The 57th Edition of the Mangum Rattlesnake Derby

My Derby this year began on a cool November night in 2001. I was a Junior at Mangum High School. I loved football. I took an immense pride because I belonged to the rich tradition of the Mangum Tigers. I added my own blood, sweat, and tears to the turf, hoping to build upon and continue the legacy of Mangum Tiger Football, under the bright, Friday Night Lights. Football is a rough sport. For four quarters, your body is jarred, slammed, contorted, twisted, and pounded by players that can sometimes be twice your size. I left everything on that field, and the many fields across western Oklahoma, including a life free of bodily pain. I attribute several aches, pains, and injuries from my time as a Mangum Tiger, including a weakened disc.

I can recall how most of my aches and pains occurred. My back injury was no different. It was November. We were playing the Thomas Terriers. I was running down field towards the southern end zone, chasing down the ball carrier. Right before contact, I was blocked from my right side, and then my left. The collision twisted my body and I immediately had a pang in my lower back. I did not think too much of it at the time. However, throughout the rest of my years, every once in awhile, I would have what I called a “spasm.” I would have to straighten my back until the pain would pass. After that, I would be normal.

I lived relatively unaffected by these rare spasms. Many times, they would go away just as fast as they would come. They never lasted too long and I largely dismissed any permanent damage. However, I as aged, lost the edge on my health, and gradually grew more portly around my midsection, these spasms would last longer and become more frequent. Then, in February 2019, I was doing dishes and I had a spasm that “got stuck”. I could not just straighten up to allow it to pass as I had done countless times before. This spasm was different. My pelvis shifted, my spine curled, and I was left unable to walk. My wife had to assist me on and off the toilet. I could only comfortably sit in a few positions. Four days later, after medical intervention, I felt as though I was “good as new” and continued life as I always did. But, I moved forward with an irritant in my lower back, a constant tinge of pain.

In October 2020, I was appointed executor of an estate. The estate owned a house. The house was sold and I needed to clear the property for the new owners. Through this backbreaking work, the little tinge of pain grew to more of a constant. I initially thought that the pain was not debilitating, life altering, or even remarkable. But, I did lose a degree of flexibility. Regardless, I continued my life as normal. I just took extra precautions and ensured that I altered certain habits as to avoid any uncomfortable pain.

Living life with pain is no way to live. Yet, I was foolish to believe that life could be lived in pain. I have coped with pain for years, so many years in fact that I believed that pain, like breathing, was normal. But, this pain, this constant pain emitting from my back, was life altering. With constant pain, I slowly gained weight, reaching an all-time high in 2023. With the weight gain, I lost the desire to move. Without the desire to move, I lost the desire to exercise. Without exercising, my muscles began to atrophy and my entire support structure weakened. Suddenly, on February 28, 2023, my decaying system collapsed. With it, my own personal denial spilled out, revealing the my lie that kept me from making any significant changes. For the first time ever, I realized I was old, feeble, and frail.

My disc finally ruptured and the gooey mass of my spinal cord set on a key nerve. Its irritation caused the nerve to become angry and caused immense pain and paralysis in my right leg. I could not sit. I could not lie down. At one time, I fell in my floor, unable to get up or move for over 45 minutes. Only with the intervention of non-traditional pain relievers did I muster the strength necessary to make it back to my little nest of pillows and blankets, carefully constructed in a way to ensure my body contorted just right to relieve the pain and pressure on my sciatic nerve. For the next four days, I laid in my nest, barely eating, barely drinking, barely moving. Again, with medical intervention, I recovered enough to first walk, hunched over on a cane. Then, with injections directly into my spine, a few more days of rest, I could finally walk, mostly free from pain.

On March 23rd, I received my first spinal shot. It wasn’t until April 12th I felt confident enough to walk without a cane. I still have numbness and burning in my foot and the back of my leg still screams when turned just the right way. Regardless, 14 days later, Mangum celebrated the 57th Mangum Rattlesnake Derby. Throughout my ordeal, I had plenty of time to reflect on my hopelessness. During the darkest times, I felt that only death would relieve me of my painful burden. I was, and still am, a prisoner to my own frailty. Due to this prison, I could not fully participate during the planning, prepping, and execution of the Derby. When I did participate, it was limited to standing on the sidelines and quipping to others doing all the work. I was useless.

Luckily, by the time the weekend occurred, I was healed up enought to operate the Butcher Shop Show. I recalled several Derbies ago, my old partner, with cane in hand and a arthritic hip, butchering snakes, charming the crowd, and “doin’ his thang”. “Thats the way the Butcher Do IT! Live, from Mangum, OKLAHOMA!” he would exclaim at the end his show, smile on his face. The love and admiration he received from that crowd was better than any medication that could be described. He ended the weekend without his cane and, at least temporarily, cured of his hip ailments. I, too, was carried through the weekend on the clouds of laughter, cheers, gasps, and applause from a room full of strangers. In addition, the love, tolerance, and camaraderie of my fellow members gave me the strength to carry on, move forward, and ensure the party will continue next year.

Last year, we held a memorial service for my old partner. His adoring friends and loving family helped me say goodbye to my mentor and friend. Too often, we are taught as men to be stoic, emotionless, and to bury your feelings. He taught me the opposite: to love, cry, and laugh with the world. He would tell people, strangers, that he “loved them.” These were not just words he would mutter. Rather, these were words to express what he truly felt. I think of him often as I butcher snakes, hear the crowd, laugh with strangers, and more importantly orchestrate a shared experience that connects so many strangers. As with all years, familiar faces, kids now adults, and young people now gray continue to share in our yearly ritual, our reunion. We continue to share laughter and tears as they introduce me and my show to their grandkids, significant others, friends, and family. It is these old friends as well that keep me coming back and provides me strength to carry forward. My body may not be as young and nimble as it used to. But I assure you, knowing that I was so close to letting down so many, put life in perspective. People count on me. I refuse to let them down. I will be there next year to ensure that the party continues. The first heart is on me.

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