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Snake Bites & Sex Changes

My favorite sister was the middle child of five. For want of a boy on their third try, my folks issued her the male spelling of a name they’d already selected: Kerry Lynn. Born at sunrise in April, her sunset was expedited by breast cancer. She was comic relief all her life. Self-deprecating, humorous and humble, she called herself thunder thighs. She was proud of her huge muscular Crumb-esque drumsticks. She was a horsewoman who became a hiker of mountain terrain all her life. Each winter mom would braid a new wool rug for another room in the house. Kerry would plop down on the substantially unforgiving oval wool rug and leg wrestle-to-rug-burn all takers. She was quick, and if you were smaller than her, she’d flip you to the other side of the rug, hump over head.

While our first two sisters battled it out in wars with each other, Kerry chose to be happier than that. She rode horses bareback and hung on tight to Patsy Cline heartbreak tunes in regular succession. A manly girl, her shoulders towered square and strong over our only brother, The Golden Boy. The family picture showed four handsomely femmed-up cowgirls with strong square backs like linebackers from bailing hay and wrestling horses and cows, and my drummer brother, with downward sloped little shoulders not big enough to hold up his t-shirts, which slid off one shoulder at a time, giving him a habitual twitch from constantly trying to rectify the matter.

Kerry was at least a decade older than I. She was teaching me a duet on the converted upright player piano in our music room when Mom brought in the mail. Mom flicked Kerry’s letter onto the keys. Kerry Lynn received her first ever request to register for serving her country in war based on the male spelling of her name. She pointed out to me the government stamp on the envelope. “It’s really authentic!” She beamed, 

“It’s no joke! Isn’t that funny?!”

After Kerry avoided the draft and went to college she immediately gravitated to the Rocky Mountain Range. She first chose Glacier National Park, where she loved to hop trains from park to park (Sterling Hayden hobo-style) while working as a maid in Mammoth Lodge. An avid hiker and skier, she turned out to be a serious mountain woman, making her profession in her retiring years by costuming and singing funny telegrams of her own design. As an outdoorswoman, Kerry loved spotting bear and cougar. After working in Glacier during the “Night of the Grizzly” years, she kept a respectful, safe distance from bears the rest of her life, and she never had a bad experience. She was the first person 40 years ago to tell me about HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research

Program), the government's weather warfare weapon; that the government was dumping nuclear waste in the waters of Carlsbad Caverns; and that bears came in several colors: grizzly, black, brown, red, cinnamon and even white. She was right on all three.

When “sister number two” decided to quit the Peace Corps when she could not bring herself to slit a lamb’s throat in survival class, Kerry responded by joining VISTA: Volunteers in Service to America. She wound up in Raton, New Mexico teaching English as a second language, and made it her home. I read some Michener where he said the name Raton (Rat Hole) was changed from Willow Springs when, following the trash left behind the wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail, hoards of rat packs migrated Westward

Ho! The rat packs in the wake of the wagon trains was so massive, settlers ascending Wooten Pass said they resembled undulating earth, even from a great distance. It was after arrival of the rat packs that Willow Springs' name was changed to Raton.


Visiting Kerry often in Raton, we’d go up 6,666 feet to Wooten Pass, looking North over our shoulders to her past, as she’d worked her way down the Rocky Mountain Range, into the jagged foothills of Colorado’s snow-covered Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range. In front of us, lay our future to the South: the baked terrain of what remained of New Mexico’s landscape after ancient meteor strikes charred dry the landscape, leaving a bas relief of mesas dotting the terrain. Looking down from the pass onto the mesas, we could see the barren but unmistakable scarred earth of crop squares from a bygone age of farming, as far as the eye could see.

Kerry took me to remote and Native lands, jewelry and drum makers, Acoma Pueblo, mining and ghost town ruins, white sage collecting, and natural hot springs in the Jemez Mesas. We saw cliff dwellings, petroglyphs where rattlers rustled off the trails, veined skies shocky with flashing lightning among intermittent thunder storms, and we suffered sunburnt lips and dry static hair bleached by the sun at altitudes well above 6,000 feet. Kerry even got lost one day hiking Ghost Ranch (now run as a retreat center by Presbytery USA), and wound up having tea with Georgia O’Keefe who pointed her back in the right direction to return to her retreat. She met Robert Redford one day at a film shoot. He stood behind her in line for an ice cream cone. She received her cone, turned to look into Redford’s beautiful young face, and distractedly stricken, deposited her ice cream cone into her coin purse instead of her spare change.


I went back to travel with her often: Cimarron Canyon, Taos, Des Moines, Colfax County (Iowa names from our childhood); haunted mansions like Dorsey Mansion alone and in the middle of nowhere; quarter horse racing at La Mesa Park, Native American art, jewelry and expert weaving in the high country of Chimayo. We found stone fruit trees near Las Truchas where the old Curanderos live. We stopped for plums, only to meet Ralph Trujillo, whose son (Ralph, Jr.), he said, managed the beach for the City of Alameda, California. Small world. We even rode a trail drive, herding cattle from one mesa to another above the forest line.

Kerry married a man whose orphaned parents were believed to be Apaches found wandering as children in the desert of northern Mexico after their tribe was “scattered”. Orphaned Jesus took the name Palomino and the orphanage labeled him and Josepha ethnic Mexicans by virtue of where they were found. When Kerry delivered her first child with their son, Tony, she birthed him 30 minutes north of Raton at the local hospital over the border in Trinidad, Colorado.

While the small Catholic hospital had a labor and delivery unit, it was best known, in fact internationally famous for, sex change (sexual reassignment) surgeries. Old Dr. Biber invented the surgery at the request of a patient. The Catholic nuns would drive to the airport and pick up the surgical candidates, and drive them to the hospital. When it came time for Kerry to deliver, a nun with her sweater buttoned up crookedly (missing a button), came to Sis’s bedside and began coaching her on how to deliver her baby. When that didn't work, Kerry took one look at the nun leaving the room, noticing she hadn’t buttoned up her sweater correctly and a second look at her worried husband and said, “Here I am, a Presbyterian in a Catholic sex change hospital trying to get a boat out of the basement with a nun as birth coach, and she can’t even button her sweater up right! Where have you taken me?!” Kerry’s tool in responding to fearful frustration in ironic situations was satire.

[South Park eventually created a very accurate episode about Dr. Biber and his sex change operations in the same Trinidad, Colorado hospital, entitled “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina”. In the Season 9 opener, one South Park parent wants to become a dolphin and goes to Dr. Biber to ask him to “make me a dolphin”. Dr. Biber sews a dorsal fin on him, stitches his legs together into one tail fin, augments his nose to a beaky bottle-nose that makes authentic dolphin sounds, hands him a pair of crutches to tripod around on his newly fashioned tail fin and tells him he looks like a dolphin.

Mr. Garrison arrives in Dr. Biber’s office, asking to become a woman, and South Park shows Biber operating in a hard to forget, all-too graphic grainy vintage color film of an actual male to female sex change operation that’ll make you squirm. Especially the gory part where the male external genitalia is filleted, turned wrong side out, then inserted into the new “pocket”, creating a new vaginal cavity in the hope that some of the surviving severed intricate nerve endings will somehow offer correct internal “feeling.” It’s a madman’s invented ideal, and expecting a lot from a bunch of surgically sliced nerve endings.

Both the dolphin-man and Dr. Garrison return to Dr. Biber’s office post-surgery to complain that: 1) the dolphin-man cannot swim under water holding his breath for any length of time. Dr. Biber tells him, “You wanted to look like a dolphin, and we did that; you can never actually BE a dolphin.” And 2) Mr. Garrison complains that he cannot have babies, and Dr. Biber shares with Ms. Garrison a similar corollary.

A Berkeley friend, who at the late age of 40, went to Belgium for his-to-her reassignment surgery, told me that the South Park show was entirely too accurate. Sex change “parts” rarely actually work after the “lop-off-ectomy” is changed into a vaginal pocket. The only thing sex change operations do is try to simply make a man resemble a woman via reassignment surgery, or vice versa. Thus, “passing” (looking like a woman) is a big issue for most reassignment surgery patients, running neck and neck with functionality of the man-made organ. Drunk and depressed each night well into her 60’s, he now a she, told me, “Hedwig’s Angry Little Inch is all they really give ya when going male to female. The whole affair is a dismal disappointment in reality. If you don’t continue the hormone shots, your muscles and bones ache from lack of the shots. That puts you in regular unbearable pain neuron-muscularly post-surgery. It’s expensive, and it’s a rare insurance plan that’ll cover those meds. If your lifestyle changes, and you can no longer afford ever after the replacement drugs that go with the surgery, you have to decide then about pain management. It’s all part of getting old, of course! For a long while I went over the border to Mexico to buy cheaper estrogen injections, for instance. Now two things have happened with age: my bank account is shallower and my priorities have matured, let’s say? In retrospect I wonder if I wouldn’t have done it, if I would have been happier in the long run just passing. I never really had any of the self-hate of my former sexual organs that some have. Then, I finally wound up a lesbian. I took on women lovers after I was reassigned female. And while passing used to be important to me — to mostly not be attacked by rednecks, I gave up on “passing” even after breast implants. But, everyone’s different, and that’s what has to be offered — a difference…choices in how people manifest their sexual destiny.”

My sister Kerry delivered two healthy children at the Trinidad Hospital and went there for all family emergencies. Over her thirty-five years in Raton, Kerry was bitten by five rattlesnakes, four of which she was treated for in Trinidad. When hiking, she was bitten mostly when she was moving too quickly and scared the snake. Much to her lucky timing, she was always bitten by spring snakes whose venom was not yet lethal as they had just come out of hibernation and hadn’t reached full potency like fall snakes. The first bite happened when Kerry jumped off an outcropping of rocks. When she landed a few feet to the earth below, a young rattler popped out from under the rock ledge and struck her on the foot. The venomous snake had been curled up in the shade under the rocks before she suddenly disturbed it. Over the next thirty years of relentless hiking, each subsequent bite went similarly with spring rattlers until Kerry finally was bitten a fifth time by a big bull rattler, an old August snake of full potency.

Kerry bent down to pick up her little dog, which had been running in tall grass. The dog smelled the rattler and started acting erratically in trying to avoid the snake. Kerry bent down to grab the dog when the biggest bull rattler she’d ever seen popped her hard on the hand, which by then she had wrapped around her dog's belly. She said the rattler strike knocked the dog out of her hand, then she felt the heavy writhing weight of the adult snake as she stood, shaking his embedded fangs from the bones of her hand. She told me how, for a second, she got a look into the pupils of his eyes, which dilated and contracted as she could feel it thrust venom into her.

Her first thought after applying what first aid she could to herself, was to try and make it to her family hospital in Trinidad where she’d delivered both her children. First, she had a 30-minute drive north to Raton. It would be another 30 minutes on to Trinidad from there. Instead, she settled for Miner’s Hospital in Raton, just a quick 100-yard dash from her home. Oddly, she felt okay even 40 minutes after the bite.

Unfortunately, without her health chart from the hospital in Trinidad, no one at Raton’s Miner’s Hospital knew Kerry had been bitten four times previously by spring rattlers. Those four spring rattlers had sufficiently and naturally inoculated her in a strange sort of accidental way, making her immune to rattlesnake bites altogether. Trouble was, even though Kerry showed no ill symptoms, the anti-venom shot had already been administered before her family arrived to educate staff as to Kerry’s previous rattler-bite history.

The anti-venom nearly killed her. Poor Kerry. She suffered the effects of hives from the unnecessary anti-venom everywhere on and (most painfully where she could not scratch) inside her body. After quite a few days’ recovery I knew she’d make it when she joked over the phone from the hospital that she had insufferable hives in internal places where she didn’t know she had places; somewhat wishing after all that she had chosen the sex change hospital in Trinidad for the correct medical implements.

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