When you’re young and restless, Betty Burke says, San Antonio is the sort of town you leave. It’s small. It’s sleepy. It’s a long way from anywhere.
It scarcely helps that its mascot is the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, the deadliest serpent in North America. More about that in a moment.
So you go. To college. To a fast-paced career. To bright lights and busy streets. To places that, famously, never sleep. And, you stay far, far away, reveling in the distance and big-city tumult … until something fundamental and ancient clicks inside, and you’re ready to rear children.
Then you return, knowing, even as the town changes, in all the essential, pleasing ways, it will have remained the same. San Antonio still will offer, for your offspring, the simple treasures you couldn’t properly appreciate until you lived apart from them.
Burke knows this because she has lived it. She is among those bright-eyed lasses and lads whom the town methodically sends into the world who, upon review, find the entire leaving-home business unsatisfying.
It’s then, feeling the biological magnetism of bringing up offspring as they were brought up, they find their trajectory arcing toward home, toward its friendly faces, familiar rhythms and reassuring appeals to the senses.
All of that, and so much more, will be in play next week when, precisely on schedule on the third weekend of October, the little town’s biggest adventure — its 50th annual Rattlesnake Festival — is scheduled to unfold.
It is for such reassuring predictability that Burke became a human boomerang 35-odd years ago, returning — after two years at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and career-related stopovers in Miami, Tampa and St. Petersburg — to the ancestral 40-acre plot off State Road 52. She arrived accompanied by husband Bruce Calvert, a since-retired Tampa Bay Times building maintenance manager, and, restored to her roots, they added to the family line.
Now, about the Rattlesnake Festival: Among the things you learn, fast, in small towns is that for good things to happen, everybody has to pitch in. So, even as responsibility for the autumnal celebration with the arresting premise has passed from one group to another — the Rotary Club of San Antonio, 15 members strong, has topped the masthead these last three years — making it happen remains very much a community effort.
The city makes sure adequate electrical power is installed in the park and dispatches maintenance supervisor John Weaver to troubleshoot. The town of St. Leo supplies a well-received pumpkin patch. Jay Vogel, whose dad was among the festival’s founders, coordinates volunteers.
More? Of course, more. Amy and John Greif conduct races of hand-carved wooden gopher tortoises (the live versions having become endangered and, therefore, off-limits). Eric Herrmann — because it’s not a legitimate San Antonio event without at least one Herrmann — provides a history presentation.
Of course, if there’s more than one Herrmann involved, it’s a certifiable “Major Event.” Nurseryman Steve Herrmann makes it so by employing his landscape trailer to fetch bleachers from the athletic complex and transport them to the City Park. Margarita Romo brings her Farmworkers Self-Help associates over from Tommytown to fix Mexican corn-on-the-cob.
And, to prove she doesn’t play favorites, Burke reserves the most thankless task of all for her spouse: Calvert manages the supply and good working order of the 30 portable toilettes.
“This is how small towns work,” Burke says, “and that’s how we like it.”
She says this even as outside forces surge San Antonio’s way — recently, city commissioners heard from Metro Development Group about the mini-city with the mega-lagoon planned for northeast Wesley Chapel — possibly threatening the town’s last-century ambiance.
On the upside, development has reduced rattlesnake encounters in the wild. Burke says she hasn’t seen one in eight years, at least. That could explain why there’s no longer a rattlesnake roundup at the Rattlesnake Festival.
Otherwise, Burke hopes the things she loves will resist outside influences. For instance, the corner post office is where information — OK, gossip — has been swapped, like, forever. Surely that will endure.
And the termite-ridden bulletin board that will be replaced with Rotary funds from the festival? It’s always papered over with announcements and opportunities; it was San Antonio’s Facebook long before there was Facebook.
These things, she says, are worth preserving. So, too, is the Rattlesnake Festival, even as it evolves, with food trucks replacing barbecue cookers and bounce houses substituting for carousels.
And now, another one is upon us.
Something happens the week before, Burke says. “You know how they talk about, ‘When the circus comes to town?’” We do. It’s anticipation, the pulse-quickening phenomenon that triggers the brain’s pleasure centers in what psychologists call “rosy prospection.”
Well, Burke adds, “When the tents start going up, the same thing happens in San Antonio.” How could it not? That thrill comes from knowing they’re about to be in the regional spotlight. Organizers expect 6,000 visitors to experience their small-town charm, and return home better for the experience.
For Burke, it all comes with a shot of melancholy. Even as the Rattlesnake Festival looks forward to its second half-century, this year’s event brings endings, and she is full of anticipation about that, too.
After three years as head of the organizing committee, she is stepping down. At a vibrant 73, with a confident gait and sparkling eyes, she nonetheless says, “It’s time for someone younger to take it on.”
She has her eye, eventually, on Brady Whalen, recent Pasco High alumnus, Pasco-Hernando State College freshman and all-around reliable go-fer. (Surprise, Brady.)
And, when the festival closes, so, too, will Park Place Antiques, the shop she has run with her sister and nephew in the old Bradshaw house across Main Street from the park.
About this she explains, simply, “There are other things I’d rather do.”
None of which will involve leaving San Antonio. Not for very long, anyway. After all, she’s been there and done that. This is one boomerang who’s never wants to make another extended round trip.
Published October 5, 2016