One late night a couple of weeks ago, when my husband was out of town on a lengthy business trip, an alarming bark from one of our ranch dogs led me outside in gown and flip-flops, into the windy West Texas dark.
We live in a remote area of the state--the best way to describe it is to say it's "a hundred miles from a mall." Basically, we are 20 miles from the nearest small town (about the same size as Wasilla, Alaska), and 100 miles from the nearest small city. Last summer, the safety light out back went out, and we decided not to replace it because we were so bedazzled by the spectacle of a night-sky unfaded by city lights, blanketing its majesty overhead like diamond-encrusted black-velvet robes.
But man, it is REALLY dark out here at night.
I had grabbed an over-sized hand-held spotlight that we usually use to shine out across the fields at night when our younger dog, Maggie, takes off across the front pasture after some critter or another and we want to make sure she doesn't get hurt. It's great for that purpose but lousy as a close-quarters flashlight.
When I stepped out back that moonless night, Maggie was dashing around the barn nearest the house, the one where I park my car if a hailstorm comes up--which happens frequently out here--but we mostly use for storage now that we no longer need to store hay since we no longer keep horses. Her German Shepherd-mix nose led her straight to the front of the barn, where I would have parked the car if it had been raining, and her bark was on high-danger alert status.
I followed her out there.
The spotlight only works when you grip the handle a certain way, and as I pointed it in Maggie's general direction, standing there bare-legged in the dark, the bold light glanced off a sight that, country-girl though I have become through the years, actually brought back all my city-girl upbringing uselessness in a flash of utter terror.
First I saw the two rattlesnake-heads, then the two bodies intertwined, but what was most horrifying in the pitch-blackness of the gaping barn entrance was that the snakes' bodies were UPRIGHT--standing about three feet off the ground like a two-headed cobra--their two heads moving slowly back and forth in a mesmerizing rhythmic dance.
In my shock, I dropped the light, which then went out, leaving me plunged in blackness with a hysterical dog and two dancing rattlesnakes standing upright mere feet from me.
Now, I'm a pretty tough broad. And it must be interjected here that we are conservationists--my husband is a wildlife nutritionist--so we firmly oppose such gimmicks as rattlesnake hunts and the like. We believe that even rattlesnakes have their place in nature, and when we encounter them in the wild, we leave them alone and give them wide berth.
But when you have pets and have raised two children on a farm or ranch, you can't have poisonous snakes nesting or otherwise settling in--not when you live a twenty-minute drive from the nearest hospital. So I've become a pretty handy shot through the years with my little .410 shotgun. I can clip their heads off with one shot, scoop 'em up on a shovel, and deposit them in the nearest pasture for the buzzards to get a free meal.
I have done so when dragged out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night. It's always unpleasant and scary and I always feel sorry for the little critter, but I can't choose his right to pass through over my beloved dogs' right to live--or my own, for that matter.
But THIS. This was something I had never seen, and snapping before my eyes out of the stark blackness of a lonely country night like a strobe-light horror show caught me completely off-guard, and all of a sudden, I was in a state of sheer panic.
I yanked up the heavy flashlight again, and there they were, looking straight at me with those hypnotic eyelid-less stares, my dog lunging back and forth too close for comfort, and I whirled and flip-flopped through the shaggy grass my husband had been putting off mowing and raced for the house, where I yanked up the shotgun from its place in the corner of my bedroom, fumbled for shells, and scurried back out without thinking to grab a more practical flashlight.
The thing is, I had no way of knowing if the snakes, alerted by the blinding light and the barking dog, had dis-entwined themselves and crawled away to who-knew-where in my barn or nearer to my house and yard.
Back out in the dark, the spotlight showed them still together, still high-upright, still swaying back and forth, while my dog still barked.
And honest to God, you would think I had never picked up a shotgun in my life.
I dropped shells, dropped the spotlight, fumbled to load with shaking hands as the snakes, finally alerted to the moron in their midst, began to pull apart and head their separate ways.
Took a shot.
One snake headed rapidly off to the right, one to the left. Maggie in the middle.
Dropped a shell in the grass.
The huge unwieldy spotlight that had to be gripped was no match for a panicky woman fumbling with a heavy firearm in the dark, but I did finally, on the third shot, manage to kill one of the snakes.
The other got clean away.
I was still so spooked by the encounter that I locked both dogs up in the mudroom before going to bed. I did not want them investigating irresistible scents and getting bitten. We've only got one vet in town and he does not use an answering machine. It's best if your emergencies occur during office hours.
If you've ever watched a beloved pet die from a rattlesnake bite, as I have, you won't ever forget it. It is a very painful death.
Once the dogs were settled, I then called my husband in TEARS, which is another thing I virtually never do, considering myself such a tough broad and all. Like there was a damn thing he could do about it from two hundred miles away.
In the pre-dawn hours I let the dogs out because our 17-year old shepherd mix, Bart, needs to be able to go to the bathroom when he, well, needs to, and Maggie had calmed down. All was quiet.
I'm still asleep because of the insomnia and nightmares of the previous night, but suddenly, Maggie sounds the alarm AGAIN.
Jerking awake, I thought foggily, "Okay. She found the other snake."
It was daylight now, after all. I could handle this.
So I just calmly gathered up my shotgun, discovered to my disgust that I was down to only two shells, (after wasting three the night before) and headed outside toward the barn.
And right there, smack in the middle of our barn, was--I SWEAR ON MY CHILDREN'S HEADS I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP--two MORE snakes, bodies entwined, lifted up off the ground, two heads wafting slowly back and forth like a hypnotist's pocket watch.
It was still scary--no doubt about that--but in daylight, after the experience of the night before, I was a bit better prepared. Called Maggie off. Loaded the gun. They started to untwine--much quicker than the night before. I got off a shot and blew the head off one, but the other slithered beneath a discarded washing machine with a flash of his rattle, and was gone.
I thought, "This is RIDICULOUS."
But I shoveled up the remaining snake-body, marveling, as I had done the night before, at how HEAVY the snake was--it was big, HUGE--as had been the other one, which was not reassuring at all.
But as I began to tell my story to people, I got all kinds of after-event advice.
Such as the ever-helpful: NEXT TIME, TAKE A PICTURE.
Oh yes. The next time I encounter two rattlesnakes standing UPRIGHT three feet from my bare legs in the pitch dark I will certainly take care to hurry in for my CAMERA.
Others advised that the two snakes were mating. However, my husband checked on that with wildlife experts who say that is a common misconception.
What I had witnessed, they all agree, was an extremely rare event. It was--both times--two males vying for power.
As one expert explained it, rattlesnakes mate lying down. But when one male challenges another for territory, they engage in this bizarre dance-fight. Their bodies entwine, they rise up, and each pushes against the other--like a snake arm-wrestling match--until the strongest one prevails.
Which I also find IMMENSELY comforting, since it would appear that the territory they were fighting over was MY BARN.
About the only thing we can do, says my husband, is wait for freezing temperatures to set in, (slows them down; makes 'em sluggish), then get some crazy snake-handler volunteers to go out there and upend every container that could provide a happy little snake-nest, and clean them out. Oh, joy. In the meantime, we just gotta be very, very careful.
(And of course, the very next night, there was a hail storm, forcing me to park my car, in the dark, IN THE BARN. And you wonder why I'm slightly crazy.)
But the other piece of advice I got in the after-event analysis was that, in order to kill a two-headed snake, you have to aim at the BODY--meaning, you aim at the point where the two bodies are most closely wound together. This will wound them both and slow down their progress in escaping, thus giving you time to kill both.
I've been thinking about that quite a bit lately, since John McCain stole Obama's post-convention bounce by announcing his own bouncy running mate--his pretty "Trophy Running Mate" as one Talking Points Memo blogger put it--with social conservative creds and five adorable children and photo ops with her seen handling rifles in Kuwait with the Alaska National Guard.
Whatta gal, eh?
Since then, I've seen many many blogposts and op-eds analyzing McCain's choice.
Conservatives who just a few short days ago were blathering on about how "dangerously inexperienced" Barack Obama would be as president, now suddenly have no problem with a woman who two years ago was mayor of a town small enough for only one high school, to be one heart-beat away from assuming the most powerful position in the world, should our 72-year old president die from either a heart attack--which took his father and grandfather, both around the age of 70--or skin cancer, which he has suffered through numerous times.
Up on stage together, the "soulmates" as McCain referred to her, look as though they are dancing, and it is so lovely and romantic a scenario that many in the media are getting hypnotised by the slow back-and-forth.
But what we are witnessing is NOT a dance.
What we are seeing is a bold bid for power, a craven political appointment no better than those selected to govern a war-torn Iraq based on nothing more solid in their twenty-something resumes than the fact that they were pro-life, or justice department lawyers hired because they thought George W. Bush was sexy.
Very much along the lines, in fact, of a loyal "Bushie" political hack in charge of horse shows who is then entrusted with the care of a major American city that drowned beneath his all-consuming concerns that he would "look all right" on camera.
Those who are vying for power know that many Americans make up their minds based on little else than visuals and their emotional reaction to them, and to the media's coverage of them.
They REALLY know how to win with those mesmerizing visuals, too.
Do not forget how orgasmic were the media write-ups following Bush's flight-deck strut pronouncing the Iraq war over two months after he started it. It took them three years and thousands of American and Iraqi deaths to get over that and face the truth.
So take a piece of advice from me, Democrats, based on my own snake-killin' experience:
If we go after one or the other of two, entwined in a hypnotic power-vie, with our own "weapons" of blogposts, op-eds, letters to the editor, e-mail forwards, and other tactics, we will only cut down one, while the other will get clean away.
(And I realize I'm straining the metaphor a bit, since these two are not fighting one another for power, but the way I see it, are staging a power-grab as if it were a harmless dance.)
In other words, this is not about John McCain only or Sarah Palin only. It's about the TWO of them, weilding power as nothing more than political gamesmanship.
They may look beautiful together, but their bite is still dripping venom, and if we get hypnotized by the dance, we will die by it.
If we focus on the one without at the same time including the other; we run the risk of either McCain winning in spite of a weak VP or McCain winning because she has managed to charm the media and the electorate into voting for McCain in spite of his own weaknesses as a leader.
In today's New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert, put it perfectly: that Sarah Palin is a DISTRACTION, that all the background noise about whether or not she's qualified or whether or not her daughter is pregnant or whether or not she's been properly vetted is a typical Republican ploy to take the national attention away from the central fact: The Republicans have damn near ruined this country, and to elect McCain/Palin could be the tipping point beyond which there could be no repair.
And George Lakoff, blogging for HuffingtonPost.com, also makes a crucial point that we as Democrats cannot be distracted by, frankly, the REALITY of this political race, but we must also consider the importance of SYMBOLISM in voter's minds, and how we can best combat it with our own ticket. (He says Obama did a great job of reframing in his acceptance speech.)
What both of these fine pieces does is remind us, once again, that we cannot focus our energies on one thing or the other when it comes to this catastrophically important election. We have to look at the whole thing and act accordingly, especially when it comes to McCain and Palin.
Aim for the BODY, folks. (Figuratively speaking, of course.) Wound them both at once.
Then go in for the political kill.