[The following is another excerpt from my upcoming book The End of Fear Itself. Enjoy, if that’s the right word for this particular story, and it probably isn’t.]
Sometimes, we overcome and move through one Fear with another one on our tail. Some Fears trump other Fears. There are somethings in this world that frighten us more than others, to the point where we will do things that we never would have in a normal situation. Sometimes we find ourselves fighting Fear with Fear Itself.
Something in the grass, moved.
My heart jumped and then sank. It was pumping at an alarming rate, instantly.
I froze in my tracks, if standing in ten inches of river water count as tracks. The gas trimmer was humming and vibrating in my hands, and the stainless steel blade at the end of the tool was singing a high-pitched whine; the whole thing vibrated violently in my hands.
As I stared down into the tall marsh grass, into the dark water, I saw two eyes.
Back in 1988,
I was 22 years old, a father of a beautiful little girl, and recently married. I was broke and desperate to make a living. I had been working for my father at the Salvation Army in New Bern, NC, for a couple of years, and the job was okay, but it didn’t pay enough to support a wife and child.
Working along with me there, was our youth director from the church, Ken. The two of us cooked up a plan one day after driving past Cedar Grove Cemetery, one of the oldest burial sections in a very old city. New Bern celebrated their tri-centenial in 2010. Some of the burials in Cedar Grove date back to just after the founding of the city, and the site was used as a backdrop for the TV show, Sleepy Hollow.
The place has old cedar trees—whence the name—covered in ancient, Spanish moss. But in 1988, it was overgrown and a bit derelict. The city was struggling to keep the place up.
Ken and I decided that this would be our ‘in’ to a new business: landscaping and lawn care.
So we created a name, Dreamscapes, printed up some business cards, wrote up some bullshit promo material and scheduled a meeting with the city planner. Ken was a pretty slick bullshitter, and managed to convince the city manager that we had the skills, the desire, and the equipment to clean up the old cemetery and make it a showplace for the slowly growing tourist industry in the town.
Now, all of what Ken said wasn’t bullshit. We did know how to cut grass, and we definitely had the desire to clean up the old cemetery. I love old cemeteries; I always have. But we didn’t own a single lawnmower, or weed-whipper. I think Ken might have owned a couple of rakes. But we knew that we could borrow the old Snapper, riding mower from the church, as well as the weed-whipper, and off we went!
But I digress. You want to know about the eyes in the grass.
Well, during that summer, Ken and I busted ass and created a little business for ourselves, enough so, that a couple of months into it, we both quit working at the Salvation Army. We were cutting grass and doing landscaping all over the city. And that’s how I ended up standing in ten inches of marsh grass, on the Trent River, staring at a pair of black eyes.
One of the jobs we took that summer was down in the country club area, on the Trent River, which is a fresh water river, that flows into the Neuse River, right where the city of New Bern was founded back in 1710. The Neuse is brackish water, due to the proximity of the city to the coast.
Anyway, we were hired by an old guy who had a modest home on the river, to come in and cut down all of his marsh grass so he could see the river better. Now, trust me, this isn’t something I would do now. I’m much too environmentally conscious these days, but back then, I wasn’t. I was economically conscious: conscious of the fact that I didn’t have any money, and a daughter and wife at home to feed.
So, we took the job. I’m not even sure it was legal to do what we did. I doubt it is these days. It was illegal to try to kill the grass; I know that much. So we took the job of cutting it down.
Now, you have to realize that when I say some marsh grass, I mean a patch of grass reaching out into the river about 50 yards, and probably 70 yards wide! It was a huge area to cut, and it couldn’t be accomplished with a riding mower! It had to be cut down, one swath at a time, with the swing of a weed-whipper.
The grass was very thick, close to an inch at the water level, so the standard, weed-whipper string wasn’t gonna get it done. We had to attach our brush-blade, a ten-inch, stainless steel blade that could instantly whack down a small tree of an inch or two in diameter. It was more than capable of taking down the marsh grass, and it did so with ease.
The only problem with the blade, is that it made the whole machine vibrate in a very uncomfortable way. You could feel the vibrations all the way up your arm, and after using the tool for 5 or 10 minutes, you had to pry your hands off of it, because your fingers would freeze in position. OSHA would have had a field day on that one.
Anyway, we arrived the morning of the job, and Ken took the first duty on the whipper. We did at least have one pair of fishing boots to wade in the water, and he put them on and dove into the job. After slogging around in the water for about 30 minutes, along the shore, he decided he wanted to cut the job in half, so he began to cut a path straight through the middle of the patch of grass, out to the river.
He did it. But then he stepped in a sinkhole of mud. His left foot sank in a second, and he almost went under the water.
He was instantly calling for me to come help. But I was standing on the shore in tennis shoes! There was no second set of boots; we were running on a very small budget. So, I had to run out to him, through the muddy water, in tennis shoes, to pull him out of a hole!
I did. I managed to get to him, pull him out, sans the one boot, which he then reached down to retrieve, and we both sloshed our way back up to shore, exhausted. He then announced that it was ‘my turn’ to take over. I reluctantly agreed.
Ken took off to go price another job, and left me, alone, to keep working, with the promise he’d be back shortly.
I cranked up the whipper, the blade singing in the hot, sticky, Southern air, and waded out into the water, swinging my weapon before me.
I decided that I would cut the job down into sections by doing what Ken had done: cut another swath out to the river. So off I went. I hadn’t gone more than 20 feet, I think, when something moved in the water, about 10 feet in front of me. That’s when I stopped in my soggy tracks. Whatever it was, was about the size of a very large bullfrog. It had eyes: very dark ones that were staring up at me. And then it moved.
It didn’t hop. Frogs hop. Toads hop. But this didn’t fuckin’ hop.
It slid forward.
It slid forward an inch, or two, and stopped, staring me straight in the eyes. The hair on my arms stood up, my heart raced, my sweat turned icy cold, and I froze in place. I was mesmerized by those eyes.
I was looking in to the face of a very cold-blooded killer. I was face to face with Mr. No-Shoulders: a water-moccasin, and a very fuckin’ big one, at that. His head was the size of a desert plate, maybe 6 or 7 inches around. Later, when I was able to think about such things, I estimated that he must have been 15 to 20 feet long. But I never saw the body of Mr. No-Shoulders.
I stood, fixed in place, Fear running through every nerve in my body, oozing out of my pores, and freezing my mind. I couldn’t think. I was afraid to think, at least for several seconds.
We both stood, staring at each other, the weed-whipper singing its steely song. All I could think was something that some old-timer once said about snakes, “If you see one, you can bet there are another 10 you don’t see.”
And that thought roused me from my hypnosis, and broke the spell of those black eyes.
Then everything was a blurr. I smacked the steel blade down into the water in front of me, daring Mr. No-Shoulders to come! He didn’t.
He slid back into the water, which should have given me some sense of relief, but it occasioned an opposite reaction. The motion of that snake, slipping backward and disappearing into the water, was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen, because then, I couldn’t see him at all!
He had instantly transitioned from a known Fear, one I could see and size up, to an unknown one, lurking somewhere in the water, waiting for me to return.
I did the only thing my terrified mind would allow me to do.
I didn’t stand and fight; I turned to flight.
I got the hell out of that water as fast as I could move, all the while, smacking the blade of the whipper down into the water to scare off any children, spouses, or cousins of the No-Shoulder family!
I made it to shore in a couple of seconds. I was standing there, my heart thumping in my ears, sweat running into my eyes, and the whipper still vibrating violently in my hands.
I manage to get my right hand free, even though it was mostly frozen in place, but I had to use it to pry my left hand free of the handle, after pushing the kill switch on the machine.
I was a wreck. I stood there, looking out at all of that marsh grass, and all I could see–in my mind’s eye–was hundreds of water-moccasins, swirling around under that fuckin’ muddy water, just waiting for me to return so they could fill me full of venom.
I sat down on some steps at the back of the house, the whipper at my feet, silent as the grave. The crickets were humming and sawing their wings in the background. You could hear the heat of that Southern summer. And raging above all of that, was the sound of my own heart, slamming in my ears, and the numbness of my hands.
I sat there, probably for 30 minutes or more, debating with myself, and with my Fear.
I was definitely afraid. I’ve never liked snakes: still don’t. I realize they have their place in the ecosystem, so I give them that. But that day, the snake stood between me and the money I desperately needed to feed and shelter my family.
If it weren’t for that desperation, Mr. No-Shoulders would have won the debate: no doubt whatsoever about that one.
But I needed that money. How could I go home to my wife and tell her that I gave up on a customer, and therefore, we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, or buy groceries? There’s was no fuckin’ way I was gonna do that. I’d rather face a whole family of No-Shoulders than face my ex-wife with that kind of news. Trust me on that one. If you think staring down a snake is tough, try staring down my ex. Good luck on that one. Some Fears trump other Fears, and that is a lesson to remember.
Fighting Fear with Fear: What do you Fear more than the Fear in front of you?
In my case, the Fear of Scarcity, of Poverty, of Failure, of Criticism, of my own perceived Inadequacies, and of my wife’s disappointment, tipped the scales on my Fear of the entire species of No-Shoulders. I’m not saying this is the best way to deal with your Fears, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got in the moment. And if that’s true, then use it. But keep reading, because we can do so much better than fighting Fear with Fear Itself.
After a long debate with my Fear, that hot, sticky day in 1988, I picked up my weed-whipper, pulled the starter cord, it sprang to life, and I waded back out into that river.
You can bet that I plunged that singing blade into the water at every step! I made sure that if any of Mr. No-Shoulder’s cousins were still around, that they knew I meant business, and that I would cut them into little fuckin’ pieces if they so much as reared their slimy heads!
I didn’t see any more of them that day, and neither did Ken, once he returned. But I’ve never forgotten that day, and the Fear I felt while staring into those black eyes.