Monday, January 28, 2008

Trash Pick-up

Trash Pick-Up
By Ken Harris © 2004

It is Tuesday morning, April 13th, 2004 in Tucson, Arizona, and the trash and recycle men have just come by. The trash and recycle men are different people driving different trucks and handling different containers. And the men don’t actually handle the containers. Thanks to the magic of hydraulics and clever engineering design, their truck does that for them.

It was different years ago (said the Old Man in a quavering voice). Specifically, I’m thinking of 1958. We had bought our first home in El Monte, California for less money than a used Korean automobile costs today.

The house needed was a DUMP! We took three pickup loads of trash, including some dead chickens, to the unsanitary landfill AND burned sulfur candles in the house before we could even move in.

Our house also had some design flaws. The bedroom closet could only be accessed through the back yard. The bathroom shower stall stood in the middle of one wall while the wash basin stood directly opposite on the other wall. The basin drained through a pipe sunk in concrete onto the floor of the shower stall. A half dozen shaves coated the floor of the shower stall with a rich deposit of scum composed of shaving soap and whiskers.

The kitchen was ten feet wide with the stove and cupboards against one wall and the sink and the refrigerator against the other wall. Joanne was very pregnant with our first-born and there wasn’t enough room between the appliances for her to walk. She had to sidle between the stove and the refrigerator, and as she did so her abdomen turned on all of the burners. Not to worry. She turned them off in the same manner on her return trip.

Clearly, we needed to remodel our home. We added a 20 x 20 living room and enlarged the kitchen so that two pregnant women could sidle between the appliances backside to backside. Heck, we had enough room for a dozen pregnant women to do an entire dance review. The entire house was lighter and roomier.

But rehabbing was not without its problems. Melding Romex® with knob and tube wiring presented a challenge. And friends were not always available. As time went on, we had fewer and fewer. This explains why Joanne, who was expecting to whelp our first child momentarily, was on the roof helping me put on new composition shingles when Willa Mae screamed for help.

Willa Mae was a Nubian goat we had acquired. Our theory was that by the time our baby needed milk, Willa Mae would be fresh and there would be plenty of goat’s milk for the infant. So, when Willa Mae screamed Joanne flew off the roof, down the ladder and into the barn to help with the delivery. The kid was presented breech first. Joanne had long, thin, strong hands and she was able to work the kid out. Unfortunately, it was born dead. So were the other two kids that Willa Mae was carrying.

My first problem was getting rid of the kids. I could have buried them, but it was trash pick-up day. We had already filled one 55-gallon oil drum with trash, so I took a second drum and layered the kids in with other trash. (When you’re remodeling, you always have lots of trash lying about.)

When the trash men came I met them at the gate to try to persuade them to take the second drum. A large, economy-size gentleman who looked like he played with tractor tires on his day off assured me that since we paid for one barrel, that’s all he would take. He agreed, however, to let me cram the contents of the second barrel into the first one, if I could. I succeeded in merging the contents of the two barrels, but the result was very heavy. I could barely move it. It weighed well over 200 pounds. But the barrel presented no problem for the trash man. He casually picked up the barrel up shoulder high and shook the trash into the bed of his truck. Fortunately for me, he did not notice the unusual contents of my trash.

Having given away the kids, our problems were solved, but Willa Mae’s were just beginning. She flowed copiously, as any successful female mammal should, and I thought I was going to have to learn to milk a goat. Not to worry, Joanne assured me. While I might not know which end of the goat to grab, Willa Mae was a pro and we would get into a successful routine quickly.

But just as I was coming to grips with the prospect of milking a goat, our neighbors had a kid whose mother had died. So, kidless mother, motherless kid. Simple solution to simple problem, right? Wrong. Willa Mae did not see it that way and she rejected the kid with head butts and kicks.

Our neighbor solved the dilemma through the magic of Vicks Vaporub®. She smeared a gob of Vicks on Willa Mae’s nose and another under the kid’s tail. Willa Mae accepted the kid as having the right smell. She would have accepted a plunger as having the right smell. In a couple of hours the Vicks wore off and Willa Mae resorted to her kicking, butting ways.

But after two days of repeated Vicks applications, Willa Mae accepted the kid and everyone was happy. Especially me, because I didn’t have to milk the goat.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Rattlesnake Farm

North San Juan, California, mid-1980s. This will be my last snake story. My next blog will begin a short series of goat stories.

When we moved to North San Juan, our house was located across a ravine from a large rock pile. Many of the rocks were outright boulders while others were merely to large to carry comfortably for more than a few feet. I think we're looking at a pile a hundred feet long, forty or fifty feet wide and with a fifteen-foot bulge more or less in the middle. Perhaps two hundred feet separated the rock pile from our house.

The pile was home to an immense den of rattlesnakes. If you think about it, rattlelsnakes have many admirable features. They usually warn you before they bite you. How many people do you know like that? They don't get drunk and pick fights, and they will back away from a confrontation if they possibly can. They only kill in self-defense or for dinner. That being said, you still don't want them loitering near the house.

I made no attempt to kill the snakes. With what, my .22? Ricochet bullets all over the place and end up shooting myself, Joanne or the dogs? Or what if I fall and break my leg or land on a snake? Or both? Bad idea.

That's why we started importing snakes. Whenever we saw a king snake or bull snake in the road, we stopped the car and grabbed it. All right, if you insist on perfect honesty, I stopped the car and Joanne grabbed the snake. Once she grabbed a bull snake, but just a little too far back of the head. The snake took two half-hitches and a bowline around her forearm and sank his fangs into her thumb. And there they sat while I drove home. Each one had the other one "gotchaed" and wouldn't let go. When we arrived home Joanne had to shake her arm vigorously several times before the reptile hit the dirt. They the snake left in search of a hole while Joanne went in search of some Iodine.

In 1984 I was playing the role of Jud Fry in Oklahoma. Joanne and I returned home from a performance late one summer night. Fortunately, the moon was full and Joanne saw the snake before she stepped on it. We turned on the lights and it was a rattler. We killed it. Why had the snake been near our house? It was thirsty and had come for the dogs' water. After that I put out water near the snakes rock pile. They stayed in their home, we stayed in ours, and it worked out well that way until we moved.

But word soon spread througout the county (it was a small county) that I was a maniac, putting out water for rattlesnakes. Hardly anyone approved. But a Water for Rattlesnakes Program offered the fewest possible negative consequences, and I still think it was the right thing. We never saw one near the house after that.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Boa Constrictor Search

San Diego, California, late 1976 or early 1977. Now you may have noticed that when it comes to snake grabbing, Joanne does the grabbing and Ken does the cheering. But I'm not afraid to pick up a snake. It's just not my favorite thing.

I was subbing in a classroom one winter morning in San Diego for a teacher who kept two boas in glass cages. It was a sixth grade. Sixth grade teachers do strange things. This particular teacher had worked with the San Diego Zoo before her reincarnation as a sixth grade teacher and had even bottle fed baby gorillas. Probably the school was happy that she would settle for two modest-sized boa constrictors.

The office clerk asked me if I would object to looking at two snakes all day. Apparently they had learned to ask that question early in the year. I said no, I had absolutely no objection. Snakes were quiet, they were seldom disruptive, didn't throw tantrums or refuse to do their homework. The human students could learn a lot from the snakes' behavior, if they'd just pay attention.

So as I walked into the classroom, I saw on my right a large glass case with a boa happily sleeping inside. On my left, however, was an empty glass case where a boa used to be. Apparently someone had decided to leave the top of the case open and the snake took the opportunity to escape.

A young, female student teacher was present when I arrived. The two of us conducted a systemic, all points search and finally located the snake, not a very big one, maybe three feet at the outside, wrapped around a carton of teaching materials trying to keep warm.

Now I have always been a feminist, an egalitarian, and believe that women should have an equal opportunity to be heroes. So I convinced her we should toss a coin, loser has to put the snake back. Unfortunately, I lost the toss.

I grabbed the snake behind the head and the poor thing was so cold he rapidly coiled around my forearm and oozed himself back and forth, enjoying my warmth. If he had been a cat, he would have purred. Now I don't really mind snakes. They're fine animals, beautiful even. But I don't want to snuggle.

I tried to deposit the snake back into his glass case, but for some reason he didn't want to let go. I unwrapped one end and he wrapped the other end back. I finally shook him free and he landed with a thud on some pine cones that were in the bottom of his case. That couldn't have felt good, but I winced, apologized, and then got on with the business of the day.

I tell this story to show that I also can catch snakes. It's not my favorite thing. It's better than network television, but it's still not my favorite thing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Taiwanese Health Food

Lungshan Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan, December 30, 1971. -- Joanne, my son Eric and I were touring Taiwan with the Guam Science Teachers' Association as our 1971 Christmas gift to ourselves. On the night of December 30 we visited the Lungshan Night Market after a stupendous seven-course dinner.

Large office buildings loomed within a mile of the Chiang's presidential palace in Taipei, but after the main businesses closed and the power brokers in their three-piece suits repaired to their wives or mistresses, less formally attired capitalists appeared on the streets. They took over the center lanes of an eight-lane thoroughfare and set up their modest businesses. Strange people in strange attire with strange business enterprises set up their shops and hawked their wares.

A dentist showed up carrying his chair on his back, held in place by a strap around his forehead. An acupuncturist displayed a large chart showing the human body decorated with x's and dotted, curved lines. But the most amazing sight of all was the health food guy.

The Chinese have a theory of health consonent with their theory of the universe. The universe is composed of contesting opposites, yin and yang. Don't ask me which is which because I never could keep them sorted. Illnesses come in two varieties, hot and cold. If you're afflicted with a cold disease, a head cold, for example, you should eat a hot food. Dog, for example. On the other hand, if you have a hot disease, you need a cold food. Snake bile is a popular restorative. The bile of a venomous snake, the more venomous, the better. Taiwan doesn't have any native venemous serpents, so they have to import them. Here in the States we import ginseng. There they import bushmasters and mambas.

So, anyway, here we were, a group of 24 sophisticated teachers, wandering around the market with our mouths wide open. You'd have thought we'd just come into town on a wagon load of pumpkins. We stopped by a Chinese gentleman standing by stacks of wire cages. He bowed to us. We bowed to him. Then we bowed to each other some more. After sufficiently demonstrating our spinal flexibility he proceeded to show us some of his wares.

He picked a length of wire about a foot long with a hook bent into the end of it, opened up one of his cages, and fished around for a few seconds. Finally he brought out his wire with a blackish snake hooked over the end of it. We looked at each other, the snake and us, and finally the snake decided he didn't like what he saw. So he spread his hood.

Joanne and I were in front, of course. We all of a sudden realized that this guy was poking a cobra into our faces and instantly retreated three giant steps. If there were any children or pets behind us, they died. Two dozen people stampeding in reverse can create a lot of havoc. Sorry about that.

The vendor offered to kill the snake for us and let us sample a sip of cobra bile, but we none of us saw the need to kill a perfectly good snake just so we could decorate the streets of Taipei with our dinner.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Throwing Pythons

Throwing Pythons

Torremolinos, Spain, 1975. I met a great white hunter at a party. He complained that by the mid-70s the great white hunting business wasn’t what it used to be. Thanks to unfriendly poachers, vigilant rangers and inflation, there just weren’t that many safaris any more. Things had come to such an ugly pass, he continued, that he was available for almost any reasonably legal employment. Consequently, when a British movie company came to his part of Africa on location, he signed on with them as an assistant animal handler.

The plot of the movie was unbelievably bad by any standards. A white man and a black man were “chums” at Oxford. But even then the black man knew that he was going to return to his tribe, put on a lion skin, and become the chief. The white man knew that he was going to be a park ranger in his friend’s territory.

And there they both were, in the same part of Africa. But before the black man could assume his role as chief, he had to murder somebody. He did so, and lo and behold, the white man now had to bring his former friend to justice. I really wanted to leave the party right there and go out and see this movie. Not.

That’s where the movie was when the company arrived in Africa. According to the script, the black man fled to the “Land of the Snakes.” The actual film later even thoughtfully provided a title on the screen as the men entered the little patch of jungle. “Land of the Snakes.”

The black man was to enter the jungle with the white man in hot pursuit. As soon as the white man entered the jungle, the script called for a python to drop onto his shoulders. The white man was to brush the snake off, whirl, shoot the snake with his rifle, wipe his manly brow, and press onward. The rifle hand blanks, of course, because the head animal handler was using his own pet python for the shoot. The head animal handler was to stand on a tree limb drop his python on the actor as he ran underneath. The assistant animal handler cum great white hunter was to retrieve the python and pass it back up into the tree in the event things did not go well.

The only thing was, the actor was deathly afraid of snakes. As soon as he ran into the jungle someone called “Make Up” and the make up man ran up and squirted him in the face with water mist. This procedure even has a technical term, spritzing. The actor didn’t really need to be spritzed: he was already sweating profusely. It’s a good thing the film was in black and white because the actor was definitely an unhealthy shade of grey.

He finally mustered enough nerve to enter the jungle patch, but when the snake landed on his shoulders he threw the rifle high into the air and screamed “S HI T!” The director yelled, “CUT!” and said they had to do the shot over.

After the seventh shit-cut the python decided he’d had enough and tried to wriggle off through the jungle. The great white hunter caught him by the tail and tried to pass him back up into the tree, like passing a column of cooked spaghetti.

It took three days to get the shot, and then only because the director felt they had enough footage to cobble together, frame by frame, enough to get seven acceptable seconds of film. The snake had been dropped close to two dozen times, and it’s a wonder he didn’t slip a halfhitch around the actor’s neck and end everyone’s misery. That's what I would have done if I'd been the python. "Look, mate, we're all in this together. Can't we just do this shot?"

Neither python nor actor be.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lessons in Snake Handling

Auburn, California, mid-1960s. We had a five-acre place near the town of Auburn, east of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. We fenced and cross-fenced it for our horses and cattle and had a great year-round stream running along the bottom.

We had an abundance of snakes there, bull snakes, garter snakes, and king snakes. But no rattlers. The rattlesnakes in that area are very shy and don't like to share their living space with dogs, cats or constrictors.

On this particular occasion we had some children present, possibly ours, possibly the neighbors' kids, or maybe neices and nephews from Southern California. They might have been total strangers, just passing through. Joanne was doing some yard work when she saw a lovely king snake stretched out in the primroses. She reached behind the snake's head to grab him and teach the children how to catch one safely. But she reached too far back and the snake managed to turn it's head and hemstitch her hand.

Joanne turned the spontaneous snake-grabbing lesson into a spontaneous leave-snakes-alone-if-they-aren't-bothering-you lesson. "You see, if I'd left this snake alone, like I should have, I wouldn't be bleeding right now." The kids were most impressed with the blood oozing from her hand, and I don't imagine very many of them became snake handlers in their adult lives.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cailidh entertainment

On this fine Saturday evening of this past January 5 our Scottish Country Dancing group gathered in the town of Bisbee, in the mountains just north of the Mexican border for a Twelfth Night Ball. The town is accessible by highway. We didn’t have to take a mule train or anything like that. Going there is just something our group does just to get out of Tucson for a while.

We danced, ate, danced some more. We also had cailidh (kay.lee) entertainment. Cailidh is a Gaelic word meaning entertainment where everyone gets up and does their own thing. (And people want spelling reform in English. Compared to the Welsh, Scots and Irish, we’re doing great.)

A husband and wife team conducted a do-it-yourself Twelve Days of Christmas with Scottish foods improvised as a substitute for the traditional gifts. They reminded me of Victor Borge conducting an orchestra. One woman read a Scottish poem in such a great Scottish brogue I couldn’t understand a word she said. Several people performed on instruments and sang. A woman read a wonderfully dreadful poem by a McGonigal, the “worst poet in Scotland.”

Although I hadn’t planned anything, I thought I might enlighten the evening by telling a story. I chose the story that I posted on this blog in January 1. As I got really involved with telling how Joanne and her brother, Fritz, killed these rattlesnakes and put them in a bag to bring home to mother, I could tell by the way some mouths dropped and some eyes bugged, that I was not offering up standard cailidh entertainment. Some of the people were shocked.

I loved it. I teetotally LOVED it. I proceeded onward with gestures and expressions.

I received a nice round of applause. Because I was through, I believe. Afterwards, several people came up to Joanne to offer stories of their own, but by and large the rest of the people at the dance were content without our company.

Joanne and I grew up in non-traditional circumstances and we’re a bit rough around the edges. I'm sure we'd disgrace ourselves at Buckingham Palace, but I doubt if that will ever be a problem.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Do Rattlers Bite Themselves?

By Joanne Harris --

There's always this argument, will a snake bite itself, or not. Well, let me tell you, under the right circumstances, yes, they will bite themselves. On this business of biting themselves, now in that pile of snakes, those we were shooting -- (we had returned to the nest) we had the guns with us and we put bullets through their heads. Some of the snakes tried to bite themselves. I mean they would turn around -- there was a pile of snakes -- and they would try to find a piece of snake and bite it. Well, that wasn't them and then they'd try again. Eventually when they'd found and bitten themselves, they stopped biting the others. Three of them did this.

Once we found a snake that had been run over by a car and it lay in a circle, its fangs in its own body. Another time, years later (the 1960s) when I was teaching at Colfax High School, one of the other teachers brought in a rattlesnake in a big gallon jar. It was supposedly a dead snake, and I watched it and watched it and watched it. And I saw movement in the body and I said, "Skip, that snake is not dead."

He said, "It is dead."

I said, "Skip, it is not dead. I've seen it move." Skip just filled the jar with formaldehyde. When we came back later and looked, the snake was dead and its fangs were in its own back. So when Skip put the formaldehyde in the jar, it was horrible and the snake killed itself.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Dancing with Snakes

Tarzana, California, late 1950s or early 1960s.

Joanne's sister Audrey decided she wasn't getting enough exercise teaching high school biology in the Los Angeles City School System, so she took up belly dancing as a conditioner. She turned out to be quite good at it, with a real sense of rhythm and some good movements, all the while keeping great time with finger cymbals. Her husband Tom backed her up on the oudh.

Ever anxious to improve her act, Audrey took to using a boa constrictor. She converted the space in her fire place into a snake apartment. What would you call that? Serpentarium? Contrictorium? Probably something dull and boring like herpetarium.

Whenever she danced with her snake, she would put it in a basket and place the basket in her refrigerator. The boa, fine, coldblooded animal that he was, would go to sleep. When the time came for her to dance, Audrey would remove the basket, transport it to the show, and dance balancing the basket on her head. After fifteen minutes into the dance the snake would stick its head out of the basket, wondering what all the motion was about. When the snake emerged, there was more than motion. There was audience uproar as well.

It was a good sized boa, three feet at least. The two of them looked really good, so good, in fact, that Audrey was offered a gig in Vegas dancing two 45-minute sets per evening for a lot more money than she was making teaching biology in high school.

Audrey sometimes had trouble finding food for her boa because constrictors like their food fresh. Canned dog food isn't going to make it. Audrey wrote to a group at U.C. Berkeley, I believe, one of the UC campuses, to ask the researchers if she could have their rats for snake food after they had done giving them cancer. The researchers wrote back to chastize her for being so cruel as to feed live rats to her snake. Audrey as miffed. The snake won't eat dead rats. Duh! Besides, is feeding the rats to her snake any more cruel than giving them cancer in the first place? Audrey's husband Tom pointed out that these researchers had spent tens of thousands of dollars breeding a genetically pure strain of rat, and now Audrey wanted to use them for snake food. No wonder they were incensed.

Eventually Audrey began working with other snakes. She had one shipped out to her, a beautiful, slim, green female with a ruby spot on her throat. She named it Carmen. Carmen was very depressed, didn't like dancing, didn't like living in a herpetarium. She wouldn't eat and lost weight. Audrey picked the snake up to dance with her one evening and Carmen bit her. At the time she had the flu, and so she went to bed.

The next morning when she woke up the flu symptoms had disappeared. Audrey persuaded herself that she had discovered a cure for the flu and wrote to the shipping company about her experience. The shipping company did not share her enthusiasm for this medical breakthrough. Instead, they wondered when she received the snake, and what employee had mailed it. It seems that Carmen was very venemous and if she hadn't been weakened by her hunger strike would have probably killed Audrey.

Audrey soon went on to other activities besides dancing with snakes, but still I sometimes wonder about a possible cure for the flu.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Mama and the bag of snakes

late Thirties or Very Early Forties, Paiute Mountain

One time Fritz and I were out hunting at the Squaw Pocket Claim. There was a rock face about ten feet high and twenty feet wide. It was actually a huge boulder pile, but the boulders were very large. This rock face had a split about five feet up. As we walked by, a snake fell out of the split. We jumped back and thought, "Jeez, where'd that snake come from?"

We looked up and there were other snakes sticking out, too. Apparently it got too crowded up there and this one slipped and came down. So we killed him. Then we got a long stick and started pulling out snakes. Once on the ground, we killed them. We had quite a pile of snakes.

We'd gotten a few quail that day, so we put the snakes in the same bag with the quail and took them home to mother. We didn't tell her what was in the bag and she was unhappy. She berated us.

Mother made us throw the snakes out. We had a deer hanging that we had shot before. We had skinned it out some distance from the cabin and had quartered it up. I guess we gave half of it away. It was fairly fresh, only three days old. Mother told us to get rid of those rattlesnakes and take them a long way from the cabin. Well, you know kids. We went over the hill a little ways and threw them behind a rock where we hoped she wouldn't find them. Soon the buzzards started circling. We were certain it was the rattlesnakes, but mother thought it was the deer. When she found out it was the snakes, well, we didn't get a paddling, but we got a dressing down.