Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Salamander Surprise

When Mike the Whip's mother packed his lunch for school that day, she had no idea that, less than an hour later, he would be adding an amphibian to his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Mike's culinary embellishment wasn't the result of a desire to try new delicacies, it wasn't because he was looking for a unique source of protein, no, Mike shoved a salamander into his PB and J for one reason only.

We dared him to.

Mike the Whip was one of those kids -- every neighborhood has one -- who simply could not refuse a dare.  Whether it was feeling up Debbie Esposito, jumping his Huffy over five trash cans, or swiping a six-pack of Old Milwaukee from the local Stop-N-Shop, if you said, "Hey, Mike, I dare you to . . . " it was one hundred percent guaranteed that The Whip was going to take you up on the challenge.

Paul, Mike, and I were third graders at Parker Elementary, a school named not for the great bebop alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, but simply for the street on which it was located.  The three of us walked to and from school every day (yes, kids -- in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways), and since we had little tolerance for boredom or routine, we made a point of never taking the same route twice.  Sometimes we'd walk along Route 28, other times we'd take a series of side streets, and every so often we'd take the "scenic route" through the nearby woods.  The term "attention deficit disorder" wasn't part of the cultural lexicon in those days, but if it had been, we would've been the poster boys.

On the day in question we chose the scenic route, and began the trip by tossing five aluminum cans into the brook to see which one made the trip downstream the fastest.  We dubbed this race the "Indy-can-apolis 500."  Actually, Paul and Mike named it that, voting down my suggestion of "Can-tucky Derby."  Being kids, we didn't consider the ecological ramifications of introducing even more garbage into New Jersey's water supply, even after sitting through Woodsy Owl's "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" assembly earlier in the year.  We thought Woodsy was kind of a douche, and besides, this was the Indy-can-apolis 500 we were talking about.

So we were strolling alongside the brook, cheering on race leaders Mario Can-dretti and Aluminum Unser (the A&W Root Beer and Orange Crush cans, respectively), when Mike said, "Hey, look, there's a couple salamanders down by the water."

"Yeah, so what?" I asked.

Mike walked down the bank to get a closer look.  "I think they're cool," he said, scooping the black and tan lizardish creature in the palm of his hand.  "Check it out."

Paul and I checked it out, completely disregarding the tin cans racing down the home stretch.  The little bugger must've been a baby, only a couple inches long, half of which was its tail.  And it was slimy.  We passed the salamander back and forth, letting it scurry up and down our arms.  I don't know what put this thought in Paul's head, but out of nowhere he said, "Hey, Mike, I dare you to eat it."

"Eat what?"

"The salamander.  I dare ya."

I know what you're thinking.  That's simply ridiculous.  No way is a kid going to eat a living reptile.  And if we were talking about any other kid, I'd agree with you.  It's crazy, it's stupid, clearly, the potential havoc to one's digestive system would prevent any child from even thinking about such a stunt.

But you never met Mike the Whip.

Mike and I met when we were three years old, and were friends for the next decade.  During that time, there never seemed to be any discernible criteria for what he considered to be food.  It was disturbing, actually.  He'd eat dirt for no particular reason.  On another dare, he swallowed fifty-seven cents in small change (five dimes, a nickel, and two pennies).  He jokingly said later that when he took his next dump, it was two quarters and seven pennies.  And on several occasions Mike's tendency to swear led to the consumption, albeit involuntary, of small pieces of Irish Spring soap.

Eating a salamander wasn't out of the question, is what I'm saying.

Mike took the thing in his hand and looked it over.  "Can I kill it first?"

"Nah, I dare ya to eat it alive," said Paul.

"Okay, fine, but you gotta at least let me put it in my sandwich or something, otherwise I'd probably just cough it up or gag."

"Yeah, Paul," I said.  "That way it'll be easier for him to swallow it whole, like a chunk of food."  And maybe he'll accidentally bite it in half, squirting guts in his mouth, is what I was silently hoping for.  Best friends or not, that would've been awesome.

Mike handed me the salamander and opened his lunch bag.  "I got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I'll stick him in that.  Either of you guys got something for me to wash it down with?"

"I got something in my thermos," Paul said, flipping the latch on his official Scooby Doo lunchbox.  "Apple juice, I think."

"Aw, man," said Mike.  "Apple juice is disgusting."

"Uh, Mike?" I said.  "I'm not trying to be picky here, but you're about to eat a live salamander.  I don't think the juice is gonna be your main problem."

"Yeah, but still, you don't have any Dr. Pepper?"

"Sorry," said Paul.

Mike unwrapped his sandwich, peeled back the top slice of bread, and I placed the salamander on the bed of peanut butter.  He squeezed the bread together, so that only the tip of a tail was poking out.  I can't imagine what the poor salamander was thinking at this point.

"Okay, open up the thermos, I'm gonna need the juice pretty quick."

The next sequence of events is burned in my memory, as vivid as if this all had happened yesterday instead of almost forty years ago.

Mike stared at the sandwich for about thirty seconds, mentally blocking out the fact that he was about to eat a live squiggly-wiggly.  Closing his eyes, he took a bite, making sure to leave plenty of clearance to avoid biting the thing in half.  He stuck out his hand, shaking it frantically -- Paul's cue to hand him the thermos.  Mike took a swig of apple juice, and swallowed the chunk of PBJ and S without chewing.

Time stopped.


In the years that have passed, I've come to the conclusion that this was simply a trick of the imagination.  Surely, the salamander couldn't have survived the trek down Mike's throat into a pool of stomach acid.  Imagination or not, though, Mike was absolutely convinced that he had a live lizard crawling around in his belly.

Which is probably why he violently barfed out everything he'd eaten since pre-school.

Looking down at the yellowish pool of vomit -- bile, chunks of Pop Tart, dead salamander -- Mike shook his head.

"Man, I told you.  Apple juice is disgusting."

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