Tuesday, October 2, 2018

My Dad, the Snake Man - Part Four

This post is Part Four 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 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 - Parts One, Two and Three posts, please scroll down to July 30, August 21, and September 13, 2018.)

My parents, Barb and Chuck Naidl, on their wedding day 70 years ago - October 2, 1948.

The bride wore a softly tailored suit in her favorite shade of blue. The groom looked dapper in his suit and boutonniere. It was a day of beginnings for this newly married couple. There was so much to anticipate, so much to enjoy in this new life together.

Following a small wedding ceremony flanked by their witnesses, Dorrell St. Pierre and his wife, LaVerne, the newlyweds stood on the lawn of the Methodist Church parsonage in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and had their pictures taken. The newlyweds were my parents, Chuck and Barbara (Wood) Naidl. The day was October 2, 1948. Today marks their 70th wedding anniversary.

My parents fell in love in Two Rivers, Wisconsin while my mom was caring for a great-aunt who was dying. Dad was back in his hometown, honorably discharged from his stint in World War II and Mom was a fresh graduate as a registered nurse from St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My mother had received her schooling courtesy of the U.S. government as a Cadet Nurse, agreeing and anticipating to serve in the war when her three-year education was completed. The war had ended by the time she graduated, however, so with diploma and nursing license in hand, Mom accepted the responsibility of caring for her great-aunt instead, and traveled from Iowa to Two Rivers.

My late mother, Barbara Naidl, while in Cadet Nurse training during WWII.

Upon marrying, the agreement had been that if Dad learned how to dance, Mom would learn to like snakes. For the longest time, only Mom held up her end of the bargain. Finally, about four years before his death, Dad danced a slow dance with Mom. They rehearsed in the kitchen at home several times before trying a public dance floor.

This doesn't appear to be the face of a woman who is afraid of snakes.
Mom overcame her fear once she met Dad.

My parents honeymooned at the Warren Hotel in Baraboo, a south-central Wisconsin community of fewer than 10,000 people at the time. Dad had discovered the community while on his snake-hunting expeditions and he found Baraboo to be appealing. He loved the Baraboo Hills and the wide variety of snakes that inhabited them. On one of his earlier visits to the area, Dad had met and become friends with Forrest Zantow who introduced him to the Baraboo Hills and to others who had an interest in reptiles. Dad also discovered great places to socialize, such as The Panoramic Resort, owned by the Roche family at the entrance to the north shore of Devil's Lake State Park.

Forrest "Woody" Zantow, left, and Dad. The two gentlemen became friends
during some of my father's earliest visits to the Baraboo area
and remained close until Dad's passing some 40 years later.
Woody and Dad are shown holding a bull snake, Wisconsin's largest nonpoisonous snake.
A beaded lizard is on the table in the foreground.

By 1949, Mom and Dad had purchased a five-acre parcel of land south of town on U.S. Highway 12. It featured a one-story, ranch-style structure that had at one time served as a bath house when the property was a trailer park. When the trailer park was closed and the property sold to a family from Illinois, the building was converted into a summer home. However, a miserable experience with seasonal allergies caused the family to sell and my parents to purchase the property.

Chuck Naidl's Reptile Farm, as it appeared in the 1950s, based on the vintage of the automobiles.
Dad and Mom would go on to plant many trees and renovate the building to become our family home.

After having grown up on main street in his hometown due to the location of his late father's photography business, Dad wanted nothing more than to live in the country where there were open spaces and he could plant as many trees as was possible. Mom, who had also lived within the city limits in her hometown of Charles City, Iowa, had never experienced country living either. Fortunately, once they bought their Highway 12 property, they were surrounded by kind neighbors who helped them acclimate to the country ways of life, including mending fences in order to keep neighboring cows from meandering.

Dad and Mom spent their summers at their rural Baraboo home, quickly turning a portion of the property into a reptile farm that would bear Dad's name. My parents would operate the reptile farm each summer for the next 35 years.

Chuck Naidl's Reptile Farm with the ambiguous address of Route 4 and the even more interesting
phone number of 723-R-1, from a Baraboo phone book of the 1950s.

During the remaining months of the year, Dad and Mom toured across the eastern and southern sections of the United States, with Dad giving lectures in schools about reptiles and Mom serving as his assistant. In those early years, my mother worked on and off at St. Mary's Ringling Hospital in Baraboo as a registered nurse, often doing private-duty nursing for patients needing more care.

The mansion of Alf. T. and Adella Ringling, of Ringling Bros. Circus fame,
whose home would become Baraboo's first official hospital in the 1920s.
My late mom, Barb Naidl, worked at the facility on and off for the better part of 40 years,
first as a hospital nurse, then as director of nursing when the building became a skilled nursing facility,
and later as director of nursing when it became a convent for retired Catholic sisters.

At times when they weren't touring, Dad would find other work, such as road construction where he helped build a new section of U.S. Highway 12 between Baraboo and Madison. He and Mom even worked for a short time in the 1950s at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Sauk-Prairie, Wisconsin, with Mom serving as a nurse there.

My late parents worked for a short time at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant
on the Sauk Prairie in the 1950s.

My parents' touring years were filled with the adventure of new places, new people and new experiences that naturally come with travel. They also experienced segregation for the first time in their lives. My late mother would tell me again and again how jarring and disheartening that experience was for her to witness. But my parents also met many lovely people along the way, including the owners of motels where Mom and Dad would repeatedly stay when lecturing in the vicinity. Many of those friendships remained throughout the years, even if contact was made only once a year with the exchange of Christmas greeting cards.

My mom, Barb Naidl, could be counted on to assist Dad with his lecture programs,
even bringing some of the program right to the audience.
These little girls look as if they're enjoying the experience.

In some of the early years of their touring, Dad and Mom not only traveled in a vehicle filled with reptiles for Dad's lectures, they also traveled with their beloved Dalmatian, Jigs. The dog was so named because he "danced" with Mom whenever a popular television program from the day, Dairyland Jubilee, was on. Mom would ask Jigs if he wanted to dance and he would respond by standing on his hind legs and placing his front paws on Mom's shoulders so they could "polka" together. Traveling with a dog proved to be too difficult in the end, however, and Jigs found a home--as would seem appropriate--at a fire department.

My maternal grandmother, Carolyn Wood; my dad, Chuck Naidl; and Jigs, my parents' beloved Dalmatian.

Even before my parents married, my dad had experienced a few poisonous snake bites. By the time I was born in 1958, my dad had experienced his tenth and final poisonous snake bite. That last bite struck a nerve in his right hand, causing his thumb to become paralyzed. Rather than amputate his thumb (which was on his dominant hand), it was decided that it would better serve him by being folded across his palm. Despite that disability, Dad's handwriting, both cursive and printing, continued to be exemplary and he had complete use of his hand, even without a functioning thumb.

When Dad experienced that tenth and final snake bite at the fangs of a diamondback rattlesnake, Dad drove himself to St. Mary's Ringling Hospital in Baraboo where Mom was working. She met him in the ER.

This photo explains the injuries Dad sustained from his ninth poisonous snake bite,
this time by a Wisconsin timber rattlesnake in May of 1948,
about six months before he and Mom got married.

Dad's right hand, draped over Mom's shoulder, is bandaged from one of his snake bite experiences.

Mom was never bitten by a poisonous snake, but she could very well have been during one incident when a shipment of snakes arrived at home while Dad was on the road lecturing. The shipment was anticipated and was to include a boa constrictor, as I recall. However, when Mom opened the large Styrofoam box's lid and lifted out the sack containing the snake, she could see the shadow of a cobra lifting itself up and flaring out its head inside the bag. Mom quickly and carefully placed the still-closed sack back into the Styrofoam box and affixed its lid. Then, she called the school where Dad was lecturing and left him a message to call her. When she picked me up that day from school, she was still shaking from the experience, even as we shopped at the local A&P Store on the way home.

It didn't take Mom long to become comfortable holding snakes,
as evidenced by this photo from the New York Sport Show in New York City circa 1950.

Needless to say, we always had an ample supply of blue boxes of Wyeth Laboratories' antivenin in our refrigerator in the event of a poisonous snake bite. To others, it probably seemed strange to open up the frig, only to find poisonous snake antivenin next to the condiments in the refrigerator door, but it was a necessity in our household.

For the years leading up to my birth, Dad "milked" poisonous snakes, collecting the venom for the antivenin and selling it to Wyeth. Dad even milked snakes in a store window in downtown Baraboo, which surely must have drawn a crowd.

Dad, milking the venom from the venom sacs of a poisonous Timber Rattlesnake.
As always, Mom was by his side.
Note the snake tattoo on Dad's right arm.
Although too small to read, the word next to the snake's head
reads "MOHAVE," meaning the Mojave Desert where Dad got the tattoo during WWII.

As the photo's label shows, this picture gives a close-up view
of how Dad extracted venom from a poisonous snake.
The venom was used in antivenin for poisonous snake bites.
Note Mom looking through the doorway.

When I was born, which was a surprise to my parents after ten years of marriage, Mom and Dad's lecture tour experience changed. While we continued to tour during my preschool and even kindergarten years, once I was enrolled in elementary school, Mom stayed home with me and resumed her work as a registered nurse and soon as a director of nursing, while Dad toured alone except during my school-year breaks. 

That change in our lives required that Mom learn how to drive. Dad ended up serving as her driving instructor. I recall riding along with them, crouched down on the floor of the backseat playing with my dolls, as Dad coached Mom down the snaky South Shore Road to Devil's Lake State Park. Every time I take that road, even to this day, I can still feel that same excitement for Mom as she deftly negotiated the hairpin turns and went on to get her driver's license at 40 years of age. 

My parents enjoyed a close marriage. They were partners in life in every way. My father requested my mother's wisdom for his every major decision and he respected her career as a nursing professional. In return, my mom gave my dad his work freedom. His months away from home on lecture tour didn't create quantity time for them, but it did foster quality time, and they took every advantage of that time together.

All smiles as Dad, Mom and an unidentified gentleman, at left, deal with a handful.

In the final years of Dad's life, he spent more time at home. During winter evenings, Mom and Dad would enjoy hours in their cozy kitchen playing cards. In the summer, they would sit in lawn chairs in the backyard and look up at the star-studded night sky. Theirs was an unusual marriage compared to those of my little friends' parents when I was growing up, but theirs was a charmed life together and surely a devoted and loving partnership. They showed me each and every day what a successful marriage looks and feels like. I owe them that and so much more.

Happy 70th anniversary, Mom and Dad, with my love always.

Birthday pie amidst a game of cards.
Dad favored pie over cake, so his birthday always featured the pie of his choice.
It looks like pumpkin pie was the preferred choice for his 61st birthday.

In next month's installment, posting on November 21 at 9:00 a.m. central time, I'll cover Dad's early years on what would be his 100th birthday. See you then.


  1. What wonderful memories for you to share with us Keri!! You look so much like your Mom in several of the pictures. I can feel your love for them as you write. Blessings :-)

    1. Thank you so much, Judy! My parents lived such an amazing life that it's a pleasure to be able to tell their story, at least in part, during this year of my dad's 100th birthday.

  2. Wow. Such an amazing family history! This is what life is about. Following your passion with partners that love life despite the norms. Thank you for sharing!!!

    1. Thank you, Renee, for your kind words about my late parents. Theirs was indeed a love story, a shared energy, a model for my own marriage. Thank you again for your comments.


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