Rattlesnakes in December are not rare here in the southern California desert, and I spotted a large sidewinder yesterday. Then today I was strolling a dirt road into town and passed a hovel where Snakey, the local snake charmer, had a western diamondback and sidewinder on top of each other in an army helmet trying to get them to wrestle. He had just taken off the helmet, and the well-fanged snakes rattled but didn't strike. Snakey is the only citizen the police stay away from, and he is fearless having been bitten 32 times by his pet rattlesnakes. He loves attention.

Within minutes, two cars of tourists had paused and my friend Snakey picked up the rattlers by their bellies and shook them, hoping to extract tips. Then he milked the larger snake of venom into the helmet, mixed it with some chocolate pudding, and drank it. Being allergic to anti-venom, he claims the solid food boosts his immune system at the expense of diarrhea.

He buys rattlers for $10-$20 from townspeople, and is the most requested house sitter around because he brings his pets to roam the homes. No one breaks and enters a house full of rattling snakes.

He brought out Lovey from his freezer, a frozen sidewinder, and stroked it as if trying to warm back to life. He had slept with this one for years. When the snake didn't respond, he put it under his helmet, donned it, and walked away holding the two other snakes and a crowd of astonished onlookers.

In this age, a mere example of nonconformity, the refusal to bend the knee to custom, can shake some sense into all of us.


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