The world is black outside, 2AM — dark that deepens as I look through it. Here and there, streetlights shine; there’s one at the end of our parking lot, and it lights the front of the house across the street, the one with the guy who uses our parking lot as a turnaround.
They have a trio of junky cars in the driveway; that’s why he uses ours. Junky cars make me think of my father-in-law’s ranch, in Colorado, in a wide spot in the road called Rush. The first day H. took me out to the junkyard was also the last, as he pointed out a couple of rattlesnakes, about ten yards from us. Enough for me — I took my .22 rifle, and my skinnier-than-it-is-now butt, and got back to the top of the hill to wait for H.
The snakes in that part of the world scare the shit out of me, and always have, ever since H.’s dad told me to look out when I’m opening a gate. They might be wound around that fence-post like ivy; they’re the same color as them old fence-posts — if you aren’t careful, you’ll get bit before you know what to do with yourself. In fact, that was the day he told me about finding the rattlesnake ball in the cemetery. The story went something like this:
I remember one year, when I was a kid, out riding around in Dad’s pickup like you and I are now. We went by the old cemetery, over past that fence. As we drove by, my dad said something about them rattlesnakes rolling themselves into a big rattlesnake ball, and spending the winter that way. He told me I might find one of those rattlesnake balls in the old graves in the old, old cemetery; not the one by the barn, where Dad and Uncle Henry are now. It’s the one out at the end of that patch of pasture, so old that the coffins have rotted and the bodies long since disappeared into dust.
I asked him could I jump out of the truck and run over there and look around. He said yes, but he said that I’d need to be really careful where I stepped, so I didn’t fall right through one of them rotten old coffins and land on a rattlesnake ball. I opened the next gate for my dad, grabbed my .22 pistol, and headed off across the pasture. I wasn’t too worried about snakes out there, as I was wearing leather boots and no snake can bite through them boots.
I got to the gate where the graves were, and climbed over, rather than open it up. I could climb over a bob-wire fence in them days — I’d hate to try it now! Anyway, I got over that bob-wire fence, and looked around to see where the graves were. If I walked around them graves, I’d be just all right. Once I decided which way I was going to walk, I grabbed an old cottonwood fence-post laying by the fence, and headed for the first grave.
And I remember, that was the only one I got a look at. I beat the hell out of that ground until I heard wood snap. I made sure I wasn’t standing on anything, and went ahead and broke up that coffin to see what was inside. And I swear to God, there was one of them rattlesnake balls, with the snakes just starting to wake up and move around, all wound around each other so they could stay warm, I guess. I got the hell out of there, damn near jumped the fence, and ran back to the house, never even stopping til I got there.
I don’t ever want to see one of them rattlesnake balls again. There must have been a couple hundred of them.
I asked him if his dad encouraged him to go looking for snakes, and to carry a pistol around, and he looked at me kind of funny.
That’s just what we did, me and my brothers and my cousins. That was what a kid did for fun, growing up out here on a ranch. No 7-11 stores for us to hang around in, and besides, we’d get bored and go off and find our own adventures.
I don’t remember if I thought this then, but I’m thinking it now — whose parents are going to let their kids run wild like that? But H.’s Dad had survived it, and grew to be a rancher and a respected member of the community, and so, I bet, did every other boy who grew up out there on the high plains. What has happened to us, that we let ourselves and out kids get so lazy? Why, only twenty years off the fitness craze that swept America, did no one care that their sons and daughters wouldn’t have been able to walk out of that cemetery, much less run home without stopping.
What a shame for these kids. Even if they weren’t going after rattlesnake balls, they could play kickball, and hide and seek, and any other game they might think of, instead of sitting all afternoon and evening, every day, in front of some new, bloodier version of World of Warcraft. What have we denied our kids? And what a shame that they don’t have any idea at all that they’ve been denied anything. Sad. Really just sad.