Flashback Friday: Snakes

Snakes we have known and loved.
Flashback Friday: Snakes
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Snakes inspire some and scare others. For the October, 1980 issue of High Times, resident snake charmer John A. Keel slithered his way into our hearts.

Belly buttons were banned on CBS-TV. It was a dark age and ABC had not yet discovered T&A. Over at NBC a dotty old lady sat in a closet, compiling an unending list of no-nos. You couldn’t discuss astrology, flying saucers or birth control on the tube. The words God and crazy were strictly verboten. (Superior being was considered the acceptable substitute for God, and crazy was taboo because some psychologist had the theory that the word triggered some people into raging “Crazy! I’m not crazy!” before thrusting a foot into the TV set.) The American consumer had to be protected from evil thoughts and controversial subjects.

Somehow reptiles worked their way onto the magical list, perhaps because NBC’s little old lady had a personal fear of snakes, just as some wild-eyed executive at CBS must have suffered terrible waves of sinful lust and shame when he gazed upon an unadorned navel.

God didn’t mind being disbarred from the air—at least no bolt of lightning ever flattened Radio City—but the snakes of the world, particularly those with show-biz aspirations, were mighty upset over the ban. Since I was then doing a snake-charming act in the window of a Times Square store with my eye on a gig on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was especially indignant. Snakes have been getting rotten press for years; even cockroaches have a better reputation. Every time an innocent little garter snake peeks out of his hole, all of the nearby ambling bipeds jump up and down and scream, “Kill it! Stomp on it! Crush its head!” As a result, most snakes are shy creatures who tend to hide when they sense the approach of a head-stomping humanoid.

There are only a couple of exceptions: the bushmaster of Central America and the notorious black mamba of Africa. Bushmasters have been known to lose their tempers and chase humans up and down hills for hours. Their bite is rather unpleasant since their venom destroys the coagulating properties of human blood. As the victim lapses into unconsciousness, his pores open and ooze blood. A messy way to exit from this world. The black mamba, a member of the cobra family, is also very rude when disturbed. It will chase an offending human for short distances. If it catches him, a standard tourniquet won’t do much good. The venom travels along the nerves, paralyzing the nervous system as it goes.

Strangely the vicious bushmaster and the vile-tempered mamba are rarely mentioned in the slanderous, bigoted anti-reptile articles. Instead, the mild-mannered, overly polite boa constrictor usually takes the rap. In the B-movies and serials of the 1930s the hero was often caught in the coils of a huge constrictor (…continued next week…), creating the myth that these animals will attack humans. Actually a constrictor will never attack anything it can’t swallow. There is only one documented case of an attack on a human, and that dates back to World War II. A smallish Japanese soldier disappeared in the bush and his comrades later found his feet sticking out of the jaws of a very large constrictor.

Constrictors are popular pets. You usually buy them by the foot. They are docile critters, somewhat boring actually, with all the personality of pet rocks, so long as you keep them well fed on live mice. They sleep a lot and hide whenever they can. Contrary to another popular notion, they make lousy watchdogs. They’re apt to slither under the sofa if a burglar stomps by.

Snakes are not slimy but have a dry skin that feels somewhat like cellophane. At one time I used to cart a ten-foot boa constrictor along with me on my lectures and would drape it around my neck and walk into the audience with it. Oddly, men usually recoiled from the snake (this is an under statement—they practically climbed the walls), whereas women gleefully petted it. Perhaps they saw it as a supreme phallic symbol. But unlike most animals, snakes can’t be trained to do a damned thing. They are stupid, living on instinct alone. The art of snake charming is pure showmanship. Snakes are totally deaf but they have an auditory nerve running the length of their bodies so they can sense vibrations in the ground. The snake charmer’s flute is just a gimmick. A cobra can’t hear it at all. Most snake charmers don’t know how to play it anyway, so if the snake could hear it, a bite would be justified. As it is, the cobra is trying to strike at the charmer, following his swaying hands back and forth in the hopes that he will pause long enough to make a good target. This means the charmer has to be almost as stupid as the cobra. In India, however, where cobras are plentiful, it is a common practice to sew the snake’s mouth shut so it can’t inflict a bite. Naturally, a snake in this condition can’t eat and doesn’t live very long.

Snakes not only suffer all these indignities, but they are also the subject of many untrue stories that circulate generation after generation. Literature going back 500 years describes the legendary hoop snake and the milk snake. The hoop snake is well known in almost every country on earth. It supposedly takes its tail in its mouth to form a hoop and roll away from its enemies. The milk snake sneaks up on cows and sucks their udders. Folks in rural areas everywhere talk about these two totally nonexistent snakes with the same conviction of UFO fans describing life on distant planets.

Finally, although they are not in the same category, the legend persists that there are alligators in the sewers of New York. This story got started in 1935 when one sewer worker saw a two-foot alligator—apparently a pet that had been flushed down a toilet. Other workers carried .22 rifles into the sewers and took pot shots at the poor creature.

Marlin Perkins and his many imitators have done snake stories on television in recent years, so apparently the old ban has been lifted. But if you ever hope to appear on CBS, you may still have to keep your belly button covered.

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