Hardly a week goes by without reading a story about someone doing something incredibly stupid with deadly animals. This week, an idiot in Alaska was killed and partially eaten after getting more than 10 times closer to a full grown grizzly bear than was allowed. When he received his permit from the park officials, he indicated that he had 30 years hiking experience. Still, he went through the mandatory bear avoidance course that mandates a minimum distance of a quarter mile from bears. Then our “expert” hiker got within 40 yards of the bear and took a couple of dozen photographs; the last few show a bear looking directly at the hiker with what could probably be labeled as ursine annoyance.
If the hiker had been using a video camera, I’m willing to bet that last photo would include the photographer saying something like, “Oh, Shit!”
So far, this is okay with me. The photographer was a grown man and if he wanted to become part of a balanced diet for a bear, I think he had the right. Unfortunately, at this point the story turns tragic. Park Rangers shot and killed the bear. Evidently for the crime of being and acting like--a bear.
It wasn’t that many months ago that we heard the shocking story that a man had been killed while swimming with a killer whale. He broke into the amusement park, voluntarily jumped into a tank and swam with a killer whale. Evidently, the name was not a sufficient clue. Hell, I’m not swimming with anything that big and with that many teeth--even if it were called a Happy Smiley Bunny Whale.
But the best story of the summer, hands down, is about the Pentecostal snake-handling preacher who, during a religious service, was killed by his co-preacher, a timber rattlesnake. And it wasn’t like the preacher didn’t have an advance warning-- just a few years ago the man watched his father die in exactly the same way. I wonder if it was the same snake. I hope they didn’t shoot the snake--that preacher may have had a son who wants to follow in the family business, and ordained snakes are hard to find.
I believe that everyone has a right to be eaten by bears and whales, bitten by snakes, or even buy tickets to a Will Ferrell movie. The first freedom that we allow someone is the freedom to make mistakes. Even massive ones. Survivors are seldom burned the same way twice. And sometimes, you can make a conscious decision to take a large risk because of the reward.
While I was in high school, I dated a girl that I’m going to call Melinda. Why not, that was her name and I haven’t seen or heard from her in over 40 years. Last time I saw her, she was furious, and there is no particular reason to change her mind now.
Melinda and I went to movies, ate pizza, and occasionally went with friends to the lake. I owned a car, but had very little money. I can distinctly remember one night where we parked at our high school and I got the jerry can out of the trunk and poured a puddle of gasoline on the sidewalk. Then, we sat on the hood of my car looking at the pretty colors the moon made in gasoline. I am beginning to understand why I haven’t heard from her in 40 years.
Our favorite activity, (well, one of them) was to go down to the piddly little 9 hole local golf course and sneak through a break in the fence so we could go skinny-dipping in the water hazard on the 8th fairway. In the night, that pond was magical, and it was our own special world. We went as often as the weather would allow. Even now, when I hear that song from the Broadway show Cats, I think of Melinda. I don’t remember the name of the song, but the words go something like this: “Mammaries… All Alone In the Moonlight…”
Months later, the father of a friend of mine decided to teach us the rudiments of the game of golf. So, for the first time, I got to see what that golf course looked like in the daytime. I discovered that golf (or pasture pool as we say in Texas) is a lot of fun, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. And I was anxious to get to the 8th fairway to see what “our” pond was like in the daylight—but when I got there, I was horrified. That water hazard was infested with water moccasins.
For the Yankees among you, water moccasins are not the newest type of boat shoe. The cottonmouth, stump-tailed viper, or Texas moccasin is a nasty, mean-looking poisonous snake that is about as evil as Darth Vader with hemorrhoids. These snakes can swim, they are territorial, and their bite is as painful as it is deadly. And Melinda and I had been swimming with them for months. I have no idea how we survived the experience. Hell, the damn things even scare Pentecostal preachers!
The very next night, I had a date with Melinda. We went to Shakey’s Pizza and listened to Cozy Powell on the jukebox. When we finished eating and I asked her what she wanted to do next, she gave me a little smile with a mischievous glint in her eye and suggested that we go swimming.
I thought about those snakes, the risk, the danger…for at least ten seconds. Then we drove to the golf course. I never did tell her about those snakes. I think that any man that doesn’t want it bad enough to swim with snakes…just doesn’t want it.