Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rachael's Fear Factor

I think we've established that I was a nervous kid. If I wasn't worried about things that could happen (my dad getting electrocuted while fiddling in the innards of an ancient TV set, my mother being killed by the piano falling on top of her in an earthquake), I was worried about the less probable things. A recurring nightmare was of being on the beach during a tsunami, knowing that I'd be able to only pick one family member to cling to while still holding onto the cliff's face. I also enjoyed worrying about quicksand. I lost sleep thinking about the black widows we sometimes saw crawling around inside our old farm house. I just knew one would bite me someday, and I'd die. (Bam! Just like that.) And I constantly saw danger in the green garden snakes that zipped through the garden. You see that? That looked like a garden snake, but it was probably a copperhead. Or maybe a rattlesnake in really good disguise. It probably wasn't a python, but I'd steer clear. You can never be too careful, really.

So it was with a great sense of relief that I traveled to New Zealand with my Kiwi mother. You see, there isn't anything dangerous there. There are no snakes, deadly or otherwise (they've worked hard to keep it that way). There are no venomous insects. See a spider? No worries! It's your friend! Even their politicians are cuddly! The only thing they have that is remotely obnoxious is a stinging nettle plant. So, of course, this lodged itself in my mind as The Terror to Avoid, and I remember when I did ramble through some, climbing up from a beach, I looked at my wrist in horror. I would probably die soon. But no, the skin just swelled and itched a bit.

When we moved to Saipan when I was a teenager, it was exactly the opposite. There were good reasons to be terrified. Stone fish: they looked like rocks lying on the lagoon floor, but if you stepped on them, they'd poke a poisonous spine right up through your foot. Scorpions, all around. There were poisonous sea urchins and vicious centipedes that (this I swear is true) ran faster than I did. When you went boonie stomping, you had to be careful not to pull things up or turn over random pieces of metal -- there was still plenty of unexploded ordnance lying around. We swam with sharks and had to be careful not to cut ourselves on the coral for this reason (that and because it would get in your bloodstream, my dad said, which struck fear into my heart). Typhoons regularly smashed the island with great force. Feral dogs ran in packs and we practiced how to throw rocks so they wouldn't attack. Even the jungle was possessed by demons, they said, and you could offend them without even knowing it.

And the snakes, though not poisonous, were things of nightmares. They were such a serious problem that they had a department within the division of fish and wildlife, with a designated herpetologist and two dogs, specially trained. Their website says, IF YOU SEE A SNAKE IMMEDIATELY KILL IT AND CALL 28-SNAKE. (Their emphasis, not mine, but given a choice I'd emphasize it that way, too.)

Saipanese Brown Snakes crawled up things, which to me was the worst part. Up all things. After being introduced on accident in the 40s, the brown snakes proceeded to decimate the bird populations of both Guam and Saipan. Growing up to nine feet in length, they ate lizards, rats, shrews, birds and eggs. And in my mind, they would have eaten me, too, given half a chance. For God's sakes, people had to put sheets of metal around every power pole on the island, because the snakes were causing so many outages. What was to stop them from climbing me and chewing my face off?

But in truth, I never actually saw a single snake on Saipan, not once. I've never been in a tsunami. I was, however, bitten by a black widow in my twenties. You know what? It hurt. And it wasn't a big deal. And my mother was never, even once, killed by a falling piano.


Sophie Littlefield said...

nine feet? nine FEET? dear god...

L.G.C. Smith said...

You were bitten by a Black Widow?!? And LIVED?! This is one of my recurring nightmares. We must talk.

In my three years of living on Guam, I never saw a snake. But all those other things? Present and accounted for. Scarred me for life. And I can't ever think it's safe to go in the water without tennis shoes on.

Rachael Herron said...

@Lynn, Yep, I felt it bite me (IN BED OH GOD in the little hovel I lived in during grad school) and identified the carcass, and called Poison Control. They said to watch it but that it would probably be more like a bad bee sting. I watched it; it got sore and later, a little necrotic (ew), but now I can't even see the scar.

Cari said...

Gah! Black widows!!! I have a...thing...about spiders.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Aaaaah! Rachael!!! Wow, lots of creepiness in this essay! And very glad no one was ever killed by a falling piano, even once ;-)

Toni in Florida said...

All I can think is "Whew!"

Martha Flynn said...

hahahhahahhaha omg this was just what I needed first thing this morning - hilarious!! love you, Rach.

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