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Snakes Alive

As a boy my dad used to tell my brother and I stories before we went to bed. We would even sing a song, “Tell me a story” if he was short off the mark. Our favourite stories were Dad’s Snake Stories, most of them real. They would always end with Dad killing the snake and putting the dreaded killer snake on a nearby ants’ nest. The ants then threw a party and had snake pie for weeks on end.

Somehow or other, when we were in our late primary and early highshool days, we seemed to catch a bit of Dad’s DNA, but with a slight difference. We didn’t kill deadly snakes; we caught them alive and exhibited them to all the other children in our neighbourhood.

We started with a couple of Eastern Master’s Snakes (only about 30 cm) which are not very poisonous and easy to catch. Then we graduated to catching Black Snakes and Tiger Snakes. We ended up with a number of Black snakes, two 1.2 metre Tiger Snakes and a number of lizards and other assorted snakes in the back yard of our home in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.

We had many adventures catching our many snakes. I will always remember riding my bike along a dirt road on a snake hunting expedition in the Megalong Valley. I came across a big, fat 1.5 metre Red-Bellied Black Snake sunning itself on the road. I leapt off my bike with my trusty snake stick. With one hand I held its head down with my forked snake stick and with the other I grabbed its tail.

My next challenge was getting a very mad Red-Bellied Black Snake into an open bag. When you hold a snake by the tail it can crawl up its own body and bite your hand – so you have to keep shaking its head down. Quite a difficult experience when you are trying to hold the bag close to its head so you can drop it into the bag. Of course, all this time, the snake is getting more and more aggravated.

Steve Irwin certainly made it look easy. Sometimes I wonder if he put his snakes in the fridge to slow them down a bit before his photo shoots. We didn’t have that privilege or that level of experience.

Eventually I dropped the whole snake into the calico snake bag and lashed the end tight. I carried our new trophy home in my backpack to our every growing snake collection, housed in the ‘snake box’ in our back yard.

Being a closet greenie we knew we had to let our snakes get some exercise from time to time. So Dad watched over us as we pulled the Tiger Snake out of the box and let it ‘run around the yard’ for half an hour. Of course we monitored it pretty closely, with snake stick always at hand and our special snake gloves, really old garden gloves in disguise.

Tiger Snakes get their name for two reasons: firstly, they usually have yellow bands around them, reminiscent of a tiger, and secondly, they are very aggressive snakes. Once I chased a Tiger Snake in the Kanimbla Valley, trying to catch it. My endeavours stopped suddenly when the tiger snake turned around and started to chase me. I remember how I sprinted 50 metres across a paddock, dived through a barbed wire fence, jumped back on the road, leapt on my ‘pushie’ and pedalled furiously out of there. Not every snake hunt was successful!

According to the Australian Venom Research Unit, Australia has the ten most deadly snakes in the world. Interestingly, we had two of the four most deadly snakes in the world in our backyard snake box. Looking back I am amazed that Dad allowed us to have the snakes in the first place. He was very patient with our adventurous ways and put up with our love for snakes and even encouraged us in our quest as budding herpetologists.

Mum was not quite so supportive. The day we ‘lost’ our pet black snake in the house seemed to tip her over the edge! We found the black snake a few days later under the hearth but that didn’t seem to help. We came home from school a week later and found that Mum had given our whole snake collection to a real herpetologist from Bathurst.

Why would I enthral you with such stories of adventures with snakes? Because children need adventure in their lives, especially boys. Thankfully, we had a Dad who realised this and was supportive of our boyhood exploits. Perhaps he was too supportive? Mum certainly fixed that, one way or the other.

The reality is that children need a combination of a father’s love, which allows risk and a mother’s love, which curtails risk. The truth is always in the tension.

We were broken hearted when ‘our’ snakes were taken away but thankfully we had input from both a mother and a father, however different, and maybe that’s the reason we are alive to tell the story.

Lovework

Dads don’t mother and mothers are not dads. Children need them both. When we allow our children to grow up in a loving home with both parents, even with the differences, they will do well, and so will the snakes.

Yours for adventuresome dads

Warwick Marsh

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