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The Column: Ophidiophobia has served me well

Snake in the house!

Not quite but close enough.

This is Florida on the edge of the Everglades.

We are renting a little box in a development of other little boxes.

There is saw grass high as your hip and a canal just past the backyard.

Backyard? Really, it is more like a quarter-acre of Saudi Arabia — all sand — because that’s what you got for $125 a month in south Florida, circa 1967. Lawn? Sorry, pal, plant your own.

Nervous about starting a job at the big daily paper downtown and up nights with a new baby, I am not inclined to shop around. There are three bedrooms, the oven passes health inspection, showers work, palm trees line the street. We unpack.

Within the first few days, I am assessing our barren plot from the kitchen. Desert terrain, saw grass, a canal beyond. What a strange world for a fellow from Brooklyn and his wife, the Jersey girl.

We’d heard stories of the tropical wildlife, of course — the alligators apt to show up in the most inconvenient places, the prolific pythons, the invasive iguanas, the venomous coral snakes.

It cannot be a surprise that I, child of pavement and trolley tracks, have a certain reluctance about wild things and especially the slithery subset. Even now, you would have to drag me into the reptile house at the Bronx Zoo.

So, in Florida, it was more than alarming for a recent arrival to open a sliding door and find something squirmy, long and unwelcome had dropped from an overhead track to the sandy soil just beyond the kitchen.

"Yeow," I cried, closing up before the intruder had time to consider its options. "Snake! There, look. He’s staring at me. Florida? Maybe this was a mistake."

My wife, far braver in all instances, said, yup, you’re not in Bay Ridge, anymore. "Get a grip."

I was reminded of the episode because our younger daughter, who shares many of her father’s cautious traits, moved recently to a house in Virginia just outside Washington, D.C.

"How you doing?" we asked.

"Terrific," she said. "Except for the copperheads."

"What’s that?"

"Guy working in the yard chased two away. I’m canceling my order for patio furniture."

"And this is a half-hour from the nation’s capital?"

"Exactly," she said.

I offered comfort.

"Consider the bright side," I said. "When Mom and I visit, we’ll be staying at the Hampton Inn not your spare room."

"I may be there, too," said my daughter.

What is it about snakes, anyway?

So many people fear them there’s a word for it — ophidiophobia.

Psychologists say snake-aversion may be an evolutionary thing. Primitive folks knew to stay clear if they wanted to survive, and their dread may have been inherited by the next generation.

For me, the answer is more immediate. I am instinctively against anything that could curl around my ankle or advance, uninvited, up my leg. Just the way it is.

One time we were at the home of friends in New Jersey. Your favorite ophidiophobe was relaxing with a glass of red wine when the host’s son showed up.

The young man was into reptiles, we had been warned, and, sure enough, there he stood with a python wrapped around his neck.

"Wanna touch?"

Here was a dilemma.

I most certainly did not want to touch. Sooner, I would flee — without a goodbye — to the Goethals Bridge and relative safety of Staten Island.

On the other hand, the boy’s mom made the best eggplant Parmigiana I have ever eaten, and dinner was about to be served.

When the son approached, I put forward two fingers and felt the creature’s skin.

"Yeah, phew, something, all right, big guy, for sure," I declared.

"Wanna hold him?"

"Perfectly all right. But thanks for asking."

The boy retreated. We ate a sublime eggplant Parm and enjoyed the evening.

Years later, we learned that the young fellow — now an adult — had acquired a pet alligator. He would introduce the gator and note how — heh-heh — harmless the animal really was.

You can guess how this ends.

The gator one day took a chunk out of the lad’s arm. No lasting damage but a lesson learned and, hopefully, passed along genetically to his children. Me? I didn’t need evolution.

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