I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You’re Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank).
When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind me. We never hunted anything epic, like deer or bear; we went after squirrels, rabbits, and the occasional quail. And, in the hot summer months, we went frog gigging.
This sport (and I used the term loosely) is how you acquire frog legs. You carry a long, six-to-eight-foot pole with a barbed trident on the end. You also use a flashlight, or ideally a miner’s light worn on your head, and creep around the edges of ponds, lakes or swamps in the dark. The goal is to spot eye shine from bullfrogs. When you do, you hold the light on it, to make it stay still. Then you stab it with the gig.
The business end of a typical frog gig.
I was one of those weird kids who liked to catch frogs rather than kill them, and had no real taste for their meat. It was fun, in a macabre way, to watch the disembodied legs jump around in the pan as they fried, but not so much fun that I wanted to go get those legs myself.
The other issue was that my father had to be the worst person in the world to try to teach you anything. He had no patience, no concept of cause and effect, and no idea why once he’d explained something, it might need to be explained again. And he was a drunk. Not an overt one, but one of those sneaky drunks who hid his drinking from everyone.
So on those few instances when he’d insist that I go frog gigging with him, I was a nervous wreck. His disappointment in me was never violent, but it was always withering, and heavy with the sadness that I, his only son, was such a failure.
My dad (far right) and me (second from left) at about the time of this story.
I was twelve years old the night we went to a pond that seemed to be miles from where we left his old station wagon. We crawled through weeds, under fences, and across fields before finally reaching the tiny round pool, which was no more than forty feet across and perhaps six or seven feet deep. The deep thrump-thrump of bullfrogs told us we’d come to the right place.
We fired up our head-mounted lamps and split up, each of us taking a different direction around the pond. We had to walk right at the edge of the water, and shine the light ten or fifteen feet ahead, watching for the distinctive eye shine. I heard the snick-THUNK! of my dad’s gig right away, while all I managed to do was startle every frog within range. They leaped from the shallows and dove gracefully into the safer, deeper water.
Finally, though, I spotted one that was big enough, and transfixed by my light. I crept through the weeds until I emerged onto a flat patch of mud, almost in range.
Then something moved in the corner of my eye, by my feet. I tried to look down without moving the light off my quarry. It wasn’t a frog, and it was the wrong shape for a turtle. My brain classified it at the same instant my head involuntarily turned and shone my light on it.
It was a snake. A fat, poisonous water moccasin.
A water moccasin, also known as a cottonmouth, for obvious reasons.
I had no time to react, because it was already reacting. It struck out and sank its fangs into my foot, right through my rubber wading boots.
I’m not a courageous person by nature, and I certainly wasn’t brave then. My recently-descended testicles shot back up to their original spot, and my voice grew high and shrill as I screamed, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” I jumped in the air and tried to kick the snake away, but it was well and truly determined not to let go.
My dad ran over to me as fast as he could, saw the snake and quickly stomped on it. Then he pushed me down on the bank, tore away my wading boot and ripped off my sock, exposing my foot.
My entirely bite-free foot.
We both stared at it, pasty white in the combined illumination of our lights. I wiggled my toes.
Then my dad picked up my boot. The snake hung from it, smashed and dead, fangs still caught harmlessly in the rubber seam where the sole attached.
We went home after that. Dad had gotten enough frogs anyway, and I waited for my testicles to decide it was safe to come out again. I’d like to say this marked some sort of change in our relationship, but it didn’t. Since I don’t know how drunk he was that night, I have no real idea if he actually remembered it the next day. And I’d like to think there was some sort of symbolic aspect to it, mirroring our relationship. But truthfully, it was just one more instance of a man with too many problems and a son with no appreciable life skills failing, as always, to meaningfully connect.
This cross was put up in honor of my dad’s service to his church.