Trying to muscle my car door closed against the breeze, I realize that Rodgers and Hammerstein were mostly mum about the genuine Oklahoma wind. It surely does come right behind the rain, but it also precedes and accompanies it. It's the OK State mantra, a white-noise constant that blows grit up your skirt at 10 or 20 or 30 mph all day, every day.
Through that wind just now I hear the frantic, countertenor shouting that we he-men usually reserve for imminent forklift tip-overs or industrial-solvent accidents. The bottom, I see, has fallen out of a packing crate a couple of guys were unloading at the foot of the stage. I can't make out the words, but a few early gawkers nearby are now moving very purposefully away from the truck. Very purposefully. It takes a few seconds to register that the crate is, or rather was, full of live rattlesnakes. Now they're all over the street. Seventy or 80 of them. Snakes. One poor guy seems suspended in flight, pedaling midair for all he's worth like a cartoon half-wit. That would be me. The ensuing 30 seconds answer my first question re snake hunting, though. Under the word How on page 1 of my notebook, I write: "A) Find a snake; B) Pick it up fast with a stick." I'm sure there's more to it than this, but it's hard to write when you're leaning into a hard wind while standing on the hood of your car.
Let me take this moment, while the Derby organizers and city fathers try to talk me down, to explain how the competitive part of the weekend works. It's like a bass-fishing tournament in that there are cash awards for the hunters who bring in, alive, the longest snake and the most snakes and the most (ugh) pounds of snakes. These hunters are mostly semipro types who've been stalking the wily serpent daily since the Oklahoma snake season opened back in early March. That's the best time for 'em, I'm told, because, having just come out of hibernation, they're apt to be out on the rocks in front of the den, lying on their bellies, taking their ease in the warming sun (the snakes, not the hunters).
The best of the best hunters nab rattlesnakes by the hundredweight during these few weeks, box them up with a pan of water in the barn or the basement and then load 'em into their trunk and drive into town for the Derby. There are no time or geographic limits for snake-taking. A few of the most serious hunters, the real Ahabs, will range as far south as Mexico, where the longer "growing season" can produce blue-ribbon rattlers the size of NBA power forwards. There's also a tournament within the tournament: Weekend hunters, mostly tourists and day-trippers, compete for daily awards. (Consensus among the experts is that it'll be slim pickin's this weekend because it's hotter 'n refried hell out here, so the snakes might all be hiding in their dens. This strikes me as a very good thing, but I make a sad face anyhow when I receive the news.)
All of which begs question number 2: Why? A pocket poll of the crowd coaxing me off the hood of my rental car reveals little: Hale fellowship, good exercise, communion with the out-of-doors, thrill of the pursuit, fresh air, etc. Most of which can be had lawn bowling or quail hunting or shopping the sidewalk liquidation sale, but with a greatly reduced chance of being bitten comatose by a pit viper. A red-bearded bear of a man with a baby-sweet smile and hands the size of smoked hams pipes up with the first answer that makes real sense. Ernie Adams has been snake hunting around here off and on for more than 20 years. Why? "Cuz I don't like 'em in the house."
Funny as that is, it's also a tidy summation of the complex chain of links between local economies and ecosystems. When subsistence farmers started pulling out of here in the '30s (see Depression, the Great), the homes, barns, sheds and untended land they left behind provided a housing boom for the rodents upon which rattlesnakes feed. With fewer folks to keep either in check, both populations grew explosively. Furry Stuart Little in the pantry is one thing, but a poisonous snake in the cupboard is another, and by the early '60s Mangum residents saw an opportunity to formalize what they were already spending a lot of time doing freelance: hunting snakes to keep them from showing up in the feed bin or under the porch glider or in the kids' sandbox.
The just-dropped and jaywalking snakes have been corralled by now, rounded up by the hunters who brought them in and the staff of wranglers who man the stage all weekend for the weigh-ins and flashy/spooky snake-handling demos. Jes' a little hitch in the morning's gitalong, I'm assured as I step gingerly to the ground, but the phrase "I think we got 'em all" becomes a real knee-slapper for the next few hours.
In any case, it's time for me to go snake hunting with the governors' wives. (I told you this was a big deal.) We meet up at Mexicali's Restaurant on the main drag outside town. Over the devil's own platter of glowing, 500-rad quesadillas I'm introduced to Cathy Keating, first lady of Oklahoma, and Janet Huckabee, first lady of next-door neighbor Arkansas. Pleasantries and chunky green salsa are exchanged.
Cathy is a small, pretty brunette, sharp and funny, dressed in a Governor's Wife Casual Day outfit that includes just enough Chanel to remind you who you're out there snake hunting with. Janet is wearing jeans and a polo shirt ("It's what we used to wear when we did this back home") and has about her the gracious, good-humored hoot and holler of a gal-buddy you'd like to spend the day yakking with in a duck blind.
The two women are clearly old friends, cracking wise with each other at lunch, laughing it up while responding gaily to the many civilian heys and howdies. The only metaphorical clouds on the figurative horizon come from the bruisers on their security team, whose furrowed and darkling brows might be read as an absence of enthusiasm for the afternoon's snaky high jinks. Still, the bodyguards have guns with them, something I find profoundly reassuring.