The Childhood Aquatic

There is a structurally integral part of my psyche that is the keystone to my existence. I am not sure how it was placed in such a vital position, but it seems this part of me is embedded in my DNA. Something that I can never remember being without.

The absolute and total fascination with the natural world.

My earliest, and greatest childhood memories involve animals, more specifically, frogs. I may have spent the first five years in the city of Lynn, Ma, but we had a golf course with a pond nearby and the greatest adventures of my life took place with a coffee can and oshkosh b’gosh overalls.  Bless my parents who let a little 4 year old trek over to a pond with the older kids in the neighborhood who would babysit me.  I can remember so vividly, the sight of a bullfrog just in reach, or the salamanders that live under logs nearby….or the holy grail of the water hazard…a turtle. Way out of reach and way to fast for a young boy these were my white whale.  Like Ahab, I never caught them.

My mom tells stories of washing worms, bugs, and frogs that I had stuffed in my pockets, a 4 year old not understanding death, I stuffed them in my pocket for later. I just needed to catch and have them.  I remember telling my mom how sometimes you could catch two bull frogs at once because one would hang on to the back of another and they wouldn’t jump away (I didn’t understand death, let alone reproduction).

I can remember the absolute ecstasy of walking home with a coffee can overflowing with alien organisms that I could put in my kiddie pool or tease my sister with.  The somatic reaction I would get for successfully catching a bullfrog was the childhood equivalent of sex.  Even to this day I get the same feeling when I see or catch an animal in the field.

However, I can also remember the anger and depression of an empty coffee can, all my hopes and dreams of the morning dashed by frogs out of reach and my slow reactions.

We moved from that apartment when I was 5 to a house in a suburb, and like before, it to had a golf course, and like before I would hike down to Muskrat Pond to catch frogs. It sat adjacent to the town golf course and our high school.  I knew all the spots around the pond where the good frogs were, making sure to walk down quietly and stealthily. I would have my net and my bucket, and now by this age, tactics. I knew how to approach the frog, where to put the net, and how to get it onto land in one motion. I was good at it. Real good.  Later in life I would be able to catch bullfrogs by hand.

A young version of me with a monster bullfrog.

Soon I discovered tadpoles and would set up tanks at home to raise them. Much easier to catch and in my mind much cooler than frogs I would spend my day filling my bucket with bull frog tadpoles and taking them home to watch them develop. Completely in awe, and always wondering how this blob with a tail eventually became a frog.

I wish I could say this fascination went away in my middle school years, but it only gained momentum. I began keeping lizards, turtles, salamanders, insects, and of course I still would go down to Muskrat Pond for tadpoles. While most kids were honing their social skills I was honing my animal catching skills, but I didn’t care. I loved it. It was also at this age that I began to want everyone around me to love them as much as I did so I would invite kids over to tour my collection in my house. Pointing out how difficult it was to catch them and some of the amazing adaptations they have made to survive.

During the summers I would be on the beach tide pooling, ferociously going through to see what sort of treasures got trapped in the various pools that lined the New England coast line…..periwinkles, crabs, hermit crabs, and if I was really lucky, hiding under the hanging dogweed just above the water…a starfish.  Completely fascinated by this strange creature as it would reach out the tiny hydraulic suckers along my hand desperately searching for shelter and refuge.

My dad would take me to the waters edge and try to help me catch minnows, a small child unable to comprehend the vastness of the ocean, the world, and life.  All that mattered was what was in the red bucket.  Was there fish? Crabs? Nothing? My young life often hinged on the contents of an old coffee can or red bucket.

My dad would take me to Benson’s animal farm and let me ride the giant tortoises and tease the billy goats.  We were lucky enough to live very close to the New England aquarium, which in the 1980’s was arguably the premier aquarium in the country.  My dad would take me in and I remember the briny smell of the penguin cage that greeted you when you entered the aquarium, the long spiral ramp that had the silhouettes of sharks to scale, outlined in ultraviolet light.  The hanging whale skeletons and models from the ceilings, looming over my young head inciting imaginary battles from a skiff as the turbulent waters washed over me.

I would get overwhelmingly excited when the giant central tank came into view and a swirling mass of sea turtles, stingrays and sharks would appear and disappear before my eyes. A permanent grin plastered to my face as these creatures that only existed to me as pictures in books suddenly swam off the page into real life.  My dad would pick me up so I could see above the crowds.  A joyful combination of parental protection and the things I loved most separated from me by just a few inches of glass. It was joy that most adults can no longer feel.

But there are a few of us who still do.  The visceral emotion I feel when I see an animal I am passionate about is still there.  I still feel it.  I felt it today when I went to the aquarium with Aqila and Attia.  When that silky shark swam inches from the glass I was lost in the moment, no crying kids, no annoying adults, it was just me and the shark…..and I felt 6 years old again.

There is something that stirs inside of me, and I do not know from what part of the emotional brain it flows forth from, but there is something that occurs within my body and my brain that I cannot describe…when I make eye contact with some animals, knowing that at this moment the animal in front of me is processing my existence using a brain that once gave rise to my brain,that the same cells I am using, the same neurons and chemistry in my brain are going on in theirs as well, a connection that literally bridges hundreds of millions of years of evolution…… it, it just floors me.

I remember once, the first time I made eye contact with a komodo dragon without glass between us, lifting him up onto a stretcher, for the zoo vet and noticing a small smear of blood on my hand from the tranquilizer dart wound. I stared at my hand for hours, not washing it, just lost in the moment that on my hand was the blood of  an animal that I spent my young life obsessing over. Visiting the National Zoo daily while an undergrad at the University of Maryland just to stare at them….and here I was, physically working with them.  I almost cried right there in front of the exhibit I was so overcome with joy.

I will never forget diving in Bonaire when a reef shark made a slow pass right by me. I was not scared, I was in a trance, completely wrapped up in the moment I remember his eye looking right into mine and moving back to maintain eye contact as it swam past me.  I remember letting out and underwater yelp through my regulator.

Even to this day finding an animal I have never seen before in the wild brings me back to being 6 years old with a frog filled coffee can in my hands.

A few year ago I went to my friends house in the Poconos Mountains of Pennsylvania for a weekend of cooking out, shooting guns, horse shoes, and drinking (we never touched a gun if we even had a sip of alcohol). But when we got to his house I noticed that in the vast backyard there was a south facing granite slide covered in dead leaves….”Timber fucking rattlesnake habitat” I thought to myself.  Knowing they are crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn) I set out to find them.  No drinking, not while rattle snakes hunting, I set out and searched until it got dark, no luck.  I still didn’t hang out and drink because I would be up at 5am to go back up the rock slide.  I was too excited to sleep and went up at the first crack of light.  I maintained the protocol of hunting venomous snakes in their natural habitat, something taught to me by one of the best herpetologists of our time along the C & O canal in Maryland while hunting copperheads on old retaining walls.

I bounced the stick around in front me like a blind man making sure I only stepped where my stick had been.  I was in the zone, I had never seen a wild timber rattler and I was sure this was my time.

Hours passed with no luck, people began to wake up, they saw me up there, but I wouldn’t come down, no, not yet.  All day I searched that rock slide knowing full well they weren’t moving in the heat of the midday, but I knew they were here, I just knew it and I wouldn’t give up.  As the sun made its way across the sky and just at that moment when you notice it is starting to cool…something caught my eye, the dead leaves moved and a small mouse scampered by.  This was it I thought, their prey is active and that means they will be as well.

Then, I saw it. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating, no, it’s just dead leaves and a stick, but there was no mistaking it. There, stopped in its tracks as it saw me was a Crotalus horridus The Timber Rattlesnake, the original symbol of America right in front of me.  My hands were shaking in excitement as I tried to get my camera to focus, I was chewing on my tongue with overflowing energy, I snapped a photo, and then stopped and just looked at the snake.

I let out a loud yelp and did my version of a jig right there on a piece of granite for my audience of one. These are the photos from that experience…..

He finally had enough of me badgering him and coiled up until I left.

But I think the moment in my young life that truly cemented my path with animals happened when I was about 12. I always loved sharing my enthusiasm for animals with others and because of this I never thought anything bad could come of it.

I am not sure if I have ever shared this story with people, but it played a prominent role in my teenage development.  I was down at Muskrat Pond catching tadpoles. I don’t remember where my other friends went off to but a group of older teenagers who had snuck onto the golf course were walking to the high school parking lot where they had parked their car and stopped when they saw me next to the pond with my bucket.  They came up to me very kindly and asked if they could see what was in the bucket, I was more than happy to oblige, these cool older kids liked frogs? They wanted to see? I was more than proud to show them what a good day I had on the pond. They were looking at the tadpoles when one of the guys tipped it over and spilled them onto the path.  I thought it was accident and I quickly went to put water in the bucket and as I was filling it at the water’s edge  I saw a splash in the pond. I looked back and one of the teenagers was using a golf club to hit the tadpoles into the pond.

I freaked out and started screaming at them. I ran toward them but  they blocked me from getting to the tadpoles. I can vividly remember one of them using a 9 iron and just watching the tadpole burst like a water balloon.  I was crying and angry, but too scared to do anything.  They didn’t hurt me, and just laughed as they walked away.  I couldn’t comprehend the cruelty that I just witnessed.  I will never forget the smell and carnage on the path after they had left, it still haunts me today, kneeling down looking for any possible survivors amidst the massacre I just witnessed.

I could complain about how no child should have to witness that, or how hard it was for me but I believe this event set me on what was the path that would determine my whole life.  It was most likely the emotional pain of this event that made me realize teaching people about the living world would be my calling…..if I could go back I would do two things, first I would ask those kids why they did it, second, I would thank them.

As I got older my ability to collect more exotic specimens led me to work odd jobs around the neighborhood to save money for fish tanks and reptiles.  Growing up on the ocean I was sure I would be a marine biologist. I kept tons of fishtanks, and my Christmas presents would always revolve around getting better equipment. My parents were saints and I tortured them. They often found dessicated salamanders around the house, toads, frogs, and of course the occasional garter snake that I was forbidden to bring home, of all the things they let me have, snakes were the line. But when I was in the woods and I saw that flash of yellow and black glide through the dead leaves of the forest floor I would lunge with reckless abandon, not caring about getting bitten or musked on. Once the incredible beast was in my possession I was not going to just let it go.

What amazes me most about my younger self is that for some reason I never understood why a shoebox under my bed couldn’t hold a garter snake captive. Over and over again I would sneak upstairs to gaze at my contraband with wonder and like clockwork it would be gone, and like clockwork there would soon be a scream and a yell as said contraband made its way to small crack or hole in the wall.

Did I mention how many times my dad had to take apart pieces of our house to find fugitive animals?

I began to keep elaborate fish tanks and reptile cages. My dad going so far as to let me turn wall units in my room into lizard cages…..snakes were still not allowed, the rule was 16 years old and I could get a  snake.

Even in middle school and early high school I was keeping saltwater reef tanks, an expensive hobby that I supplemented with a paper route and odd jobs around the neighborhood.  Always saving up enough money to go to Armstrong Animals in Salem, MA to see what sort of wonder I could come home with. My mother, God bless her, would routinely drive me over there for water quality tests, to gaze and wonder, and eventually to work.  There was a point where I was working grunt jobs at the pet store for $2.00 an hour store credit, yes you read that correctly.

By this time I had kept skinks, tegus, and any other lizard that I could get ahold of. I still longed for my first boa, but my parents were adamant about me waiting. Plus at the hefty price tag of $250 they couldn’t fathom why someone would pay so much for an animal. In fact their other rule was I could not ask for live animals for Christmas, they sort of made an exception for my birthday, but even so, no snakes……I was chomping at the bit for my 16th birthday, not for the reason most teenagers are desperately waiting to turn 16, no for me it was because it signified my ability to get a snake.

I distinctly remember going to the pet store to buy my first boa.  I went in, pocket full of boa money and immediately went to the tank with the boas. $250 for a Columbian boa, but in the tank next to them they had Central American Boas for $150. I was confused, and when I asked the guy at the pet store he said they were cheaper because they weren’t as pretty, “true” I thought, “but who cares about pretty, I just want a boa”.  What he failed to tell me (and what most snake people reading this already know) is that they have a fiercely aggressive attitude.  After getting perforated for a few days I decided this wasn’t for me and needed the Columbian boa, so back to the pet store we went and I traded in the Central American boa + $100 and came home with Sydney (I know the name is unimaginative, I was 16), and a snake who would change my life. I even remember the shirt I was wearing that day, it had a bunch of rainbow trout swimming in a circle around my body.

When I first brought Sydney home she measured just a slight 12 inches. Soon she would quadruple in size….and more.

I loved Sydney and even more so loved showing her off to guests my parents had over.  Letting them know that snakes are not evil and can be friendly. In high school I would take a 5 foot long Sydney to elementary schools and libraries putting on talks about the biology of snakes and letting kids handle Sydney in an effort to dispel any fears of snakes.

Soon my parents house was overflowing with fish tanks and reptile cages.  It reached a tipping point when my five foot water monitor decided he had enough of his cage and broke out of it.  This would not have been a big deal if we didn’t have a downstairs full of guests for my mom’s 40th birthday party.  I remember sitting on the couch and seeing my dog bark toward the stairs, and there on the landing midway down was the water monitor, neck up, tongue flicking in and out to see where the good food was hiding.  I decided I could wrangle him and get him upstairs without any major commotion.  As you recall, I also believed a shoebox could hold a snake.  The dog barked, I ran, the lizard jumped down the stairs, guests screamed and poured out of the house, I made a blind grab and missed as the monitor made for the small opening between our couch and the floor.  He slid under and without thinking I stuck my hand under the couch to grab him.

If anyone knows Varanid (monitor) behavior they are laughing right now.  Because they know what happened next.  The lizard clamped his large teeth-lined mouth down onto my hand with the strength of a pitbull and immediately inflated his body so he could not be removed from his secure spot.

I remember the pain pulsing up my arm, but it wasn’t the pain I cared about, it was the aftermath of this event.  Lets put it this way. I could never build prisons with the track record of animal escapes I had growing up and my parents were reaching their wit’s end (and rightfully so).

After a long time the monitor let go of my hand and a game of cat and mouse ensued until he was back in his cage.

My parents told me between the fish tanks and reptiles I had too much on my plate and one or the other had to go.  I really think they thought I would get rid of the reptiles.  I loved, LOVED the ocean and fish and proclaimed I would follow in the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau and Eugenie Clark. Plus what idiot would take the relentless blood loss and pain of wild lizard bites?

I was emptying my fish tanks the next day and my career in the living world was set.

Later while in college a local newspaper would interview me about my fascination, work, and education with reptiles.  The reporter came to my house and he interviewed and photographed me as I would show them different snakes and explain how calm and docile they were. It was when I had a particularly large female rainbow boa in my hand that irony decided to rear its hilarious head.

The snake calmly opened its mouth, clamped down on my forearm and coiled all six feet of muscle around my arm in a feeding response.  Blood began pouring down my arm through the snakes coils and the reporter started to freak out.  I calmly explained he was just hungry and it didn’t hurt.  However the pooling blood below me did nothing to convince the reporter of my statement.  I got the snake off of me and told him it was my fault for taking a hungry snake out and he was just doing what he was programmed to do.

I followed the path I knew I would studying evolutionary biology and ecology at the University of Maryland. Through shear determination and grit I got myself into working on komodo dragon behavior research as an undergrad….in fact I was doing research with two of the Smithsonian’s top reptile researchers completely independent of my University.  I was 20 years old, not even old enough to drink and I had attained my life’s goal.

I loved sitting in the room discussing the behaviors we witnessed, bouncing around intellectual ideas and just learning from these men.  When I graduated college I continued researching dragon behavior at the Smithsonian, it was heaven.  Here I was involved in what was one of the first papers on play behavior in reptiles.  We would sit behind a roped off section in front of the dragon cage with clipboard and such taking notes as visitors walked by.  I felt like a rock star, behind a special rope that said we were doing serious business, don’t bother us.

But then something happened that made me realize I need to make a course correction with my life. We were sitting in our roped off section in front of the dragon cage and I was methodically counting tongue flicks and recording the data when I heard it.  For lack of better words a redneck sounding family was behind us looking at the dragon.  The son asked his father what the lizard was in front of them. The father could have easily read “Komodo Dragon” on the placard next to cage but he just said “That’s an ee-gwana”.

“Ee-gwanas are neat” the son replied.

My blood curdled and and I clenched my jaw.  It made me angry. Here these people have the opportunity to see the largest lizard in the world.  Something very few people will ever see, something that exhibits amazing and intelligent behaviors, and you are just going to reduce it to the only type of lizard you know about?

Not on my fucking watch.

It was then I realized that when the research was done and published I would become a teacher.  Unraveling the mysteries of animal for other scientists was one thing, but sparking an interest in animals, especially reptiles in young people was even better.

I left research for good and became a science teacher.  I keep a room full of snakes and for the last ten years I have been introducing young people to different species of snakes.  It became so popular we had a reptile keeping club.  Soon the older high school students were teaching the lower school students about reptiles.  Showing off how much they knew.

The amazing part of all this is that at the center of my snake collection is a large docile Colombian boa….18 years later Sydney is still dispelling fears in students as she sits calmly in my science lab. For ten years she has helped student overcome their fear of snakes.  She never gets mad, never hisses, never shows annoyance.

Sometimes I sit and stare at that snake and just nod in amazement how she has been with me since I was 16. For 18 years, my first snake, the one that started it all still sits in my collection.  I think of how she has been with me for every major event of my young adult and adult life. Through every girlfriend, every break up, every dorm room, every apartment, and now, quietly living her days in a science room making a difference in kids lives.

I know this animal has no emotions, I know how the reptilian brain works, she is merely use to the handling and tolerates it. But for me, it goes deeper. She is a part of who I am. She helped carve out my path in life.

Today at the aquarium as I stared into cages and tanks I thought about all this.  How my life turned out and how lucky I was.  I thought back to muskrat pond and the ease of childhood where happiness hinged on a captured frog and if it didn’t happen there was always tomorrow. I thought how while my friends were partying and learning how to talk to girls I was catching frogs. How even in college I would sometimes forego parties to go to ponds and catch frogs.  Often times not having a net and using my well honed hand catching skills.  No matter how crappy I felt or how bad a day was it could all change with a good day at the pond and a frog in the hand.

Hand catching bullfrogs is a skill I  still possess today. The first time I took Aqila home to meet my family and see where I grew up I took her to Muskrat Pond, I mean it was such a huge part of me I had to show her. I told her to quietly walk down the path like I was and not to speak.  I held my hand out signaling her to stay back as we got close and I locked my sights onto a bullfrog.  The world melted away and I was 6 years old again, I crept up slowly holding one hand high in front of the frog as a decoy and then in a lightning swift motion came around with my other hand and grabbed him.

I had  huge grin on my face as a pond scum covered arm proudly held the frog up  to Aqila.  Strangely, she did not look all that impressed at what she just witnessed. Who knew girls were not impressed by a man’s ability to catch frogs by hand? It didn’t matter, because as I sat there, a full grown man with a bull frog in his hands and a giant grin on his face I was six years old again in my mind, the whole world was still in front of me and today was a good day because I got a bullfrog.


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2 responses to “The Childhood Aquatic

  1. Nana

    Hi John, I enjoyed your life story on your love of reptiles and how you became a science teather..I remember well the cages in your bedroom and then in the basement. of your house. Good luck in your teaching the children in your class room. Love Nana

  2. Tokiea

    nice story romes. love the pictures of baby romano.

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