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Bonding With Buzztails

May 07, 2000|Bob Sipchen

Eery true Southern Californian has a rattlesnake story. These fragments make up mine.

My family migrated from Chicago to San Bernardino in 1958. We lived in a tiny house on an acre of olive trees, with open land between us and the chaparral. One smog-muted spring afternoon, my nearsighted mother was going about her housework, moving back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. Each time she stepped over something that she mistook for cutoff jeans or a baseball jersey--some article of clothing my brother or I would be forced to pick up when we got home from school. My uncle was visiting from the Windy City and, returning from an errand, he examined the item. He was an odd little man who spoke in a quirky deadpan. "Peggy," he said, "do you know there's a rattlesnake in your living room?"

I'm not sure how we got rid of that one. Eventually, my dad looped a noose on an 8-foot bamboo pole to capture the rattlers that routinely wandered onto our patio. He'd hoist each trespasser into the air and plop it into a big metal pot, where it would stay until he found time to transport it into the wilds. My friends and dogs and I encountered other rattlesnakes from time to time as we explored the surrounding canyons. Since then, I've seen them on the beach and swimming across a lake; I've seen a rattler with a mouse's tail wiggling from its mouth, and I saw a hawk snatch up a rattler in its talons.

I paid my way through college as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. "Buzztails" were part of the job, ubiquitous yet always riveting--that camouflage assuring close encounters, that sizzling drum roll seemingly designed to make human vertebrae chatter in unison. A few sightings stand out. We fought one fire near Arrowhead Springs, where Campus Crusade for Christ had put a cross atop a remote brush-covered hill. Flames enveloped the slope with the intensity of a tsunami. The next day, as we mopped up not far from the smoldering cross, we came upon a small rattlesnake. It was coiled and charred, its head high and mouth open wide, flash-frozen by the flames at which it apparently had been snapping. Another time, after a night of tequila-fueled revelry, I showed up at work hung over. I was supposed to be helping an engine crew chain-saw a fuel break through manzanita in the hills near Santa Barbara. Quickly, though, I stumbled off to retch. As I knelt, I heard my pals tittering. Something landed on the ground beneath my face. Opening my eyes, I confronted a headless rattler, slithering aimlessly and oozing blood into the dirt.

During my third season with the Forest Service, I became a patrolman. More unsettling than the snakes, at first, were the buzztail hunters who nest in the back-country campgrounds--an odd breed identified by their diamondback hatbands and strips of snake meat broiling on grills. Some see the outdoors as an antivenin to mankind and modernity. A few are outlaws who slip into the wilds to avoid civilization's law enforcers. Left alone, they're harmless. They camp, drink, shoot their guns and occasionally pour gasoline into rock piles to see what comes out writhing and rattling.

The adrenaline is invigorating. One morning my partner and I were hiking a trail near the Los Padres National Forest's Big Caliente Hot Springs. We almost tripped over a rattler as fat as a beer can. Startled, we bashed it to death with rocks and cut off the rattles--14 as I recall. More often, though, we went out of our way to avoid, or even protect, the creatures. Coming upon one sunning on a fire road, we'd scoop it gently into a shovel then give it a hard fling. It's quite a sight, a rattlesnake spiraling and twisting across the blue sky.

Such sentimentality is not the rule. My brother had a friend who gathered rattlers and fed them mice in an aquarium in his apartment. He was a big, smart, friendly guy whose snake-catching paralleled the development of a cruel dark streak. He got into exotic weaponry and drugs and had stories about biker gangs and secret deals with the CIA. He began to scare people. A few years ago, he drove onto a remote desert road for some sort of rendezvous. Whomever he met out there in snake country struck fast and repeatedly, filling him with bullets and leaving his corpse sitting in his car.

*

I don't want to make too much of my snake tales, to get wrapped up in the mythology--Native American, biblical or Freudian. What seems clear is this: since the grizzly disappeared from Southern California, these reptiles--more than the coyote, cougar, scorpion or pit bull--have come to symbolize the animal danger with which we still live.

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