Part Two (If you missed Part One, start here)
My mom believed in the mysteries. The story of Adam and Eve was real, just like Hell, the devil and our daily battles with demons. Battles you could lose just by forgetting to pray before bed.
The snake pit experience became a warning to a new Adam. Be careful. One slip and something could go horribly wrong. Your eternal soul is at stake.
I started to sense snakes.
Years later, I faced the call from a bearded prophet across crowded high school hallways: “Adam! Wo bist du?” I was just beginning to understand that my attraction to other boys was not something I would grow out of. The best description of how that felt: terror. I thought I was the only Mennonite boy on earth with this problem. Adam, the first gay Mennonite. But I didn’t even understand that ‘gay’ was what I was—I was just evil. Full of lust. A sinner.
So, I hid.
In high school, the memory of the snake pit was challenged. I went with friends to see Indiana Jones. Inspired by his escape from the pit of vipers, after the movie I told my friends my snake pit story; they accused me of exaggerating.
Was I? Could that have really happened? Maybe I dreamed it.
That night I asked Dad. More than a decade had passed; we’d never talked about it.
“I have this memory,” I started. “We were in the swamp after a flood and there were lots of snakes…”
“Hundreds,” Dad said, folding the newspaper over his leg and sitting straighter in the recliner. “I never saw anything like it before or since.”
Part of me was amazed that it really happened, and part was relieved that my memory was true. Still another part of me continued to wonder—why me?
The challenge made me question other odd memories, like Pop Doc. I approached Mom in the kitchen.
“I have this memory of Pop Doc,” I said. “He was covered head to toe in bees.”
“Oh yeah,” Mom said from the sink, shaking a strainer full of steaming spaghetti. “He was a bee charmer.”
The phrase, bee charmer, was new for me. I liked the magical quality of it.
“He would go collect the honey from the hives without any protection. He swore up and down that he’d never been stung.”
Mom directed me to get out the green canister of grated parmesan cheese, then she talked on about Pop Doc.
“He could touch a mother’s belly and know if the baby was a boy or girl. He was never wrong.”
“Did he predict me?”
“He sure did.”
I told Mom about remembering standing in the barn with my cousins, we had followed Pop Doc to the stall of a collapsed horse. I got woozy as he pushed his arm into the horse, all the way to his shoulder, and then, he extracted a tiny horse.
“He would help people with their animals. With things like breech births—he didn’t have training—but folks knew he was a healer.”
That’s how he got the name ‘Doc.’
Caldwell was his real name. I was surprised when Mom told me that Caldwell was supposed to be my middle name. They changed their minds and picked something from a baby-name book. I didn’t ask why, and I felt conflicted.
The old man I had known squinted at us kids and clomped past. Never talking. We were in his way as he carried on the work of the farm; work he did until he died in his 90s. I remember following my cousins into the chicken coop in the spring. It was a fuzzy yellow carpet of tiny bustling peeps. Pop Doc had tromped through moments before carrying a pail of slop for the pigs. My cousin Brian showed me his footprints. Every few feet, dead baby chickens. My heart hurt.
While I was glad to not be saddled with his name, I wondered about his mystical qualities. His connection to life’s secrets, like charming bees and predicting snake pits.
“He was also famous for his foul mouth,” Mom said, laughing, handing me a stack of plates for the table. “Pop Doc could lay down a curse as fast as cure your cow!”
That was my chance to ask about Pop Doc’s curse of their land. About her belief that the snake pit happened because of Pop Doc. I didn’t ask. It felt too delicate.
Curses. Like being banished from the Garden of Eden. Or to be an animal that moved across the earth on its belly, vulnerable. I didn’t want to ask. Growing up, in my Mennonite universe, being queer was a curse. And death often seemed like the only escape—except that death was not an escape.
“Even if I kill myself,” I thought, sitting in Dad’s car in the garage, key in the ignition, knowing that I could not go through with it, “I will go to Hell.”
When I was four, at my family’s cabin in northern Pennsylvania, my parents sat with me at the kitchen table to tell me about rattlesnakes; they told me about fangs and venom that kills.
“Don’t wander too far off, and stay alert,” was Dad’s warning.
I was barely listening. Longing for the cool air outside. When excused, I made a break for the door. On the stoop was a snake. I stepped on it. With bare feet.
I don’t remember the snake. I don’t remember the screaming or falling or lingering unconsciousness that are my parents’ story of this event. I remember dying.
“I am dying,” I said.
They laid me on the kitchen table where I stayed, still, repeating the mantra aloud.
“I am dying.”
Visions of the Illustrated Children’s Bible glittered behind my eyelids. Why didn’t I listen to my parents? The story of Adam and Eve. The piles of writhing snakes in the swamp. Warnings from God. To me. About me. About consequences. I had not paid attention. Now I was paying the price.
“I am dying.” I went on this way for over an hour.
“Adam, it was a garter snake,” Dad said.
Each time I repeated my line, Mom stroked my forehead and said, “No, honey, no you’re not.”
Mom was right. She was probably right about the horse being a cow too. My contrary spirit.
I did not die.
The book of Genesis says that God didn’t set Adam and Eve outside of the garden gates naked, God made clothes for them. But now they had to work to survive. God made Adam a farmer. He was in touch with the earth and animals, just like Pop Doc. Pop Doc touched Mom’s belly to predict my sex. Did he know I would be queer? If I was Adam Caldwell, would I understand life’s mysteries the way Pop Doc did? Would we have shared a queerness that goes back to the garden, where bees were friendly?