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Updated: April 1, 2011 17:18 IST

My husband and other animals — Kings of cool

JANAKI LENIN
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The cool dudes Attila watches while Rom bags a canebrake rattler. Photo: Heyward Clamp
The cool dudes Attila watches while Rom bags a canebrake rattler. Photo: Heyward Clamp

We heard of ‘The Big Lebowski' for the first time in 2003 when visiting English friends took the mickey out of Rom by calling him The Dude, after Jeff Bridges' title role in the movie. Although made in 1998, we had not heard of the movie but it was rapidly attaining cult status globally. Then a few years later, a British TV critic reviewing one of Rom's documentaries called him The Dude, and slowly the epithet began gaining currency.

Now, a lot more people comment that Rom's cool, unflappable attitude towards snakes reminds them of The Dude. But, little do they know that all of Rom's snake-hunting buddies such as the brothers Heyward and Teddy Clamp, Winston Brown, Chockalingam and other Irula tribal pals, even youthful Gerry Martin, are as cool. After spending time with these veterans, I'm only slightly amused when younger snake catchers tremble with hysteric excitement when faced with a venomous snake! I just don't understand what the fuss is about.

Of Rom's snake-hunting buddies, the coolest dude is Attila Beke. A Hungarian by birth, his English is still accented, which makes even his most prosaic pronouncements sound exotic. Back in the 1960s, Rom and his friends were part-time commercial snake hunters. Attila was the only one to make his living entirely by catching snakes, and that gave him a tribal edge; he developed that special skill of finding them with the least effort.

Rom recalls how they'd cruise along the back roads around Miami with Attila at the wheel. He'd suddenly brake, lazily gesture to a discarded truck tyre lying off the road, and instruct Rom that if he ran his hand inside, he may find a king snake. Sure enough, it would turn out just as predicted, or even better, there might be two snakes!

Another time when they were riding along a bumpy dirt road lined with tall old casuarina trees, Attila slowed down and told Rom there was a tree hole about 30 feet up (an easy climb he claimed), just big enough to get your hand into, and the odds are there'll be one of those gorgeous red rat snakes inside. What turned out to be a death-defying climb was rewarded with, sure enough, one of the beauties. Rom could never fathom how Attila did it. Attila was the super cool snake dude, the one who knew just about everything there was to know about snakes in Florida.

A few years ago, we met Attila at Heyward's Serpentarium at Edisto Island in South Carolina. Amongst the stories of recent snake-related events, was one about a young woman who had been bitten by a venomous copperhead at the local cemetery. “Why was she there after dark?” Heyward wondered. No response except broad grins. ‘Who's coming?' he asked, and all of us chorused “Me!”

That fine moon-lit evening, we went copperhead hunting. We wore jeans and sneakers, and the two serious snake catchers carried hooks. All except Attila; he was in his frayed cut-off jeans, and flip-flops, no fancy snake-catching gear for him. Heyward and Rom walked ahead chatting and scanning the broad, neatly cropped lawn while Attila followed sedately. When the latter did come upon a copperhead, he pinned its head with his flip-flop! Picking up the snake's body with the other hand, he held up the handsome but snappy snake for us to quietly admire before carefully depositing it into a white cotton pillow case. Few people outside the snake community know of Attila, which is a shame.

The other day, Rom and I were both doing our kitchen chores with music for accompaniment when the sappy 1970s rock song ‘Take it easy' came up. I couldn't help mimicking an exasperated Jeff Bridges: “I hate the effin' Eagles, man!” He is beginning to so completely identify with the character that he quickly skipped tracks. The Dude abides!

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)

Keywords: snake catchers

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