The Derby dance that evening in the livestock show barn on Mangum's tattered outskirts draws more than 900 paying two-steppers and boot scooters. None seem to mind the skull-liquefying acoustics of a band playing under a galvanized tin ceiling. Dancing happens and dripping cans of cold beer are passed from hand to hand. It's too loud to talk. Couples wander in and out of the light by the entrance, headed for the parking lot. Music pours out onto the empty prairie. The sky is black and soft as jeweler's velvet, the stars wheel slow in their course, and a warm wind confuses the grass. Nobody says a word about snakes.
Rain squalls, a ransacking wind, and it's 40 degrees colder than it was 12 hours ago. By the time I get to Mangum some of the vendors are already striking their tents. The schedule for the day's events is being rejiggered, and not many visitors have shown up yet. The snakes in the pens out front of the main stage are listless in the cold, piled elaborately on top of one another. Imagine Medusa on prom night, and you'll see it.
Notes Made in the Rain: The snake has been a powerful, contrary presence in myth and history from the beginning of time, the good/evil ur-symbol of original sin or of infinite, skin-shedding reinvention and regeneration. We loathe its beauty and perfect efficiency yet can't make ourselves turn away. Still, the storied duality of the serpent in ancient mystery cults isn't something anybody in Mangum thinks about every day. Staying afloat in hard financial times is, however, and it's ironic that the much-reviled western diamondback rattlesnake is now an economic agent in the town's struggle to recover.
The environmental effects of the Derby are a topic of conflict too. Only lately was a study begun to determine its impact on the snake population. Argument runs hot on both sides; the enviros (or bunny huggers, in the local patois) say that too much pressure on the snakes will destroy an important link in the food chain, starving the eagles and hawks and owls that feed on them. Rats and mice will run rampant. Hunters and Derby boosters counter by positing snakes as a renewable long-term resource thanks to liability-conscious ranchers who have closed their land to hunting, thereby offering de facto protection and preservation. Lots of opinions, very few facts.
The day is low and gray, and the awards ceremony is sparsely attended. Everyone is tired and puffy from staying too long at the dance. It's something to see these guys stretch a snake to measure it, though. It takes the well-coordinated effort of seven very serious snake handlers to position each entry in a V-shaped, indexed trough and hold it long enough to shout out the dimensions. They do 10 triple-XL snakes this way looking for a winner, and their concentration exhausts you just watching. Nobody wants the bed next to Cody Easley's.
The Derby's longest snake is 78 inches, hauled in by John Townsend of Muldrow, Okla. Melvin Ishcomer, the Mark McGwire of snake hunting the past few seasons, wins for most snakes and most (ugh) pounds of snakes, 706 and 775, respectively. Melvin is from Eldorado, Okla., just down the road. It's something like his sixth year in Victory Lane. He wins $150 in prize money and will earn $3 a pound when the Derby buys his snakes to process. Interviewed, he uses the lazy-intense language of the sports star and sounds like John Elway post-Super Bowl. "You just have to get out there every day," he says, "and work at it." His advice to young snake hunters: "Whatever you do, don't get bit."
What I'm thinking while he talks: You drove here with 700 snakes in your car?
Photo op of the Day: Derby Princess Jennifer Ward has the Longest Snake of the Tournament draped over her shoulders like a stole for some pictures for the local paper. She doesn't get all that loot and attention for doing nothing, apparently. She stands very still. There are several snake handlers gripping Mr. Big as hard as they can so he doesn't move. Teeth are gritted into smiles, and veins bulge. The wind blows. Directly behind Princess Jennifer, crouched just out of the photo, is another snake handler with his hands at her hips. He's poised there to push her off the stage if the snake gets loose. She stands very still. Click. Click. Click. They take the pictures. The snake is taken off her shoulders and put it in a box. People shake hands and laugh and slap each other on the back. In the center of the stage, Jennifer Ward stands very still.
With the twilight gathering late Sunday afternoon, I get the Last, Best Answer to question number 2. It comes from Tony Patterson, 9½-year-old veteran snake hunter, who is standing with his dad on the corner, watching the men dismantle the main stage in the rain. For some reason I'm very sad all of a sudden. Rain patters off my tape recorder. I ask Tony why he enjoys snake hunting. He looks down at the sidewalk. "I don't know," he says. He looks back up at me and narrows his eyes, thinking. "Because it's fun?"