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By Jon Hammond
Land of Four Seasons 

A young man survives polio and becomes a snake catcher

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi


September 28, 2019

Jon Hammond

Doug Desmond, who was stricken with polio as a young man, caught thousands of sidewinders and other rattlesnakes.

I spent two and a half years in the Navy during World War II, and when I got out in 1946, I was still only 20 years old. I went to Oak Glen, near Yucaipa, to help my parents at their apple orchard and guest ranch.

I was grading apples one September day and I began to experience increasing pain in my back and shoulders. I stopped grading apples for the day because of the pain, and instead went under the house and ran an electrical line for a heater. When I crawled out from under the house, I could feel something was definitely wrong. A doctor came out and diagnosed me with a bad case of the flu, but my Mom was a supervising nurse at Los Angeles Childrens Hospital, and she thought I might have polio. She insisted that the doctor admit me to San Bernardino County Hospital, and my condition dete riorated. I did have polio, and I was examined by a specialist who doubted that I'd ever leave a bed again.

I spent a total of a year in hospitals and I was finally discharged, hovering between a wheelchair and crutches. I sold my wheelchair at a medical supply store so I'd have to walk with crutches. I got a job at Edwards Air Force Base as an instrumentation technician and did that for eight years.

When my legs began to fail, the military was reducing staffing and gave me the opportunity to retire with a small pension, which I did. I still needed to supplement my income to support my family, so I started the Western Snake Ranch and I'd catch snakes that I'd supply to zoos, collectors and research facilities. My best customer was UCLA Medical Center, since they'd buy approximately 500 sidewinder rattlesnakes a year from me. The people at UCLA wanted sidewinders to conduct melanistic studies. Most reptiles have the ability to change their color to some degree, but sidewinders are about the best at it and they were very plentiful.

Despite being on crutches, I'd make nightly forays to catch snakes, mostly in the Mojave Desert. I did that for 20 years, and caught thousands of rattlers. I only got bitten by a rattlesnake one time – ironically, it was a little Mojave Green that I was removing from Rocket Site Road near Boron so that it wouldn't get run over by an approaching car. I was allergic to the horse serum that they used for the antivenin, so they couldn't give me any. I almost died, but recovered without permanent damage.

Doug Desmond

Doug was a cheerful, quick-witted Tehachapi resident who lived here for many years. He lived a full life despite many medical challenges. "Every day I wake up with a smile, because of the fact that I did wake up," Doug used to say, smiling as he said it.


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