By Steve Cornett
Cheery. That's what Jim Jennings was on snake morning. Cheery and all in starched jeans and shirt and a clean Resistol, looking like he was off to some fancyschmancy horse show in Fort Worth or Denver.
He was no longer just the recently retired editor for the American Quarter Horse Association and author of the stunningly beautiful Best Remudas book on my coffee table. He was a college kid again, bubbly you might say, and all enthused about catching rattlesnakes.
He was, of the seven humans assembled that morning in the Mulberry Red housebarn, the only one in good humor. The rest of us had the weebie-jeebies. We were there because of peer pressure, Jennings being the peer and we the pressured. It was Jennings who, upon hearing last year about a den full of coontailed diamondbacks on our place, offered to show us how to catch them.
Like we cared.
Like this was something we needed to know.
|This is me in my body armor cap, telling the girls I've never had so much fun. Or something like that.
Anyhow, the rest of us were not in starched anythings. We were in lace up snake boots and puffy coats we thought might be thick enough to absorb snake fangs. I was even wearing the "Point Blank Body Armor” gimme cap a policeman friend had left. Just, you know, on the off chance a snake was to bite me in the cap.
We were not cheery. We were weebied and jeebied and sleep deprived after a night of snake dreams.
Jim had assured us it would not be scary. He said we would get to the den early before the snakes got out of their holes and then we'd be out there with long snake catcher gizmos and we'd "just pick them up” and drop them in a trash can.
Jennings knows about these things because he grew up around Sweetwater, Texas, and before he went off and got Aggie-educated at Texas A&M (Apparently the university of choice for snake hunters--go figure), he used to catch snakes for fun. I don't know Sweetwater all that well, but if all the young people have to do for fun is catch rattlesnakes, I say it's a town in need of a pool hall.
Peering, attentively if not exactly hopefully, into the den are Jim Jennings (front), Anon(center) and me (as rear as possible).
So anyhow, here we were. Just about sunup of a Saturday morning in late February. The beaming Jennings; another friend we must call "Anon” because he doesn't want his name associated with this activity (This friend's job keeps him on the animal rights group hate lists. He believes he'd rather they not know he not only eats meat but also kills rattlesnakes
); and your editor emeritus with a bit of a hangover from the previous night's dose of preventative snake medicine.
Oh yes, and our wives--or, as we had taken to calling them, to the merriment of the men if not the women--the "Miss Snake Charmer hopefuls”--plus Kathy Pruiett, one of my wife's coworkers who is inclined to just do stuff just because she hasn't done it before.
|A trash can buzzing with what Anon at one point called in a classic oxymoron, "a pretty good mess of snakes.”
And we went and caught snakes.
So this is a photo essay. Jim's wife, Mavis, was handling the camera, and with a long enough lens to allow her to stay with the females while those of us cursed with testosterone caught snakes deep in the pit below.
Before we get too far into this, I should point out that I don't like snakes. I'm somewhere toward the sissy end of the scale that begins at "smart enough to avoid poisonous snakes” and proceeds to "outright, certifiably, phobic about anything remotely ophidian.”
Nonetheless, this place of ours is overrun with the things. Two years ago, we happened on this den. It's deep in a wash that has cut down through the gyprock formation. The sides of the washes are laced with old critter holes that favor the wintering habits of rattle snakes of all types.
This particular wash is probably 12 or 15 feet deep at the den point and maybe 30 feet across. If you visit on a warm winter day, there may be snakes outside a big cave-like orifice at the bottom, or lying beside gopher-sized holes on the sides. They're just everywhere.
So Jim the Snakist says this would be a great place to catch snakes. "Why,” asked Anon and I, "would we want to ‘catch' them. Why wouldn't we just shoot them?”
|Anon poses a diamondback for the camera.
Because, says Jim the Authority, if you do that you'll scare the rest of them and they won't come out.” So, he says, we need to catch them live. Weebie-jeebies.
Jim surveyed the wash and said that, although it would be tight, we could get all three men and any women who cared to join us squeezed into the right spot. We would spray gasoline in the big hole, wait a bit, and then they would come out.
So, asked Anon and I, what if they come out of the other holes while we're watching the big hole?
"You need to keep your eyes open,” says Jim, seemingly oblivious to just how superfluous that advice would be to non-Aggies.
So Jim fetched along a pump-up weed sprayer to which he had plumbed a long copper tube. We filled the sprayer with gasoline (unleaded, of course.) Then we crawled down into that chasm. We went in this order: Jim. Then Anon. Then nobody. Then nobody else. Then me.
No women. They all gathered at the top and watched from afar saying things like: "Oh, Jim is so brave.” "Oh (Anon) is so brave.” And blahdeblah so on.
Jim strode over, sat down on a rock at the entrance to the hole and said with that adolescent enthusiasm, "this is perfect.” No. Accuracy demands an exclamation point. He said: "This is perfect!”
"Great” said Anon. "Where do we put the gas?”
So Jim started leaning over that weebie-jeebie hole in the rocks, pushing that copper tube as deep as he could. In a bit, he says to Anon, "ok. Give me some gas.”
And they pumped some gas in there. And we waited a few minutes. Nothing. A few more minutes. Nothing. Jim then says, "maybe they're not in there.”
Which is when I moved up to have a look myself, positioning myself carefully behind Anon who had positioned himself carefully behind Jim, who was right at the mouth of the weebie-jeebie hole.
They both had hand mirrors and were reflecting the sun into the hole. It was surprising how well you could see in there. Emboldened by our lack of progress, I leaned over and looked in myself and, by golly, right there was this snake head looking back at me. I mean, right there. No. I mean RIGHT THERE.
I stepped back, calmly, I think, and said something like "I believe there is a snake coming out of that hole, gentlemen.”
"Watch your language” said one of the women. "Shhh, Steve,” said Jim. "Don't scream, you'll scare him.”
Apparently not, for here came the rattler, carefully, slowly, heading for ungassy air, his little weebie-jeebie serpentine tongue flashing in and out all wiggly and snakey. Quick as a flash, Jim caught him up with the snake catcher gizmo and dumped him all buzzing and mad into the garbage can.
For the next couple of hours, Jim and Anon snatched one snake after another, dumping them into a mass of their kin in the trash can.
I helped too, of course. But ever the gracious host, I let them do most of the catching. At least I was braver than the girls, who all stayed up on top hollering things like "be careful!” and "there's one in that hole up there!” and "has Steve wet himself?” at us.
Anyhow, to make a long blog short, before lunch we had pulled 25 diamond backs out of that one hole and the honeycomb holes around it. We decapitated them later and I put their still-squirmy remains in a plastic bag and put that in the game freezer at the barnhouse, just in case somebody wants the hides.
They are still available, by the way.
Jim, who knows about these things, said I could go back the next day and catch just as many as we did that day.