At a carnival once as a boy, I became so engrossed in a sideshow barker’s promise to milk a rattlesnake that I missed more than an hour’s worth of time on the rides at the midway.
Although I was young, it wasn’t my first carnival. It might have been by second or third one. I knew a little bit about Ferris wheels and Tilt-A-Whirls and cotton candy and caramel corn, but I hadn’t yet figured out why my dad couldn’t hit a duck on a track with a popgun or why a direct hit with a hard-thrown baseball didn’t knock a stack of wooden milk bottles all over the booth. And I hadn’t yet learned I couldn’t believe every word that came from the mouth of the fast talking barker who ran a sort of believe-it-or not booth.
The first time the guy said he’d show people how to milk a rattlesnake, I was sauntering past, checking out the attractions, heading for the rides. I’d never seen anyone milk a rattlesnake. From the size of the crowd around the smooth talker, not many other people had either. The guy said he’d be milking the rattler “in just a little bit here,” so I stopped at the edge of the crowd. My dad plumb hated rattlers. Wouldn’t it be a grand thing to be able to go home and tell him I’d seen a guy who milked one? I had no idea how a person did that. I figured it was sort of like milking our old Holstein at the farm, but I was completely open to being shown I was wrong.
Well, I hung there by that booth while the barker spewed believe-it-or-not facts. I was as fascinated as the next person to learn that the lead in a lead pencil is really graphite, but after while, I was starting to think the guy ought to take that snake out of the glass cage and show us what he promised. The crowd changed as he talked. People left. People arrived. After what seemed like forever, the guy said, “I’m going to show you how to milk a rattlesnake in just a little bit here.”
“Hey, wait a minute. I thought to myself, “You said that half an hour ago. What’s going on?”
I hung in there a little longer. I really really wanted to see that guy grab that big rattler and milk it. I wanted to take that story home to my snake-loathing father. I suppose I wanted to believe the guy actually meant what he said.
When he promised a third time that he’d milk that snake without so much as making a move toward the glass cage. I realized he was never going to follow through. I also realized I’d wasted a whole bunch of a precious evening at the carnival watching a charlatan while some of my friends were staggering around the midway, full of corn dogs and dizzy from all the whilding and flying and swooping on the rides.
With the nation a year away from another presidential election, it occurs to me that a lot of the politicians we common folk see and hear are like that carnival guy who kept making a promise that he never kept. Worse than not keeping his promise, he really had no intention of keeping it. I doubt he had a clue how to milk a rattlesnake, much less the technique or equipment to accomplish the job.
I’d be hard pressed to count the number of politicians in my voting-age lifetime who have promised to do things like cut the federal deficit or bring discipline to the budget process. “Vote for me (again). In just a little bit here, I’m going to balance the budget, cut taxes and pay for all the wildest dreams and desires of every citizen in this country.” I exaggerate, but not by much, especially not when you consider that those same politicians return to their home states after each term in office and make the same promises to the same people.
It took a while, but I finally realized that guy wasn’t going to milk that rattlesnake.