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It started with a snakeskin, a spring outfit shed by a garter snake. My son Jeff, then 8, found the translucent reptile-wrapper in the woods behind our apartment building. He wanted to mount the skin on a bedroom wall. And I figured, hey, better that than a Farrah Fawcett poster. So the snakeskin went up and a new interest was born.

Fast forward several months. A man who collects snakes enters a picture-framing shop. The lady behind the counter loves to talk. I know this because she is my wife and stepmother to my son and daughter. The customer mentions his hobby. Tell me more, says my wife.

Thus began a conversation that altered the family lifestyle.

That evening my wife announced we’ve been invited to a customer’s house. He’s a music teacher, married and father of two kids. Okay, he also has lots of snakes. Still, we’d just visit for an hour or so. How bad could it be?

To my son and 6-year-old daughter, not bad at all. Actually, it sounded like fun.

To me, it was an idea I should have sold to NBC. They could have called it Fear Factor.

My fearless wife voted with the kids. The invitation was accepted.

ON THE SURFACE – that is, the first floor – the man seemed normal, his situation idyllic. His house was your average six-and-a-half-room ranch; his wife lovelier than he deserved, his children bright and personable. Out back were two horses that belonged to his wife. My daughter was ready to move in.

In the basement, however, we entered a strange world which could have been the setting for a mad scientist movie starring Vincent Price. A cellar is usually noticeably cooler than the ground floor. This cellar was tropical, heated year ‘round for the comfort of the creatures in a museum-quality herpetology exhibit. On view were a tarantula, two Gila monsters, two Mexican beaded lizards and 16 snakes, two of them pythons, 18-feet long.

All but one of the creatures were housed safely behind glass in separate tanks. Some – such as the bright green anaconda curled up in a large pan of water – appeared to be sleeping. The one creature loose in the room was the creature that didn’t belong – a panicked, three-month-old alligator, its tiny legs churning wildly in a futile effort to push its body through a wall. Our amused host was slow to take pity on the gator. Finally, he carried it to a separate room.

At last, I relaxed and toured the room. A fascinating place, though I had to wonder about the man’s priorities. We were in the middle of a fuel shortage and he’s keeping his cellar at 85 degrees.

Then he tested our mettle by off-handedly announcing it was bathing time for one of his pythons. He needed help carrying the snake from its tank to the wash tub. My children volunteered, so I could not refuse. I would play Johnny Carson to our host’s Jim Fowler, but ours was a dull routine. The snake remained motionless and oblivious to his four strange porters. It was like carrying a large, rolled-up rug.

MY SON’S REWARD that evening was another snakeskin, this one a carefully folded 18-footer. His interest had blossomed and he was determined to have a snake of his own, even if he had to play dirty by milking sympathy from his allergies. Every kid deserves a pet, he argued. Since he was allergic to dogs, why not let him have a snake? Nobody’s allergic to snakes.

Not that we were swayed by his argument. We knew full well he didn’t like dogs and had never wanted one. What we did, actually, was simply demonstrate an inability to say no – not only to Jeff but to our own curiosity. Within days, Snakeman arranged the purchase of our very own black king snake. We kept the news a secret from my son. Christmas was near and the snake would be a surprise gift.

The children spent weekends with their mother, which worked out perfectly because Christmas 1977 fell on a Sunday. As soon as the kids left our house on Friday, my wife and I went to Snakeman’s house to pick up my son’s gift. We had about 36 hours to allay our fears and become pals with the snake before we officially welcomed it into our family.

OUR FIRST REACTION was “Oooops!” – as in, “Oooops, we’ve made a terrible mistake.”

The snake was thicker and longer than we expected. We had pictured something the size of a garter snake, but without the nasty attitude. Our snake, which two days later would be dubbed Tut, stretched out to more than four feet. Okay, not huge, but large enough to intimidate a wimp. This wimp was very intimidated.

So was the snake. The evidence was festering in a corner of his tank.

Someone had to pick up the snake so we could clean house. My wife knew who that someone was. She heaved a sigh of resignation and reached into the tank with her right hand. She grabbed the snake behind its head and lifted it out, supporting Tut with her left hand.

The snake wrapped itself around my wife’s right arm, looking like an elaborate black-and-yellow bracelet. Then it was my turn and the snake weaved from my right arm to my left and back again. I felt like a magician doing a rope trick.

CHRISTMAS ARRIVED and Tut was a big hit. My son loved the snake, but would not shuttle it back and forth between houses. That’s why Tut was with us the first Saturday in January when New England was hit by a crippling ice storm. Our neighborhood was a mess of downed tree limbs and power lines.

By afternoon the major highways were passable, which cheered us no end because we wanted to escape our igloo and keep a dinner engagement at the home of Mike and Mary Horan, friends in Pawtucket, about 12 miles to the north. Our phone was working and when we called, Mary told us dinner was still on because they hadn’t lost power. Since we had no electricity and no hot water, she suggested we arrive early and shower at their house.

“Great,” I said, “but there’s just one thing. Can we bring our snake?”

“We’d rather you brought some pinot noir,” she joked, “but sure, bring your snake.” She chuckled and added, “What’s the matter, is it afraid to be alone in the house?”

I explained the heat thing. The temperature in our house was dropping and we needed a place to keep the snake warm because reptiles are cold-blooded. We hoped that when we returned home that evening our power would be restored.

TUT PROVED a great conversation piece that evening. He also proved that men are much more squeamish than women about handling snakes. I say that on the basis of an exhaustive, four-couple survey.

Bad news awaited back home. The power was still out and the indoor temperature had dropped into the 50s. Having a snake already had made us the neighborhood’s odd couple; that evening we strengthened our claim to the title. To keep Tut warm we stuck him in a tube sock and took him to bed with us. Our body heat became Tut’s furnace.

The kids returned the next night. Power was still out and the indoor temperature was approaching the 40s. That night the whole family was tucked in together. Five of us, including Tut.

It wasn’t until after midnight Wednesday that power was restored. The sound of the furnace woke us up, but no one complained. On Thursday, Tut was returned to his tank.

Thank God that’s over, I thought. We’ll never go through anything like it again.

Wrong. Four weeks later Rhode Island and Massachusetts were buried by the Blizzard of ‘78 and for three nights we again slept with a snake.

THE SNAKE-STUFFED tube sock aside, there was one big plus in having Tut as a pet. He only had to be fed once a week.

The downside was what he ate. Mice. Sometimes one, sometimes two.

Snakeman had a large supply of dead mice in his basement freezer. He gave us a sort of starter kit – two dozen small mice in a plastic bag. On days Tut was to be fed, we’d take two mice from the freezer and let them thaw for several hours. Tut didn’t seem to mind this arrangement.

We, on the other hand, preferred not to think about it. We had only one refrigerator. Which meant the mice were jammed in with our ice cream, ice cubes, frozen meat, vegetables, etc. Opening the freezer door could destroy your appetite. Or affect you the way it did my mother during her first post-Tut visit. Disbelief, followed by horror. Bad enough we had a snake in the bedroom of her beloved grandson . . .

She had a point, at least about what we called Tut’s Kool Pops. So after Tut polished off the last one, we changed our routine. On feeding days I’d buy a couple of mice at the pet store. Tut took care of the rest. ‘Nuff said.

TUT’S DEATH came without warning. It was mid-1979, about 18 months after we bought him. One morning he went into convulsions. He died within minutes. It was a horrible sight, one we would think was being repeated two years later with a different snake. But the result would be far different, a pleasant surprise, even though it would mark the beginning of the end of our snakemania.

It was my wife, not my son, who suggested we get another snake. Good idea, the rest of us agreed. But something smaller. We had met another collector of exotic creatures and he suggested corn snakes and arranged our purchase – not one, not two, but three of them – Maize, Kernel and Niblet. (Devilishly clever or cloyingly cute: you decide.)

While there probably is no sure cure for ophidiophobia – sorry, couldn’t resist; that’s phobia-speak for “fear of snakes” – I think it’s difficult not to like a medium-sized corn snake. They are beautiful creatures, with stripes of golden yellow, orange-brown and black, with an agreeable temperament that makes them thrive in captivity.

This time around we opted to raise our own mice, to start a mouse farm, as it were. It quickly became our most unpleasant “pet” experience. Not that I felt guilty about breeding one animal to feed another. Not where mice were concerned. They are horrible creatures, constantly at war with each other. And I’d never forgive them for what they did to Marcello, the handsome brown mouse we foolishly introduced to the colony after it was established. We thought the lady mice would dig the studly Marcello. The dug him all right. Within two days all that was left of poor Marcello was his head. Like the horse-proud movie producer who defied Don Corleone in "The Godfather," we got the message. We shut down the mouse farm and I resumed making trips to a pet store on snake-feeding days.

NEIGHBORS REMAINED wary of the Major family. One woman phoned us after seeing a snake in her backyard. Too upset to realize the foolishness of what she was about to say, the woman asked my wife if we had let one of our snakes outside "to play.”

We liked the concept – after a few minutes we’d lean out the door and yell, “Here, Maize!” and the snake would come crawling back to the house – but we explained a snake was not that kind of pet. Our snakes were confined to their tanks. The reptile she spotted might actually live on her property. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

Days later, I saw the snake. It had slithered into another yard, upsetting another neighbor who called us in the hope we’d know how to handle the intruder. Not likely. This one was about 6-feet long and combative. Using one of our field guides, my wife and I identified the snake was a northern black racer. Most of them apparently have sense enough to flee humans, but some have been known to attack, even without provocation. Its bite is harmless, but it looked like it could frighten someone to death. I wanted no part of it. Our neighbors called Animal Control. The snake was never again seen in our neighborhood.

MEANWHILE, there was a problem with our smallest corn snake. Niblet wouldn’t eat on his own and our efforts at force-feeding were unsuccessful. The snake died, leaving us with Kernel and his big brother Maize. At least, we had been told they were both males. That was the conclusion of the “expert” who sexed our snakes.

So weeks later when Maize went into convulsion-like writhing, we feared we would witness yet another pet’s death. But Maize didn’t die. The snake deposited a long string of what looked like large, white bubblewrap. SHE had laid eggs – 16 of them. Kernel, the father-to-be, curled up in a corner and watched.

When things settled down I lifted both snakes from the tank so my wife could remove the eggs. Following instructions in one of our books, she stored the eggs in a large jar.

Too late we learned our lesson. Maize was returned to her tank, but with an attaboy wink I removed Kernel and placed him in his own digs – a spare 10-gallon tank left over from a failed attempt to keep tropical fish.

Two months later Maize’s eggs hatched; 12 snakes survived.

We couldn’t top that. Nor could we raise 14 snakes, though we kept them until it was safe to make other living arrangements.

Four were returned to the wild in a warmer climate several hundred miles south. Kernel went to another home. Maize and the rest of her brood were given to Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo where they went on display.

It was a great ending to one of life’s chapters. We could visit the snakes – and let someone else deal with the mice.

A corn snake as pictured in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles. It could just as well be a photo of Maize.
 

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: Jeff Major gets up close and personal with Tut the king snake. Linda has Tut's head. Notice the snake's tail is wrapped around Jeff's neck.

 
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