Copperheads, pit vipers, and a lizard named Luther were only the beginning. Here's what I learned from the snake man.

Every year he came and put on a show. Weeks in advance, word of his impending arrival would spread throughout our small-town school. Finally, when we could bear the anticipation no longer, he would arrive in a white pickup truck with a camper shell on the back. And we all knew what hissed and writhed inside that shell–snakes!

The Snake Man had come to instruct us on the indigenous reptiles of Alabama, and he brought some killer visual aids. You might expect a professional serpent wrangler to have a certain devil-may-care sense of style–maybe lizard-skin boots or a timber rattler's tail for a key chain. Not so. In his blue jeans and short-sleeved shirt, he was just a regular guy.

To be honest, I didn't love the Snake Man. I feared the Snake Man for the simple reason that I fear snakes. Still, the minute our teachers began collecting admission, I anted up. The alternative was study hall, and who in their right mind wanted that?

Others shared my snake-a-phobia. I saw varsity linebackers climb all over third-graders to get to the safety of a higher bleacher when the copperhead got loose. Every year, the Snake Man would "accidentally" drop the copperhead in the center of the gym floor. It never got away from him. But we always screamed. What did get loose one year–mercifully, when I was out sick–was a giant lizard of a thing named Luther. You will never convince me that he was a native Alabamian. Luther had to have come from some exotic land–South Georgia, maybe. Though I missed the drama, the mere thought of what that lizard had done changed my life–changed all our lives.

You see, we might've screamed for the copperhead, but deep down, we all knew he was workin' for the man. He was Barney to the Snake Man's Andy, Lynyrd to his Skynyrd. That copperhead had a rewarding career traveling around the South, scaring the living daylights out of the small children and teenagers. His cup was full.

Luther would have none of that. He was the Jerry Lee Lewis of reptiles, a real rebel. He could and would cross the line that separated fair play from out-of-bounds as we looked down from our supposedly safe perches in the bleachers.

So why, you ask, did our parents and teachers subject us to this peculiar academic endeavor? I think I found the answer during a visit with my cousin Kathy. "Say, do you remember the Snake Man who used to come to our school?" I asked. Without a beat, she recited, "Red on yella, kill a fella; red on black, you can pat 'im on the back!" That's how he taught us the difference between the deadly coral snake and the harmless king.

I suddenly realized that the Snake Man represented a streak of Southern practicality shared by the adults watching over us. They were covering all bases: history, literature, math, what not to step on...but an even larger lesson was unfolding. The day that Luther went off script, we kids learned something much more important than what happens when a train leaves Nashville traveling 70 miles an hour. We learned that the journey down life's highway can take some wacky, unexpected turns. And the trip gets a whole lot easier once you learn how to spot the occasional snake in the grass.