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Hissing Fits

The 1999 Sweetwater, Texas, Rattlesnake Roundup

Hissing Fits
Photo By Kiley Lambert

For four nights Mike Hunter has been annoying his neighbors. Like most of the campers with their pop-up trailers, huge cast-iron smokers, and rotisserie grills who have flocked to Newman Park for Sweetwater's 41st annual Rattlesnake Roundup and Cook-off, Hunter has been here since Tuesday night. The neighbors weren't bothered by the loud, drunken screaming at 4am, when members of Hunter's camp climbed on top of the Coors billboard, or by the Rolling Stones blasting out of loudspeakers. What keeps them awake this Friday night are the train horns hoisted 30 feet in the air blowing at ear-piercing decibels shooting 10-foot flames in every direction. The horns are connected to a propane tank in the back of a pickup, so while one man hits the gas and sounds the horn, another lifts the torch and illuminates the sky like the Fourth of July. An American flag flying just below the flames lends an eerie resemblance to a scene straight out of Apocalypse Now. "Hell, you guys should've been here last year," Hunter screams over the blaring horn. "We were using napalm. Let me tell ya, that was a trip."

Blowing napalm through the horns was a bad idea, he explains, especially after his friend caught on fire and had to be rubbed out in a nearby creek. For some reason, he didn't make it to the cook-off this year.

"You guys like fishing? Maybe if this weather clears we'll get some hand grenades and head down to the creek."

"You fish with live grenades?"

"Ah yeah, don't worry, the fish are always biting when we go."

Each March, during the second weekend of the month, the small town of Sweetwater, Texas, becomes world-famous. The population more than doubles, motel rooms are filled months in advance, and not a brisket nor chicken can be found in the local groceries for a week. For 41 years, Sweetwater has taken an otherwise despised and feared creature of its pastures and thrown a four-day party for it. Each year, nearly three tons of deadly rattlesnakes are harvested, put on display, taunted, handled, researched, even skinned and eaten, and people from as far away as Japan come to watch. But the event isn't just about snakes. For this town of 12,000, the roundup, which pumps nearly $6 million into the local economy, is a time to cut loose, see old friends, people watch, and forget about jobs and a two-year drought that has threatened the agricultural heart of this town.

The christening event of the round up is the crowning of a new Miss Snake Charmer, the token beauty queen of the snake festival. Young, beautiful girls from all over the state vie for the title, preparing months in advance getting sponsors, honing their talents, and nailing that runway strut and heart-grabbing smile, wink, and toss of the head. It's Thursday night and every seat in the town auditorium is filled with proud parents and grandmothers, the sponsoring Sweetwater Jaycees with their red ceremonial vests and shiny pendants, and past beauty queens revisiting the limelight.

The pageant emcee ownsthe country music radio station I fell in love with the night before while drinking beer in my car outside my great-grandmother's house. It was Big Daddy Chicken spinning coward of the county, 16 tons and whattya get, another day older and deeper in debt, trailer for sale or rent, and I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole. ...

In Sweetwater, as can be imagined, country music is king, as it is among beauty queen contestants, who belt out everything from George Strait tunes to "Amazing Grace." But it's 16-year-old Melissa McLaughlin of Wall, Texas, who wins the judges with a sultry rendition of LeAnn Rimes' "Blue." The spotlight hits her. She's dressed in black suede leather and tassels and has that walk and a crooning Southern drawl like Loretta Lynn. She knocks her hips back and forth, stomps her foot, and growls at the judges. The crowd is mowed over, and so are the judges, who not only award her Miss Snake Charmer 1999, but also Miss Congeniality and Most Talented. McLaughlin cleans house and leaves the other 15 contestants standing with their jaws hanging open.

By 7am Friday, the parking lot behind the coliseum is already crowded with farmers and ranchers trying to stay warm in their pickups before weigh-in. They've come to sell two months' worth of snakes caught in their fields and ranches and collect the $5 per pound handed out by the Sweetwater Jaycees. The locals provide all the snakes for the roundup's main attraction, and are delighted to do so whatever the price. Rattlesnakes are like bugs, locals say; they infest their ranches, kill cattle and horses, and on top of the drought, make ranching next to impossible. Ridding ranches and fields of rattlesnakes was the main objective for the first roundup held in 1958, and since then, over 240,000 pounds of rattlesnakes have been collected, a mere drop in the bucket compared to how many still crawl the canyons and creekbeds around Sweetwater.

Inside the coliseum merchants and vendors are gearing up for the onslaught of spectators. They sell everything from snakeskin hatbands, boots, and belts, to snake-head keychains. Perhaps you'd like a freeze dried snake in striking position for your desk, or how about one encased in silicone as a paperweight?

Aside from snake memorabilia, vendors sell jewelry, belt buckles, hot sauce, and chances to win a Caribbean cruise or a Weatherby deer rifle. Even the Marines are on hand, signing up warm bodies and holding chin-up competitions.

Miss Snake Charmer Melissa McLaughlin skins a rattlesnake in the skinning pit (left)  and holds an entrail in her hand (right).
Miss Snake Charmer Melissa McLaughlin skins a rattlesnake in the skinning pit (left) and holds an entrail in her hand (right). (Photo By Kiley Lambert)

But the roundup's main events are inside the four circular pits teeming with thousands of snakes. From every corner of the coliseum there's a low, steady buzz like a million shaking cascarones, and the cutting smell of snake shit.

Inside the demonstration pit, Rick Wilkinson lifts one of the larger snakes coiled on the floor with a pair of tongs and throws it onto a wooden table. He pulls out a red balloon from his pocket, blows it up, and whacks the rattlesnake with it on the head. The snake coils and twists as Wilkinson taunts it again. He holds the balloon at waist level and weaves back and forth trying to get the snake to strike. The snake lunges, jaws open, fangs exposed, and misses Wilkinson's hand by an inch. The crowd of people pressed to the side of the pit gasp, some even cover their eyes. On his second attempt, Wilkinson has the snake a little more pissed. When it lunges again, the balloon pops and the crowd erupts into applause.

"If I were bitten by one of these rattlesnakes here on the floor, chances are I'd survive," Wilkinson says as he kicks open a wooden box on the floor and pulls out a cloth bag. He turns the bag upside down and out falls a black Indian cobra, which after a little prodding from Wilkinson's tong, rises and flares its neck. "But if this snake ever got hold of me, you'd might as well drive me straight to the funeral home."

After explaining that one drop of venom from the cobra could drop a full-grown bull elephant in its tracks, Wilkinson carefully steps behind it and kisses it on the head.

Wilkinson has been a professional snake handler for 25 years and done this routine a thousand times at roundups across the state, but that doesn't make stepping into the pit any easier.

"You've got to appear so calm and collected on the outside for these people when you step in here," said Wilkinson. "But on the inside my guts are just hookin' 'em. There's always that fear of stumbling and ending up on my hands and knees."

As Wilkinson walks the perimeter of the pit, snakes constantly strike at his boots. He's only been bitten once, he says, when he went to move a snake with his foot and it held on, catching him just below the knee. Snakebites are a rare among snake handlers at the Sweetwater roundups, Wilkinson explains, mainly because the Jaycees are adamant about safety and discourage the daredeviling that goes on in other towns, such as Big Spring.

I grew up in Big Spring,and one of the highlights of my childhood was sitting in the bleachers as close to the pits as I could just to watch the daredevilers. One man climbs into a sleeping bag while another carefully fills it full of live snakes. The trick, of course, is to slowly crawl out of the bag without getting bit. There's some thin justification for the sleeping bag demonstration. Because snakes are attracted to warmth, it's common for campers sleeping under the stars in West Texas to wake up with an unwanted bedfellow. I watched men wrap snakes around their necks and kiss them on the head. And they got bit a lot. Snake daredevilers rank somewhere between bull riders and bomb squads, adrenaline junkies, men who live for split-second intervals, and know every in and out of small-town emergency rooms.

The Western Diamondback is a pit viper, meaning it uses two heat-seeking pits below its nostrils to send thermal images to its brain. They can only detect moving objects, and only if they happen to be 10 to 15 feet away, which is why every expert will tell you to stand still if ever stumbling upon one. The rattlesnake is a misunderstood creature, really more of a coward than a stalking predator, and will only strike when its back's against the wall. As a rule, rattlesnakes never strike over half the size of their length, which is generally about 12 inches. But then again, there's exceptions to every rule.

Bill Ransberger, 74, is living proof to that rule. Ransberger has been bitten by rattlesnakes 42 times since he helped start the Sweetwater roundup in 1958. The way Ransberger sees it, the reason he's been bitten so many times is because he was the only one brave enough to touch them. Back when he was an engineer for the Santa Fe Railroad, he and his crew would run across hundreds of snakes while servicing tracks. No one else wanted to touch them, he said, so he had to teach himself and has since mentored many of Sweetwater's handlers, including Wilkinson.

Ransberger was instrumental in starting roundups in several town across West Texas, as well as educating two generations of handlers, oil-field workers, and even Boy Scout groups on what to do when crossing a snake in the field. Known across the state as "Snakeberger," the professional snake hunter and performer, Ransberger's showmanship and one-liners are mimicked today. His demonstrations and trips to the emergency room have also landed him in the pages of Sports Illustrated, Esquire, on CNN, National Geographic Explorer, and ABC's Wide World of Sports. Now slowed by asthma, Ransberger no longer goes clambering through canyons peering into snake holes or does performances. He sits at a table and sells handmade snake hunting tongs, freeze dried snakes, and rattlesnake button keychains. Ransberger is a fixture at the round ups today, the king daddy decorated in Jaycee lifetime achievement buttons, looking over the international phenomenon that started as a few ranchers catching snakes.

If anyone can tell you what it feels like to be bitten by a rattlesnake, it's Ransberger, who paints tales of getting bitten like a saged WWII vet reminisces about a gut full of bullets. He rolls up his sleeve to expose a foot-long scar on his forearm where doctors performed a fasciotomy after he was bitten by a five-foot rattlesnake. Rattlesnake venom is a hemo-toxin, meaning every time your heart beats after a bite, any muscle and tissue the venom comes into contact with deteriorates into black mush.

The fasciotomy is an excruciating medical procedure that's still used in many small Texas hospitals where doctors butterfly open the skin surrounding the fang mark and scrape out the dead flesh. Some argue that the procedure is archaic and unneeded, and that the chances of survival are still great by simply extracting as much venom as possible and letting the process take its course.

Children gaze into one of the four snake pits.
Children gaze into one of the four snake pits. (Photo By Kiley Lambert)

According to Ransberger, when a rattlesnake bites, the area around the fang marks feel like someone pressed a burning cigarette into your skin. In the first few hours the infected tissue will swell up to three times its size while venom courses through the veins killing everything it contacts.

"You ever slammed your finger with a hammer? Multiply that by 10," said Ransberger. "After 48 hours, maybe the third day, you'll get sick to your stomach and start vomiting. Throughout this time, the pain is tremendous because venom is constantly eating away at your body. Then after about seven days, the process will either reverse itself or kill you. But by then, you should've gotten yourself to a doctor."

At his booth, Ransberger sells the Sawyer Extractor, a French-made suction device that's now considered standard gear to any rancher or local who spends time in the fields. An answer to the tourniquet and razor blade method of treating bites, the extractor is equipped with a suction cup that fits over the fang mark and works as a vacuum to draw venom out of the bloodstream.

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When I was a kid tromping through the red gypsum canyons on my uncle's land around Sweetwater, snakebite remedy was something I'd burned into my brain. You rip off your belt and handkerchief, tie yourself off above and below the bite to prevent blood flow, pull out a sharp blade, dig Xs into the muscle over each fang mark, try and stomach the blood, and start sucking.

There's a joke people still tell about two guys working in the oilfield and one gets bitten on the ass by a snake.

"Hurry, go get the doctor," he pleads to his friend. "Ask him what we're supposed to do."

His friend heads into town and finds the doctor, who is rushing out the door to deliver a baby.

"I can't help you right now," he tells the man. "But here's what you do. Cut two Xs over the fang mark and suck out all the venom. I promise, your friend will be fine."

So the man drives back out to the oil field where his friend lays in agony holding his swollen ass.

"What did the doctor say?"

"The doctor says you're gonna die."

When you're the Rattle-snake Queen, 16, and drop dead gorgeous, par for the course is to float around the round up posing for pictures, shaking hands, always smiling, and of course, handling a few snakes. McLaughlin shows up at the coliseum Friday at 8am sharp in her tiara, blue jeans, and boots. Wherever she walks, a crowd ultimately forms. They ask her about winning the crown the night before: She smiles, "I'm very blessed. God was nice to me last night." What she does in high school: "I'm on the cheerleading squad, and I play basketball." But as the roundup gets in full swing for the day, McLaughlin isn't meandering through the crowd shaking hands anymore. Instead, she's taking advantage of the perks that come with being queen -- snake pit privileges.

Bill Ransberger, aka Snakeberger, has been bitten 42 times by snakes.
Bill Ransberger, aka "Snakeberger," has been bitten 42 times by snakes. (Photo By Kiley Lambert)

Dressed in a white paper butcher's smock and holding a Buck knife, McLaughlin stands in one of the main pits where snakes are beheaded on a wooden stump with a machete, strung up on a pole, and skinned. The gentleman who runs the pit guides her through her first snake, and as he demonstrates how to clean out the entrails, McLaughlin's face contorts into six different shapes. But as soon as a new snake is hung, she's a seasoned pro. As flashbulbs pop, the rattlesnake queen slices the snakes down the belly, sticks her fingers in and rips out slimy entrails, and peels off the skin like a stubborn banana peel. The crowd loves it, especially when she holds a still-beating heart in her palm and walks the perimeter of the pit posing for pictures in her tiara.

Usually present near the skinning pit is a Japanese man sifting through the buckets of entrails collecting gall bladders, a hot commodity on the Asian market, a delectable aphrodisiac bought from the roundup for $2 apiece. About 40% of the meat from the roundups average 2,500 pounds of snakes is shipped back to Asia and sells for as much as $20 a pound. But this year, with the Asian economy in the pits of a depression, no meat was sold, nor did the Japanese man walk the coliseum pulling strings of bladders out of a jar of whiskey and popping them into his mouth.

Before the snakes are handed over to be skinned, they're drained of their venom in the nearby milking pit. Handlers pull snakes from large plastic trash cans, take hold of their heads, and whip their tails under their arms or between their legs. They then press the fangs over a glass funnel and drain the yellow syrupy venom into baby bottles, which are stored on ice and sold to medical research facilities across the state. Venom is a highly studied combatant of strokes because of its ability to eat away at blood clots. Enzymes isolated in rattlesnake venom are also being studied in the treatment of Say-Tachs disease, sickle cell anemia, and even degenerative neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

For the true hard-coreswanting to soak in all the regalia of the roundup, the Jaycees offer guided snake hunts on ranches outside of town. We met at 10am Sunday morning under a huge hanging Texas flag at the back of the coliseum. The others who'd paid $60 and signed their release papers were already there, duded in brand-new snake boots, chaps, cowboy hats, and snake handling tongs they'd bought earlier from Ransberger's booth. In our group of about 20 were a couple of career Marines from Fort Worth who spent half an hour outfitting themselves with canteens, camouflage, and K-Bar combat knives. There was also a couple from California who hadd heard about the roundup on television, a computer programmer from Washington, D.C., and a family from Lexington, Kentucky.

We take a 15-car convoy to a ranch 30 miles outside of town, over cattle guards, and through a few miles of bumpy dirt roads until we reach a canyon where it's said to be 20 degrees warmer. For three days it had been in the 30s with sleet and rain, making earlier hunts that weekend unsuccessful. But nobody complains about the rain, especially since there hasn't been any all year. In fact, the forecast was top news in the local paper, with a series of question marks following the headlines. Bill Sellers, a local rancher and our guide, stands in the bed of his truck and puts it very plainly. "It's rained more in the Mojave Desert this year than it has in my fields." By early afternoon, the welcomed rain has stopped and the sun appears for the first time in days. The hunt is on.

You hunt rattlesnakes by shining a mirror into small holes in the canyon walls, crevices, and dark spaces between rocks. If it's a warm day, it's possible to see their heads peeking out, and if not, you resort to the gas pump. Sellers and fellow guide Steven Kiser insert a six-foot copper tube that sends fumes through the hole and leaves the air acrid and sharp. They repeat the process on several other holes as the crowd circles around, cameras ready, to see if it will drive a rattlesnake out for air. Sometimes, you get more than snakes. A group of ladies from Louisiana finds this out when a family of rats scurry out of a hole and nearly send them back to the truck for the remainder of the day.

Thirty minutes later, a very determined 13-year-old kid from Houston is turning over every rock he can find near the base of the canyon wall. This is his fourth hunt, and the guides know him well enough to keep a watchful eye so he doesn't get so ambitious that he destroys a lot of property, and worse, get himself bitten. But sure enough, as the kid attempts to turn the canyon upside down for a snake, one suddenly appears from a hole above his head. Kiser screams and the kid jerks away just in time for a three-foot rattlesnake to drop right where he'd been standing. The snake is still cold and doesn't put up much resistance or fight, yet a few in the group still shriek at the sight of it. After the snake has its picture shot a few hundred times, Kiser gives the kid his wish and lets him lift the snake with his tongs and toss it into a metal trash can.

By the end of the afternoon, our group had caught eight snakes, considerably less than warmer hunts, which have yielded upward of 50 in a day.

Saturday night, everyone in Mike Hunter's camp is drunk or getting that way. The train horns are at rest, and the American flag is no longer there -- a mishap the night before when it got too close to the fire. All who saw it said it was glorious. Hunter appears from his large white canvas tent and walks over to a cast iron pot sitting on the fire and begins to stir.

"You guys want some peyote chili?" he asks, and a sly grin appears on his rounded face. "This shit'll sure make you whistle funny."

An hour later the tent is full of people, mostly locals, who lug kegs inside and prod Hunter to blow the horns. As the 10-foot flames cast an orange glow over the camp, another night at the roundup officially begins. The raging campfire offers no relief against the cold wind, so most people are inside where it's warm. At one end of the tent is a craps table, and by midnight, a crowd of men in cowboy hats and coveralls surround it, flashing hundred-dollar bills with every roll of the dice. Their screams rise above the roar of 60 people and music blaring from a pair of corner speakers.

As money stacks along the sides of the table, Butch Sims, a local rancher, looks on and sips his beer. He quietly laughs as men curse lost bets and fish large rolls of cash from their pockets. Sims strokes his tightly trimmed moustache and nods his head toward the group.

"Some of these guys in here are rich as hell," he says. "And some don't have a pot to piss in and just pretend."

As the propane heaters in the tent force a few out for air, new kegs are brought in, and the party rambles on into the night. No one talks about the economy, or living in a small town, where all there is to do, as one person put it, "is drink beer, go fishing, and play golf." Not tonight, Monday perhaps, when Sweetwater closes the book on another roundup, and waits another year for the world to visit. end story

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