I ran over an already dead snake with my pickup truck today. Unavoidably. It was on a rural two-lane highway. I’d come around a gentle bend and didn’t see it reaching into the lane from the right edge until it was too late.

When it happened, I shuddered. It was visceral. And physical. An upper-body convulsion. My right foot let off the accelerator at 55-ish miles per hour. Still, too late. 

Why does that matter to me? And so physically.

When I was eight years old, but a quiet third-grader walking home from school 40 years ago, a snake boarded my leg from behind. I felt its weight on the heel of my right shoe as I drew upward to take my next step. 

At first, I thought the rubber of my sole, already having become unglued by affordability and boyish wear, had further torn away from the shoe. The step felt awkward. But as I turned to look past my right hip and down my leg, I saw the snake head first. It was continuing up my small bare calf and beyond. It’s head went past the popliteal fossa behind my knee. Ever upward.

This very directly went against every assurance I’d been given about wildlife: “It’s as afraid of you as you are of it,” I’d been told and told. Lies, it turns out. Lies. “J’accuse!” I want my eight-year-old self to scream.

I was seized by fear. Intense panic. Not only that the snake was on my leg, but I was wearing shorts. So many thoughts. Instantaneous explosion. My mind screaming. My eyes unleashing. My body shaking from the core outward.

This happened when I was alone on the high school practice football field behind our school. Our schools, actually. The buildings, pre-K through 12th grade, all were attached. The word campus probably would be applied now. I didn’t know that then. We just always referred to it as “the school.” 

I also didn’t know that there was an ecology zone behind the school, next to the practice field, that fostered life. A place where science classes would go, I was told.

I had only known my end of the experience. My building. Where the little kids went. Little classrooms with little desks. Little playgrounds and little ball fields. I could cut across the bigger fields outside the fifth-grade exit to go home. 

I’d walk the length of the practice football field, turn left and pass along the outside of a chain link fence that stood between school property and a residential neighborhood. Then I’d walk down water tower hill and cross a narrow bridge into my neighborhood.

With the snake on my leg and fear squeezing me, I understood that I had to do something. But what and how? I couldn’t grab it with my hand. I wouldn’t. Even the thought of it in my hand, feeling its life, its movement and possibly its bite. No.

I went with the next idea that flashed to mind, all of it happening in the span of a few compressed breaths. Kick it off. More of a fling, really. That was my chance. I was, you might like to know, a trophy-winning punt-pass-kick athlete. Second place. But still. 

The morning I won that trophy with my throwing arm (right) and kicking leg (same), my mom took me to McDonald’s for a celebratory treat. I took the trophy inside the restaurant with us. We sat at a two-top by the window and I set my trophy on the window sill, as if the world could see it. 

With this snake, I could do that. Swing the leg (fingers crossed). I had to do that. To free myself from this impossible horror in a space I’d otherwise felt confident and joyful: a sports field. A football field. 

As I drew my right leg forward, I feared the movement would provoke it, that I would incite a bite. I feared that I wouldn’t do it fast enough and the snake would make its way inside the leg opening of my shorts. I feared … what? Not surviving? If we’re honest about my eight-year-old level of understanding and fear. Okay, sure. It was a consuming fear.

Then I released my leg, letting it catapult backward with the force I could summon. And it worked. It worked! I watched the snake fly. It’s curvy silhouette against the bright 3 o’clock sky. I saw it land on the shorn field, perpendicular to my path. Saw its instant lateral undulation to get away. With a quickness. 

There was an easing of tension in my body, no doubt. But also aftershocks. I still had the rest of that field to cross. I still had most of a mile to get home, my face wet, my eyes blurry and my stomach twisting. A backyard with dobermans awaited, the last yard before I would emerge from the shade-covered singletrack us kids had worn along the school fence over the years. I’d come out at the top of water tower hill. From there, home stretch.

Later, my parents’ speculative explanations would cement a story of the event in my mind: It was a garter snake. It lived in the ecology zone next to the field. Neither tended to my sense of trauma in that experience. Nor my instantly formed phobia. The story would linger inside me for decades, and with certainty. 

Until in my mid 40s, when a bolt from the blue struck me while standing in my kitchen, the kitchen I share with my wife and our own two sons. This bolt of a question: How do you know it was a garter snake? You weren’t there!

And that ecology zone? I don’t know about that either. I moved through the student ranks at that school, from pre-K to high school graduation, progressing through the buildings from one end to the other. I never went with a science class to that overgrown “ecology zone” that supposedly sat against a small hill, filling the gap between the practice football field and the baseball field above it.

Maybe that snake was a garter. Maybe it wasn’t venomous. Maybe it did live in that space between the ball fields. But no one knows, really. I don’t. And I was the only one there. That was the spark these decades later. I was the only one there. For nearly 40 years, I lived with a certainty about this story. This is what it is.

It’s been a revelation, this spark of waitadamnminutehere. How many other stories do I hold that are rooted in speculation and self-soothing? How many other stories are thirsty for reexamination? What stories have I told myself about myself, and about the world, that are flawed, even if well-intentioned? How many are worthy of loosening my grip on them? I dare say all. Ish.

When I was 24 years old, I was a soldier on leave in Bangkok. I visited a snake farm. I saw cobras being stoked to madness and men capturing their venom in glass jars to show tourists like me.

A python was brought out by two men. They could have used more. It was massive, if it must be said. Thick. Impossibly long. I couldn’t and still can’t imagine tripping across such a tree trunk of a reptile in the jungle. Or seeing it move. Or eat. Now I only see such fantastic creations in viral videos online. Like, when they’ve been caught in someone’s backyard in the Everglades of Florida. Unconscionable.

They exist in movies, but not movies I care to watch. Movies like “Snakes on a Plane”? “Anaconda”? The f**k?! Unthinkable. I am absolutely judging those movies by their covers and passing wide. 

In Bangkok, though, I saw one being handled in front of my eyes. Only feet away. Tourists were invited to step up to the snake, turn around as the two men draped (and held) it across their shoulders. A photo op.

I went for it. I did. A growth moment. That’s why I bothered to go to that snake farm at all. But as I turned around, one of the men who held the snake, no doubt seeing the apprehension in my face, playfully pinched at my forearm with his fingers. As if to suggest the snake was biting me. He meant no harm. I knew that. But hells no!

I moved away from the snake. I went back to my concrete seat no more than 10 feet away. Quickly. And shook my head with certainty when they tried to coax me back. Hells. No.

Nearing 50 years of age now, I still have a challenging relationship with snakes. Or, in fairness, the idea of them. I do encounter several a year. At least. Mostly when I’m on trails. I’ve even had them, on two occasions, dart between my strides when I’m running. It’s okay. I survived.

I have no animosity toward them. I leave them alone as I wish to be left alone. Golden rule in effect. It’s a karmic thing. I’m afraid that if I harm one, if I take out my traumas and fears on one, its Serpentes comrades will know and will come for me.

When I ran over that snake with my pickup truck, I had zero doubt it was dead before I got there. It was clear. By its body position and by its innards spilled on the highway. No matter. I still shivered and writhed with dread at the steering wheel. Unavoidably.

The Snake is #Three in the weekly memoir series, Among Other Things. What’s it all about? Read Introducing ‘Among Other Things,’ A Weekly Memoir Series.