The National Hotel is located in a small former mining town in the foothills of California. Gold was the currency for many years, with some logging farther up the hill… and punching cows in the summer. Now, or at least at that time when this story happened… the town was reinvented as a weekend getaway for city people from San Francisco and Sacramento. Side by side antique stores and real estate companies… and a wheelbarrow load of local character people and misfits. A local stockbroker, an honorable ecampus vitas statewide official, wore an eyepatch over one eye of a black material and had fought with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma during WWII. His name was Duff. He said that he fought the war walking backwards.
About the time I was studying for my California surveyors’ license, I was working in a small civil engineering – surveying company in this foothill town. On Saturday nights, and sometimes folding back on Sunday afternoon, I was bartending at the hotel. The National was built around 1868, and the legend is that the doors have never been closed. On Saturday nights the walls in the lounge and bar would blow in and out like a blacksmith’s bellows pump. The honky-tonk piano music with offkey alcohol fueled baying, was never better than on the night of the full moon.
After five years or so of bartending, I thought nothing of approaching the owner or bar manager and expressing an interest in a part time job. As these things sometimes play out, the owner did in fact need a backup bartender on Saturday night. The regular bartender was in his early 40’s, married with two children, and the graduate of Holycross University with a B. A. in English Literature. Overweight by about 40 lbs. and thinning on the top of the head, his name was Don and he and I became good friends.
During the normal week from Monday to about noon on Friday, the town was quiet. Once or twice a week I would walk over to the National to visit with Don just as he was starting his shift. He normally started about 4:30 p.m. and worked until 10:00 p.m. and then closed the bar. Normally, but not always I would be the only one sitting at the bar, and Don would fix a double Gordon’s gin and bottled Canadian tonic in the glass portion of the shaker, with two large lime chunks… and lots of ice. Perfect after 104 Fahrenheit degree sun on the south facing slope of a canyon with poison oak, rattle snakes… and vicious black flies. It took about 45 minutes for me to finish this crushing gin and tonic and then I would head for home.
The game started with neither one of us actually saying that we should create a new game. With a degree in literature, Don was a great joke teller and was always up for a good story. He admitted to me one day that his Valhalla was to own a rare bookstore. One of the reasons that I pursued surveying for a living was of the great storytellers that I had met. The old surveyors would sit around in the late afternoons, or around the fire at night if in camp… and tell surveying stories. These game stories between Don and I were adlibbed but the bottom line was to make the story as big as possible… larger and larger like a dirigible being blown up.
One Friday afternoon I stopped in to visit with Don, and there were two women sitting at the bar. So, I took a seat two stools away… and Don came over and put a bar doily in front of me, known as a dry diaper. I said that I would have my usual gin and tonic… and Don went to the well to put ice in the shaker glass. Now the object of the game was to hook the women into our conversation… like enticing them as Rod Serling would to a Tupperware party, and teasing them to listen rather than continue their own private conversation. Most often Don played the straight man and would feed me leading questions.
So from the well, talking almost across one of the women, Don would ask me a leading question to find out if I was up for the game and let me know that these women were not locals. Normally I was always up for this game, as it was perfect for both of us. Again, the idea is to enlarge the story until like a yellow hot air balloon, it was ready to burst, then I would finish my drink and leave.
Don might say something like, “wasn’t it about time I got the stitches removed from my leg from where I had fallen into a mine shaft up to my waist and that rattlesnake bit me on the lower leg about two weeks ago?” Then I would proceed to describe how huge and vicious this rattlesnake was, even to the point that the snake was pulling a calf under a barbed wire fence by the nose. Larger and larger… then came the macabre Poe like gently tapping… trapping, ending to the story. Grabbing the rattlesnake with both hands by the tail I proceeded to whip the snake around my head faster and faster.
If you can hear the ticking of the old antique Regulator Clock on the back wall, you know that the game is working. The women are sitting on the edges of their barstools with elephant ears getting both larger and nearer… and Don is smiling like a barn cat with a pail of fresh cream. It was an evolutionary development no doubt, but just behind a rattlesnake’s head there is a weak vertebrae, and if one pops the snake like a bullwhip, the head of the snake will fly off. But this time it did not happen, it could not happen… for Brete Harte might have written this story.
This Paul Bunyon sized snake was larger than any Hollywood movie snake, and I was unable to snap the snake fast enough to separate the head. So I ended up pulling the snake inside out and the snake suffocated. I finished my drink, thanked Don and said goodbye to the women and started for the front door. I looked back and Don was smiling and waving goodbye and the women were discussing rattlesnakes in desperate and urgent tones. One thing about a small former mining town in the foothills is that sometimes people just have to make their own fun.