The pine barrens of New Jersey are best known for the Jersey Devil and as the graveyard of minor mobsters residing in the tea-dark waters of its cedar bogs.
Tramping it with elder brothers Rod and Vic in my teens, I loved those cedar bogs. Deerflies swarmed around us and ripped small flesh from our forearms. I bottled the tea-dark water to make tea later.
Rod and I stomped through them time and again, thigh deep in springy, supporting yet squishy ooze. The first couple tromps were to check for snakes and amphibians. After that, it was because Rod would do anything to satisfy his ill-suited-to-the-real-world kid brother.
In case you haven’t been there, the pine barrens are a low-slung, down-to-the-earth, pretty much flat sandy bottom on which grow pines and stunted, spindly bushwhackery to which I could not give a name. Glancing down at your feet, you see undifferentiated not-much – just stuff, sticking out of the ubiquitous sand. The swamps and bogs interrupt, here and there.
The barrens are the northernmost outpost of southern plant growth, the southernmost outgrowth of northern. The eastern areas burn over regularly. There you can drive through a region of surreal dwarf pines, four feet high or less, that have adapted to release seeds only following a fire. Almost doll-like, they could be a child’s inquisition of reality. But they are way older than you or I. They have experienced. They know.
I have almost no sense of direction. Set me two feet off a trail, turned sideways, and I have no idea where I am. But I never felt lost in the pine barrens. Even without directions from my brothers, I knew where I was, though I don’t know quite what that means. When we’d get confused, I’d clamber up a pine, as far as I could go, to see where we were, yelp down and point out which way we should go.
We spent a lot of time – the three brothers together, or just Rod and me (sometimes with his wondrous wife, Ginny) – parading through cranberry bogs or into stinking, sulfurous quagmires from which Rod would wander, unconcerned, though small towns, leeches hanging off his back, bleeding him in quiet jubilation.
All our pine-barrens trips had to do with snakes. Our group approach to capture was to triangulate on a slithering beastie and charge. My favorite recollection is of Rod making the winning grasp of a black snake, which latched all fangs onto his thumb. He held up his bleeding hand, snake attached, yelling “I got it!”
Rod did not kill or keep these snakes. He measured and released them. The capture was enough in itself. Almost more than enough.
Rod’s whole life was enmeshed with snakes. He knew more about them than many of the world’s leading herpetologists. Yet I wouldn’t say he was obsessed. Obsession suggests internal misdirection, a perverse wackiness. With Rod it was something greater – a lasered focus from which he absorbed and retained every relevant detail.
He could identify anything that crawled. He knew that one water snake he’d collected (the one who gave birth to dozens of live young in our Hasting Ave. basement) was longer than the supposed world record. He never bothered to submit the claim.
This ruminal segment started as a reminiscence about place and time, but it’s sidetracked into a musing on Rod (14 years older than me) and, to a slightly lesser extent, Vic (12). I can’t say how to view us as a siblinged family – how we aligned with anything normally recognized as a working, nuclear familial group.
I doubt that three brothers could have been any closer than we were, yet, to the view of the outer world, less connected. Over the years, Vic and I talked on the phone now and then (he was by then a ship captain for Sun Oil and seldom home), mostly about stereo systems (then called hi-fi).
My internal connection with Rod was intense – but in what way? We’re taciturn people, we Davises, and none more taciturn that Rod, whose standard response to any written question, once he glommed onto email, was “OK.” We didn’t talk much, we spent our time thinking (or so I’d like to think). He kept the essentials of himself buried deep but denied the surface to no one. He lived a superlative life in any way that humanly matters.
I never openly extolled him during his life. I hope that doesn’t sound empty. I don’t think it was. He didn’t need it.
Rod kept me sane. Does it matter? Oh yes.
The ultimate Rod and Snakes story:
While he was sailing as a radio operator on Sun Oil tankers in the late 1940s, the ships would dock at Port Arthur, Texas (which later produced Janice Joplin but little else). On landing, Rod – who hated the ships and the job he undertook to support the family while my father was out of work – would duck off into the swamps and woods. He’d sometimes bring back coconuts (including one that, on opening, proved to have a soul as rotted as Ted Bundy’s).
How he got bitten on the hand by a pygmy rattlesnake I’ve never been exactly clear. But it did not dissuade him from tucking the offender in his pocket and taking it onboard the tanker. Pygmies don’t have that much venom, so the bite would not be fatal (as Rod knew). He kept the snake in a cigar box in the radio room. But his hand, then his wrist, then his forearm swelled. He couldn’t keep his shirt sleeve buttoned.
What to do? He’d rather the captain not determine he was keeping a poisonous snake in a cigar box. (Years later, Rod told me, “It takes time for the venom to regenerate. I knew the snake couldn’t hurt anybody.”) So he shoved his right hand into his pants pocket when in the mess room or other public place. No one noticed his temporary deformity.
What happened to the pygmy rattler? Rod gave it to the Philly zoo.