Snake at the Lake

How I ended up at the lake with the cool kids, I don’t know, but there I was, goofing off and hanging out with the big boys, jocks most of them. I’m sure that my varsity letter in tennis didn’t quite measure up in their minds, and I doubt that any of them remembered that back in our sophomore year, the last time I played football with them, the coach called me his “110-pound cannonball.”

 

The lake was man-made, and private. You had to have a membership or a friend to swim at Mine LaMotte. I had neither, although a friend of my mom’s used to take us there when we were young. I don’t know how the lake was formed, but there was an old mine there, and the water was cold and bottomless and surrounded by a wide band of ankle-deep, dry white sand. There were skiers and a ramp, and a dock for diving, with a high board and a low. I suppose people fished there, too.

 

Whatever foolishness we were up to that day must have required us to rest at some point, as we were all lounging around the picnic tables. One of the cool guys had his dad’s camper there, one of those nice permanent ones, not a pop-up, and I am sure he had a cooler or two of his dad’s beer.

 

I was standing at the periphery of the group with my friend, Larry. I had known Larry and his twin, Jerry, much of my childhood, since we had played baseball together in fourth grade. They were also tennis players, and many of my memories of them involve goofing off during tennis matches. When we went out cruising on Friday nights, because I didn’t drink, I was their designated driver. Cruising our little two-block town was the most exciting thing going, just like American Graffiti except a lot fewer people and the cars were ordinary and mostly belonged to our parents. Most nights cruising with Larry and Jerry began with the promise of girls, girls, girls, but ended up with me dropping them off at the tennis courts so they could fight. They always wanted to fight as they became drunk, but by the time we arrived at the courts, they could barely stand, and the fights consisted of little more than slurred swearing and one awkward swing each. They would pile back into the back seat and drink in silence, then I’d take them home.

 

As I was standing next to Larry, I noticed a snake in the sand at my feet, about a yard away. My first instinct was to jump back, but it was obvious that the snake was fake. It was too coiled up, too still to be anything but plastic. Half listening to the exploits of the cool kids, I would, every few minutes, glance down at the play snake. It sure looked real. One time when I looked down at it, I thought I saw it’s tongue flit in and out.

 

Imagination now had hold of me, and I thought I saw it flit its tongue several more times. At last, I tapped Larry’s shoulder. “Does that snake look real to you?”

 

His reaction was the same as mine: a slight start, then realization that it must be  plastic. “No, it’s not real,” he said, just as the snake moved about two inches closer. He looked at me and I looked at him and we looked at the snake and he yelled, “snaaaaake” and I yelled “snaaaaake” and everyone circled around to look.

 

Several guys said it was fake, but then it moved again. It was, somehow, immediately decided that someone should capture the snake, and two or three guys closed in to grab it. I was not one of those guys. There seemed to be a general consensus that no one knew what kind of snake it was nor whether it was poisonous, so the snake handlers didn’t get close enough to actually handle it, and the snake started to slither back into the weeds.

 

“Let’s pour gas on it” someone from the crowd shouted and a five-gallon can appeared from somewhere. The snake did not like the gasoline and took off faster than I would have guessed a snake would go.

 

“Let’s burn it” another voice shouted and suddenly there was a match and a flame and an enormous whooosh and a desperate scattering of cool kids and uncool kids alike. The kid with the can was paralyzed at finding himself surrounded by flames. He stood there for what seemed to be too long before he finally remembered that there was, indeed, a lake a few feet away. That was also about the time he remembered that holding a burning five-gallon can of gasoline was a bad idea, so he tossed the can aside and took off for the water.

As far as beauty goes, that twisting spiral of flame shooting out of the can’s spout as it slowly rolled through the air was a remarkable sight, bright yellow and orange against the deep blue sky, and the sound it made was like nothing I’ve heard since, like a hoarse siren in heavy wind.

 

The whooshing was the only sound, the can the only movement. Each of us had stopped fleeing because we somehow knew what was about to happen. The rolling can didn’t stop when it hit the ground but kept rolling downward and we all realized at the same time that the only thing to stop its decent was the camper.

Normally, if you drop a gas can, a little might leak out, but this can seemed to vomit gas and flame as it made contact with the smooth, shiny walls. In the time it took to raise our eyes, the entire camper was swallowed by flames. The plastic parts, awning, window covers, door, seemed to melt away instantly.

 

The kid who had borrowed his dad’s camper was the first to rouse himself. “Water, water, water” he began to yell. Several buckets and bowls were grabbed and water was toted from the lake and thrown on the camper, but that only inflamed it. “Sand, sand, sand” the poor kid yelled, and everyone ducked to scoop handfuls of sand into the maelstrom, but it was wasted effort. The smoke drove us to the water’s edge, and the heat pushed us waist deep.

 

The rising smoke attracted a crowd, but by the time the last of the stragglers wandered in, the fire was nearly out. Everything that could burn had burned quickly.

 

As the strangers wandered away, we gathered in a half-circle, no longer cool kids and not cool kids, no longer football players and tennis players, no longer insiders and outsiders, no longer guys who had been on dates and guys who had not. The fire had united us, bonded us with one simple thought: man, I’m glad that’s not MY dad’s camper.

 

That kid, that poor slob, stood slumped in the sand, hands and clothes black. He picked up a small shovel, and turned to us. “I’m going to kill that snake. Where is it?”

 

No matter what else is going on, it’s generally not difficult to find a burning snake in the sand. The snake had made it only about 10 feet away, where someone spotted it. We all squeezed in for a look. The pitiful thing writhed in a shallow hole, its back black and blistered, and, I’m sure, like us, it was relieved when the shovel struck.

 

 

 

From Seven Summers: 1967 - 1973.