On the way out the door to the snaking grounds, I ask Wesley Webb, Mangum's district chief for the Department of Wildlife Conservation and swami-guide for our group, if he has any last-minute tips on hunting snakes with the first spouses. "Just watch where you put your hands," he says. Excellent advice in any number of contexts.
A couple of miles out on the prairie, in a collapsed formation of chalk-soft rock known locally as gypsink (see gypsum, nicknames for), Wes uses a snake catcher (a tonging device similar to what the grocer uses in Manhattan to get cans of pricey coffee down off the highest anti-theft shelf) to snare our first diamond-back. He is a little shaver, maybe eighteen inches of hiss and vinegar. Still, the first ladies and I all jump when ol' Wes brandishes him comically at us from about 10 feet away. Janet and Cathy have the better vertical leap; having practiced, I have the superior hang time.
Genial adaptability being part of their job description, the F.L.'s are soon hunting happily away under close official supervision and a brutal afternoon sun. From a distance, snake hunting looks just like golf; people repeatedly poking at the grass with sticks, moving slowly across the landscape in a reverential quiet broken only by suggestions shouted from those nearby as to how one might poke at the grass more successfully. Not much appeal for spectators.
The western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) ranges throughout the desert and semiarid Southwestern U.S. It's a pit viper; pit referring to the nifty prey-targeting heat-seeker apparatus dimpled into its ugly mug just behind the nostrils. Deaf as a retired roadie (no ears), it can't hear its own rattle. It can grow to seven feet in length, attaining the diameter of a salad plate. That big, it'll have a head the size and shape of an antique flatiron, fangs like 10-gauge drapery hooks and a brain the size of a proton. Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded but not murderous, and they prefer the stealthy escape to the lethal confrontation—unless they're peckish and you're a hamster. Stand real still when you meet one and it'll slither off, thinking you're just a rock or at least a tiling too large to eat. Of course, if you surprise one by stepping on it, sitting on it (heard this several times; still not over it) or putting your hands where they don't belong (i.e., under rocks, into holes...), you're likely to end up snakebit and off to the hospital, there to experience the complex multisymptomatic wonders of a venom that works at once as a neurotoxin, cytotoxin, hemorrhagic agent and digestive acid. Meaning you'll most likely suffer some pain, swelling, pain, pain, discoloration, pain, bleeding, pain, blistering, nausea, pain, light-headedness, pain and further, persistent acute pain. Statistically speaking, you probably won't die—you'll just want to.
I'm troweling on my sixth coat of sun-block when Cathy K. yelps a well-mannered scream from some nearby rocks. She and Janet have got one cornered. "Grab it right behind the first bend with the catcher," Wes offers. "You don't want to break its neck." The first ladies carefully obey and soon stand triumphant in the howling wind, a bigger-than-average rattier held squirming at twice arm's length. A beat passes. Two. Then Janet gives voice to the question on everyone's mind. "Now what?"
"What" turns out to be a trip back into Mangum with the catch of the day in a locked bucket, there to be weighed and measured for posterity. At 52 inches it is, in fact, Friday's longest snake. Things get extra weird when we all troop over to the butcher shop to learn what becomes of the rattlesnakes rounded up during the Derby. In a stifling garage of a room behind the vacant-storefront Bite-A-Snake restaurant, they've set up bleachers to face a stainless-steel counter behind which is a chopping block and a prefab fiberglass shower stall. Snakes are a cash crop hereabouts—meat (for eatin'), skin (for boots), rattles (for key chains), gallbladders (for amorous Asians), etc., all have their market price, and proceeds are plowed back into the community by the Derby organizers—and the reduction of rattlers to their salable parts is no more or less disturbing to most local viewers than the dismantling necessary to furnish you your osso buco or lemon-roasted chicken.
There's a strange Vegas-lounge-act, Shirley-Jackson-short-story vibe to the whole thing, though, especially when Robert Ray, the Butcher (sporting a tattoo indicating same), smiles and says "Showtime!" right before the ax comes down. The vivid gutting-the-snake-while-it-hangs-in-the-shower process takes on a Scream3 quality when the first ladies start pitching in. I make my exit when the headless, skinless, innardsless snake carcasses on the counter begin flopping and coiling and generally behaving as though nothing untoward has happened to them in the last 10 minutes. As I'm leaving, I hear the first lady of Arkansas behind me asking the Butcher a question. "Now what?" she says.
There's one more chore I have left to do before I can drag ass back to my motel. I head up the street, tired and sunburned but resigned to my sacred duty as a journalist. I take a table under a fluorescent fixture that buzzes like a tequila hangover, spread a napkin on my lap and, so you won't have to, I eat Southern-fried rattlesnake.