I have posted a few of my sacred experiences here before, but I'd like to share another now that may or may not be what many would call a numinous experience. I have not forgotten in in almost 40 years, because it was remarkable to me then. What would you call an experience like this?
The year was 1972, and I was 19 years old. It was 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and the radio DJ said it was 106 degrees when Margaret and I began the hour drive up the mountain. Summer classes at Fresno State were over for the week, and we wanted to plant our feet in the icy-cold Kings River. We were in Margaret’s green Datsun 2-door, with no air conditioning; but all the windows were open, and our hair swirled in the hot wind. We felt more and more relaxed as we ascended the mountain highway, the temperature dropping slowly with every mile.
When we arrived at the turn-off for the river the sun was still high, but it was a balmy 85 degrees. No one was in the gravel parking area, and the only sounds were of the fast-moving river. We sat at the water’s edge and talked about our classes, upcoming finals, and boys.
Without warning, a beat-up Chevy truck careened down the access road and skidded to a halt next to the Datsun. Seven or eight field hands piled noisily out of the truck and sprawled all around Margaret and me on the riverbank. They were sweaty from hard work and drunk from too much beer.
The men brought with them a large, thick snake, about 4 feet long and as big around as a drinking glass. They laughed as they tormented the snake by tossing him overhead to one another, or pretending to let him go, only to step on him and grab him back up as he tried to escape.
I tried to maintain a pleasant but cool demeanor with the men, as if we were all just here to enjoy the river. But inwardly I knew that Margaret and I were in serious trouble. The men’s actions were becoming more exaggerated and suggestive, and their raucous laughter had taken on a menacing tone. As they continued jabbing the snake in our faces, I noticed that Margaret had withdrawn in an odd way, hugging her knees and gently rocking back and forth, eyes staring vacantly ahead.
What happened next was completely unplanned by me: I sat up straight and very deliberately took the snake from the leader’s hands and draped it carefully around my shoulders, holding it firmly behind the head with one hand and at the tail with the other. A hush fell over the gathering, and I found myself looking from face to face, the snake draped around me like a robe, meeting each man’s eyes for a few seconds.
As if breaking a spell, the leader grabbed the snake from me and in one swift movement wrung its neck and threw it, dead, on the ground. “Come on, let’s go!” he said. As quickly as they had come upon us, the men piled into the truck and fishtailed up the access road to the pavement and out of sight.
I literally dragged Margaret to the car, put her into the passenger’s seat, started the car, locked the doors, and headed for home, popping the clutch all the way (I had never driven a standard transmission!).
I don’t know if you’d call this a numinous experience, but I still feel today that some quality of Snake came to me in 1972. He didn’t go looking for trouble, but he was unyielding before confrontation. Not over-reacting, but gauging the best means and time to strike his prey. For a half hour in 1972 I believe that I was Snake, quiet, alert, and deadly to any man who might hurt Margaret or me.