The Snake Man lives on in my memory
As a photographer I’m always passing some old house or building or other object that catches my attention, and as I hurry past it I tell myself, ‘“I’ve got to come back and shoot that.’”
Before I know it the days have turned into weeks, the weeks into months and one day I drive back by and whatever it was that I saw is now gone. This happened just around Easter. I saw an old house that looked very photogenic and I wanted a picture of my daughter in her Easter dress on the front porch. But before I knew it I’d gotten busy and a couple of weeks went by. Then one day on my way home I saw the fire department preparing it for a practice burn. My heart sank.
The same thing happens with people I’ve met. I’ll find someone who’s very interesting and before I can either find the time or muster up the courage to ask them if I can butt into their personal life, things change; they move, they change careers or even pass away. But a couple of years ago I made the time to get to know and tell the story of an old gentleman in my hometown named Gus Gordon, who’d owned a tiny pet shop in an uninviting cinderblock building for nearly 40 years. And this is one opportunity I’m glad I didn’t let pass me by.
Gus was known to everybody in Cleveland County as ‘The Snake Man’ because of the gigantic pythons and boa constrictors he raised and kept as pets to show off to anybody who came into his shop. He also sold snakes: boas, pythons, black snakes, garters, corn snakes ‘— nearly anything he could get his hands on that wasn’t poisonous.
I remember as a kid begging my parents to stop by the shop anytime we passed by. The place was a boy’s paradise, and Gus would let you touch the snakes and look at them all you wanted. Back in those days he also had a barnyard out back with goats, chickens, rabbits and peacocks. Inside lived turtles, frogs, lizards, fish and even monkeys at one point. Gus raised literally thousands of mice and rats and hundreds of rabbits that he sold to other shops as pets and, yes, snake food. He saw the sacrifice of one animal to meet the need of another simply as a way of life. Perhaps it was through those animals that he saw his own life as simply a way to meet the needs of another human life.
Not only was Gus’s shop one of my childhood memories but also my mother’s. She went there, too, as a youngster to see the animals. And when I went back to do my photo story on Gus I met another wide-eyed young boy whose mother used to come when she was a child as well. Gus loved children. He loved people in general. I remember he told me once: ‘“I don’t know which I like more, people or animals.’”
His wrinkled skin would stretch tight as a wide, toothless smile came across his face whenever any child entered the shop and he was eager to show them around and let them pet the animals. This was his joy. This is what his life was all about: showing kindness to all who entered and making them feel important.
He never had a lot of material possessions. He was a simple man who lived in a small trailer adjacent to the pet shop. He drove a white van for as long as anybody could remember and always wore a blue lab jacket his late wife made for him. But he was one of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Even after having his shop robbed and prize snakes stolen from him a couple of times, Gus was never bitter. In fact, he voiced concern for the pets’ care and safety, hoping the snakenappers knew how to properly care for them. He even had concern for the criminals themselves, hoping they could turn their lives around.
When I learned of Gus’s death a couple of weeks ago I felt several things. I wasn’t shocked; the 80 year old had survived a stroke a few years ago that was fast catching up to him. When I followed him around the shop he would often jump steps and then stumble when he hit the floor, forgetting he was too old to be jumping and skipping all over the place. I felt blessed that I was part of a special group that spent their childhood days visiting his shop. I felt fortunate that I got to know him on a personal level. And even though the news of his death saddened me a bit it didn’t leave me feeling sorry for him, because there’s no reason to.
Gus touched a lot of lives, and lived better than most of us can ever hope for. He brought hope to people, he helped children explore the world of animals and he gave his heart to everyone he met. He was genuine; he truly cared for other people. Upon his death there were no services scheduled, just a small gathering for some family and friends, and Gus’s body was donated to medical science, something for which he’d long prepared.
Thinking about his simple life and his many sacrifices, I find myself hoping that I will somehow touch someone’s life the way he’d touched so many. As I picture him walking through those pearly gates I see God taking him by the hand and leading him to Eden where his tiny cinderblock shop is replaced by a beautiful forest of wild animals, a menagerie like he’s never seen. Gus Gordon, may you rest peacefully in paradise.
You deserve it.