September 3, 2009

Snakes alive!

I'm writing this sitting quietly at a little card table in my sister's apartment in a gated community in Virginia. It's nice and cozy and comforting here. It's a short stopover. I'm headed south. I left NYC this morning on one of my southern snake handling journeys. A few years ago I went down to some very small towns near the Kentucky-Tennesee border to seek out snake handling preachers. I had seen a movie long ago and then a little story on 20/20 or Dateline about the subject and found it very intriguing. In nearly every town I would ask the locals if they knew of a snake handling church nearby. They would all scratch their heads and after what seemed like 3 minutes they'd say "No, I don't believe I do." Or, they'd reply "Well [pause] there usta be one down thataway but I think it's gone now." I sensed they were being secretive and didn't get any further until I was in one small town, at a gas station, when I walked in and a woman said, "You're not from around here." I replied, "No, I'm not. I'm looking for a snake handling church." She told me she thought there was one was a few miles down the road, over a creek and up on a hill. "A little blue church," she said. I went there the following Sunday at 1:00 and sat through a service. Very interesting, but no snakes. The preacher was very cautious but after some lengthy conversation he invited me to his house the next day. I showed up and he talked in great length about his love of the church and his snake handling. He showed me hundreds of news clippings and polaroids in a scrapbook of people handling snakes, and countless photos of people lying in bed with limbs swollen from being bitten. I went back again the following day and was surprised when he handled a large copperhead and a rattlesnake in front of me in the doorway of his shed. He prayed to Jesus as he held the "serpents" over his head. He held both at once and after a few minutes returned them to their boxes. The next day I had to drive back to New York but the memory of him, handling of the snakes and his devotion to preaching the "literal" sense of the bible was etched into my brain. I thought about it the whole 14 hours back to New York and for months following. That was in March. I gave that trip to myself as a birthday "adventure" present. Seemed much cooler than sitting in a big soggy raft for 8 hours on some river with nine other "white water" losers. I did that once, and thought it was long boring and not so thrilling. I wanted to pull out my pocket knife, pop the raft, and drown myself and all aboard. One minute of violent thrashing in a rapid, holding on for dear life and then 40 minutes of floating down a calm river... yawn.

I made plans to go back down and just before Labor Day last year the preacher called me and said "Stephen? I think you oughta come down here.... Big homecoming. It'll be something to see." I drove down to a little church on the side of a dark, winding country road. As I walked in I could hear this high-pitched hum.... Like locusts or cicadas might sound. I looked up at the alter to see seven or eight of the same type wooden pine boxes I had seen in the preacher's shed. As I got closer the hum got louder--each of those boxes contained at least one or two rattlesnakes. There are screens on the tops of the boxes and you can see the snakes through them. The service started like any other country type service might... singing and bluegrass music played by about seven members of the church. Then the preacher got up and in a southern drawl gave his sermon, telling everyone how to be a better person. Then the music started again and people got up to dance. They were spinning around, heads pointed towards the ceiling, looking very trance-like. This went on for about an hour and I must admit I was getting anxious to see the snake handling. The preacher told me the last time I was there that sometimes they'll preach for weeks and never be "called upon" to take up the serpents. Even if the snakes and boxes were there. I became terrified that I had driven 12 hours, rented a car, and stayed in a crappy, run-down, over-priced hotel, and these people weren't going to be "called upon." I was about to start speaking out loud in a soft, spooky voice, like the ones you use at Halloween talking to a kid... "Y'all take up serpents." Well, no sooner did I finish that thought when a man stepped up to one of those boxes and flipped the latch. He opened the box, reached in and pulled out a large rattlesnake. His hand was right around the middle of the snake, its head pointed away. A few minutes later another man walked up and took the snake from him, then another member took it, and it was passed around before someone returned it to its box. Pretty soon, five or six men had one or two rattlesnakes in their hands, all gazing at them and mumbling prayers. Some dancing with the snakes, others standing still, holding the snakes up, looking into their eyes. I was sitting there, mouth wide open in awe. It was amazing. The service went on for a few hours with snake handling only taking up about a half hour or so in total. They only come out when someone is called upon by the Lord to handle one. I went to a second service the following day and witnessed a similar, but smaller, event. After that service, I drove back to New York with 6 hours of video and a few thousand frames. The most amazing thing I'd ever witnessed. Now, here it is a year later and I'm headed down again. I don't know if they'll let me shoot and don't know if there will be handling. I'm compelled. I must go. This time I'm going ghetto... sleeping in the car, eating cheap, and shooting like a banshee. I've got video cameras, digital cameras, and film cameras, I'm set. Let the serpent handling begin... More later. Sorry for any typos...too tired to edit.

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