Bill Haast died the other day.
The announcement almost slipped by me, a half dozen words splashed in the corner of a news website I visit. And even then it took me a second for the name to register.
Bill Haast . . . wasn’t he the guy with the snakes?
So, I clicked on the link and read about the death of Bill Haast, the self-proclaimed Snakeman, and perhaps the most influential man in my big brother’s life.
Bill Haast passed away in his sleep at age 100 after achieving international renown as one of the greatest snake-handlers who has ever lived. He caught his first garter snake at age 7, and when he was barely 12 years old he was bitten by a timber rattlesnake and spent a week in the hospital recovering. That wouldn’t be the only time.
Over the next seven decades Haast experienced the stab of poisonous fangs in his flesh more than 170 times. That’s an average of one bite every 4 months, and all of these from the deadliest snakes on the planet, scaly serpents you and I wouldn’t step within a mile of. Cottonmouths, diamondbacks, Malayan and Pakistani pit vipers, blue kraits, King cobras, green mambas. Yeah, those snakes. The kind that prompted Indiana Jones to utter, “I hate snakes,” and my former mother-in-law to dash from the room in a panic just from seeing one on television.
Over his lifetime Bill Haast handled more than 3 million poisonous snakes. Yes, handled. And on purpose. Snatched them right up behind the head, then plunged those needle-sharp fangs through a rubber membrane and milked the venom into a jar. At the Miami Serpentarium he opened in 1948 Haast would perform that milking act on a hundred snakes each day, the packed-room audience in silent then screaming awe.
I remember as a young kid hearing about this guy from my big brother Scott. We were barely into double digits — he at 11 and me 16 months younger — when Scott saw Haast on black-and-white TV. This would have been 1966 or so, and what he watched could very well have been this video of Haast after his first King cobra bite when he was 51.
My brother was hooked. He bought a copy of Haast’s 1965 book, Cobras in His Garden, and read articles in Argosy and Outdoor Life magazines. Whenever the Snakeman appeared on Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin, Scott would be glued to the television. My brother was most intrigued by the work Haast accomplished at his Miami Serpentarium, which he opened in 1948 and ran for 40 years. In front of open-jawed crowds Haast would handle and milk the snakes, gathering their venoms, producing anti-venins in his laboratory, and shipping them all over the world.
Even more fascinating to my brother was Haast’s practice of mithridatism, the injection of ever-increasing quantities of snake venom into his own body to build up immunities. At one point Haast injected himself with a weekly cocktail of 32 different venoms, and at age 96 he still received the poison of 5 snakes: cobras, cottonmouths, kraits, mambas and rattlers. Over his lifetime 21 different snake-bite victims were saved by transfusions of Bill Haast’s blood.
My brother grew up with not only the Snakeman, but also Wild Kingdom‘s Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler, the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, spearfisherman Terry Maas, and the magazine-chronicled exploits of archer Fred Bear. These were Scott’s heroes and his mentors. Every minute of his life my brother lived to emulate these men and their respect and adoration of the great outdoors. He became a master hunter with both firearms and his preferred bow-and-arrows — Scott enjoyed the sport’s quiet and intimate challenge. He trapped, he tracked, he fished, he collected things: insects, bird eggs (carefully pierced and the innards slowly sucked out), wild turkey tails. He scuba-dived and spearfished for Goliath groupers off the California coast, this as a young teenager.
In his 20’s after moving with our family to the northern Caribbean’s Turks and Caicos Islands, Scott became an avid freediver, descending 4-5 minutes on a single breath to snag a lobster from its cave or pursue a sleek wahoo with his Bahamian sling. He silently stalked coral reefs with a plastic-tubed “slurp” gun to capture tropical fish for worldwide distribution. For a decade he worked as a longline swordfisherman off the Atlantic coast à la George Clooney in The Perfect Storm and the reality TV show Swords. On one occasion his boat came upon a rare school of Mola mola or ocean sunfish, their oddly truncated bodies averaging 6 feet tall and 2,000 pounds in weight. Scott slipped on a diving mask and dove into the water, soon straddling one across its back bronco-style.
In the last decade of his life, as the aches and pains of an adventurous life began to take their toll, my brother turned to photography, using his eye for earth’s beauty and the patience he had acquired during a half century immersed in the natural world, to capture his passion on film and memory card. And a year ago, near the end of his rugged but all too short fight against lung cancer, Scott asked that his ashes be cast on the sea off the coast of Grand Turk. We were honored to do just that.
At age 88 — and looking like a man in his 60’s — Bill Haast claimed in this video feature that he’d never been sick a day in his life, had never had the flu or a common cold, had in fact never even been to a doctor. No arthritis or bursitis, and he had never taken medicine, not even aspirin. Halfway through his cancer battle my brother joked to me that maybe he should have tried Haast’s mithridatism himself.
My brother met Bill Haast once at his serpentarium outside of Miami, honored to finally witness in person the man he had for so long admired. Scott would have been pleased to know that the Snakeman made it to 100.
Those who knew Scott Gordon will recognize his best qualities displayed in my character Curtis, younger brother of Mack Fraser, the protgonist of my suspense novel Brother’s Keeper.