Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Rockhounds and the Rattlesnake, a Mother's Day Story.

My Mother was a rockhound, a collector of rocks. More specifically, quartz crystals, mainly although she had a lot of other specimens. She claimed that her biggest collection was the rocks in my head but that's a story for another time.

A member of several rockhound clubs and the more formal gem and mineral societies, she traveled the west and southwest in pursuit of her hobby. (It would have been too easy to insert the word 'quarry' in that least sentence.) In the late fifties and early sixties it was a common sight to see my mom driving the back roads in that Mercury station wagon, towing her robin's egg blue war surplus jeep behind.

One such trip was to the Calaveras River in the Gold Rush country of California, before that whole State went insane, must have been 1960 or '61. I was old enough to be of some help with the coolie labor involving the shovel, anyway. Might have been '59. The important thing is that it was before people started thinking rattlesnakes are a precious resource instead of dangerous vermin to be killed on sight. Many, perhaps most, rockhounds carried handguns on their belts for the purpose of dealing with snakes., Mainly small caliber, .22s, and .32s with a smattering of .38s.

This was a large gathering, The local club had issued invitations to several others for a multi-club dig on land still owned by a mining company, right on the river. Like most western rivers the Calaveras is a big river in the winter and spring from rain in the lower elevation and snowmelt from the higher mountains and very small in the summer and fall. The high water washes the collectible rocks from the higher elevations and leaves them along the course of the river in the depressions of the rocky watercourse.

Now that I've set the stage, imagine about seventy-five adults and God-only-knows- how-many kids digging the sediment that settled in the depressions of this solid rock, spread out over maybe ten acres of riverbank. Then some guy spotted a rattlesnake in one of those depressions. He pegged a couple of shots, missing. Naturally everyone went to see what was going on. The snake had taken refuge under this poor pitiful, scraggeldy bush that was destined to be underwater as soon as the rains came and everyone started shooting. Remember, they were shooting at a snake, under a bush, on rocky ground. It sounded like I've always imagined the Second Day at Gettysburg sounded like, must have been thirty-odd people shooting at once with ricochets flying everywhere. Being rockhounds, not shootists, they shot their shootin' irons dry with the snake being still very much with us after the fusillade.

As the guys were thinking about walking up the hill to their cars for more ammunition, up walked my mother. Fixing the whole crowd with a look that only a mother of unruly boys possesses, she asked if they were all through. There were a few mumbles as she walked up to just out of striking range, held her shovel like a WW2 Japanese Soldier about to bayonet the wounded and, with one spearing blow cut the snake in twain. After throwing the snake's head out onto the bare rock, she turned around, fixed the crowd with that look again, holding it long enough to shrivel testicles to the size of BBs, gave a slight curl of her lip and, wordlessly, walked back to where we were digging some very nice quartz crystals, along with a little bit of gold dust that we panned out of the dirt.

Mom has been gone a long time, now, her ashes scattered, according to her wishes, over a flower garden. Yet in my mind's eye she still stands tall, all five foot three of her, wordlessly turning a bunch of grown men into shamed little boys.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I hope when I see you again I don't deserve the look.

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