Last week’s blog post featured the story of two baby owls that my grandfather found while on his annual trek into Oklahoma prairie land with friends to hunt rattlesnakes. Milford Willis Hartmann, or Granddaddy, also had what might be considered a very strange hobby. At least, I always considered it very strange, and not one that piques my interest for sure. However, my grandfather was exceptionally good at two things: inventing stuff and being successful in whatever endeavor he tried. His hobby of rattlesnake hunting was no exception.
Every year, usually in the month of April, the Waynoka Rattlesnake Hunt is held in Waynoka, Oklahoma. My grandfather and a few of his friends always took part in this annual affair with great fervor and enthusiasm.
Some of the rules of the event were:
Must be taken only by hand, noose, snake hook, tong, or fork;
Limit is 10 rattlesnakes per day, 20 per hunt;
Holding bags, baskets, cages, or wooden boxes may be used;
The hunter’s name and hunting permit must be attached.
My grandfather’s “catcher of choice” was one that he engineered and built himself, called the “pickle-fork.” It was a long, approximately 5-foot wooden pole to which he had rigged up a three-pronged apparatus on one end and a spring-loaded squeeze handle on the other. The two outside prongs were stationary while the middle prong was moved up or down by squeezing pressure on the handle at the top of the pole. The idea was to find the snake, jam the 2 prongs down just behind his head, then quickly squeeze the handle to press the middle prong down on the snake to force his mouth to remain open. This way, the snake couldn’t bite anything or anybody.
Apparently, this “pickle-fork” catcher worked because my grandfather brought rattlesnakes home every time he went on a hunt. One time, in particular, he had actually caught his limit (plus a few non-rattlers), curtailed all of them into a large wooden box crate, and brought them back home where he stored his catch on the floor in a corner of his machine shop. The crate had a wooden lid that was hinged in the middle so it could be opened to allow air to flow and to create access to the catch. In addition, a wire mesh cover was laid under the lid to keep things in the crate.
The particular childhood memory I have of my grandfather’s odd hobby happened on a hot spring night when I was about 8 or 9 years old. The wooden crate, holding 12 rattlesnakes (some diamond-backs and some prairie rattlers), 2 coachwhips, a bullsnake, and a hognose, certainly more than a baker’s dozen, was set in the back corner of his machine shop. The lid was hinged back to its half-way point with the wire mesh still secure to keep all wriggling things from any kind of escape. In theory (and perhaps even on paper), storing this crate of slithery things in his shop was a good idea. It was nighttime, the shop was closed, it was dark in there, and the shop windows were open so the room temperature wouldn’t get too hot. All in all, everybody should have been comfy-cozy in their little corner of the world!
All was well for a while until some “crate creature” decided that it was too crowded in that confined space and he was tired of dealing with it. A ruckus ensued. It started out with a slight rattle. Then, since that didn’t get everyone’s attention, the rattle grew louder and faster. Now, in some cases, louder and faster is better, but in this case it just caused more chaos. Everybody was awake now, and rattles were going at all different speeds and volumes. Several captives decided to strike at the wire mesh to create an exit. A riot had begun!
Let’s stop here a moment and jump to the home where my grandparents were tucked in and fast asleep on this warm, spring night. At about 3 o’clock in the morning, their telephone started ringing. Now, telephones of the 1950’s were not that pleasant to wake up to at 3 o’clock in the morning. This loud clanging ring was obnoxious at best. After jumping out of bed with adrenalin pumping, my grandfather answered the phone. “Hello,” he said in an anxious tone.
“Hello, is this Mr. Hartmann?”
“This is the police. We are on night patrol and were driving by your machine shop and heard some very strange noises.”
“What kind of noises?” my grandfather asked.
The patrolmen responded by saying there was some kind of loud rattling or buzzing and that there had been a kind of muffled, banging sound. “We think someone has broken in and is taking or damaging your equipment.”
“What?” Grandfather was baffled.
So, my grandparents called my parents (who also worked in the machine shop), and they got my brother and me out of bed, after which we all went down to the shop to see what was going on. Well, you have probably guessed by now that what was going on was an out-and-out reptile rebellion. By this time, no one in that crate was happy, and there had been so many strikes at the wire mesh that the box itself had been moved a few feet across the floor.
Recognizing what the ruckus was all about, my grandfather unlocked the shop door to let the police officers in and followed them back to the corner where the sound was coming from. The officers stopped abruptly when they saw the crate. They looked at my grandfather and asked if what they thought was in there was actually in there. “Yes,” he said. “I got a great catch!” At this point, the officers turned right around and headed toward the still-open shop door. “We’ll let you take care of that,” they told him. And out they went.
No slithering creature escaped that night, even though there was no lack of trying. The box was closed and put back in the corner for the rest of the night. The rattling subsided and everyone quieted down. The next day, the contents would be put on display at a snake show as a fundraiser for the local zoo. There were several shows to follow, but I have no memory of what happened to all of the snakes. One of the diamondbacks was singled out because, at 51” long, someone decided he should become a wall trophy. I remember when my grandfather brought home the over 4-foot-long wooden plaque with that big snake mounted on it in an ‘S’ formation. The tail was standing up with rattles at attention, and his head was in “ready to strike” position with fangs clearly out. The mounted trophy was impressive but, unfortunately, not viewed by many people.
Why, you might ask? It turns out that my grandmother had the final word as to where that “thing,” as she called it, was going to hang. She wasn’t too keen on even having it anywhere in the house; however, a compromise was met, and the plaque was hung in the basement (the unfinished part) so that the snake never again saw the light of day!
A few of the other rattlers from that catch eventually got cooked – yes, on purpose and for dinner. My only memory of snake meat, though, is of the one time I actually tried a little piece, and yes, it tastes a lot like chicken. Of course, I was holding my nose at the time….
So, what to add to Grandaddy’s Dream Tree to represent this “snakey story?” I have decided that in order to represent this part of my grandfather’s life, I am going to forgo the snakes and, instead, hang up a pickle fork!
Just a thought …