The Reptilian Years

….childhood…demanded a constant wariness, the habit of observation, the attendance on moods and tempers, the noting of discrepancies between speech and action, a certain reserve of demeanor, an automatic suspicion of sudden favors.

            Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself

 

Of my ten years on the ice, almost half were spent skating for reptiles. Not that I wouldn’t have skated had there been no reptiles, but they’d added an extra incentive to perform well. Reptiles had been my mother’s brainchild, her peace offering after a severe scolding for my sneaking a hamster into the house. Furry pets were off limits to asthmatic kids like myself and this was not the first time I’d been caught smuggling one. Shortly after her verbal thrashing, I’d collided with another skater, sailing headfirst into the boards, and ending up with a severe concussion.

Some weeks after the accident, Mother found a catalogue from a reptile supply house in Kansas and sent away for a pair of collared lizards. Ten days later, an emerald male with a double black collar arrived along with his less exciting brown mate in a hole-punched cardboard box. We named the pair Collar and Tie. Celebrating my passing the fourth figure test some months afterwards, Mother allowed me once again to browse the Quivera catalogue. On discovering my chosen basilisk required a few trees (the guest bathroom was on the small side for trees), she’d suggested selecting something less exotic—perhaps an anole—but had, nevertheless, made the four-hour drive from Boston to the Bronx Zoo so I could see a three-eyed tuatara. How, in the pre-internet 1950s, she found supply houses like Quivera or tuatara exhibits, I have no idea.

During these reptilian years, I acquired well over a hundred: tortoises, caimans, an occasional small snake, but mostly lizards. The lizard menagerie came in all sizes, shapes, textures, and colors: silvery, sleek skinks; scaly, plump horny toads; fat, puffy chuckwallas. Some were grey, some brown, a few green, even blue and they varied in size from an inch-and-a half gecko to a five-and–a-half-foot iguana. Nine months of the year, they lived in our guest bathroom (we rarely had guests) where I spent many a happy hour observing them, feeding them, letting a few walk up my arm. All but two were confined to mesh cages that resembled miniature ice rinks. (Mother paid the skating club engineer to build them.) Only the iguana and the gopher tortoise had free run.

Most mothers wouldn’t have tolerated such a hobby, but Mother obviously decided that collecting and chauffeuring reptiles was preferable to having a kid who smuggled furry critters. For the five summers we made the eight-hour trek from Boston to Lake Placid for my training, the menagerie came along. Cages were surreptitiously brought into the exclusive Lake Placid Club under jackets and various costumes.

Departure day started at sunrise with four hours of car packing, squeezing suitcases and skates between cages, making sure everyone had enough air, and cage doors were securely fastened. On one occasion, despite double-checking locks, three snakes escaped en route and we had to stop an hour in the blazing sun while I located two under the driver’s seat, eventually popping the hood to find the third warming himself by the engine.

One Sunday, after a strong performance in Lake Placid’s weekly Saturday show, Mother packed me up in our Plymouth and headed out of town along the Ausable River, eventually pulling into a gravel lot and parking underneath the life-sized image of a king cobra, hood spread, ready to strike. The sign read: SERPENTARIUM.

Hardly the surprise I expected, as Mother drew the line at poisonous pets. I opened the car door cautiously and tip-toed across the dusty parking, my eye on the solid eight-foot fence that surrounded the ranch-style building. Was it high enough to keep cobras out of the parking lot?

Various cages lined the back wall of the lobby. A gecko was walking up the side of a terrarium, the glass magnifying his suction cup toes, while a second was sunning himself under his lamp, his lidless, slit eyes taking me in. I forgot about the cobra.

“Texas banded geckoes, Coleonyx brevis.” I motioned to Mother who was standing in the ticket line. Professor Loveridge had taught me the Latin names.

A broad-shouldered man in heeled boots and a cowboy hat came out from behind the counter.

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” he said to Mother in a funny drawl. “How is it a kid knows about these reptiles?”

“She studies them.”

She didn’t tell him about the teas she’d arranged for me with the curator of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

“No entry fee for her. One of my sons will take her ’round.”

The son, taller and thinner than his father, appeared momentarily in a ten-gallon hat and hip-high boots.

“We have a budding herpetologist here, Tom.”

I grew at least an inch. Ever since meeting Professor Loveridge, I’d settled on becoming a herpetologist.

“You just missed the milking,” Tom said. His voice was sing-songy like his father’s. The two, I would learn, brought their business from Texas to upper state New York every summer.

“You have cows too?” I asked quietly. I’d never spoken with a Texan before.

“No cows, just rattlesnakes. Venom’s used to make antitoxin for when people get bit. Thirty-five dollars an ounce. Same price as gold. Wanna see the pit?”

I hadn’t seen anyone milk a rattlesnake either, but it could be interesting.

Leaving Mother in the lobby with Mr. Miller, I followed Tom out back. The pit was about twenty feet in diameter, about four feet larger than one of my circles on the ice, surrounded by a five-foot fence. At the bottom were maybe fifty writhing rattlers.

Up until now, all I knew about poisonous snakes came from Clifford H. Pope’s The Reptile World. The back cover photo captured the combat dance of the male diamond back rattler, which Mother had probably overlooked. She’d given me the book the day she suggested reptiles as pets. I remembered flipping through its many pictures in search of a suitable one: the first, a Paraguayan caiman, known to attain a length of eight feet, followed by an alligator snapping turtle that grew to two hundred pounds, and finally a Gaboon viper with two rows of razor-sharp teeth and long curved fangs capable of delivering more venom than any other species.

The seven -footer Tom was currently pointing out was larger than Pope’s prairie rattler that could strike at seven and a half feet per second. “Eastern diamond back. Bad news if you get bit. That’s why we wear these big boots.”

As he explained how the snakes gained a rattle each time they shed, how the loreal pits on each side of their heads were really infrared sensing devices, the snakes continued to writhe and I felt my muscles tighten. When Tom got to the part about hemotoxins and neurotoxins, I got a little lost, but Professor Loveridge often told me more than I understood. How would he talk about these creatures? I remember reading his description of the Tarentola mauritanica: “anterior border of the ear without denticulation, (what was denticulation?) its vertical diameter about half to a third that of the orbit.” Was I supposed to think about these snakes in terms of the ratio of the width of the triangular head to the length of the body? Much as I tried, I couldn’t even see myself standing in the middle of them or injecting a horse with their venom like Tom was describing at the moment. At the end of his talk, I had to unlock my fingers from the railing.

“You can watch when I milk again in two hours,” he said. “Rattlesnakes aren’t the most dangerous species though.” He led me by the hand to the other end of the complex where we stopped in front of a room-sized cage. “Here’s our new king cobra. Killed the previous owner’s daughter, so we got him for a good price. She was teasing him with a rabbit. Bad idea. Her daddy was rich. Flew in serum from a guy who survived a bite. Didn’t do no good though. She was dead seven hours later.”

The idea of anyone dying from a snakebite made me freeze. I stood back from the glass as the twelve-foot snake slithered up its tree, past the feeding door in the back of the cage. How did the Millers put a meal through that door safely? How did some poor rabbit react when it suddenly found itself faced with the cobra? Part of me wanted to see this giant lift itself to an upright position, like the cobra on the parking lot billboard, and go after something. Striking, however, wasn’t on his mind at the moment. When it was, his warning hiss was more like a roar, Tom told me. One of his bites could deliver seven milliliters of venom, enough to kill twenty people. When he’d served in the British army in North Africa during World War I, Professor Loveridge had collected pythons, mambas, and cobras. Once he’d told me, “Probably only a zoologist can look at an uncaught cobra and feel the joy a child feels on Christmas morning.”

“Enough poisonous stuff. Let’s go look at some lizards,” Tom said.

Fine with me.

Pacing to and fro, next to the cobra, was a spectacular five-and-a-half-foot emerald iguana with a reddish-black crest that ran from the top of his head to the tip of his tail. Unlike the other reptiles that seemed adjusted to captivity, this guy continuously butted his nose against the glass. I’d seen plenty of iguanas before, but nothing close to the size of this one. I could have spent more time watching him, but Tom was already moving on to the chuckwallas and leopard lizards.

“How’d a kid like you get into reptiles anyway?” Tom asked.

I told him about my smuggling and how I got Collar and Tie. How Mother helped me start a mealworm colony in a Maxwell House coffee can filled with oatmeal we kept behind our claw-footed tub. How Collar ate mealworms from my hand. How sometimes I talked to him when things had gone badly in the rink.

Tom laughed.

“These critters here ain’t no pets. Them’s our livelihood.” He pointed at a fifteen-inch lizard with red and black wart-like skin. “Forgot this one. Moves slow, but hangs on real tight when he bites.”

“Gila monster? Heloderma?” I’d never seen one, but this prehistoric-looking creature was just like the picture in Pope. I wouldn’t be adding one to my collection any time soon.

Tom nodded. “How do you know all these names?”

When I told him about having tea with Professor Loveridge, how the curator tried to teach me taxonomy, starting with African geckoes, as our tortoises (gopherus polyphemous, he called them) cruised between office chairs, snacking on a lettuce and strawberry floor salad, Tom gave me this “are you serious?” look. I tried to imagine him going through the binders and skeleton collections in Professor Loveridge’s office, maybe opening the drawer labelled “string too short to use.” I missed the professor and wished he had told me more about his East African adventures before he retired to Saint Helena. Apparently, he’d thought it more important to teach me taxonomy and how to do necropsies, so I could eventually understand things like how a snake’s spine went together. I hated cutting away the stinky flesh of some dead lizard or caiman, the reek of formaldehyde that made my eyes water. But just like my skating coach said I had to learn school figures to be a better free skater, he said I needed to know something of the anatomy of the creatures in my care.

Tom checked his watch and cocked his head towards the front of the compound. “Time to go back.”

I watched him enter the pit through the swinging door cut into the back of the fence. He carried a long metal rod that looked something like a putter, but with a hook instead of a blade. At least ten of the twenty-nine species of rattlers were here, hissing away like steam radiators. As one mounted the toe of his boot, its forked tongue feeling its way, Tom lifted another with the rod and grasped it firmly behind the jaw, the snake wriggling furiously to get free. In his left hand, he held a jar whose mouth was covered with a thin sheet of plastic. As he brought it close to the snake’s head, the rattler struck, releasing its venom into the container. Then he massaged the side of the head to get out every last drop of liquid gold, put the snake down, and grabbed another.

“Not something to try at home,” he said, as the crowd applauded.

The pit was slowly revolving; even the fence was a bit out of focus. How did you practice milking snakes without getting bitten? There were jumps I had done hundreds of times that I still messed up. While the pit was not a place I wanted to be, Tom was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I could follow him anywhere.

On some level I must have been aware that Mother was developing a reward system, that good practices and shows could earn me regular trips to the Serpentarium and perhaps even another reptile. I started paying closer attention to closing my centers, lining up my threes, doing clean brackets. I tried to jump higher, spin faster, hold a better line, and not, as my coach would say, “flap around like a bird” or “have arms that were a fright.”

Skating was going well that summer I was nine until one afternoon between practice sessions. I was doing a flip-flop on the beach when my little toe ended up at right angles to my foot. I limped back to our room and Mother gave me that “what have you done now?” look. She was even more displeased when the doctor taped the broken toe to its neighbor and told her I’d be off the ice for a couple of weeks.

Despite his instructions, two days after my accident, Mother tried to get me into my boot. But hard as I scrunched my foot towards the instep so the little toe wouldn’t touch the stiff leather, the moment I stood up, the air filled with stars. I sat down quickly, gazing at my toes so as not to meet her eyes. She gave up, proposing I watch the better skaters until I could get back on the ice. After a week of this routine, I grew restless. Mother gave in and drove to the Serpentarium.

“Just in time for our latest shipment,” Tom said, as I hobbled into the lobby. “You can help unpack it.”

He led me to the back of the compound where the king cobra, usually darting from one end of his cage to the other, was moving sluggishly, a large bulge in his middle. “Rabbit for breakfast,” Tom said, nodding in the cobra’s direction, as he pointed to a wooden crate about three feet long and eighteen inches high next to the snake’s room. The side slats were dancing.

“Just go slow opening the top.”

I lifted the lid a fraction of an inch. The inside was too dark to make out whatever was in there. As I opened it further, an elliptical head popped out, followed by an iridescent body with every imaginable color. I jerked backwards.

“Beauty, isn’t she? Rainbow boa. Our first,” he beamed. “Let her crawl over your arm. Remember, no fast movements.”

The boa wound itself around my arm, its gaze somewhere off in the distance. My back muscles tightened like they sometimes did before a jump. Collar would look at me directly, but I wasn’t sure about making eye contact with a snake. The five-foot thing was longer than I was. It looped itself loosely around my neck. I took a deep breath and set off to the lobby. Mother was always after me for being afraid of jumps, but I’d show her I wasn’t afraid of five-foot snakes.

After helping settle the boa in her new cage, I went to watch Tom start another show. I’d seen the milking several times now, but every time was a little different. Some ten minutes into the performance, after he’d milked several snakes, he excused himself, heading to the pit door. Someone else, he said, would be out to continue in a few minutes. There was no alarm in his voice, but I sensed something was not right, so I followed him into the side room of the main building where he pulled off one of his thigh-high boots. When he drew his knife from his belt and slit his jeans from the top of his hip all the way down to his ankle, I guessed what had happened.

“Dang thing came up over the top of my boot and got under my pant leg.”

I couldn’t see the bite from across the room, but I watched as he unsheathed his knife. He was about to cut into his thigh, when the room started revolving like the rink at the end of a layback spin and I leaned back against the wall.

“You best wait out front,” he said, when he realized I was still standing in the corner. “This ain’t purty.”

In the lobby Mr. Miller assured me Tom would be okay. He had antivenom in the fridge. I didn’t get to see him inject it, nor did I see him suck the venom out of Tom’s leg. On hearing about the incident, Mother whisked me out to the car. She was quiet all the way back to Lake Placid and I worried she might never bring me back.

She’d always said you could avoid accidents by being careful, but snakes were just unpredictable. What if the cobra had bitten Tom? No cobra antivenom existed then. I tried to dismiss the incident, but serpents gradually crept into my practice. Sometimes I heard a rattle. Occasionally, in the middle of a change double three, a cobra would raise its head, sway from one side to another. Other times I’d be going into a double salchow and see the rich man’s daughter dangling the rabbit by its hind legs, the cobra striking at her hand.

I never mentioned my cobra visions to Mother, afraid she’d stop trips to the Serpentarium. She’d be against anything that might interfere with skating. I was relieved to discover that, despite Tom’s accident, she was still willing to make the thirty-five-mile drive once a month. Because Mother said I couldn’t invite skaters to the Club, the Millers had become my most important friends. While I may not have loved all their snakes, I loved their lizards and their company. I tracked my training by the number of days to the next Serpentarium visit. On only one other occasion did it come sooner than expected.

I was sitting on the balcony of our room at the Lake Placid Club, allowing Collar and Tie some out-of-the-cage time. Collar was running up and down my arm when some insect must have caught his eye and sent him scampering at a neck-breaking speed across the deck and through a crack in the barrier. Peering over the railing, I saw no sign of him, but presumed he’d fallen to the ground a floor below. In a flash I was down the hall, through the lobby, out the back door, and under the balcony in the grass on all fours. After five minutes, I found him, stunned, but still alive. Back in his cage, he lay limp, showing no interest in a mealworm. Tie gave him a wide berth. Over the next three days, I watched him closely. He was still not eating. Mother, a sucker for injured animals, noted that his tail flesh had begun to wither.

I hated to lose any of my menagerie, but especially Collar. He and his mate were the first pets I’d had since the age of three, when Mother sent my German Shepherd away because of my asthma. And Collar was almost sociable.

“I’m losing him, Mom. I don’t know what to do, but Mr. Miller might know.”

 

Mr. Miller examined Collar, shining his snake-hunting flashlight right through Collar’s leg. The bones lit up like an X-ray.

“That’s the femur,” he said, pointing to the larger bone, “And there’s the fracture.” I struggled to see the faint line. “Most lizards die of a broken leg, but you can try to splint it.”

He drew a diagram, suggesting one of those things a doctor uses to look in your throat to tape Collar’s broken leg. My splinted toe had healed, so maybe Collar’s leg would heal too. When Mr. Miller finished his instructions, he led me to the far end of the compound. There was something I could help him with, he said.

“It’s this guy here. He pointed at the handsome iguana. “Charlie’s not adjusting to his cage. Keeps rubbing his nose.”

The better part of his nose was covered by a dark scab. Pussy fluid oozed from beneath it.

“What can I do for him?”

“You can give him a new home where he won’t be surrounded by glass. No charge.”

The iguana cocked his head and eyed me suspiciously. We wouldn’t be back to Boston for another six weeks and he wouldn’t be easy to hide in a Lake Placid Club guest room. The chambermaid came at odd times.

Back in the lobby with Mother, I described the nose sore, the possibility of spreading infection due to the degree of cavitation—Mother liked me to use big words and Professor Loveridge had taught me this one. She was always prodding me to study, to learn from the best skaters and dancers, but I never analyzed their elements with the same attention to detail as I gave to a reptile.

“If he doesn’t get a new home, he’s going to die.”

“If anyone can save him, Ma’am, she can,” Mr. Miller said.

Nobody had ever expressed faith in me as a healer before. I liked the idea. If I wasn’t up for catching cobras or milking rattlesnakes, maybe I could be a doctor.
Mother agreed to look at the iguana.

“Good God. It’s about six feet long,” she said, when we came to its cage.

“Only five and a half.”

“And where do you think we are going to put a five-and-a half-foot iguana in the Lake Placid Club?”

 

Three bellboys descended on me when I entered the club lobby with a six-foot box under my arm.

“I can manage,” I protested, clutching tightly the box with the scratching iguana. “It doesn’t weigh anything.” I sprinted up the stairs, Mother on my heels, trying not to laugh.

Once in our room, we locked the door and opened the box. Charlie strutted out, did three push-ups, and climbed the porch screen, signaling approval of his new home.

We did get caught a few days later during an unexpected thunderstorm when the maid came in to close the shutters and went screaming down the stairs about a dragon in the room. Mother resolved the issue with some pastries and a little cash.

I made Collar a birch bark splint, taped it to his broken leg and forced vitamins down his throat. A few days later, he accepted a mealworm. Charlie spent every afternoon doing acrobatics on the porch and his nose began to heal.

Mother was delighted with their progress. While she wanted me to have pets, she also viewed reptiles as a means to a blue ribbon. She used her art training to make my every science fair terrarium a miniature scene from Arizona Highways, something sure to win first place. But for me, the great pleasure of my reptilian world was that it was mostly not judged. I knew I could add to my collection by doing well on the ice, but I never considered the possibility that my menagerie might be used as a punishment. Until one afternoon.

A March Saturday morning at the Skating Club of Boston, some five months after I was last at the Serpentarium. I was attempting my fifth test for the second time. The first time, the third circle of my change double threes had been badly out of line. This time my coach had given me what seemed like a foolproof plan: the first figure was an easy to line up one-foot eight. I would use its two circles as a partial template. On its completion, I moved the next start point up about a foot and a half for the troublesome change double threes. The referee, unfortunately, figured out exactly what I was up to, and decided that, although my plan was not against the rules, I should not get away with it. He indicated, instead, a clean section of ice without so much as a hockey line that might be used as a guide. As there was no arguing with this stern man, I tried Mother’s trick of imaging him in his long underwear before reluctantly choosing a spot on the unblemished ice where I laid down threes at least eight inches out of line. Shortly thereafter the results were posted: Hanlon – failed.

Mother didn’t turn on the radio during the ride home. Her eyes, glued to the road ahead, never wandered up to the rearview mirror to see me fixated on her knit brows. Mother, artist, scholar, prodigy kid accepted to Harvard at thirteen, Mother, the hard act to follow. After a while I looked out the window. A lone scull was making its way down the partially frozen Charles. Even in the drizzle, the Charles seemed a more hospitable place than the back seat of our Plymouth. The silence continued. Maybe she was going to skip the scolding.

About ten minutes from home, at the Storrow Drive exit onto Beacon Street, she finally spoke. “If you can’t concentrate better, Collar and Tie will have to go.”
My stomach did a double loop. Would she really take them away? I said nothing, but once home, I went straight to the guest bathroom, closed the door, sat on the cold tile floor. When I opened Collar’s cage, he came out, sat on my hand for a minute, before climbing up my arm. I plucked a mealworm from the can and let the crunchy thing walk on my palm. Collar cocked his head, ran down from my shoulder, and pounced on it. My most trusted companion. Not one to tell me I didn’t line up my threes because I wasn’t thinking.

During the following week, I waited each day for Mother to mention Collar and Tie again. Determined she wouldn’t notice how nervous I was, I avoided the guest bathroom until I’d completed my homework. Only then would I feed my menagerie and clean their cages.

We never spoke of her threat. Perhaps she had only made it in frustration. Looking back, it was the first time I realized that failure could have extended consequences. But it was years before I understood that I had been an extension of her, that when I failed, she’d failed too.

Something changed that day, although I was unaware of it at the time. My dreams of being a herpetologist or doctor faded, not to reappear for many years. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to allow my collection to dwindle, but when a reptile died, I didn’t ask to replace it. Never again did I skate for one. Although I continued to care for my remaining specimens, I distanced myself from them emotionally, vowing they could never again be used to hurt me. Collar lived almost two years after his porch accident; Tie survived him by four months. Charlie was with us another three years until the winter night the furnace broke and he froze. I don’t remember feeling very sad when they died.

Lorraine Hanlon Comanor was the 1963 U.S. figure skating champion and U.S. team member. A Stanford/Harvard-trained physician, she has authored or co-authored about 35 medical publications. Her personal essays have appeared in New England Review, The RavensPerch, Ruminate, Gold Man Review, and SKATING.

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1 Response to The Reptilian Years

  1. abykittiwakewrites says:

    Extraordinary.

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