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Raising five sons didn’t make my father a great parent, at least not by the Ward Cleaver-Andy Griffith definition. But by the time I came along, his teaching methods had become incredibly efficient and brutally effective. For example, he understood that one moment of powerful or painful experience was worth hours of patient explanation. Anything that didn’t kill us, maim us or damage his stuff was worth letting us learn on our own.
One such lesson that’s fresh in my mind happened on a fishing trip when I was about eight or nine years old. Back then, Daddy kept an old wooden boat tied to the bank of the creek near our camp. During the spring and summer months we often cooked and ate our catch right there.
On those trips, my job was to lug all our poles, bait and other items down to the boat. Daddy’s job was to supervise this process, make sure I didn’t forget anything, and provide an ongoing critique of whatever I was doing at the time.
This particular morning, as I hustled down the muddy creek bank with cane poles and the fish basket, I noticed that Daddy was watching me more closely than usual. When I dropped off my first load, he immediately sent me to the truck to get a couple more things.
On the way back, he was watching me even more intently than before.
No sooner had I gotten to the boat, than he sent me to the truck again, this time for stuff I could have easily carried on the last trip. I mumbled futile complaints all the way there and back.
I had retrieved whatever he sent me for, but when I started to get in the boat, he said: “Stop right there, turn around and look back where you came from.”
Now I was mad. If I had dropped something, why didn’t he just tell me then? Or better yet, why not go pick it up himself? (Being a parent, I now understand the reason behind the latter.)
“See anything unusual?” he asked.
Of course I didn’t and said so.
“Look at your footprints,” he said. “You don’t notice anything out of the ordinary?”
All I saw was leaf litter and limbs, dotted by the bare mud where I had stepped.
At this point, Daddy’s tone grew more agitated.
“Look right there!” he said, pointing to a grayish-brown limb in my path.
As I looked at the limb, I noticed it was looking back at me. “That’s unusual,” I thought. “Limbs don’t normally . . . oh!”
There – with three sets of my footprints on either side of him – was a four-foot-long white oak snake lying dead still, perfectly camouflaged by his surroundings. I had an instant, full-blown attack of the heebie-jeebies.
“Son, if that had been a moccasin, he would have struck you as soon as you got too close,” Daddy said. “You’d better learn to watch where you’re walking when you’re in the woods.”
With that as a foundation, Daddy spent our time on the boat explaining which snakes were poisonous, where they liked to hide out and why you step on top of a log before you step over it. To his credit, I was a very receptive audience at that point.
* * *
Fast forward to this past weekend. I was walking up a two-trail road near the very spot where I met the white oak snake years before. I was focused on a clearing ahead, hoping to catch a turkey off guard.
As intent as I was on killing a gobbler, I still managed a glance down at the road every now and then. And it’s a good thing I did. Just as I was getting near the clearing, a small pile of leaves in front of my right foot morphed into a young gold-and-brown copperhead, nearly invisible but already half-coiled and ready to strike.
I took a step back, regained my composure and then walked around him. I was a little shaken, but also grateful for my father’s lesson from nearly 40 years earlier.
That experience has saved me a world of hurt lots of times since then. It’s also made me realize that Daddy never worried about what anybody thought of his parenting methods. What he did care about was making sure his five boys could survive their own carelessness.
As it turns out, that alone was a pretty tough job.