Monday, December 31, 2007

More Rattlesnakes

Still Paiute Mountain, late Thirties, early Forties

We only met two rattlesnakes that were really mean. One of them, I don't know what had gotten into him. He was beside the road and something must have gotten him upset. We were walking beside the road minding our own business and he coiled up. Then he started to come towards us. We rarely used a gun for a snake. It was a waste of ammunition. We broke their backs with a stick and then cut off their heads with a knife. We all carried knives.

Another time a rattlesnake had been trying to eat something, trying to swallow it, and apparently it wasn't warm enough. A cold blooded animal's temperature depends upon ambient temperature, and they have to have a certain temperature to eat. You can't put something into a cold oven. Apparently this snake had swallowed it and threw it up, and he was really pissed. He came after us, so we did him in.

Usually the snakes tried to get away. Fritz stepped on one once. It started to rattle and then stopped, like it was embarrassed and shouldn't have done that. We used to tell visitors that the first person in line wakes the snake up, the second person makes it mad, and the third person gets bit. In all of our years up on Paiute, no one we knew, let alone us kids, ever got bit.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

My wife, Joanne

My wife, Joanne, had a very unusual girlhood. Her parents had a mining claim on Paiute Mountain, a primitive part of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. The family hunted their dinners because you couldn't bring up everything you needed for a prolonged stay from town. She learned to handle a gun, to kill and dress out the local fauna and have them for dinner. It was an unconventional upbringing that she shared with her brother, Fritz, her sister, Audrey, and her cousin Beverly. I mention their names because they figure in the next few stories that I'm going to tell about her. These stories will be from her memoirs that she is dictating and I am editing.

Our modus operandi is simple. I mix us a couple of highballs and thrust a tape recorder in front of her and say, a la George Burns, "Tell me about your family, Joanne." This is her account of the California boa.

Paiute Mountain, California, late 1930s or early 1940s.

Sometimes we had some strange pets. We would pick up some creature, keep it for a while and turn it loose. There's an animal called the California rosy boa or the rubber boa. They're a little, tiny snake. Eighteen inches would be a big one. When they bend, their skin wrinkles like rubber. You don't always see them, but that summer we saw four or five of them. I picked up a rubber boa one day that was long enough, and wrapped it around my neck. This was just fine with the snake because it was warm. I wore the snake for two or three weeks, 'til the novelty wore off and everybody on the mountain was shocked. Then I turned it loose.

On rattlesnakes, same time, same place

Besides the animals we hunted for food, we dealt with a lot of rattlesnakes. When we first moved to French Gulch everyone called it Rattlesnake Gulch. Lots of rattlesnakes there. We were all fairly young. I was probably about five. Fritz would then have been ten and Audrey eleven. Our neighbors used to kid us. "You oughta eat them rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes are good food." Of course, not one of them had ever eaten a rattlesnake.

So, what did we know? We wanted to eat a rattlesnake. Mom was gone when we found a rattlesnake in the foundation of the cabin. We dragged it out and killed it and decided to eat it. Mom was raised in a finicky house, even though she was very open minded and we ate all kinds of things. But we knew she wouldn't really want to eat the snake. So we took action. We knew you were supposed to soak the snake in salt water, so we put it in a soup tureen filled with brine. It was a lovely tureen. It had a lid and everything. When Mama came home the four of us, Beverly, Audrey, Fritz and I, lined up and said, "Mama, we want to cook this."

We took the lid off the tureen and Mother said, "NO!"

We all cried in unison. It was well rehearsed. She finally said, "Oh, dammit, look, I'm going up on the hill. And don't tell me which pan you used." So we dried off the salt water, cut it up into two-inch sections, rolled it in egtg and flour and fried it. My siblings had me eat the first piece. Just in case. Being the youngest child, what did I know?

Ever after that we ate rattlesnakes, if they were fat. There are a lot of bones in a rattlesnake, and if it doesn't have meat on it, it's not worth the work. We became known for eating rattlesnakes, and in our wanderings over the mountains when we found a rattlesnake we killed it. Now I wouldn't do that. Kids do stupid things.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


The first important thing to know about snakes is that they are not poisonous. Some of them are venemous, and that is sometimes inconvenient, but they are not poisonous. If you eat them, you will not die. If you don't know what you're eating, you may not even get sick.

Constrictors, especially, are good people. They eat rodents and keep rattlesnakes away. And bull snakes put on a great show.

Auburn, California, mid-1960s

I recall one bull snake in particular from when we lived in Auburn. We'd meet him from time to time on the dirt road leading into our "ranch" home. When we'd meet, he'd coil up and shake his tail just like the rattlers. But since he had no rattles, the effect wasn't quite the same. If you didn't run away when he shook his tail, he'd go over to plan B, roll over onto his back and drag his tongue in the dirt. Playing dead. If you turned him onto his belly, he'd flop right back over onto his back and drag his tongue in the dirt some more. Quite the little thespian. Big thespian, in fact, because he was a big snake.

One spring morning, Joanne, my wife, was returning from work in the afternoon. It was the first warm spring afternoon after a long dismal winter. She wore hose and heels, for such was the teacher costume in those days, and drove our 3/4-ton GMC pickup, the one with the dents and rust spots. And as she drove home she came across our friend the bull snake stretched out across the road. He reached almost from one side of the road to the other. Joanne stopped the truck, got out, and kicked the snake olut of the road with her pointy toed spike heeled shoes.

Next afternoon, same place, same snake, same truck, same woman. Same result.

But on the third afternoon when Joanne got out of the truck, the snake coiled and charged. If he could have talked, he would have said, "Not today, lady, godammit!" Joanne hastily leaped back into the cab of the pickup and the snake went victoriously into the tall grass by the side of the road. Bull snakes aren't venemous, but they have long, sharp dentures that would have certainly made some deep indentures into Joanne's leg.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Three Kinds of People

Jean Meadowcroft, a friend of ours from the 1960s now living in San Diego County, wrote to me about the Rincon Indians and their 10-story hotel. I remember Rincon and Valley Center quite well. Those are my earliest memories. This was in the mid-1930s.

My father was one of those fortunate Americans who had a job. He drove a school bus on the Pala Rancheria. For a while we lived in Valley Center. I was about three.

Back then Valley Center was Old Man Mazzetti's gas station. No Indian Casinos or 10-story hotels then. His gas pumps had handles on them. Mr. Mazzetti hand pumped the exact amount of gas his customer wanted into the glass well on top of the pump, and then the gas drained by gravity into the customers car. Mr. Mazzetti also had a cold drink box. Nehi, R.C. Cola and Welch bottles hung suspended by their necks between bars. When you put in your nickel, an end bar would lift and you could slide your drink out. This was the Depression. When would I have a nickel for soda?

Old Man Mazzetti was responsible for one of my more memorable taste sensation. He offered me a chunk of his homemade salami and I bit into a whole black peppercorn. I thought I burned a hole in my tongue.

We had a cow. We had a cat who ate beans. One at a time. But only after chewing them well. It took her a long time to eat dinner. We had dogs and used to buy fried pig rinds, chicherones, for their dog food. Nowadays they sell them in teeny little celophane bags for guys to drink with their beer. I don't think they are a ladies' snack, but what would I know?

I recall playing in the front yard. I had a lathe in my hand, stabbing at the air, pretending it was a sword with which I was demolishing my enemies. My parents were sitting on the porch watching when suddenly my father leapt into the yard, grabbed my lathe and started whacking at the ground with it. He broke the stick, of course, but he also broke the back of the nearby coiled sidewinder.

I loudly lamented my broken lathe until my mother explained to me that my father had just saved my baby buns from being well and truly fanged. And the moral to this story is there are three kinds of people. Some people make things happen, like my father. Others watch them happen, like my mother. And then there are those who wonder what happened. Like me.