I spend the night dreaming I'm tangled in a closet full of venomous neckties.
It is way hotter than yesterday. Whole families cower behind fat relatives just for the shade. You could fry a snake on the sidewalk, but it wouldn't taste any better. By noon the crowd is double what it was the day before—there are snake lovers and snake haters here, dudes and thimbleriggers and solid citizens, plowboys and cowboys, big boys and ol' boys (good and bad), biker boys with biker babes, blue-eyed stalwart sweethearts of the rodeo, wranglers and ranch hands and punks and convicts, even some high-mileage motor-coach couples down from Wisconsin. I'm told that somewhere out in the tall grass are first ladies from two of the 50 United States, hunting snakes with the governor of Oklahoma just for the fun of it.
Freud would have gotten a charge out of the knots of 14-year-old girls gathered bug-eyed around the snake pens in front of the main stage. Behind the doubled chicken wire, maybe 500 phallic symbols are rattling and hissing and starting to stink in the sun. "Eeeeeeuw" is the favored comment. The boys watch the girls watch the snakes.
The big news today is that Cody Easley got bit in the snake pit tent while I was out on safari with the first ladies. The premise of the pit is that you pay a buck to stand around a plexiglass pen about four feet high by 20 feet long by 15 feet wide to see what nearly a thousand rattlesnakes look like when piled two feet deep. There are men (Cody's one of them) who are paid to stand in there with the snakes and explain their habits and so forth while not fainting from the fear or the 120° heat. Cody's dad, Rusty, a Richard Boone look-alike and professional snake handler who carries a picture in his wallet of his own "snakebit, swole-up-like-a-kid's-balloon hand" from a while back, tells me his son will be O.K. "He wanted to get out of snake handling about two hours into the pain," Rusty says. "But then this morning he told me he wants to come back. I wish he wouldn't. It's too dangerous." Having so said, Rusty heads back to work in the sweltering tent.
This afternoon, they crowned the 1998 Derby Princess (originally and more euphoniously known as Miss Fang). Her name is Jennifer Ward, a charming, A student high school senior. She receives a sash, a tiara, a plaque and a $400 scholarship to Western Oklahoma State College down in Altus.
Overheard Quotes of the Day: 1) "I can't get the venom off this lens." 2) "Women are attracted to the so-called manly arts. That's probably why I'm divorced right now." 3) "We've never lost anybody dead, far as I know." 4) "Why would I eat it? It's a snake? 5) "Is there a pet shop around here?"
Best Novelty Dessert Name That Would Also Work for the Middle Act at a Drag Club: Strawberry New Orleans. No-Surprise File: The kids' petting zoo closed today. No takers.
Cody Easley is propped up in bed watching TV when I visit him. The doctors have had him on morphine since yesterday—this snake's venom wasn't very hot, very toxic; maybe a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. The doctor told Cody he was lucky because the snake got only one fang into his leg, on the shin. It fanged Cody above the boot. His left leg is the size of a railroad tie. The blister on his shin looks like a plum, and his foot's the size and shape of a catcher's mitt. (When the snake bit him, he was in the middle of a television news interview.) "The pain was pretty incredible. It just throbs mostly now," he says, dreamylike. I ask Cody how he feels about going back to work. "It sure makes you think."