A Child’s Garden of Animals

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.

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19 thoughts on “A Child’s Garden of Animals”

  1. These stories remind me a lot of my youth spent on my grandparents’ ranch in Del Rey, CA in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Wonderful experiences in the dirt.

  2. Thank you for these stories, Professor Hanson. They evoke memories of my youth.
    I grew up in rural Southern California. We didn’t have farmland, but we did have open fields that were ours for the exploration.
    My grandfather was a self-made man who did his best to impart his wisdom to his nine grandchildren. Some of it stuck, but I would trade just about anything to have some time to learn more.

  3. Craig Brookins

    Thank you Victor for reminding us that our generation (I’m 74) gained powerful insights and knowledge from encounters with seemingly simple and plain people. I hope and pray that today’s children have similar experiences!

  4. As it was explained to me as a boy in the 1950s in Louisiana, the hoop snake had a blunt tail with a stinger in it. The snake would position itself uphill, grab its tail in its mouth, roll at you full speed, and let go with stinger which would kill you instantly. Sometimes, in a fury because no human could be found as a target, the snake would strike a pine tree. I had no reason to doubt the farm laborer who told me stories of the hoop snake. His honest voice was evidence than he was not lying, and besides that he had absolute proof. He knew of a place where the hoop snake had struck, and he was perfectly willing to take me there and show me the dead pine tree.

  5. Please describe more of your time with Joe, it reminds me so much of my youth with uncles, aunts, cousins and all the hired help on a family dairy, beef, hog and tobacco farm in Middle Tennessee. As with you this was taking place in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. Now as my uncle would say it is all “Gone with the Wind”. Thanks for all the wonderful articles.

  6. Sandra Baker Assemi

    My God-that’s beautiful. I speak French and German play the cello and I’m a pretty decent sailor. Folks typically take me to be a cultured sort 🙂 But I grew up around welders and mechanics and boys who created amazing jalopies out of nothing but rusted old wrecks. I tell stories about the boys I grew up with to anyone who will listen because of my admiration for those fun loving problem solvers.

  7. Thank you Victor, for the vivid reminder of what our country once was. The tribalism now makes this environment impossible unless living in the rural, far from urban, environment. Even semi rural towns with colleges and universities in the west (the only part of the country I can speak for) have become places “Californicated” by folks fleeing from the tribalism, only to bring their tribalism with them! Unfortunately, I think “our” generation will be the last to have had experiences like these, unless on a ranch/farm away from a city. When recently making a long term visit near Fresno, I was totally aghast at the changes from the 50s! Shouldn’t have been of course, but had been alerted by your articles and comments in recent years. The foothill communities are still somewhat civilized, but oh my, 10 miles west down the road is crossing into new country.

  8. Joe sounds special. All youngsters should have the benefit of knowing a Joe in their lives. The closest I remember from my youth was a horse wrangler who worked for my uncle. Roger taught me to ride when I was too young to saddle a horse by myself. I was always happiest when Roger and I would go riding together. Great memories.

  9. I loved reading this, what a nice start to my day. My family (hippy parents and three brothers) moved from Manhattan in the 70’s to a town of 100 on the Idaho border called Saltese, in Montana, and after the five days of driving, my 17 year old self was unimpressed by our new town, so an hour later I was back in my grandmother’s ’66 Dodge Dart and driving another 104 miles to Spokane to see a movie, any movie. I got a flat tire in State Line, Washington (this was before I-90 was finished and State Line a busy roadside town). Cars were “new” to me, as we didn’t own or need a car in Soho – but I had heard of flat tires so I moved confidently to the Dart trunk to look for that thing called a “spare”. I found what I didn’t know was just a tire, without the wheel, but I thought this tire must be enough because there it was, ready to be put into the game, so I jacked up the car and began using the lug nut wrench to pry my flat tire off its wheel, which
    wasn’t easy. After about 5 minutes I stopped.
    And thought: “Wait, this looks easier in the movies, and even when – or if – I get this flat tire off the wheel, and subsequently get the spare tire onto the wheel… where will the air to fill it come from?” It was a great question so I walked into the town to hear the answer and the tow truck driver laughed when he saw my Dart and “spare”, then explained how “city folk” often lack a ton of common sense. Three years later, before my Hollywood trek began, I could patch a flat with a Coates 10-10 in less than 8 minutes and limb and section a Lodge Pole Pine in under 10 and throw chain on an oil rig with the best of them, and somehow these practical real world experiences helped me navigate the following years of chasing Hollywood dreams, somehow teaching me self-reliance and an aversion to blaming others for the rocky parts during my ultimately successful pursuit. These days I turn to writers like you to shed light on these very odd times, and in the case of this essay, reconfirm how lucky I am to have spent time with people of the soil, despite my adolescent sulking at the time.

  10. Robert B. Ardis

    Thank you, Victor. Oh my, hearing about the “hoop snake” really rolls back the years for me. I think I first heard of it when growing up in a small town in Michigan in the early 1930s and most likely have not heard it since.

  11. John Manspeaker

    It sounds like your Grandfather was a wise and moral man. His demonstration of Tolerance obviously made a lasting impression on a young VDH. (I seem to recall a reference you made in a NRO post in the last year or so about picking up a GF at the local Lodge. Was he the GF?)

  12. Reminds me of when I was a child and the old man who lived next door took the time to explain some interesting things to a child of eight for no discernible benefit to him. I think it was the joy of seeing the wonder of a child that made him show me how to “tickle” an ant lion out of hiding in his perfect little cone of sand that he built to trap his prey. Old man Grady would take a tiny twig and twitch out a few grains of sand on the side of the cone over and over until the ant lion would start to flip sand up the cone to trap what it thought was an ant; then Grady would use the twig to deftly twitch out the ant lion from his newly revealed hiding spot so I could see what manner of ugly beast an ant lion was. The skill and the lore were something I have never forgotten. This taught me something deeper and stronger about people the likes of which Victor’s story speaks. They would spin yarns about hoop snakes, but they were harmless tales to spark wonder in wide-eyed children who knew that they had real magic like knowing of and revealing critters like ant lions that were real and fascinating. Grady also showed me how to pull out a honey bee’s stinger that was stuck in my arm to avoid pumping the rest of the venom in. He pointed out how the stinger was still pulsing after it detached from the bee and how if you just grabbed and squeezed it, it would squeeze the remaining venom into the wound. He said to get a stick and scrape it off in the direction it was leaning and the pain would lessen and quickly go away. People used to respect those who managed to live into old age because wisdom comes when there is “snow on the roof”. Thanks Victor for reminding me of those I too am grateful for.

  13. Moving story about rural life. What happened to Joe Caron and his wife after the county visited his home.

  14. The Child’s Garden posts are delightful and yes I did hear about, or more appropriately in the vernacular, ‘heard tell bout Hoop Snakes’. I grew up on an orange ranch down in Ventura County in the fifties up til graduating from high school in 1965. It’s only in later years and emphasized by your posts that I’ve found it such an important part of my formation. You write very movingly about men like Joe Caron. I recall the hired men we had on the ranch, both from the Okie diaspora. There was Earl to start and then Bill, illiterate, but full of folk wisdom. I don’t think we’ll see there kind again and we’re poorer for it.

  15. I worked an old-time vineyard once. The town had grown around the farm and people mocked the old man who ran the place. Jack’s son was gone to the city, a lawyer, he never visited.
    Everything was done the old ways. We had a little red tractor from the 1950s. Nothing worked but everything was repairable. Jack had every tool made in the past hundred years. The shed was like a museum. The hands would sometimes drive the tractor, like a car, through the rows to the road nearest the shopping center and go get our supplies. The nearby houses sometimes had grape vines for fences – remnants of the vineyards which had been demolished years before. Old Jack just wouldn’t sell – perhaps the farm was all he had left.
    One year Jack decided not to water the harvest before the season started – he reckoned it would rain. All the boys from the farms around laughed at Jack and called him mean and said he just didn’t want to pay to water. Two days before the start of the season it poured rain, night and day for three days. The other vineyards were hit hard, their grapes – watered in the weeks before – burst or rotted on the vine.
    That year old Jack sold his crop for a small fortune!
    Working on that vineyard I learned more in three months than three years in an office.

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