Boys between the ages of seven and nine have a great affection for reptiles. They catch’em, cage’em and talk constantly about them. Could a boa constrictor swallow a VW car, Mom?
Perhaps their interest was peaked by watching television (they did a lot of that), or by reading (not likely) various books on reptiles. Many Saturdays were taken up by a bus ride to Golden Gate Park to visit the California Academy of Sciences to view the many reptile specimens on display in the aquarium.
Their room already housed a small reptilian zoo: lizards, frogs, turtles and a very big, mean iguana.
And so they decided they were ready for a snake. Could they buy one? No, snakes are too expensive, I told them.
Some Saturdays when they didn’t visit the Aquarium, they rode the bus to a reptile store in the outer Richmond district spending a good part of the day there. One day I went to pick them up there, and as I entered the store a horrible nauseating smell hit me making me very faint. I looked at my daughter, who was with me, and she was white as chalk, and she had her hand over her nose and mouth.
As time went on, they still asked for a snake. Finally, I relented, with one condition—you’ll have to catch one.
We planned a day for the great snake expedition. We dressed for bushwhacking: jeans, heavy boots, a Wonder bread lunch, canteens, and some of my best-embroidered pillowcases. They said that’s how you transport the snake home. So I think to myself, they will probably not see or even find a snake.
We hiked for several hours, ate our lunch, looked for snakes, dammed up a small creek, went wading, and again, looked for snakes. Nothing.
As we started back to the car, we walked down slope through golden fields of dried grasses. Up ahead something dark lay in the path. Was it a snake or merely a stick? The boys got excited and ran ahead. As I came up, I could see that it was indeed a snake. “It’s a gopher snake,” said the nine-year old. “How do you know?” He said he knew. They stood there gazing down at the snake. “Well” I interrupted, “who is going to catch it?” They both stepped back shaking their heads. Then the seven-year old stepped forward and said, “You’re the Mom, you pick it up!” I went down for the head, pinning it, and then tackled the rest of the body. At that very moment, I heard a rattle. Am I picking up a rattlesnake? Grasping the body firmly I quickly emptied the snake into the waiting pillowcase. I glanced at the boys whose shades of white blended with the pillowcases; they too had heard the rattle.
When we had all calmed down and our hearts were back to normal, the seven-year old assured me that it was a gopher snake: they sometimes mimic rattlesnakes by moving their tail in the dry grass or leaves, which makes a sound like a rattle, or a guttural sound.
The boys, with help from Dad, built a long cage, (it resembled a small coffin), which was then installed into the rest of the reptilian compound. Gumby the gopher snake stayed in the cage about a week, before checking out.
After about a week into the search, the boys stopped looking, turning their attention to baseball cards. I knew it was lurking somewhere in the house, and I wanted that snake back in its’ cage with a very big 20-pound rock on top!
We had a plumber doing some work in the bathroom, and it occurred to me that with all the banging and clanking of pipes, the snake might make an appearance. So I told him. He dropped his tools, turned white and said: “Lady, I hate snakes. I moved here from Texas to get away from snakes” He left.
The next day as we were having breakfast, Gumby the gopher snake (of course, I had other names for it!), slithered out from under the stove with dust bunnies covering his entire body and I was quite sure I saw a slight hint of a smile.
The next week Gumby disappeared again, and had been gone over two weeks when my sisters came to visit. We had dinner, and then went to the movies to see Jaws. Once home we prepared for bed then the shrill of my sister’s screams sent visions of the neighbors calling 911. Gumby had crawled into one of my sister’s slippers.
Gumby stayed in his cage for two weeks, eating and resting preparing for his next big escape. This time he was gone over a month.
Our neighbor came over to borrow some tools one afternoon. I unlocked the workshop in the basement, and we stepped inside. I handed him the tools, then he very casually said, do you know there is a snake on your workbench? There was Gumby, lying in a heap. At first, I thought he was a dead heap, and then I realized he was just a cold and hungry.
Gumby became quite tame and easily handled over the years that we had him. He was always a star, making several appearances at school, and a source of awe for the neighborhood children who came to visit with him. The boys took turns carrying him around on their shoulders, proud of their reptilian pet.
Eventually, they tired of Gumby and traded him for two white rats, which they also carried around on their shoulders. They said some kid in a movie did the same.
Everyone asked how we got Gumby. Always, the boys proudly announced—Mom caught it!
PACIFIC GOPHER SNAKE, (Pituoophis melanolecus catenifer)
Common in grassland and open brush land along the Pacific coast. Gopher snakes are harmless. They are an important predator of rodents. Kills by constriction.