Sometimes you went out of your way following signs, sometimes it was just a place along the road to stop and find a bathroom and stretch your legs. There were hundreds of thousands of little privately owned roadside attractions, everything from the World’s Biggest Buffalo to the Mermaids of the Underwater Theater at Weeki Wachee Springs. They are not all gone yet, and seeking out one can be both fascinating and disappointing.
Most of them had a shop attached, selling fireworks and souvenirs. We had stopped at such an attraction, and among the plates and cedar boxes stamped with name of the local highlights, was a box of the most lifelike rubber snakes I had ever seen. 99 cents. Surely there was fun to be had with such an item. I had a few dollars of allowance and Christmas money, and so, carefully selecting the most realistic of the colorations, I purchased the snake and went out to the car.
I think I had intended to use it to scare my sisters, but when I got to the car I was alone. I opened the driver’s door, and laid the rubber snake on the dash so that it’s head hung over the edge, then closed the door and went back inside the store. Soon enough, my dad called and we all came out to the car together. My mother opened her door and sat down. The motion caused the snake to move and drew her attention.
She screamed. If there was a recording of the sound she made, it would be used in horror movies to this day. She was back pedaling, and went over the seat to land between my sisters, still screaming. My father, as fathers are expected to do, reached in and grabbed the snake.
As his fingers closed on the snake, the essential rubberiness of the object alerted him and his understanding of the entire sequence of events was both accurate and complete. No explanation necessary. He finally got through to his wife, my sainted mother, the nature of the object. She took even less time than he did in grokking the situation, and said what any loving mother would say, “I want you to beat him. Right now. This isn’t funny, don’t you start laughing at me, I WANT HIM SPANKED!”
The fact that I was standing at the back of the car leaning on the tailgate laughing so hard that tears rolled was not improving my chances of long term survival, but I was helpless. I could not run, I could barely see, I was weak, doomed even, and yet all there was to do was laugh.
It saved me, I think. He came back to where I stood, still clutching the snake, but a smile was playing on his face. She was still hollering from inside the car. He held up the snake and shook his fist at me, the snake shaking back and forth, but no words came out. I spoke first, “It looks really real, doesn’t it?”, I managed, in between giggles.
“Goddam it, boy”, he said, and he lost it. Now he was laughing, too. Laughing too hard to hide it from her and she was as mad at him as she was at me. We stood out there until we got it under control, and finally he looked at me and reasserted his authority, “Never again, understand? Never again.”
I don’t remember how long she was mad at us, an hour or a week, all I remember is that high pure note and the sight of her launching herself over the seat. Sometimes those roadside attractions are a real adventure.
When people are laughing, they’re generally not killing each other.