In 1995, my dear husband and I found ourselves sprinting through LAX. And by ‘sprinting’, I mean moving as fast as humanly possible with two year old Mackenzie holding my hand, and a one year old Sam (sound asleep and buckled into his car seat) being lugged along in John’s arms. Also, John and I were wearing super large backpacks, stuffed with everything from crayons and coloring books, to baby wipes and diapers, to plastic dinosaurs and princess slippers. So we were basically herking and jerking our way, as fast as we could, toward our connecting gate, with backpacks so large that if either of us fell, we would never be able to get up.
Like zombie turtles.
Yes. We were a family of zombie turtles on a great adventure: We were moving to Australia.
The economy was humming along in the mid 1990s and part of our deal was that our company paid for an upgrade to business class plane tickets. International business class was like first class in the U.S. You got the wider seats and pretty good food. You also got a video screen which, back then, was a huge bonus. And people paid a lot for a business class ticket to Australia. A lot.
So when we walked upstairs on our Boeing Jumbo 747, into the business class cabin, with two year old Mac and a groggy car seat-bound (but not gagged) Sam, we got more than a few nasty looks and purposefully loud sighs from the people in the cabin. John buckled Sam into his plane seat and looked at me with fear in his eyes. I told him rather loudly not to worry, the other passengers were just breathing heavily to get more oxygen into their blood before we took off. He laughed and I laughed.
I sat across the aisle from John, with Mac in the window seat beside me. We were still getting a few sideways glances as I got out the crayons and a coloring book for Mac and the stewardess offered us drinks (Mac chose orange juice). I remember thinking it was way too quiet and they should really think of piping some good music into the cabin. Maybe Zeppelin’s Kashmir or Joplin’s Take Another Little Piece of My Heart. Both completely unexpected choices that should be played just a bit too loud so as to confuse and distract my fellow flyers from the terror they felt at the thought of two screaming kids on a 13-hour flight that they’d mortgaged their home to pay for. I would have climbed under the seat if I could have. Turns out my two-year-old daughter broke the chill.
When the captain’s voice came over the speakers, Mac exclaimed at the top of her lungs, “BUGS BUNNY!” Which was not only unexpected, it was true. The captain’s voice sounded just like Bugs Bunny. Our fellow passengers laughed out loud all around us. Turns out that the knowledge that Bugs Bunny is piloting your jumbo jet across the pacific is a comforting thing. Who knew? Everyone got a little friendlier, and we all settled in for our journey.
And it turned out that the kids were both so good for the entire flight that they – and we – got high fives as we deplaned in Auckland for our final connection to Melbourne.
Do you know what the first thing is that an Australian can’t wait to tell an American, when said American lands in Australia without the hope of returning to America for at least a year? No? How about if the American has two little kids that she feels sort of responsible for? Any guesses?
The first thing an Australian wants to tell an American is that Australia has, like, 97.3 percent of the world’s most deadly creatures just hanging out there, as if it is not a major issue. And they say it like it’s really no big deal. Not much is a big deal to an Australian. Seriously. In America – the land of marketing and self-promotion – a minor fender bender becomes a fifteen-car pile-up with multiple fatalities by the time the participant makes it to his or her next dinner party. In Australia, a traumatic brain injury is referred to as a ‘bump on the head’ (and they probably won’t even tell you about the fact that it occurred unless you happen to mention that your friend seems to be listing dangerously to one side, as in, “Oh, right. I’ve been in physio for a few years now. Got a bump on the head in a little fendah bendah. Fifteen cars is all. No worries!”) I’m not kidding. Its like an entire nation made up of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Shark bite? “Just a scratch. No worries!”
Salt Water Croc eaten your arm? “Merely a flesh wound. No worries!”
Anyway, after two weeks or so in a hotel, we moved into this very cool house in a suburb of Melbourne. It had a beautiful garden, with a happy resident kookaburra (not kidding) and it even had a koi pond. The kids chose their own rooms (and then promptly moved their little mattresses into one room so they could share), and we settled into our new Australian home. The one that was smack dab in the middle of 97.3 percent of the world’s most deadly creatures.
Oh, really? You’re gonna question my stats? Okay, Buckwheat, let’s tangle.
- Salt Water Crocodile
- Inland Taipan (deadliest snake in the world)
- Box Jellyfish
- Bull Shark
- Great White Shark
- Eastern Brown Snake
- Blue-Ringed Octopus
- Sydney Funnel-Web Spider
- Coastal Taipan
- Common Death Adder
- King Brown Snake
- Tiger Shark
- Red Back Spider
- White Tail Spider
Need I continue? Because there are more. Many more.
No? Okay then.
I had to make a plan.
I was okay with the kids not hanging out by estuaries and lagoons, thus avoiding Salt-Water Crocs. The Taipan seemed to enjoy more arid regions, meaning no desert-based playdates for my cherubs. Fine. And I was pretty sure I could avoid the ocean completely, so that left the Box Jellies, Bull Sharks, Great Whites, Tiger Sharks and damned Blue-Ringed octopus hungry and/or frustrated. Both fine with me. No guilt here.
So I was down to a few snakes and spiders.
I asked all sorts of questions of my Australian friends and colleagues and figured out that if we didn’t leave our sweatpants on the floor we could probably avoid the flesh necrosis that would result from a whitetail spider warming himself up in our fleece over night. And the Funnel Web spider was all the way in Sydney (would the kids really appreciate a visit to the Opera House anyway? Nah.). Everyone told me to chill about the Brown Snake and Death Adder, because you hardly ever saw them (Hardly. Ever. Saw. Them.). So I figured I was safe.
One day, my Australian friend Phil was talking to me at work. He was asking how we were settling in and I said fine and I said no one had died from a snake or spider bite yet and I was proud of myself. And he asked me if I’d seen my first Huntsman yet.
He described a rather large, furry spider that liked to hide under things like warm car door handles and under houses. He said it wasn’t poisonous but that he hated them. He hated them. Phil was Australian. From the land of the famously understated. And he hated something. But I thought maybe he was just a wussy Australian. No one else had said anything about Huntsman spiders. I forgot about it by the end of the day. Didn’t even share that little tidbit with John when I got home.
So one night, about a week later, I was walking down the narrow hall that connected our living room area with the kitchen. And something moved, at eye level, in my peripheral vision, just to my left. I turned toward the movement.
And simultaneously mentally acknowledged an enormous tarantula thing directly in front of me on my wall, and screamed and threw myself back into the wall opposite the spider. This left approximately 30 inches between the tip of my nose and this enormous spider.
Not nearly enough space.
The spider didn’t seem to react so violently at the sight of me.
He didn’t even move.
But John did. He came flying around the corner from the kitchen, as did the two kids. John saw me, and then he saw the spider. His arms immediately went down to his sides, and he blocked the kids from the hallway. I had collected myself by that point and quietly slid toward them.
The spider was just enjoying the show.
I calmly told the kids there was a big bug and they could see it after we caught it but they had to sit at the table for a minute. John looked at me like I was nuts, but I knew what he was really thinking.
He was thinking that I had always been the official bouncer in our house for everything from stink bugs, to bees, to mice and squirrels, and John was really worried that I was going to choose this moment to call the rookie – him – up to the big show.
And he was absolutely right.
We both leaned around the corner and looked at the spider. The thing was huge. We went back to the kitchen and looked around for something to capture it in. I made it very clear that squashing the thing was not in the cards. With the size of its body, it would be like squishing a mouse on the wall. Plus, I explained, it was a Huntsman. It was harmless. John was looking at me like, where do you come up with this stuff ?!
We decided on a large glass. The plan was to quickly place the glass over the spider, and then slide a piece of heavy cardboard between the glass and the wall. So John put on his game face (the kids were watching), picked up a huge, wide-mouthed glass, and I followed behind him with the cardboard. He walked into the hall, across from the spider. He did a few slow motion pump fakes with the glass, took a deep breath, and quickly put the glass over the spider.
And the spider’s legs were too long to fit into the glass.
John had to use his finger to poke each of the eight legs into the glass. And, finally, the entire spider was inside. And when I handed him the piece of cardboard to slide between the wall and the mouth of the glass, that dang spider sprung like a fuzzy ninja octopus, right to the bottom of the glass and directly at John.
Who screamed like a little girl.
And then I screamed like a little girl, and I can’t even believe to this day that he didn’t drop the glass.
But he didn’t.
We had the spider in the glass, and the kids were called over and we all oo’d and ah’d over our captive. But it pretty quickly dawned on us that we had absolutely no idea what to do at that point. This thing was practically the size of our front yard. I was not letting him go out there. And I wasn’t putting him out in the back garden, just to have him march back into my house later on that night.
So we did the only thing that made sense to us. We took him outside. We carefully climbed up onto a garden chair next to our fence. And dumped that gargantuan arachnid right over the fence and into our neighbor’s yard.
They were Australian. They lived with the threat of poisonous snakes and sharks and octopi and jellyfish every single day. One fuzzy, probably friendly, non-poisonous spider was nothing.
Later that month, my friend Phil and I were talking poisonous creatures again and I asked him how Australians live with the threat of poisonous everything, especially when their kids went outside.
He laughed and said, “Are you kidding? You guys have bears and wolves and mountain lions. I can head to hospital and get an antidote injection if a spider bites me. What do you do if a bear rips your arm clean off? You’re a goner at that point. No injection for that.”
And he said it completely matter-of-factly. Without unnecessary drama or blowing it out of proportion.
As any self-respecting Australian would.
Thanks for readin’.