By Bob Huber
My first encounter with a bona fide rattlesnake left me with a lethal dose of ophidiophobia (Greek for fear of ophidios) complicated by lingering runny nose. It took place while I was on a pack-in fishing trip in the Colorado Rockies.
I was there because in those days a group of young guys could go camping without adult supervision, the purpose being to cultivate our skills at mountain lore, lewd songs and dirty words. I was 12 at the time.
That day we slogged around a bend on a steep trail, singing something about rolling over in the clover, when Butch Sandusky, our natural leader, suddenly yelled, “Yipes!” and levitated eight feet in the air. I’m sure if some official had been there, Butch would have set a new standard for the high jump in the state of Colorado.
The rest of us stopped, of course, and marveled how Butch was able to stay airborne by simply waving his arms and screaming, “Yipes! Yipes!” until I glanced down and saw a rattler a scant three feet from my tennis shoes. It appeared round as a hog and lay across the trail like a dozing telephone pole.
I instinctively rose to the occasion — and fled. I might have made it to safety without mishap but for an inbred ponderosa pine tree that leaped in my way. It had coarse bark made of old razor blades and branches laden with cones, which rained on my head like croquet balls.
Butch, meanwhile, remained in the air, flapping like a baby robin, until my friend Smooth Heine picked up a rock the size of a tub and with a scream born of both triumph and terror smashed it down on the snake’s head.
(I should footnote here that Smooth had experience hunting wild animals. He once killed a militant skunk with his sister’s clarinet. But that’s another story.)
I still remember thinking at the time how odd it was that the rattler didn’t flinch when hit with a large rock, but Smooth ignored that thought. Instead he whipped out his pocket knife and said, “Fellas, there’s our supper.”
“Yipes!” we all cried, and Butch levitated even higher. But Smooth would have none of it. He insisted that timber rattlers tasted just like roasted chicken, and the hide would make a dandy belt with matching suspenders.
The upshot was Smooth crudely skinned that poor dead snake, then stretched the hide over his belt. Obviously none of us had ever studied the finer points of tanning in our modest educations, nor were we overly impressed with a musky odor surrounding the dead reptile.
Later we calculated the snake had gone to that Great Rocky Ledge in the Sky at least a full summer’s day before we came along. But Smooth stuffed the snake’s naked carcass into an empty bread sack in his pack, and we marched away in the heat of the day, snorting and sneezing to clear our nasal passages of the pungent perfume that would remain with us the rest of our lives.
A few miles later I caught a whiff of something else, and it was bad — I mean, real bad. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone stopped, and Butch, having regained his leadership role, asked, “What’s that bleeping smell?”
“It’s Smooth,” I said, pointing at my friend. I was downwind at the time. “It’s that bleepy bleeping snake!”
Smooth didn’t wait for another explanation. He was out of his pack in a half second, and then he attacked the rotting snake hide covering his belt. It refused to let go. “Bleeping Bleeper!” Smooth cried, and in a wild display of terror threw his belt, the snake carcass, and his entire pack into the bushes.
Our fishing trip took on a dim scenario after that. It wasn’t always possible to stay upwind of Smooth, and he whined incessantly about being forced to sleep a hundred yards away and using only one hand while fishing in order to hold up his pants.
When we returned home, Smooth’s parents had second thoughts about allowing him back in the family. I suppose they felt charitable because of Smooth’s unique use of his sister’s clarinet, because while his father forked Smooth’s clothes onto a bonfire, his mother said, “Make up a bed in the barn. I’ll leave your meals at the corral gate.”
To this day I can smell that snake. All it takes is some encouragement, such as, “How you like my diamondback boots?” and I yell, “Yipes!” and run into a pine tree.
Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.