My grandfather, Mordecai Brown, was a simple, hardworking man. He worked as a janitor in the Baltimore City school district for years and saved his money to buy a dream. An American dream to purchase land that he could call his own. Land that would relocate him from the urban hustle of the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD to the quiet countryside of New Windsor, MD. And like many dreamers from the greatest American generation, he made it happen.
Trips “up the country”, as we called it, were delightful. The property sat high on a hill accessible by a winding gravel road that parted dense forest like a great divide. Rays of sunshine tried desperately to reach the forest floor in an attempt to give life to youthful foliage. At the bottom of the hill where the road commenced trickled a natural spring that pooled crystal clear water.
Brick by brick, beam by beam my grandfather built his home; defying the odds and fulfilling his dream of land and home ownership. The house sat atop the hill at the end of the gravel road where the wood opened to a clearance. I was fascinated by the open space, trees, and nature.
Once the house was complete and my grandparents settled in, they would trek down to Baltimore to retrieve me and my brother Roland. We helped with chores and provided as much labor as 8 and 9 year-old boys could muster. On one such occasion in the early 1970’s, me and Roland piled into the back of my grandfather’s winged station wagon; ready to tackle some adventure. The winged station wagon wound its way from Cherry Hill, through the Baltimore City streets and on to Liberty Road where we would spend the next 40 minutes or so on a straight shot to New Windsor.
I remember the feeling of freedom and the lifting of burdens that city living often placed on my shoulders. At least for the next couple of days, there would be no worrying about bullies, glue-sniffers or basketball court brawls. No one would call me “White Hiney”, a reference to my pale bottom often seen when I’d give a full moon salute. Growing up “light-skinned”, at times, could be an unshakable burden and that name would stick with me and Roland until we moved to Wakefield on Baltimore’s Westside where a whole new set of nicknames would eventually emerge.
Once through Baltimore’s suburbs, farm land sprouted from the horizon. The smell was different, cleaner. At least until we were hit with the undeniable aroma of fresh cow manure. “Pew”! Roland and I would shout with twisted faces. My grandfather made eye contact through the rear view mirror, “Doesn’t that smell good?” We’d scream, “No”! and pinch our adolescent noses. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the manure smell held a different meaning for him. It smelled like freedom and destiny; reminiscent of home and roots. Mostly, it was unlike anything that Cherry Hill had to offer. Cherry Hill, for Mordecai P. Brown, was someplace to escape from.
The winged station wagon turned off Liberty Rd. after a while an on to Roop Rd. Our excitement was palpable for we knew what sat ahead a hundred yards or less on the left side of Roop Rd. The grandparents befriended a local. A black man, roughly 70 years or older by my inexperienced estimation, who owned a small farm. On this farm he had some chicks eee i eee i oh. Among the small assortment of domestic farm animals, the old dude owned a rather large hog. This hog, at the tallest point of its body, stood taller than me, and lived in a pen just a few yards from the edge of the road. Pop Pop, that’s my granddad, would stop the station wagon in the road next to the pen so that we could say hello to Mr. Pig. Pop Pop, in turn, exchanged pleasantries with the farmer.
At the house, just minutes from the farm, we helped unload the winged station wagon and settled into our chores. We cleared land, hauled water, applied creosote to wooden beams, and removed rocks from Nana’s garden. Nana was my grandmother.
My Pop Pop laid the foundation for a larger dream home adjacent to the house that they were living in. Cinder blocks outlined each would-be room and wooden beams served as the bones that would hold the meat of his dreams. For whatever reason, the house was never finished. That was not something that we knew at the time.
All was not lost on boys of 8 and 9 years of age. The cinder block foundation might as well have been an ancient Mayan ruin, and we its conquering explorers. It was a playground, zoo, and science lab all in one. Captured turtles and toads were placed in the foundation for close study. Insects sequestered and dropped into spider webs for experimentation. A large wolf spider carrying its young on its back became Roland’s favorite pet; spending a portion of its life in a mayonnaise jar. Sitting on the wood beams, eating sandwiches, watching insects fly about, listening to song birds compose a tune, and watching squirrels engage in a game of tag was glorious past-time.
During this particular trip, while playing among the ruins, we spied a black serpent of unknown species slithering among the cinder block. Having watched our fair share of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Roland had the bright idea of capturing the snake. I idolized my older brother so I was all in. We fashioned a two-prong fork out of a tree branch. This fork was to be placed behind the snake’s head, rendering it incapable of striking and allowing for safe handling.
I reached my little hand into a hole in the cinder block wall and grabbed the snake by the tail. I flung it to the ground within the walls of a section of the foundation. It wriggled wildly with fear. Roland chased the serpent into a corner and, with precision, pinned the snake behind the head with the forked stick.
I had to be the first to handle the snake. I had to. My little right hand grasped the snake behind the head just like Marlin Perkins taught us. With my little left hand, I scooped the snake’s body until it was hoisted in the air. I was flush with pride and accomplishment. And then… engulfed with fear.
The snake dropped from my hands and slithered to a corner. My body hit the ground; mouth gapped wide open as silent screams only audible to dogs spilled from my lungs. Then I cried bloody murder. Roland dropped to his knees and the snake watched from its corner within the foundation. “What’s wrong”! my older brother shouted. But I could not answer. The shrieks poured out of the open tap. Finally I summoned the words, “I’m gonna die.” “I’m gonna die”! “I’m gonna die” “I’m gonna die”, my speech began to loop as fear’s clutch grew firm.
More words came although composure did not. “I don’t want to die,” I cried. As a lay on my back grasping my hand, Roland shook me by the arms, “Where did it bite you?” Dirt began to turn muddy where I soiled my shorts. Yes dear readers, I did indeed pissed my pants. Again Roland asked, “Where did it bite you?” I raised my hand to show my brother where the serpent exacted its revenge.
The sobbing grew and my heart pounded in my chest like a sledge hammer. “It must be the poison,” I thought to myself. “I don’t see a bite,” Roland was confused. “Where’s the bite?” “It..it..it spit poison on me,” I managed to say. Roland examined the poison closely. “It’s poop or pee you dummy,” he exclaimed. “It pooped on you! That’s not poison!” I was dumbfounded. Indeed there was wetness and slime on my hand. Indeed it was the left hand that was affected. Indeed, dear readers, my little right hand held the snake by its head. I feared, with great embarrassment, that Roland was correct. I had been pooped, not poisoned.
I gathered myself together, wiped the snot from my nose, and cleared my eyes of tears well enough to see Roland laughing at me. I failed to see the humor.
Still, there we were, two boys of 8 and 9 years of age with a task still ahead of us. A snake to capture. Roland would play the role of Marlin Perkins on this go ’round. We chased the black snake into another corner where Roland used the forked stick to secure the snake. I ran to the side of the house to retrieve an old rusty bucket to to hold our new pet.
The day grew long and it was nearing time to leave for Cherry Hill, but we were not yet ready to part with Blacky. Yes, we named the snake. The two brothers thought it would be cool to take the snake home to show their friends. So we covered the bucket with tin foil and placed it in the winged station wagon until it was time to depart. All of this unknown to my grandparents. Until discovered by Nana. You see dear readers, the snake had no intentions of traveling to Cherry Hill. None at all. It pushed its way through the tin foil and settled near the gas pedal.
The screams were loud and echoed throughout the wood. My grandfather moved with hesitant curiosity to investigate. Nana was beside herself. Our pet was discovered and in my mind, I was about to face my second near death experience of the afternoon. Pop Pop tossed the rusty bucket to the side and ordered us boys to remove Blacky from the car. We did with some measure of caution.
The day of excitement and adventure had come to an end as the winged station wagon headed back down Liberty Road. These kinds of experiences are among the building blocks that shaped the teenager and man to come. I learned an appreciation for nature and, for the second time of my life, for my own mortality. Blacky was most likely a common black snake, non-poisonous. But the risk I took capturing it and handling it is how I learned to take chances, both calculated and not.
A recent report on children’s active lifestyles suggested that the average child today spends only 10 minutes or less outside of the home. I’m so glad that I grew up in the 70’s. Life and nature have far more to teach us about life than the over-scheduled, technology driven way of today’s childrearing.