Life’s lessons are often taught by people who don't have degrees or fit the socially accepted profile of a teacher. For me this was Albert. One July day he taught me a lesson that involved a snake, the greatest test of any friendship, and the true meaning of unconditional love.
Albert came to northern Illinois from the hills of Kentucky to work in the steel mill. The owners were scrambling to fill vacancies left by men being called to fight the Nazis in Europe. The fact that he was in his fifties, had graying hair, and could not read or write didn't matter. What did matter was that he could work. Albert always wore bib overalls, and he always carried a bag of Bull Durham cigarette tobacco tucked in the top pocket of his overalls.
Albert was surrounded by a kind of peace that seemed unshakable, constant, and consistent. I'll always remember the kindness that radiated from his eyes when he looked at me. Being around Albert gave me a feeling for another kind of life — one of peace, serenity, and saneness, which are always absent in an alcoholic family. When we sat on his front porch swing, my feet didn’t reach the floor, so Albert would push for both of us. That’s the way it is with friends.
Albert’s wife Ruth was a large woman with a heart and a voice to match her size. She had a built-in megaphone. Even in normal conversation you could hear her a block away. She adopted me, more or less, from the time I could navigate the distance from our yard to her back porch. Ruth always prided herself, as many southern cooks used to do, in the art of biscuit-making. She always saw to it that I got two or three of every batch of biscuits she ever made — and she made the worst biscuits you've ever tasted. If there had been GPS back then, I would have sworn I was equipped with a transmitter that helped her find me regardless of where I was.
I can still hear her voice calling from her kitchen door, “Johnny, got fresh biscuits. Get down outta that tree and get in here and get some.” Even though the biscuits were terrible, the saving grace was the blackberry patch behind her house. She made the best blackberry jam you've ever tasted! A slab of real butter, some of that jam, and those biscuits weren't half bad. I never had the heart, even as young as I was, to complain about something given with such love. That’s the way love is. People offer it in the best way they know how.
Back then I hung out with some other ten-year-olds who were driven by demons that landed them in the penitentiary in later years. Our greatest crime at the time was tipping over outhouses on Halloween. If someone happened to be in one of them, that was a bonus. These rapscallions didn't bother to hide the fact they thought my friendship with Albert was odd. It was obvious to me that it brought my allegiance to them into question. After all, Albert was not just an old man; he was a steel mill rat and couldn't even read or write. Of course, they could barely read and write themselves, and members of their families worked in the steel mill, too. Still, to them it was weird. After a time we established an uneasy peace, and at least no one said anything.
One of the things I shared with Albert was his garden. During the Second World War people were encouraged to have what were called victory gardens. The idea was that citizens could help alleviate possible food shortages caused by the needs of the troops in Europe. Albert had one, and I followed along behind him, pulling the occasional weed that he missed with his hoe.
My greatest lesson began one day when a garden snake slithered out from under one of the plants. Albert went crazy. He let out a yell, threw his hoe down, and ran for the back door. I couldn’t believe it! Albert was afraid of a harmless garden snake! This was unbelievable to me because I would often pick one up and carry it around in my pocket. What would the gang think if they found out Albert was a scaredy-cat?
About a week later I was watching Albert work in the garden, and I decided the reason he was afraid of snakes was because he thought they were harmful. The one in my pocket seemed to be content, curled up in the warmth. Watching Albert as he stooped to dig up the weeds, I noticed that his front pocket was hanging open. He was so intent on his weeding that he didn't notice me when I walked over beside him, took the snake out of my pocket, and let it slither into his. As the snake's tail disappeared, a voice within me said, You just made a big mistake! I felt like someone who has just stepped off a cliff and realizes there's no turning back. The deed was done. The consequences were assured.
I wanted to run, but in my small boy's mind that seemed cowardly. Besides there was a perfectly good reason for putting that snake in his pocket — and in a minute I would remember what it was. Plucking up my courage, I walked to the end of the row and turned to face Albert. My heart was pounding so loudly I no longer heard the crickets chirping, the bees buzzing, or the crows cawing in the nearby woods. I was screaming in my head, Why did I do this? Well, because I didn't want Albert to be afraid of snakes. I just knew if he could get close enough to one to realize they wouldn't hurt him, he would lose his fear.
When Albert finally reached me and looked me in the eye, this tiny squeaky-sounding voice said, “Albert, I put a snake in your pocket!” He gave me three quick looks. The first was confusion. What did you say? The second was disbelief, I don’t believe you. The last one hurt the most because it was a look of disappointment. He dropped his hoe, walked purposefully to the screened-porch door, and went in. I could see some movement through the screen. The door opened abruptly. A hand appeared and dropped the overalls out on the ground.
Shamefaced, I went home, opened up the cellar door, and went down into the murky darkness that seemed to fit my feelings for the moment. In the dim light I saw a spider on its web and some insects crawling on the dirt floor. I would have gladly traded places with any of them.
For the next several weeks I lived in constant fear of the knock on the door that was sure to come. Albert would be there to tell my parents what I had done, not that they would really care. What I feared the most was having to face him and explain my obvious betrayal. I avoided places in the yard where he might see me. Finally, one day I walked out the door, and there he was. He looked at me with a kind of twinkle in his eye and said, “Where you been? Ruth’s got fresh biscuits!” I timidly followed him over to their kitchen, sat down at the table, and ate three of the most delicious biscuits I had ever had. Forget the butter and the blackberry jam. Who needed it? Those biscuits represented forgiveness to me, and I would have eaten a dozen more.
The incident with the snake was never mentioned for as long as I knew Albert. It was as though it never happened. It did happen, though, and even seventy years later, it remains one of the most poignant lessons of my life. I not only learned that it is not my place to determine what lessons others need, but I also learned what unconditional love is. The snake was never about what Albert needed. It was about making myself feel okay about Albert. He loved me unconditionally, and in his kindness taught me how