W.F Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And at Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell Ice Cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.
A friend of mine from Austria tells me that when Europeans think about Texas, they think of cowboys and cattle and rattlesnakes. This is not surprising at all. Seems like every western ever made has a scene where a cowboy is surprised by a rattler and dispatches it with one perfect shot from his six shooter.
Having grown up myself in the brush country of Texas, I never found a pistol to be all that certain. I preferred a shotgun, a twelve-gauge if handy, and a double-barrelled if possible. An old rancher told me that if I ever heard a rattler raisin’ a warning nearby, I didn’t even need to look or aim, just move the barrel in his direction and he’ll aim for you. He’ll line up his head with the end of the barrel and you’ll get him most every time. I didn’t like his use of the word “most” in that prescription.
My mama had filled my head with all kinds of horror stories about rattlers. They could put their tail in their mouth and form a wheel to chase you with. If you shot one, he never died until the sun went down and his mate was sure to be looking for you forever. They were always hiding up under the truck, she said, waiting for you to get out, so don’t dawdle. Get in the house. If you cut a rattler’s head off, you should never carry the head in your pocket — because you could reach in that pocket, days later, and still get bit. And the rattles themselves were dangerous because rattler dust could blind a person. My mom told me years later that she knew most of it was exaggerated but she said you “couldn’t raise boys safely on reason; best to keep ‘em scared.”
The great folklorist J. Frank Dobie said that there were two measures to a Texan’s character: Did they close every gate they went through and did they kill every rattler they came across? Dobie regarded the snake topic as so important that he wrote a entire book about it. And, being a professor, he gave the book one of those deep philosophical titles. He called it: Rattlesnakes. He spends some time on stories about the biggest rattlesnakes ever found in Texas. Several accounts, going back to frontier Texas, claim to have found rattlers ten and twelve feet long, weighing 25 to 30 pounds. Some say such monsters only existed back then because there was no civilization to cut short their large-sized evolution.
At the Sweetwater and Freer rattlesnake roundups each year six footers are not uncommon and, once in a great while, an eight footer is brought in. Dobie says the best way to make records in killing of longest rattlesnakes is to do it far away from measuring tapes and yardsticks — and with as few a witnesses as possible. Such things have a way of making one cautious with the facts.