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Rattle(snakes) and Me

February 5, 2015

My Aunt Corinne said my cousin Mike and I hunted rattlesnakes barefoot.  Yes, we did catch 1 at what’s called the Hogback, a long butte in the high sagebrush country between Dillon and Melrose, Montana.  I’m sure we wore work boots, or at least tennis shoes, but not barefoot.  Too many prickly pear cacti for barefoot.  We might have worn low-cut Converse all stars.  Or else pointed toe leather shoes with the compulsory  gorilla-hair vest and probably a red button-down short sleeve shirt and tight leg pants.  I’m talking 1966, in the summer.  I had a split shift job moving aluminum irrigation pipes every 12 hours, so I had all afternoon free for hunting rattlers.  More precisely, the prairie rattler (Crotalus viridis viridis) abounds in Beaverhead County.  Laurence M. Klauber, who wrote the definitive 2- volume book, Rattlesnakes, published in 1956, has pages of information collected from people in Beaverhead County who told him stories of their encounters with the charismatic reptiles.  A commissioned officer in the Public Health Service told me of Mr. Klauber’s book.  He was an optometrist, named Tom Raffael.  He made sure I got an award for my years of service on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.  Tom was sentimental, that way, and patriotic.  “It’s a grand old flag,” he said, when he pushed to have us run it up the pole every morning and take it down at night.  That’s when I found out the Northern Cheyenne have patriotism deep within their culture.  I was always able to get the cooperation of a teenager or other young adult when I needed help taking down the colors at sunset.  I got off the subject.

As a child I had never seen a rattler until my mother drove my grandma and me to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1962.  We stopped at Reptile Gardens near Rapid City, South Dakota.  A Wikipedia article said R.G. was started in 1937 to exploit the widespread fear of rattlesnakes and the public’s willingness to pay to see them.  Many of the rattlesnakes there were much larger than the Crotalus Viridis Viridis of Montana, which seldom grow past 3 feet and are typically half that length.  But the prairie rattlesnakes typically are a fat snake.  Fatter than a garter snake of similar length.  I still have not seen many rattlesnakes except in zoos.  I suppose that is a good thing.

A few other people I knew encountered rattlers more frequently than I ever did, such as Penny’s cousin Ronald Rowton, former sheriff of Fergus County in Central Montana.  About 20 years ago I asked him about rattlers and he said he didn’t care much about them.  However, on the same trip to Lewistown when I asked Ronald about the snakes we saw a dead one on a dirt road between Lewistown and Grassrange.  Someone had cut off the rattle at the end of its tail, so evidently at least 1 person cared about it enough to decaudicate it.  I may have invented a word.

Anyway, another time in 1966, when my friend Tad Henningsen and I found a rattlesnake — he found it actually — on the Hogback, I came prepared with a 4-foot steel pipe with a wire running through it so I could snare its head.  I also brought a metal trash can to carry the snake back.  We were in my mother’s metallic blue Ford Fairlane 500 sedan, so we just put the can with the snake into the trunk and left the trunk lid open.  As I recall we didn’t remove the loop from the snake, either, so the trash can rode with the pipe sticking out and the snake was still alive when we returned to Dillon.

Tad and I were thirsty so we stopped at the A&W on the edge of town.  I think Linda Cook, fellow high school student and car hop, waited on us.  Tad was more attractive to her, so she approached towards his side of the car.  After we ordered the usual free ketchups (which we usually just squeezed into our mouths) and root beers Tad asked Linda to get him his hat out of the garbage can in the trunk.  Linda started back as Tad, panicky, bolted toward her to prevent her from putting her life into danger.  I confess I ended up killing the snake at my house, giving the rattle to my nephew who took it to school to show his friends.

In recent times we saw a lot of racers, garters, and bull snakes around Billings.  We did see an occasional rattler (like maybe 3 or 4 in the last 30 years) but most often we saw bull snakes, often larger than a rattlesnake.  Once 2 of our high school age children, Clara and Todd, went with us on the 4th of July to float about 6 miles of the Tongue River between “White” Birney and “Indian” Birney in Montana.  The Tongue borders the eastern boundary of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.  Penny and I drove a station wagon, Todd and Clara took the 1965 VW van with the raft and food and other necessities for floating.

On the way to “Indian” Birney, or Birney Village, as it was also called, Penny and I noticed a large snake lying on the highway.  “Todd and Clara will grab the snake, I’m sure,” I said to Penny.

Our plan was to leave the car at Birney Village and for all of us to pile in for the drive to “White” Birney, or Birney Town, upriver.  When we stopped at the getting out place on the river, I asked Todd if he saw the snake on the road.  He had, he said, but admitted that he hadn’t stopped.  I felt pretty disappointed.  Todd later asked me to grab a chain out of a bag in the back of the van.  Of course I screamed when I touched the snake.

Todd and I wanted to fix up a snake skeleton, so we picked up a dead bull snake on a road outside of Billings, took it home, skinned it, and I boiled it on the camp stove for 3 or 4 hours, hoping to clean the bones that way.  Instead, the snake’s flesh was like hard rubber.  I ended up tanning the skin and giving it away.  I found a bird cage in the basement and dug up the compost in the alley bin, put some compost right on the snake carcass, and buried the whole bird cage.  Months later I dug up the cage, found what looked like hundreds of rib bones, and the spinal column.  I found a thin wire to hold the column together with a nut fastened to each end and I gave the bull snake spine to a great nephew.

The best family story about rattlers came from Penny’s mom, Lillian Meakins, in 1920, when Lillian was a girl of perhaps 6 on a homestead in Eastern Montana.  In that part of the Missouri River country adjacent homesteads were frequently claimed by numerous family members.  A single homestead was too small and wouldn’t support a family.  To “prove” the homestead Lillian’s mother and grandparents built tiny houses from parts that came on the train from Missouri and then overland by team and wagon.  Just building the house was insufficient, one had to sleep in it a certain number of nights a year.  Lillian and her grandma rode their horses to the 1-room house, sided with tarpaper, having a low arched roof also tarpapered.  Rattlesnakes abounded in that country, sometimes showing up in hen houses in nests.

Lillian’s grandma got up in the night to visit the outhouse.  She didn’t light the lantern she kept by the bed where she and her granddaughter slept.  Back in the house, grandma heard the sound of a rattlesnake on the floor at her side of the bed.  “Lillian, wake up!  Light the lantern,” shouted grandma.  Lillian didn’t stir, being sound asleep.  Grandma shouted to Lillian over and over, to no use.  Grandma grabbed a stick that happened to be near the door.  Each time she heard the buzz of the rattlesnake she brought down the stick.  Again and again until she no longer heard a sound.

Lillian told us the story and chuckled.  She said, “you should have seen that snake!  It had no tail left on it!”

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