The Mangum Rattlesnake Derby, 22 Derbies and counting…

In April of 2000, I was a Freshman in high school. For a few years prior, I mingled with the Rattlesnake ‘Ranglers of the Shortgrass Rattlesnake Association. I was there, hauling boxes, moving chairs, setting up, and tearing down, the greatest show in southwest Oklahoma in 1998 when Sport’s Illustrated documented the “bass tournament but with snakes.” In fact, my earliest contact with the Association was 1995. I set around a “magic circle”– a bunch of old bus seats formed in a circle — where the many members set and spoke of stories of old, attempted to solve problems of today, and pitch ideas to make the Derby better the following year. The most common “solution” to the problems was “we’ll figure it out next year.” During those early years, with me still a kid, I was able to learn from the “founding members”, the “snake hunters,” the “snake handlers”, and the “operational experts”. Wisdom and knowledge permeated and echoed around the metal building and rackety shacks the Association called home. But, 2000 was different. That year, I “found my place” in the Association. I credit 2000 as being my “first” year. And, for the next 21 Derbies, despite a marriage, two children, four moves, three college graduations, law school, and other life-altering events, I’ve continued in the niche I filled in 2000.

In 2000, the “old guard” got where they could not do as much. They went from the forefront to the back as aged consultants, there more for their wisdom and experience than for their physical ability. Unfortunately, there was not enough of the “young guys” to go around. In 1998, the Snake Pit, one of the most popular snake attractions at the Derby was taken over by the Association. Up until that point, the Association hired a group to come and do educational shows. So, the snake handlers were free to move about the various other venues — the platform, butcher shop, and bus tours — using their unique set of skills. The Association lost its “hired help”. In 1998, a father-son team walked around the hundreds of snakes in the pit, giving talks and demonstrations. The son put his boot (which was probably too short to begin with) into a pile of snakes to spread them out. One snake latched on, releasing a full load of venom into his calf. He was rushed to the hospital, along with his father, and the Pit was empty and closed. The Association huddled and four men — four snake handlers — took over. From that day forward, the Association was responsible for the handling and educating in the Pit. Due to the exhausting mental and physical work of walking around a pit of snakes, at least four snake handlers, sometimes more, were no longer otherwise able to assist with the other shows.

The Association had a rule back in 1995. No person under the age of 18 could handle snakes in public. That qualifying phrase, in public, was seen as an exception and not an extension of the rule. The “new guard” interpreted the phrase “in public” as meaning in public view during the Rattlesnake Derby. Based on that definition, “in public” did not mean inside the Snake Building outside of public view. So began, the annual practice of initiation kids as young as 12 in the ways of “Snake Handling.” During those days, Snakes were kept in boxes. Snakes had to be “stirred” nightly to ensure the snakes were not crushing one another. This task was normally the last task of the evening. There, surrounded by a tight nit fraternity and under careful supervision, we kids learned how to tail, head, handle, move, store, shuffle, load/unload, and otherwise safely mess with rattlesnakes. Today, this nightly ritual has been abandoned. The Association has a large holding pit where hundreds of snakes can safely stay, free from suffocating in the boxes. The benefits of the holding pit meant that snakes were no longer handled. The drawback of the holding pit meant that future snake handlers would miss out on the invaluable lessons standing around in a circle, directing and redirecting, dozens of rattlesnakes at a time. My generation would be the last of the “bulk snake handlers.” After me, snake training was usually done with a few snakes at a time, safely and slowly. This is a far cry from the orchestrated chaos of just a few decades ago.

So, in 2000, I had about five years of handling experience behind me. I would be turning 16 in the fall. I still was not 18, so I could not actually handle snakes in public. But, a snake handler was not needed. The Butcher Shop needed a third person to run the meat counter. A person needed to weigh meat, roll hides, sell goods, help with clean up, and otherwise operate the “business” side of the Butcher Shop. Back then, the Butcher Shop had three people — one to do the butchering, one to handle the snakes, and one to handle the business. The “business” man could not participate that year, leaving only the snake handler and the butcher. Since I was not “technically” handling snakes, I was placed in there to handle the store. But, quickly, I learned that the “technical” aspect was more a formality than a reality. The “snake handler” was not always available and I quickly found myself doing double duty — getting a snake out then going and selling the meat.

From that year onward, I stayed in the butcher shop. Eventually, there was no longer enough people to handle the counter, snakes, and butchering. In fact, beginning in 2002, the butcher shop became a two-man operation. I was 17, turning 18 in the fall. I handled the snakes while the butcher did his thing. We both ran the counter. This two-man operation continued, just me and the butcher. Eventually, I began doing shows during the weekend, learning from the best. Our two-man operation, and our show, grew in popularity. Sometimes, the “myth” of the show seemed to eclipse the reality. But, the show became bigger while the personalities became mythical. We would eat hearts, gallbladders, snake sushi, drink whiskey, and have our own private party that anybody could attend for a $1.00.

My partner, Robert Ray, the Butcher, the best damn showman ever, had a massive heart attack in 2017. He would not come back. In 2020, he passed away. I am now “the Butcher”. For the past four Derbies, I handled the shows, sometimes the snakes, and the business. This year, as I was “working” my 21st Derby (since we didn’t have one last year), I kept on recalling how it started, how I got “stuck” in the butcher shop. People in the crowd — repeat participants — remember me from years ago and remember my old partner. The new participants will never know who the Butcher was. I am not him. I can never be him. His charisma and zeal for the three-day party can never be replicated, reproduced, repackaged, or shared — it could only be experienced. I have tried to take tidbits of his and adapt them to me. But, unfortunately, I know that my “shows” can never compare. This year, a first time participant asked me for my name. I told her. She said she wanted everyone to know how good my show was. All I could think, quietly to my self as I thanked her was, “you should have been here in 2016. That was the show.”

How many Derbies do I have left? Secretly, I have talked about “retiring” and moving into more of a “consultant” role. Then, I look around. No one is standing behind me to be the “next” butcher. We are an association of linchpins. When I started, we had three generations of cogs — the old guard, the young guns, and the bright-eyed youths. We had the Mounties, the Work Center, the American Legion, the Chamber of Commerce, and numerous other civic organizations. Today, we only have the old guard remaining and a handful of greatly depleted civic organizations. The Association, and the Derby itself, relies on its people that we cannot replace. Today, the Association has three venues — the Pit, the Platform, and the Butcher Shop. The Pit went from a six-man operation to a three man operation. The Butcher Shop maintains its two-man team. The Platform is largely abandoned of the showmen and snake handlers of the past. The Safari Bus Tour, due to the breakdown of equipment and some missing pieces, is likely finished. The army of people necessary to have a Derby has dwindled to a scattered few, too tired from the work to enjoy the party. The windows of opportunity to fraternize as a group are slivers compared to yesteryear. The rowdy bunch that used to welcome the sunrise now seeks to beat the sun to bed. The magic circle is a visage of its former self where the mournful conversation seems to dwell on the party of the past and a longing for a day that may never come again.

Like most people, 2020 hit the Association hard. The last three of the old guard — Robert Ray, Jack Cossey, and Ron Davonport — left this realm for a new adventure. All the wisdom and knowledge each possessed is now lost. The Derby’s past is no longer in living memory. Now, its me and a few others that only describe to the newcomers what the Derby really is — a fraternity of people coming together to introduce southwest Oklahoma to the world. As I sat around the “magic circle”, the same discussions were being rehashed. We discussed memories of old, all the problems facing the Derby today, and possible ideas to fix it. But, today’s conversations were hinted with frustration, with a tenor of exhaustion in the many voices echoing against the metal building. Collectively, the new “old guard” reminisced and yearned for a time that seemed to have slipped away suddenly and without warning. Not so long ago, the perception was that the party never stopped, just interrupted until next year. Now, with a great somberness in our souls, we quietly admit to ourselves that we are workers. The Derby is a job. Our energy is depleted. Each year, the future of the Derby gets fuzzier and fuzzier. How much more is left for us to give? Can we continue? More and more questions along these lines are asked as our ailing bodies ache. Ultimately, though, as we turn off the lights and pat each other on the backs, we come to the same conclusions we did 20 years ago — “we’ll figure it out next year.”

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