danger of parental discovery.

1 comment:

  1. Ah the problems of technology! I just wrote you a big comment and lost the whole thing! So here goes again, I'm keeping it shorter this time. One compliment and one piece of constructive criticism. Great details, you really painted a picture in my mind. I could see, hear, smell and feel what you were writing about. Something I think you could add to your next blog to make it even better would be some dialogue. It would really bring your story to life. Sorry for the abbreviated comment, but that was the gist. Great job and I look forward to reading more of your blogs!