I know I have mentioned in the past that I began my illustrious military career in pilot training at Reese AFB in Texas. While I went there with the intent of getting wings, it turned out that I had a more important task to accomplish: namely, validating the work of Sir Isaac Newton. Become a Complete Fool
So, having sufficiently demonstrated that gravity is not just a good idea, but is in fact the law, I went on to other things - helping our defenseless allies equip their militaries to fend off the Red Hordes, or the Arabs, or the Israelis - it really didn't matter at the time who they wanted to defend themselves against as long as they had money and could keep the good folks at Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas from laying off voters.
In any event, the story I wanted to relate today happened while I was still in pilot training, before I had proven that wings or no wings, objects can still fall at 32 ft/s/s.
Pilot training is a fairly stressful program - The dreams of a lifetime distilled into one very fast paced year of intensive training. To help alleviate that stress, the Air Force (at least at Reese) assigns each pilot trainee a host family chosen from folks in the local community who volunteer to open their homes to a small group of trainees, show them around the town, and introduce them the local culture/people who will be their neighbors for the next year.
My host family were Leslie Ainsley and his wife Francais. They were great people - very generous with their time and committed to helping out young pilot trainees in any way they could. This story is about one of the "relaxing" days Leslie planned for me and my friends.
I was sitting in my room one Thursday night studying manuals about weather, what causes it, and how to use your instruments to fly through it when the phone rang. It was Doc Ainsley.
"Hi, Steve. It's Les. Listen, what are you doing this Saturday?"
"Nothing", I replied.
"Great", Les said, "Come to my house around 9:00 AM. I want to show the group some 'local culture'."
Hmm...Did I detect a "nudge,nudge, wink,wink" in his tone? He must have something good planned. I quickly agreed to meet him at 9:00.
Well, local culture...What could that mean? My mind starting churning over the possibilities. Well, Texas Tech was right down the road...maybe he's planning to take us to a football game and then introduce us some of the female students (known as bowheads). I mean, he was well connected in the town and that would definitely get my mind off pilot training for a while...
Or maybe he was just planning to have us all over (Bowheads included) for a bar-b-que at his house and needs me there early to help set up...
Whatever he had planned, it just had to be better than studying the causes of cloud formation and the proper use of navigation instrumentation, didn't it? Well, didn't it???
As I've gotten older, I've learned a great deal from what I've seen and what I've done. One of the most important lessons that has been impressed upon me over time is that sometimes, it simply doesn't pay to be an optimist.
Anyway, Saturday came and I rolled out of bed, showered, got dressed, and made the drive over to Doc Ainsley's house. I got there around 8:45 and was the first of my group to show up.
Hmmph, I didn't see any preparations for a big bar-b-que. Maybe we're doing the football game instead.
Doc Ainsley came out of his garage carrying a cage, a 2.5 gallon can of gasoline, and a sprayer like the one you'd use to spray fruit trees and loaded them into a pick-up truck.
"Hi Steve", he said, "you're early. C'mon, help me load up the truck."
Okay, I thought, but I usually bring coolers full of beer to a football game, not mesh cages and gasoline. Something strange was going on...
"So", I said, "What are we going to be doing?"
"Steve", he replied, "today you're going to have fun like a real Texan. Today, we're going rattlesnake hunting."
"Yeah right", I replied, "Seriously, what are we going to be doing?"
"I told you boy", Doc said, "Now grab them sticks with the loops on the end and the box of gloves."
Rattlesnake hunting !?!?! Rattlesnake hunting ?!?!? Where was the football game? Where was the beer? Where were the college co-eds?
I was disappointed.
Doc saw the look on my face.
"You ain't scared, are you?", he asked.
"No, of course not", I replied, trying to be polite "What are we going to do once we catch them"
"We're gonna eat 'em, you damned fool", he replied, "What else would we do?"
Now I was scared.
The rest of the crew trickled in. We had talked about the invitation during training on Friday and together we had built this invitation from Doc into a party right out of Animal House. I took comfort seeing that I wasn't the only guy who thought trading a warm co-ed for a cold snake was a bad deal.
Anyway, we loaded into Doc's pick-up and drove off into the hills surrounding Lubbock.
Now, there isn't much to rattlesnake hunting, really. What you do is find some big rocks that are close together. The snakes like to sun themselves on the rocks, and usually make nests in holes in the hills behind the big rocks. If there aren't any snakes on the rocks, you take a pole with a mirror on it and stick it into the hole and then shine a flashlight on the mirror. If you see a snake, bingo. Actually, you'll probably see a bunch of snakes, not just one.
Anyway, then you take the sprayer with the gasoline and squirt some gas into the hole. The snakes don't like the smell of gas any better than you or me, and so they all slither out of their hole. The trick then is to take one of the poles with a loop on it and catch the snakes by their heads before they a) get away or b) bite your leg.
Given the choice between (a) and (b), I would recommend (a), but then I'm a yankee from the suburbs. Doc Ainsley seemed determined to have a full harvest, because at one point a snake got past one of the guys and Doc went after it with his hands, came up with it, and threw it in the cage with the rest of the "catch". No little rope loops on poles for him...
Anyway, after we had caught 8-10 rattle snakes, we headed back to Doc's house.
Now, as I said, I'm a kid from the suburbs. In my book, once you've caught a snake, it's best to keep him caught. Doc Ainsley saw things a bit differently. For him, catching the snakes in the wild was just phase one of the fun.
When we got back to his house, he suggested we do it all over again. He went into the back yard and opened up the cage, letting 8-10 angry rattlesnakes loose on his lawn. As they slithered into the bushes and under the deck and everywhere else they could to hide, Doc yelled "Get 'em" and we ran around like fools trying to re-catch the snakes.
When we had caught them all, Doc did a quick count. Now only he knew how many we had actually caught in the first place, and we should have thought of that and thought of the Doc's sense of humor, but we didn't.
"Uh-oh, fellas", Doc said, "there is one missing. Anybody seen him?"
None of us had.
"Well, there's just one thing left to do. Come with me."
Doc led us into his garage where there was a cage like a rabbit cage in the back.
"That's my mongoose, Royal", Doc said, "Picked him up on a trip to the Far East and snuck him back here. Nothing like a mongoose to catch a rogue snake. C'mon, I'll show him to you. Be careful though, he don't like strangers, especially yankees."
We all moved closer to the cage, peering in to try to catch a glimpse of Royal.
"Quiet", Doc said, "Don't startle him. He'll get mad."
We moved in a little closer...
Doc undid the latch on the top of the cage.
The door sprung open and with a loud hiss a ball of fur jumped out of the cage like greased lightening, hitting those of us close to the cage right in the face.
We jumped, and when I say we jumped, I mean we ran like fools, trampling each other in an effort to be the first one out the door.
Doc Ainsley sat there and laughed....
When the panic subsided, and we heard the laughter, we looked back. There, hanging from a string attached to the cage door, was a big tube of fur stuffed with cotton. It turns out the door was spring loaded and attached to the fur tube.
"I was just kidding with ya'll", said Doc, "We caught all the snakes we brought home. How'd you like Royal?"
None of us did.
Doc chuckled as we walked back into the house. So much for our host family helping us blow off stress. My blood pressure was about 220/130 and my pulse was racing.
"Francais", he called, "let's get these rattlers cleaned and cooked. Our guests look hungry."
Okay, so Francais got busy killing and preparing the snakes (and my wife cries when we cook lobster - just shows you the difference between North and South), and the group headed into the living room to drink beer. Oh yeah, and watch football, but it was really about the beer. Nothing like fighting an imaginary mongoose to work up a thirst.
A little while later, Francais came into the living room with two platters. On one, there was a huge mound of french fries. On the other, there was a huge mound of fried rattlesnake.
"Let's eat", Doc said, digging into both platters with gusto.
Well, I thought, I can't be rude, and I did spend the morning catching the food, so I dug in too.
Hmm, I thought, this is funny. I didn't expect it to be so crunchy. Francais must have burned it.
I struggled through my first piece of rattlesnake. It was like chewing on a plastic comb. This is awful, I thought. How is everybody else eating this with a smile?
"Umm, Steve", Doc said.
"Yeah, Doc?", I replied.
"I know you're hungry, but you might not want to eat the bones."
Snakes have bones? I never knew that. I mean, on some level I guess I suspected that they had to be more than just tubes of meat, but I never really thought about it. I guess I never expected to eat one.
In any event, if you ever end up eating a snake, they do have bones and a lot of them at that.
"Of course", I replied to Doc, "I was, umm, just getting carried away."
He didn't look convinced. I took another swig of beer and had a couple of french fries.
Sure enough, the next piece of snake was a lot better. Pulling the meat off the bones rather than just crunching them up did in fact make it a lot easier to eat and actually made it taste better.
What did it taste like, you ask? Well, I think you can guess... Truth is that it wasn't bad, not that I think it will find its way onto the menu of many 4 star restaurants anytime soon.
So anyway, we sat there for the rest of the afternoon, chowing down on rattlesnake and sipping beer. It was a day well spent, although I admit that throwing a few bowheads into the mix would have helped round out the day.
A few weeks later, Doc Ainsley presented us each with a memento of our day "on the hunt". He had sent the heads from the rattlesnakes we had caught off to a taxidermist friend of his to have them preserved and made into key chains. The next time we got together (Which, mercifully, did include football and bowheads) he handed them out to us.
On each key chain was a metal plate with an inscription "To my new friends, love Royal."
ahh Doc, always the funny one...
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I know I have mentioned in the past that I began my illustrious military career in pilot training at Reese AFB in Texas. While I went there with the intent of getting wings, it turned out that I had a more important task to accomplish: namely, validating the work of Sir Isaac Newton.
Become a Complete Fool