Slithering Up to Face a Childhood Fear
I don't have a lot of unreasonable fears. Only two come readily to mind – needles and snakes. The first comes from a childhood experience with hospitals – indelibly imprinted on my brain. The other comes from my youth when I was chased by a neighbor boy who liked to fling garter snakes at me throughout summer vacation (He grew up to become a psychiatrist). Thus, when it came to my attention that a local rattlesnake hunter named Leroy would make an interesting story for my mountain paper, I decided to ‘grow up’ and ‘get over it.’
The road to his home was steep and winding, lined with gnarled manzanita. It led to a three-story house that had the look of an owner-built home, maybe not totally up to code. But few folks in that niche of the Sierra cared about regulations they regarded as nobody’s business but their own.
As I pulled into his driveway, an eager Australian Shepherd bolted up and barked greetings, followed by Leroy, and his wife, a wisp of a woman made even smaller because of Leroy’s girth and height. They were all smiles. Even the Aussie was showing his teeth. We said our hellos and headed for the house. I kept an eye out for any suspicious slithering in the bushes.
The living room was all flowered upholstery and filmy curtains, country cute. I took a spot on the well-loved couch. Leroy occupied the Naugahyde lounger and enthusiastically launched into an explanation of the attraction, thrills, and perils of rattlesnake hunting. The side table next to his chair held the object of his fascination – a taxidermied rattler, classically coiled, head up, mouth open and forked, red tongue protruding between two yellowish fangs. It was proudly ensconced in a glass dome. He also had a box that held dozens of tiny bones. He handed me a few and proceeded to educate me about rattlesnake behavior – as though there actually was a standard for that.
Leroy told me that he’d love to take me outdoors and “show me how it’s done,” but I wasn’t (thank heavens) wearing the right outfit for a hunt. He explained a hunter needed high boots, a pair of chaps, a forked walking stick to poke things, and a pair of six-foot snake tongs. He pointed to a spot on the carpet and pantomimed a catch. “See, that there is a brush pile alongside a fence. Little mice and such like to hide in there, and it’s perfect for a rattler. That’s his huntin’ ground.”
He jiggled a pretend stick at an imaginary pile with his left hand and with his right rammed invisible snake tongs into the carpeted floor. “Git him right behind the head so’s he cain’t rear up and gitcha!”
Leroy flashed a wide smile just as his wife walked in. She was grinning and carrying a tray. “Whoo-ee, what do we have here,” Leroy sang. “This is sumpthin' special just for you!” (Referring to me, I feared). His wife put the tray down on the coffee table. There were three forks, paper towel napkins, and a plate of what I hoped was chicken or fish but logic told me it wasn’t. “Here you go, rattlesnake steaks!” Leroy confirmed.
The wife (whose name was never shared with me) served up generous pieces of white meat surrounding a spine with bones radiating outward from the center. I lacked any reasonable way to respond and tried to place myself in a trance. A ‘just do it’ trance. I accepted my treat on a tiny paper plate and poked at the meat. The couple dug in, and Leroy let loose with a few grunts of satisfaction. “Now, don’t you go sayin’ it takes like chicken!” he joked. I agreed. It did not taste like chicken. It tasted like my worst nightmare.
The wife wore an expression of satisfaction. “Now I know you two have gotta talk, but you just take out a moment to enjoy. It’s not everybody that gets to sample fresh rattler steaks,” she bragged (and I did feel special). She and Leroy bit into their fillets with pride and enthusiasm. I struggled to remain calm and in denial - though this was not possible since the fried fillets looked exactly like what they were. Having forced down one portion, I told them I was grateful for the treat but that, after all, I came there to ask questions, and I was on a very tight deadline. The wife politely said she’d wrap up a couple of morsels for me to take back to the crew at the paper.
Leroy and I chatted some more about the danger and skills and rewards of being a bonified rattlesnake hunter. He told me he even considered himself an “enviro” who wasted none of Mother Nature’s gifts. I dutifully scribbled in my reporter’s notebook and took a few photos with my Minolta, all the while feeling uncomfortable writhings in my stomach. That done, I packed up my gear.
It took all the control I could muster to walk calmly out of the house instead of bolting to my car. I thanked Leroy and told him (in total honesty) it was an unforgettable experience. His wife dashed out, “Oh! You almost left your fillets on the table!” she chirped, and handed me a wrapped package. I made it back to my little office in North Fork, acutely aware of the emotional load I was transporting on the seat next to me. Oil from frying had saturated the butcher paper, and two perfect circles sat coiled inside waiting to strike.
But once I realized I wouldn't have to touch the package and could get the most junior member of my team to take it inside (or, better yet, to a dumpster), I adopted a positive outlook. I had the story and, with it, a memory that, unfortunately, would last a lifetime.
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