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Tales from El Paso

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Prairie rattlerRom at El Paso
Prairie rattlerRom at El Paso

During the Vietnam War, Rom was drafted into the U.S. Army, and was stationed in El Paso, Texas. His salary was $ 200 a month, but he needed to earn more to buy his ticket home to India, once he got out. So, he began hunting snakes on the weekends for zoos such as Staten Island Zoo, New York, while also sourcing East Coast creatures such as red rat snakes and Florida king snakes from his friend Heyward Clamp for the El Paso Zoo.

Rom was returning from the mountains after a weekend of snake-hunting when cops flagged him down on the highway. A multi-State police alert had been issued, ordering him to report to the El Paso airport immediately. When he arrived, he saw a plane being systematically searched by the Fire Department. A box of snakes had arrived from South Carolina, but it had broken open in transit, and the authorities had found three bags with live snakes but also ten empties. They were frantically going over the plane to find the escapees. Rom pointed out: “Yes, the bags may be empty but, ahem, they're folded. You think the snakes would fold them up after escaping?” They didn't take kindly to the irony at their expense and admonished: “This is a very, very serious offence, son. Make sure this doesn't happen again.” Heyward's mother had kindly sent a bunch of snake bags (with triple stitched seams) for Rom, and these had been the cause of consternation!

Although Rom was a lab technician in the Army, he was allowed to work after hours at a private blood plasma collection lab (run by a retired Army man called Colonel Smiley) to earn extra money. The war machinery had a huge operation to collect human blood plasma to make gamma globulin injections against hepatitis, a big debilitator on the Vietnam frontlines. Blood drawn into bags was centrifuged so all the cells dropped to the bottom, while the clear plasma remained on top. The latter was skimmed off, the blood cells reconstituted with normal sterile saline and given back to the donor.

On one occasion, Rom arrived for work at the private lab with a bunch of safely bagged snakes, but there was no place to stash them. Keeping them in the car was not an option as it could get very hot. So he stuck the big brown shopping bag behind the building, way up on top of an aircon unit. Later in the evening, a policeman barged into the lab and began yelling about some snakes. A shocked Rom scrambled outside to see all the snakes lying dead on the ground, and a Mexican woman hysterically shouting and screaming that he had almost killed her. The woman had tried to steal the bag and then panicked when the writhing snakes, still secure in their bags, started rattling. The people had shot and beaten the poor animals to death, then pulled off the rattles as souvenirs before calling the cops. Rom was so angry that he was ready to fight but was held back by the cop.

After his incarceration in the Army, Rom left El Paso for Florida, a two-day drive, in an unheated 1956 Ford in winter. It took a whole day just to drive across Texas. While he could bundle up and keep warm, he was concerned about his two pets — a gila monster (a venomous lizard) and a bull snake. The only thing he could do was keep them on his lap, tucked under his overcoat. There was one worry, however, that the gila would latch on to a vulnerable part of his body, but it never warmed up enough to cause any harm! After leaving his pets with his buddy Heyward, he caught a Greek freighter home, to Bombay; it took 53 days, but that's another story.

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

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