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Crotalus viridis viridis and me

February 5, 2016

“You and Mike hunted rattlesnakes barefoot, and we were just horrified,” said my aged Aunt Corinne.  She made her pronouncement.  Then she waited for my rebuttal.

However, I gave up arguing with Corinne even when she was sober.  She was always sober before supper, but afterward she sometimes poured a generous Jack Daniels on ice.  Corinne wasn’t interested in my side of the tale, so I will convey it here for your benefit.

Yes, we did catch and bring home a prairie rattler 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.  I hardly ever went barefoot.images Too many prickly pear cacti for barefoot.  We might have worn low-cut Converse all stars.

At school I sometimes wore 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.  By summer I had returned the shoes, shirt, and vest to my friends from whom I had taken them.

The summer of 1966 I had a split shift job moving aluminum irrigation pipes every 12 hours in barley fields, so I had all morning and afternoon free for hunting rattlers.  More precisely, it’s the prairie rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis viridis, which lives in the high dry valleys of Beaverhead County.

Laurence M. Klauber, who wrote the definitive two- volume book, Rattlesnakes, published in 1956, has chapters of information collected from people in Beaverhead County who told him stories of their encounters with the charismatic reptiles. At least I found them charismatic, or scary, or fascinating.

As a child I had never seen a rattler until my mother drove my grandma and me to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1961.  We stopped at Reptile Gardens near Rapid City, South Dakota.  A Wikipedia article said R.Gardens 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 longer than three feet and are typically half that length.  But they are a fat snake.  Fatter than a garter snake of similar length.  I still have not seen more than eight or ten rattlesnakes in my life, 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 one person cared about it enough to decaudicate it.  I may have just 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 four-foot steel pipe with a wire running through it so I could snare its head.  I also brought a galvanized garbage 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 Root Beer stand on the way into town.  I think Linda Cook, car hop our age, waited on us.  She liked Tad, so she approached his side of the car.  After we ordered the usual free paper cups of ketchup (which we usually just licked out with our tongues) and root beers, Tad asked Linda to get him his hat out of the can in the trunk.  As Linda started back, Tad, panicky, bolted back after to prevent her from reaching in.

We ended up killing the snake at my house, and I gave the rattle to my nephew who took it to school to show his friends.

In recent times we have seen a lot of racers, garters, and bull snakes in the Billings vicinity.  Well, we did see an occasional rattler (like maybe four in the last 30 years) but most often we saw bull snakes, often way bigger than most rattlesnakes.

In 1989 two of our high school age children, Clara and Todd, went with us on the 4th of July to float about six 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 followed in 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, P. and I noticed a large snake lying on the highway.  “They’ll get the snake,” I said.

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 at the bridge on the river, I asked Todd if he saw the snake on the road.

“Yeah,” he said, but admitted that he hadn’t stopped.  I was, of course, disappointed.  Todd later asked me to get him the lunch food out of a bag in the back of the van.  Of course, when I touched the snake, I screamed.

Todd and I always 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 three or four 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 used 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 my wife’s Mom, Lillian Meakins.  In 1920, when Lillian was about six, on a homestead in Eastern Montana, she had an adventure with her Grandma.

In that part of the Missouri River country, adjacent homestead claims were frequently staked by family members.  A single 40- or 160-acre homestead was too small to 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 several miles to the one-room house, sided with tarpaper, with a low arched roof also tarpapered.  Rattlesnakes were plentiful in that country, sometimes showing up in hen house nests.  Lillian often gathered eggs, she told us later.  She didn’t shudder as much as look sort of angry about snakes.

At the distant homestead “house,” 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, just inside the door, Grandma heard the sound of a rattlesnake’s buzzing rattle on the floor at her side of the bed. She did not dare walk toward the bed.

“Lillian, wake up!  Light the lantern,” shouted Grandma.  But Lillian didn’t stir, being sound asleep.

Grandma shouted to Lillian over and over, to no use.  Grandma grabbed a walking stick that she kept near the door.  Each time she heard the buzz of the rattlesnake she brought down the stick to kill the snake.  She smashed it again and again until she no longer heard a sound.  Lillian slept through all of that, too.  Finally her Granny got in bed with her.

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

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