In the pantheon of colorful characters, few could match Andy’s uncle Calvin. A world traveler, Calvin would show up at family reunions every few years, full of stories of the odd cultures, and creatures he’d encountered in some distant land. This made him a perpetual favorite among the kids, and almost as soon as he stepped through the door, he’d herd the young folks together and immediately launch into a fascinating tale from one of his journeys.
“Kids, have you ever heard of the spitting spiders of Borneo?” Calvin said with his characteristic bombast.
Calvin leaned in and addressed them in a confidential tone. “Well, in Borneo, they have these giant spiders — and they spit!”
The children excitedly looked around at one another. “Ooo!”
The adults never seemed to have much use for Calvin, and were glad he spent the majority of his time regaling the children with his wild tales. Andy’s father, Jack, in particular, dreaded Calvin’s visits, claiming it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Calvin to hit him up for money for some hare-brained scheme or another, but Andy didn’t care. He loved Uncle Calvin, and always looked forward to Calvin’s return.
“Andrew,” Calvin would often tell him, always using his full name, “a man needs adventure. Why I hope I never grow too old to don the old fedora and take off for parts unknown.”
Calvin was actually Andy’s mother’s uncle, the youngest of her father’s siblings, born well after Andy’s great-grandmother thought she could have more children, and was only a few years older than Andy’s mother, Gloria. When Calvin wasn’t around, Andy frequently heard his family say Calvin was spoiled as a child, his parents lacking the energy or motivation to discipline him. He grew up pampered, coddled, and with an unrealistic sense of his own importance. Most of his brothers and sisters had left the house by the time he started school, so he had his parents undivided attention, and so long as he didn’t get into too much mischief, they were content to let him have his way. When he announced, shortly before he graduated high school, that he wanted to tour Africa, his parents were more than happy to send him off, so they could once again have the house to themselves.
From that point, it was one adventure after another for Calvin. Andy had no idea what Calvin did for a living, and neither did anyone else in the family. Inquiries about Calvin’s employment status were often met with the cryptic, “I have many irons in the fire, let me tell you.” Whatever these might be, Calvin kept them to himself. Jack generally tired of Calvin quickly, so his visits to the family were usually very short.
One morning, while Calvin was staying with the family, Andy heard a knock at his door just as he was waking up.
“Come in,” he called.
Calvin entered and very dramatically tip-toed over to the bed where he crouched down so he’d be at eye-level with Andy.
“Up for a little adventure, Andrew?”
“What do you mean?” Andy asked, still sleepy.
“I’m off to track the elusive black mamba,” Calvin said. “Thought you might like to tag along.”
“Black mamba?” Andy said. “Is that a snake?”
“It certainly is,” Calvin said. “It can outrun a cheetah! The terror of the forest.”
“I don’t think we should be fooling around with one of those,” Andy said.
“Nonsense!” Calvin said. “I’m well-versed in how to handle myself around them. I could give you some pointers if we encounter one.”
“Okay, I guess,” Andy said. “Where do you want to go?”
“I thought we might take a hike around Mystic Lake,” he said. “Perfect hunting grounds for our steely prey.”
“Isn’t that where they found the naked dead guy?” Andy asked.
“It certainly is,” Calvin replied. “Perhaps another victim of the elusive black mamba!”
“I don’t think they’re letting people go up there now,” Andy said.
“Son, nothing’s off limits to men of adventure,” Calvin said. “Now get some hiking clothes on and let’s hit the road.”
When they arrived at the wilderness area, the road leading into it was closed, so Calvin parked just outside and retrieved a backpack from the trunk.
“Andrew, my boy, looks like we’re in for some hiking,” he said.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Andy said. “They’re pretty strict about people being up here.”
“Not to worry,” Calvin said, “you’re with a responsible adult.”
Not totally assured, Andy followed Calvin into the woods. They found a trail quickly and moved deeper into the forest. Along the way, Calvin would stop and point out some interesting type of foliage, or direct Andy’s attention to a deer or other woodland creature. As they were circling back to find a place to rest and have some snacks, they were overtaken by a park ranger.
“Excuse me, what are you two doing out here? This part of the park is closed in the off season.”
Calvin put his arm in front of Andy and said in a low voice, “Let me handle this, Andrew.” Addressing the ranger, Calvin said, “You might say, we’re on a botanical excursion.”
“A botanical excursion,” the man said. “What does that mean?”
“If you must know, we’re tracking the elusive black mamba.”
“Black mamba, as in snake?”
“That is correct.”
“What makes you think you’ll find one out here?” the ranger said.
“Why, this is the perfect habitat for one,” Calvin said authoritatively. “They prefer the wetlands, marshes, bogs, quagmires — you name it.”
“You’re talking about the black mamba — the poisonous snake, right? Have you ever seen one?”
“No. They’re very elusive,” Calvin said. “Thus the name the elusive black mamba.”
“Considering that mambas are native to Africa, I’d say they’re very elusive in this part of the world. How did you even get up here?”
“From the road? That’s nearly three miles.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a brisk walk first thing in the morning,” Calvin said. “Gets the blood pumping.”
“Look, you can’t just go traipsing around in these woods like this,” the man said. “We found a naked dead guy in the lake just last month.”
“We’re not planning on going in the lake,” Calvin said. “Now, if you’ll excuse us—”
“Not so fast,” the ranger said. “I’m going to have to call this in.”
The ranger stepped away from Andy and Calvin and took out his phone. After a moment, he looked over his shoulder and said, “Yep, it’s them all right.”
Finished, he put away his phone and came back. “You wouldn’t happen to be Calvin Alexander would you?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” Calvin said. “I see my fame precedes me.”
“Not quite,” the ranger said. “A couple named Jack and Gloria Martin called the police to say you disappeared with their son Andrew.” Looking at Andy, “I guess that’s you.”
“Yes sir,” Andy said.
“A simple misunderstanding,” Calvin said. “I’m positive I left them a note.”
“Right. At any rate, they want him back, so I’m going to have to ask you both to come with me.”
They were taken to the main ranger station. When Andy’s father got there, he was furious.
“I’ll take my son,” Jack said, pointing at Andy. Indicating Calvin, he continued, “As far as I’m concerned, you can dump this one in the lake, with or without clothes.”
“Oh, come on, Jack, the boy’s in perfect condition,” Calvin said. “I’d never take him someplace truly dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Jack said. “They found a naked dead guy out there.”
“And if I’d seen any dead naked men running or swimming around, I’d have gotten the boy out of there.”
Jack grabbed Calvin by the arm and drug him into a side room, closing the door behind them. Andy couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could tell they were having a very heated discussion. After several minutes, they emerged, and Calvin seemed a bit subdued.
Jack went to Andy and said, “Come on, Andy, we’re getting out of here.”
“But what about uncle Calvin?” Andy said.
Calvin went to Andy and bent down.
“It’s okay, Andrew,” Calvin said. “I just need to have a few words with the rangers. I’ll be by later to get my things.”
“You’re leaving?” Andy said.
“You know me, always on the go,” Calvin said, jostling Andy’s hair. “Not to worry, I’ll be in touch.”
Calvin gave Andy a hug, then Jack took Andy home.
After that, Calvin’s visits became much less frequent, and he never again stayed with Andy’s family when he was in town. The last correspondence Andy received from his uncle was just before he headed off to college, a post card depicting the Amazon rain forest with a note on back stating Calvin was headed off to look for some guy named Rockefeller. Andy lost touch with Calvin after that, but he always hoped that someday they’d link up again, so Calvin could show him the spitting spiders of Borneo.