Grace for the Innocent

     I was born in and spent the first 11 years of my life on the South Side of Chicago, Ill., and in the suburb of Dalton. My dad and his buddies were avid fishermen, spending many hours on the shores of local gravel pits, or on the banks of the Calumet River. Of course, no edible fish were ever taken from such places. I think the purpose of hanging out in toxic waste sites was purely of an escapist nature; Hamms beer, Jays potato chips, and the ball game on WJJD was the order of the day. 


     When pressed by their wives to actually bring home fish that wasn't prepared at the local market, they would head off to Swet's Pond. Swet's was composed of a group of large holes in the ground filled with water, on the edge of an industrial site. A case of "you pays your money and you has your fun." For a price you could catch fish and pay as you leave, depending on your catch. They had a trout pond, and one with catfish in it. I remember many times playing with the catfish in the laundry tub in our basement, prior to their release from their earthly cares.


     One fine summer day when I was 6 or 7 years old, my dad and my uncle headed off to Swet's to do battle with the wily, and overstocked, catfish. As expected, they arrived home later with sunburns, empty Hamms bottles, and catfish. This particular fishing trip was especially profitable to me in that my dad had managed to catch me a Milk Snake, and not just any Milk Snake. This Milk Snake was the fattest and longest I had ever seen. Remember Jim, Marlin Perkins' overzealous sidekick on Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom?" Well, I had made a name for myself in the local area as a junior "Jim" (my hero), catching all sorts of critters, and being the recipient of rescued creatures. This Milk Snake was going to put me on the map. I got my new friend out of the bag that my dad had cornered him into, and put him into one of a few aquariums that I had. I had learned from experience that reptiles and amphibians can survive just fine on the giant flying grasshoppers that thrived in the area that we lived in, so soon my snake was real fat and sassy.


     Being the proud owner of such a fine specimen, I would take him out almost daily. I'd put his aquarium in the basket on the front of my bicycle and pedal around the block and show him to whoever I ran into. I had learned the hard way with previous reptiles that you've got to pick up a snake by the back of the head, and that you shouldn't take your time doing it, so we never had any problems. I'm surprised I didn't wear his scales off, the amount of handling he had.


     My folks rule for me was that I could go anywhere on our block, but not to leave the block. It was at about this time that I had taken to pushing the envelope a little, making brief forays across the street on the backside of our block, were my mom couldn't see me. I had always done this on foot, but had decided that I was going to take this a step farther, and ride with my snake to new frontiers. I was sure everyone needed to see this guy. So, over the curb I went, and all hell broke loose. The aquarium slid backward with a lurch and slammed into the back of the basket, shattering the glass and startling my snake into a flurry of activity. I suddenly found myself trying to control an oversize Shwinn bike while continually pushing my snake, while avoiding his strikes, back into the aquarium through the broken glass. Why I didn't crash, get bit, or cut up I'll never know. The biggest trial lay ahead-what to tell my folks.


     I got my backside tanned. Worse yet I had to relinquish my prized Milk Snake. I must have made quite a scene about it, because my dad decided that we would bring it over to this Nature Center that was to the east of us. Any other time I'd just turn critters loose over in the fields by the train yard. We got to the Nature Center, and while my dad was telling the receptionist why we were there, I was busy getting my snake out of the box that I had put him in. As the Center employee walked toward us I remember how all the color quickly drained from his face, and how he stuttered as he slowly talked me into putting my snake back into the box. It turned out that that Milk Snake was the largest rattle-less Massasauga Rattlesnake that any of them had ever seen.A lonely Massasauga Rattlesnake waiting to be taken home.




   A lonely Massasauga rattlesnake waiting to be taken home