Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Friday, August 26, 2011

Plain Snakes

The pretty young waitress approached our table with a basket of bread. His back to her, my friend R.'s son blurted out, "I would not put a snake in my mouth." The waitress raised her eyebrows in bewilderment.

"Way to impress the girls, son," his father said.

In truth, however, his comment wasn't out of place. To begin with, we were in Georgia, and who knows what happens there. More important, we'd recently left Florida and, as we'd just finished telling R. and his kid, there's definitely some odd stuff going on in that state.

As you'll recall, I'd insisted on stopping at the Skunk Ape Research Center on the way to drop off my oldest in Miami for college, accompanied by my youngest and his friend M. Sure, we did some other things on the trip. A visit to the Superman statute in Metropolis, Illinois; a Braves game in Atlanta; cruising South Beach in a minivan. All of those were fine, but none of them had the magic of the Skunk Ape.

One can therefore only imagine my excitement when I saw the sign along the side of Highway 41 through the Everglades.

"Look, boys!" I shouted. "Skunk Apes ahead!"

"This is stupid," said my oldest.

"This is stupid," said my youngest.

"Why is there a giant fake panther in front of the building?" asked M.

"Even better, there are giant fake people looking at it," I said.

I pulled into the parking lot and hustled them into the steel shed that serves as Skunk Ape Research Center world headquarters. It was everything one could hope for. Photos, newspaper articles, and most important, a gift shop brimming with t-shirts and magnets. I was in heaven.

"Welcome," a gentleman said, entering through a doorway in the back of the room.

"Hello," I replied. "You must be the head researcher?"

He shrugged. "No, I just work here."

"I've really been looking forward to this," I said. "What can you tell me about the Skunk Ape."

Our host rolled his eyes. "Not much to tell," he said. "You can read the articles on the wall."

"Oh," I said, disappointed in his lack of enthusiasm. "Well, what's through the door?"

He perked up at my question. "Reptiles. And birds. Want to see them?"

"I wouldn't miss it," I said.

Sure enough, through the door were reptiles. And birds. But not just any reptiles and birds. There was an alligator with a tortoise riding on its back. There was an assortment of parrots. There were tarantulas. There were snakes. There was even a kitten running herd on the entire collection.

"Whoa," said my youngest.

"Huh," said my oldest.

"Cool," said M.

"Have you ever had a macaw on your shoulder?" our host asked.

After twenty minutes or so of taking turns playing pirate our attention began to lag. Our host, who had been giving us a surprisingly detailed and accurate overview of the parrot family while rebuffing my repeated questions about Skunk Apes, noticed and beckoned us toward the alligator, which was resting in a pond out back.

"You boys ever seen a death roll?" he asked. He reached into a bag, pulled out a piece of chicken, and threw it in the pond. Sure enough, death roll. This entire experience was turning out better than I could have hoped. By the boys' expressions, they felt the same.

"C'mere, you'll like this too," he said. We walked past an albino python to a cage with a couple of smaller constrictors. Reaching into another bag, he withdrew the corpse of a guinea pig.

"Watch," he said, and threw the guinea pig to the snakes. They began curling around it and the boys and I shuddered with delicious horror.

By now we'd been joined by a vacationing French couple who appeared to speak virtually no English.

"Want to hold some snakes?" he asked them.

They looked at each other, then back to him, with total lack of comprehension and a clear sense of unease. God only knows what they thought we were discussing; probably fast food and serial killers, what with this being America and all.

"Here, I'll show you," he said, leading us over to a glass enclosure. He opened it and reached in, grabbing hold of a 40-pound boa constrictor.

"Who wants to start?" he asked.

Nobody moved, although even the French tourists had a pretty good idea by now of what was going on.

Finally M. asked, "Does he bite?"

"No, not at all," said our host. "She's very gentle. Look."


I don't any photos of spiders in someone's mouth for fish, but I can offer this shot of my oldest:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I Don't Like Spiders And Snakes

"What kind of paraphernalia can I get on our trip?" my youngest asked.

"Huh?" I responded.

"We're going to Florida on Friday," he said with exasperation.

"I know that," I replied. "That's why I've got this shopping cart full of junk food."

"What about paraphernalia, though?" he said.

"What are you talking about? We're not smoking dope on the trip."

"I think he means souvenirs," said my oldest.

"Yeah, souvenirs," said the youngest.

"What about them?" I said.

"What are we going to get?"

"Well, we're definitely going to the Skunk Ape Research Center and we're definitely getting a magnet."

"What am I going to get?" he demanded.

"How about an alligator?" I asked.

"Gross," he said. "I don't like reptiles."

"What do you like?" I asked.


"You said you hate rats," the oldest reminded him.

"Oh, yeah, except for rodents," he said.

"How about birds?" I asked.

He shuddered. "I don't like bird hair."

"Bird hair?"

"You know. The stuff birds have."

"You mean feathers?" his brother asked.

"Whatever," he said.

"Glad I'm getting value for my school district taxes," I muttered.

"So what kind of souvenirs do I get?" he repeated.

"A t-shirt. Some Hurricanes gear. The memories of a special time with your dad and your oldest brother and your best friend."

"I don't think any of us are going to want to remember this trip," said my oldest.

"Good point. Hey, where'd your brother go?" The youngest was nowhere to be seen.

"He went back to the junk food aisle."

Sure enough, when we doubled back he was standing there with an armload of chips and cookies.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Getting souvenirs," he said.

"Jesus. We've got plenty. Put it back."

"Then I'm going to get a dog treat for Lucy," he said.

"That doesn't even make sense," I told him.

"Lucy needs a souvenir," he said.

"Not from the grocery store."

"Then we have to get her one on the trip."

"Fine," I told him. "We'll get her a rat."

He made a face. "That's disgusting."

"No worse than this crap you're making me buy. Slim Jims? Really?"

"And we get to listen to my music while we're driving," he said.

"That's a negative, soldier," I said.

"What am I supposed to do in the car?"

"Talk to your friend," said his brother.

"Look for alligators," I said.

"Or we could sing," said the youngest.

"Maybe I should get some paraphernalia," I said.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011