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A tale of the West

July 29, 2022

It’s rattlesnake season out here in the West, so I thought I’d tell you all I know about rattlesnakes — and all I want to know.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Ever look a rattlesnake dead in the eye, from close up? I do not recommend it.

I moved to the rez in 1978, into “teacher housing,” about a furlong from the high school, with my lovely young bride, who couldn’t hack the rez. She left after a year. I loved her, but I guess I loved the rez more.

Come to find out my one-bedroom teacher apartment — nice enough for me — had no central heating or hot water. But it was southern Arizona. “Fine,” I says, “I’ll live like my students do.”

Me, fresh from Chicago, didn’t want some kid to come whining to me that he couldn’t do his homework because of no electricity, no heat, and so on. Which none of them ever did. Not a one. But mainly, I wanted to live like an Indian.

My soon-to-be ex moved out after a year, and I can’t blame her. It wasn’t much of what white people call a “lifestyle:” no heat or hot water, just a wood-burning stove, teaching classes of 43 kids each, with no desks. That’s right: The year I got to the rez my English classroom had no desks — just one, for me. This was a 100% federally funded school. Actually, funded at about 30% of what it needed. But those were some of the best six years of my life. And I’m glad to say the school situation has improved since then.

Anyway, after five years, come one January, with enough money in the bank (by my standards), I decided, “Enough. I’m gonna get me some hot water.”

So I paid the tribal utilities company to turn on the gas for my water heater. Which they did. But still nothing.

Now, the water heater was right next to my front door, on a 90-degree angle to it, behind its own door. I’m sure you’ve seen such arrangements.

So on this day in January I open the door to the water heater — which I hadn’t opened in five years — to see about the pilot light. But I couldn’t find the pilot light, so I scooched down and lay on my back to look for it.

Turns out someone had stolen the works, probably to sell it for the copper. So as I’m looking up at this, flat on my back, I hear, close by my left ear, a big old rattle I recognized:

“T-l-l t-l-l t-l-l.”

Turning my head I look into the eyes of a rattlesnake, curled up in the classic pose — head up, ready to strike — about 5 inches away from my face.

I ain’t lyin’. 

( via Courthouse News Service)

A rattlesnake’s eyeballs — this one’s, anyway — have the shape of a horizontal rhombus, gray in the iris, black at the pupil, slanted on the parallel short sides.

I looked that snake in the eyes and rolled right out of there. Didn’t try to argue with him, or think first, or nothing. Just rolled on out of there.

That’s called instinct.

Struck out on foot toward the high school. Classes had let out. Kids passed me by on their way home. “Hi, Mr. Kahn,” they said. “Hi, Coyote.”

I said, if I said anything at all, “Eep! Erp! Um! Um!”

I kept walking toward the high school, where I saw the Vo Ag teachers talking in a clump. I walked right up to them, waving my hands, and said, “Eep! Erp! Ump!”

We were all longtimers. They knew me. Finally, Frank Molina, head of Vo Ag, said, “He just saw a snake.”

I touched my nose and pointed at Frank and nodded my head, with exclamation marks. I was still unable to speak.

Frank took me over to his place in teacher housing and made me a rattlesnake catcher: a 3-foot piece of PVC pipe with a loop on the end made from a wire coat-hanger, with a rope going back from both ends of the loop, up the PVC pipe to my hand.

He told me to go back to the water heater and loop the coat-hanger just behind that snake’s head, and pull it toward me, then cut its head off.

Which I did.

But I tell you what: I did not pull that rattlesnake toward me with enthusiasm.

So that’s my rattlesnake story. I bet you’re glad you don’t have one.

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