Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers
Part Two: The Fear of and Reverence for the “Hoop Snake”
For the next week after that warning about hoop snakes on the prowl as veritable animal unicyclists, I looked hourly for hoop snakes—shovel in hand—but never found a single one or even their bike-tire like trails. Yet Joe Caron said he had grown up on the reservation and saw them hooping in packs a lot.
(I have a confession to make: Until 21, I remember this childhood incident as just folk ignorance—or maybe a wild pun on us? But one day in graduate school while reading about the Gnostics, I came across the ouroboros or “mouth biter,” a mythical Greek snake creature (borrowed from the Egyptians) that alchemists and Gnostic philosophers adopted as iconic, likely because of it transcendent “circle of life” message of the tail ending at and consumed by the head, or a reminder of death and rebirth. And I silently apologized to the long dead Joe the moment I saw that his mythologies were one with the ancients).
So, Joe taught me a lot of things, although he rarely said more than a few phrases at a time—and that made his advice all the more listened to. “Wear long sleeves, boys, in the heat. It will cool you down when you think it makes you hotter.” And “Wear a scarf for the sweat. You never know when you need it.” Once he got the mail as we worked the vineyard near his mailbox, and he put the letters inside his hat and continued down the row without a thought.
As I wrote, we had another worker from the Azores, a master tractor driver and mechanic who lived next to us too, Carlos Silva. Carlos went often on a mean drunk. As a philosopher of sorts, he was occasionally cruel in his assessments. And every time I saw Carlos, I said to him “Well, Joe said.” And he would belly laugh and would say, “Well, Joe’s a simple, stupid man, a fool that Joe Caron is.”
And he chuckled at the effect of his slanders of our hero Joe. Snitch that I was, I would always tell my grandfather on Carlos. But he’d say only, “Well, Carlos’s a master tractor driver and he can take apart the old Oliver tractor blindfolded. And Joe’s a saint but can’t do that. So, they’re different, just different.”
Joe warned us about eagles and even hawks that snatch people (as I wrote earlier of our childhood fears). He warned me not to enter the eucalyptus wilds nearby (as I wrote as well), and said, “If you ever get lost in there, yell out and I’ll hear you from home.”
Joe told me of contests under the vines between black widows and mud daubers. I told him black widows were the most dangerous things in the world and would kill us all with one brief bite (we saw dozens as we picked each row). And I remember he said, “Well, listen, Mr. Vic. A good blue mud wasp will kill ‘em every time. They just drag them widows into their mud holes on the stumps. Pile-em in. When they’re done eating them up, just a bunch of legs, all’s left.” After that on Joe’s advice, I never smashed another mud dauber, but did open up their mud holes looking for spider legs.
His uniform was khaki pants, khaki long sleeve shirt, straw hat, blue or red scarf around his neck, and ankle-high thick leather boots. As I grew older, Joe slowed down and we got stronger. So, then he trailed rather than led us down the row. When I told my mom about working with Joe, she seemed somehow redeemed about the occasional putdowns from college friends that she had graduated from Stanford law school and yet gone right back into genteel poverty in a tiny house with three kids and my dad. I think what she saw on the coast had worried her, and she wanted us to grow up like she had, not just with empathy for, but with friendship as equals with, the hard men of the earth.
I think it was in my last year in high school, the county came out, inspected Joe’s house, declared it “substandard” and then told my grandfather to move Joe out and his elderly and infirm wife (Joe lived there rent free as part of the job). We later remodeled it and my dad lived there until he died.
Odd thing is that Joe’s house was far better than the current ramshackle trailers, the tents, and the shacks that in the dozens mark the same avenue today. These shacks are mostly rented to illegal aliens, who, along with their landlords, are strangely exempt from the sort of rules and regulations that 50 years ago shut down Joe’s house. Ah, progress!
Anytime, I have faced real adversity, I think I can somehow get through because at 5, 6 and onto 16, I worked with Joe Caron and thought him a model, and even learned to take the good in men like Carlos Silva and ignore the bad.
The 1950s and 1960s are now fading shadows of memories, or as Hesiod would say, thoughts only of “work on work on top of work” from sunrise to sunset (My grandfather would say “Meet Joe with your weed shovels in the old vineyard between the ponds at 7 AM.”).
We would lag out at 7:30 and Joe was already covered with sweat from starting at 6 AM. He’d say only with a smile, “Now with you boys out here, we will get done before the heat and then we can all house up in the afternoon.”
I can remember his smile that day. He was missing two teeth on one side and three on the bottom. I think we were blessed still that my mother and grandfather made sure we were raised amid the likes of Joe Caron, Carlos Silva, and the childhood gardens of hoop-snakes and the epic fights between black widows and mud daubers that all taught me in so many strange ways that it was what a man, any man of any color or of age or of education, could do, and not what he said or others said or thought he could do, that mattered. And we came to see later on that Joe Caron alone, with nothing but his ethos, was a saint, and so many others we met along the way with everything but an ethos were sinners.