Tuesday, August 21, 2018

My Dad, the Snake Man - Part Two

This post is Part Two of five posts that will highlight aspects of the life of my late father, Roy Paul "Chuck" Naidl, who dedicated his life to educating people about the value of reptiles and amphibians in the ecosystem.  He was often referred to fondly as "the snake man." This year, Dad would turn 100. (To view the My Dad, the Snake Man - Part One post, please scroll down to July 30, 2018.)

Not every toddler's backyard features a sign proclaiming "Water Turtle."
Yet, when you grow up on the grounds of a reptile farm, the scenery is distinct and memorable.
My late mother, Barbara Naidl, and I share a fun moment in this photo. I love Mom's smile.

So, what's it like to grow up on a reptile farm? The funny thing is that while a child, I didn't think anything of it. We lived in the country. My little friends in the neighborhood lived on farms. They might have raised horses or cows or chickens while we raised snakes and lizards and turtles. They were simply different types of animals. We were all essentially farmers caring for animals that were important and precious to us. 

The tortoise was just about as big as I was.

It wasn't until I entered junior high school that I realized I was living a rather remarkable life. My dad did interesting and unusual work that introduced him to new places and new and learned people. He was able to share his own vast knowledge with thousands and thousands of people each year, mostly students, through his lecture tours. My dad was cool! My life was cool!

One of our family's everyday moments during my childhood,
as noted by the nonchalant way that my mother, Barb Naidl,
is shown talking on the phone behind my father, Chuck Naidl, and me.

As the photo above illustrates, I wasn't scared of the pythons or other reptiles and amphibians that my father, Chuck Naidl, spoke about in schools across the United States. While he educated his audiences, he educated me, too. I learned that there is nothing to fear when you understand, respect and appreciate something.

Dad was a great letter writer and he had beautiful penmanship.
When he was on lecture tour, I frequently received mail from him,
usually with a little cartoon he had drawn.
Here is a letter Dad sent to me on motel stationery from North Carolina,
as he anticipated Mom and me flying to see him during one of my school breaks.

Going on lecture tour with Dad and Mom was always an adventure. Traveling exposed me to new people, ideas and places, including Plimouth Plantation, Mystic Seaport, The Alamo, the Kennedy Compound (when JFK was President) and Lyndon Johnson's birthplace (when LBJ was President), to name a few. Not many kids could say that they spent their third-grade Thanksgiving break hunting diamondback rattlesnakes on a ranch in Texas. 

Dad, looking like a model in his sunglasses and trench coat, and me
during our visit to Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1964.
Mom was the photographer.
We frequently took in historic sites, museums and
other points of interest on Dad's lecture tours.

Being on the road meant that we ate in restaurants, except for breakfast. (Think orange drink mix and powdered-sugar donuts.)

When I was three or four years of age, I gave Mom, Dad and our server quite a laugh when they found that I had gotten into Mom's purse while we ate lunch in a coffee shop somewhere on Dad's lecture tour. Somehow without their noticing, I had decorated myself with a big gash of Mom's bright red lipstick all over my mouth and around it.  Mom and Dad would talk about that episode for years to come. I never quite lived it down.

My mom was faithful in her record keeping of my formative years in a book titled, Our Baby's First Seven Years, a gift from my maternal grandparents when I was born. Mom wrote this installment on the "Mementos of Fourth Year" page, "Keri had many valuable and interesting experiences in the schools. She was the diplomat, shaking hands with principals and introducing herself." Meeting the school staff was one of my favorite memories of Dad's programs, which probably accounts for why I enjoy meeting new people to this day. Back in that preschool era, however, I tended to tell everything I knew to these pleasant adult strangers, from my parents' weights and ages to the fact that Mom suffered from hemorrhoids! Thanks to an understanding and sensitive principal, my mom was able to see a doctor in that community and receive relief from her affliction. 

I often came away from my school principal office visits with mementos and gifts, ranging from football player bobble-head figures in the school's colors to a hat made of paper flowers. One time, I even came away with exposure to measles, resulting in our having to stay in the same motel in Monroe, New York until I recovered.

The teddy bear over my shoulder was my companion on school lecture tours during my early years.
He was inadvertently left in a school one day, but fortunately, was mailed cross-country back to us.

Instead of leaving with something, on one school visit, I was the one who left something behind: my prized teddy bear. The loss wasn't discovered until bedtime. I'm sure Dad and Mom had fun trying to get me to sleep that night. Fortunately, all ended happily. The teddy bear was found and mailed back across the country to us.

It wasn’t always easy for Dad on the road. Traveling for months on end, staying in motels, eating meals by yourself could be lonely. There were always tears when Dad left on lecture tour, for it could be three months before we’d see each other again. At times, Dad would start out, become so blue at the prospect of our being apart for such a long period of time that he would turn around and come home for just a few more hours with Mom and me before he would then take off in the middle of the night to make up for lost time. I had a chalkboard in my bedroom for playing school. Dad would write notes to me on the chalkboard before he left if I was at school. Those chalk messages would stay there until he came home. His letters, postcards and Friday night phone calls to Mom and me were a lifeline--a connection across the miles that would help our little nuclear family feel whole and intact.

In addition to letters, Dad sent me postcards, usually from the motels
where he was staying on his lecture tour.
Here are two that he sent from Kansas and Oklahoma.

Just as Dad would send postcards and letters to me while he was on lecture tour,
I would send letters and pictures that I drew to him.
In this undated letter, I reference Mom's sadness when Dad left on lecture tour
and I noted my excitement at being able to fly to visit him over Thanksgiving break.

As I said, Dad was a natural educator and I was often his student. That education took some interesting turns at times, including an early turn of the steering wheel. On the last day of school when I was nine or ten years old, my dad picked me up in our station wagon and announced that we were going to look for black widow spiders. That sounded like an adventure! So, I leaped into the car and off we went on gravel roads far into the hills. At one point, Dad stopped the car and invited me to take over driving. Astounded at the invitation, I quickly decided that it was worth a try. Barely able to see over the steering wheel and touch the pedals, I drove ever so slowly a few yards down the gravel road. Soon, Dad took over once again and we went on with our expedition to find and study black widow spiders in their habitat. I'll never forget that day, for I felt Dad's trust in me, elementary school age yet feeling so grown up-- even if it was for just a few yards on a back road.

Although Dad's work might have been called daring by some, he was also cautious and thoughtful in his approach to things. After having been bitten ten times by poisonous snakes, he understood the consequences of interacting with them and the need to always be respectful and aware. Yet, he favored adventure and exploring, and he encouraged me to be an adventurer and explorer, too.

The lessons began when I was but a toddler.
Here, Dad is showing me a box turtle, undoubtedly telling me all about it
and how important it was to our environment.

When my own schooling or other activities didn't interfere, Dad would include me in his lectures at schools and summer camps by inviting me to help him hold a big snake. He also often put me in the spotlight when photojournalists would visit our farm wanting a photo of Dad with a reptile. There were numerous times when I ended up being the one featured in the picture, holding everything from nonpoisonous Eastern Fox snakes (see below) to a boa constrictor.

Fresh off of the school bus after a fun day in third grade, and wearing a new dress for the school year,
I was invited to hold two Eastern Fox Snakes and have my picture taken.
Just another day in the life of the daughter of "the snake man."

I even had the opportunity to appear several times as a "snake charmer" in circus parades produced by Circus World Museum, a state historic site located at the original home of the Ringling Bros. Circus in my hometown of Baraboo, Wisconsin. I had the unique experience of riding in a glass-enclosed, woodcarving-laden circus wagon designed for a snake and handler. After Circus World Museum recreated the historic wagon in the mid-1970s using original woodcarvings and archival photos as their guide, I made appearances in circus parades in Baraboo and downtown Chicago.

Me, as Miss Kena (later Lady Kena), Snake Enchantress.
Thanks to Dad's profession and the need for someone who wasn't afraid to ride in an enclosed circus wagon
with a big snake, I appeared in four Circus World Museum-produced circus parades 
in Baraboo, Wisconsin and downtown Chicago 
as my alter ego, Kena, complete with boa constrictor.

In the earliest years, I was called Miss Kena and later, Lady Kena. Circus historian Robert L. Parkinson, who also directed several of Circus World Museum's parades, came up with the name Kena, which was derived from the first two letters of my first and last names: Keri Naidl. My mother made my costume. My father supplied the snake. Dad and Mom alternated riding in a corner of the wagon with a "spare" snake in the event that mine got agitated. Fortunately, nothing so dramatic ever happened during my four experiences in Circus World Museum-produced parades.

It's not every day that you get to appear as a snake charmer in a circus parade,
unless you're Chuck Naidl's daughter.

Growing up on a reptile farm indeed had its memorable moments. Quite often, though, I was just a little girl, playing with her dolls, raising a kitten as a pet, going to sleepovers, attending Sunday School and enjoying our rural property surrounded by the picturesque Baraboo Hills. 

Me, relaxing in our spacious backyard.

There were swimming lessons, family picnics, playing with friends, and all of the other activities that kids my age enjoyed during the summers of the 1960s and 70s. There were also chores to do around home, which when completed would earn me a small allowance and possibly a root beer float at the local drive-up A&W or a swim at Devil's Lake. 

The only difference from my friends' lives was that my dad had an unusual occupation that involved oft-misunderstood reptiles, and I had the opportunity to be part of his mission of education.

I must have realized, even as a small child and definitely as I became a teenager and a young adult, that I had some pretty amazing parents and I was living a pretty amazing life, for in addition to kissing my parents good night and telling them that I loved them, I would end each evening by thanking Mom and Dad for all they did for me.

Although I look otherwise, I carefully printed this caption in little-girl handwriting
to accompany this photo of Mom, Dad and me in my baby book:
"We are all happy." And we were. 

I wouldn't trade being the daughter of "the snake man" for anything. 

And to Mom and Dad, I still say, thank you for everything.

My late mom, Barbara Naidl, shows me an Eastern Fox Snake at our family's reptile farm.
Note my frilly, little-girl dress juxtaposed against the sign in the background.

In next month's installment, posting on September 13 at 9:00 a.m. central time, I'll explore Dad's school presentations and his time as a local television personality. See you then.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind words. It is my joy to celebrate and share highlights of my late father's life. I'm so glad you enjoyed this installment.


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