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Once Bitten

By Tim Murphy:

Last week, my buddy Al and I were talking about the prejudices that we learned growing up. I grew up on the South side of Chicago, he grew up on a farm in Minnesota. So, we grew up in very different environments—it made for a very interesting discussion. Then, over the weekend while I was mowing the lawn, I saw a small snake scooting across the grass. It reminded me of when I was about five or six years old . . .

I was walking through our front yard to try to find the other boys in the neighborhood. I could hear them in somebody’s backyard, and as I was walking, I could see the grass move in kind of a squiggly way. Since I was pretty close to the ground at that age, I could see the snake doing the squiggling. It was a big snake, and it was moving away from me. The boys on my block loved snakes at that age. Some of our backyards backed up to prairies, so there were a lot of garden snakes. We would catch them, scare girls with them, find the skin that they would shed—very cool stuff. However, this was the biggest snake that I had ever seen, and this one was green. I just had to catch it to show my buddies—this was prize material. So, I ran after it and caught it by the tail. Garden snakes just kind of wiggled around when you caught them by the tail, but this one wrapped around my arm and bit it. I tried shaking it off, but it was coiled around my arm, squeezing, so it wouldn’t drop off. I kind of ran around in a circle—I might have been screaming a little—waving my arm around until it finally let loose. I could see the bite mark on my arm, so I ran in to tell my mom.

My mom was in the house doing laundry, so I asked her if there were snakes around. She said, “Some.” I asked if snakes bite, and she said, “Some.” She stopped folding and looked at me and asked, “Why?” I said one just bit me. She started praying to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and looked at my arm where the bite was and added in all the angels and saints to the prayer.

We didn’t go to the hospital back in those days. We called the fire department, because . . . that’s just what we did. The Fire Station was a block behind us. The Police Station was there, too. The Fire Department sent a Policeman, who was there in about a minute. Policemen and Firemen were also substitute doctors back then, so he looked at it and said that it hadn’t broken the skin very much and that the snake wasn’t poisonous. I don’t know how he could tell that by looking at me, but he could. Then he said the only way to be sure was to find the snake.

By now, all my buddies had gathered around. Between my high-pitched pre-pubescent screaming, my Mom’s yelling out the Litany of Saints, and a police car in our driveway, they all knew something was up—something big. Hearing the policeman say that somebody had to find the snake put the posse in motion. They went out on a snake hunt. I wasn’t allowed to go because my mom and the policeman wanted to keep me home for observation, but to be honest, I wasn’t so keen in facing the snake again. It didn’t take too long before my buddies showed up with a big green snake in a metal pail. They brought it over to the policeman who took a look at it, whipped out his gun, and shot it right there in the bucket in front of all the neighborhood kids. It was both the most shocking and the coolest thing we had ever seen. There was the explosion of the gunshot, echoing between the houses, then total silence with all the neighborhood kids standing there with their eyes and their mouths wide open. Their mouths opened and shut like they had something to say, but nothing would come out. Then all at once in unison, they hooted and hollered how awesome it all was. I was a hero. The policeman was a hero. It was a red-letter day in the neighborhood.

I have never touched a snake since. Once when Deb and I had gone off on a romantic getaway weekend to Excelsior Springs (the garden spot of the Midwest), we were walking along the grounds by the river when we could see the shiny black dirt moving, and we realized it was a bunch of huge black snakes. They were either mating or fighting—it’s hard to tell the difference with snakes. I ran so fast that I might have knocked Deb over, and I might have been screaming a bit. I couldn’t tell for sure because I didn’t look back until I got up on the deck where I didn’t think snakes could climb. It kind of ruined the romance of the weekend. I couldn’t get the thought of snakes out of my head, and Deb couldn’t get the thought of my running away and knocking her down out of her head. But, it was a snake!

In my mind, there is no good snake; they might as well all be poisonous. Even God hates snakes. St. Patrick did, too. You can look it up. The former is in the Bible and the latter gets celebrated every March. It’s kind of funny how our early life experiences shape the prejudices that we carry throughout our lives. I have heard some people say snakes are good. They are good for the environment. They eat rodents and bugs. They make good boots. I have even seen people wear live ones—which creeps me out. But for me . . . no way; they are all poisonous. There are no good snakes. Those two words, "good" and "snake" don’t go together.

That experience also shaped how I think about policemen. I have always thought they were heroes. That policeman was awesome—a quick draw, just like Roy Rogers or the Lone Ranger, plus he knew medicine. He could both kill and save lives. One shot killed the dirty, stinkin’ snake. I was all for it and so was the rest of the neighborhood because nobody was gonna sleep that night if a wild, poisonous, kid-attacking, arm coiling/squeezing snake was out there. If it bit once, it was gonna bite again. But some people probably thought that was all unnecessary. Maybe I had provoked the snake by chasing after it and catching it by the tail. If the policeman thought it wasn’t poisonous, why shoot it? The PETA people probably thought the policeman used excessive force. We hear that a lot these days.

So, I guess prejudice depends on how the first experience went, which makes it very hard to change prejudice. It’s hard to meet someone and feel like you just got bit and not hold that against them because you think they will bite again. It’s hard when a story from a seemingly credible source condemns a certain person or group and they get labeled or banished for life. It’s hard to drop someone from their hero status when some of their behavior is not of heroic caliber. It’s hard to change your mind when you think it is always going to go that way. And it’s hard when someone else doesn’t see it your way.

So, what are your prejudices? Do they help keep you safe, or are they harmful to someone else? Were they shaped by experience or somebody else’s opinion? Do you look the other way when the facts don’t support your prejudice?

I guess it all depends on who’s arm it is, whether you’ve been snake bit in the past . . . and maybe which side of the gun you are on.

So, the snake I saw over the weekend was just a baby snake. Those are the worst kind—full of venom, and they grow up to be big snakes. I might have screamed a little.


Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. His first endeavor into writing came in 8th Grade when he won an essay contest and an all expense paid trip to Richard Nixon’s First Inauguration. It is perhaps fitting that the prize was to view the Inauguration of the President that ended with shame and embarrassment—two of Tim’s primary skills.

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