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.

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