As previously mentioned, I grew up in Florida. While I do not consider myself a Floridian, and I have a passionate hatred for all things Florida (excepting only Gator football), I’ve recently been forced to conclude that it wasn’t really that bad a place to grow up.
Sure, there’s the lack of snow. And the heat is absolutely unbearable most of the time. And it’s boring. But little kids seldom raise a stink over the fact that there aren’t any good bars around; and even if there were, you’d have to drive to them, which would mean you couldn’t get nearly as drunk as you’d like.
But where else can you find a building shaped like giant gator sitting on the side of the road in a town called (shit you not) Christmas? No, seriously. This actually exists.
Field trips in elementary school were therefore incredibly entertaining. We went to the aforementioned Jungle Adventures in first grade. The memories of that trip, actually, come mostly from visiting Fort Christmas, some old outpost erected around the time the US decided to try to make something out of this godforsaken swamp. While at first my classmates and I were chagrined to see that the fort had none of the features a decent fort should have (slides, hidden passageways, maybe a ball pit or a rickety wooden bridge), we were soon distracted by the candy in the gift shop. When my mother picked me up that afternoon, she immediately relieved me of my bounty: an eight-inch phallus of solid sugar. Of course, at that point in time, I just thought it looked like a unicorn horn.
We did see some gators on that trip; in fact, somewhere in a junk heap in my parents’ closet I’m sure there’s photographic evidence. It was actually the proudest moment of my young life: None of the other children would go near the baby gators we were supposed to be looking at, but when a scraggly “guide” asked me if I wanted to hold one, I voiced my affirmative with no hesitation. After plopping one into my outstretched hands (jaws rubber-banded shut, since apparently even their tiny teeth hurt when they’re crushing a six-year-old’s finger), I grinned and he snapped a photo. The little gator then peed on my forearm, which, if you know kids at all, only cemented my status as The Awesomest Kid Alive.
That same year, I kept my Awesomest Kid Alive title by bringing in a snake’s head to Show and Tell. This was no ordinary snake head, obviously. While there are a plethora of snakes in Florida, most are harmless. My friend Eli and I would chase after Black Racers with reckless abandon. The Coral Snake, on the other hand, caused quite a stir when he appeared in our neighborhood.
There had been a few sightings before that hot February day, and all the parents and pet owners were on high alert. We kids were taught the old “Red to yellow/ Kill a fellow/ Red to black/ Venom lack” trick of distinguishing the venomous Coral from the benign King. My mother had taken it upon herself to plant some flower or another in the front yard, part of her lifelong quest to tame the Floridian spirit of “ugly.” (And yet we still had St. Augustine “grass”…) The aforementioned Eli and I were catching frogs and giggling as they peed on us in fright, after which time we would dangle them by the leg for a few seconds and lob them back into the grass. (Children are cruel. And weird.)
The snake came slithering out of a nearby palmetto cluster, and after ascertaining it would, indeed, kill a fellow, I ran to my mother and told her the exciting news. I expected her to turn tail and run to my father, who would then take care of the situation with his usual aplomb, but instead she grabbed the large shovel lying in the driveway and followed my directions. Then she calmly raised the shovel over her head and, much like a medieval headsman, brought it down with a dull thunk.
“MAMI! YOU CHOPPED ITS HEAD OFF!”
My father, hearing the commotion, came outside, saw the body still wriggling, and picked it up and tossed it back into the brush. “Why don’t we put the head in this little jar, eh, Munchkin? You can take it to Show and Tell.” After making the usual noises associated with excitement, I watched as he carefully filled a small, clear jar with rubbing alcohol and, with even more care, picked the snake’s head up (thumb and forefinger just behind the corners of its mouth) and plopped it in.
I proudly recounted the story to my classmates at school the next day, perhaps embellishing a bit and saying it was “thisclose to biting me,” then taught them that useful little rhyme.