Now, I don’t know about nowadays, but the state Capitol in downtown Atlanta once used to coax scores of rural school children out from their respective shires and into the sleek, Velveeta-colored buses that aimed for that golden-domed epicenter of government in the big city. With substitutes or science teachers at the wheel, these well-worn travel coaches formed vast caravans that braved the interstates and outlands, and they were packed with excited, signed-permission-slip-toting youngsters hankering for their first glimpses of Hotlanta. For many of these kids, it was their first foray outside of their counties of origin, and was thus paramount to an intergalactic journey to a star system far and away.
The first time I ever set foot in Atlanta and the Capitol was on one of these field trips, and I’d like to say that it was a nonstop Sun Ra-esque, mind-expanding journey of umbras and penumbras. But the plain fact is that most of it went damn poorly. I was in the fourth grade. We had toured the capitol and the Cyclorama and were headed home when I attempted to open a can of Royal Crown Cola with my pocketknife after the old-school tab ring had separated from the can and left me with an impenetrable, unopened, hermetically-sealed cola. After a quick, calculated jab, my Barlow knife sank into the aluminum rim and my thumb followed it down, causing a sieve to open up in my palm. Blood streamed onto my Toughskins and into my RC, which foamed over, and, rather than tell the teacher and risk getting in trouble for carrying a pocketknife, I used a piece of loose-leaf to plug up the gash in my paw, which later got infected. This was insult on top of injury, too, because on this same field trip, earlier in the day, a creepy middle-aged man in a crumpled business suit winked his eye at me, motioned to his crotch, and then drove his point home by flicking his tongue in and out like Sammy Hagar while our bus idled at a red light on Peachtree Street. Hotlanta, indeed. This latter incident forced me into defending my fourth-grader heterosexuality to a circle of Members Only-clad jackals on the bus, who had witnessed the exchange and let loose with an unending collective cackle of rural glee. It taught me not to stare at strangers, unless I happen to have shades on. And as for that RC, it taught me not to work too hard for things that don’t come easily, because our attempts to hoodwink Lady Fate can backfire with a red hot vengeance. My adult life experience has confirmed the essential validity of both of these lessons, which just goes to show you that field trips really are chock full of four-star educational opportunities. But I learned something else that day, too. Something that, even though I was still in a fair amount of physical pain from the Royal Crown Cola wound, made me beam in wonderment most of the way home and across three counties: Lo, for I had finally learned the secret of the two-headed snake in the state Capitol.
Georgia: A Magical Realm
If you don’t know what I’m referring to, then ready yourself, because I’m about to share with you further proof that Georgia is a magical realm. First off, you need to know that the fourth floor of our state Capitol has, for well over a century now, functioned as a museum of Georgia history. Its exhibits have varied in tone and style over the years, ranging from the low-key but interesting to the campy and sensational. At present, it features a quaint but fascinating display of artifacts, memorabilia, and two of the coolest dioramas I’ve ever seen. But back in 1965, in the midst of the heat and chaos of the Civil Rights Movement, the museum was gifted a most rare specimen up from Heard County, one that would confound, amaze, and delight many a man, woman and child for years to come. From the neck down, it was a tiny midland water snake like any other, but from the neck up, well, that was a different story…
From the neck up, it was the proverbial road that diverged in the wood. North of the collarbones, it was two things at once. The body was lonesome, but the heads were double-dutch, and they were as forked as the tiny tongues that flicked inside them. It was a bifurcation-situation, a split decision. It moved, it grooved, and it crawled on its belly, but one snout pointed north and the other south. What I mean to say is that it must’ve been two-for-one day when the Powers That Be made this particular serpent, because even though it was blessed with one slender, solitary tail, it was equally cursed with two noses, two mouths, four eyes, and one hell of a hard row to hoe. It’s a sad fact that most two-headed reptiles, rare as they are, tend to have short lives, since each head generally has its own self-preserving agenda, pitting it against the other. I’m therefore assuming that, by the time it showed up at the state capitol in a Mason jar, shoebox, or what have you, our rarified li’l mascot of Georgian anomaly was already dead from exhaustion, starvation, or general principle. And yet, despite its lack of vitality, it was somehow accepted and placed on display.
Now, kids love amphibians, reptiles and dinosaurs. We all know this, of course. But the two-headed snake at the capitol seems to pack a hundred times more mojo than any old CGI passel of raptors. The Jurassic Park franchise might’ve made a killing, but the kind of attention lavished on that two-headed serpent by at least one generation of Georgian kids is best described as adulation…and adulation doesn’t come easy. Surely we sense the same kind of adulation, and maybe even veneration, in the government officials who chose – and choose – to display the snake proudly, on the topmost publicly accessible floor of the main nerve of our state’s government. Yup, a two-headed snake resides at the pinnacle and symbolic center of Georgia government! Take a moment or two and think about the implications of that.
If ever there was a tableau begging for postmodern deconstruction, the two-headed snake under our Capitol dome is one of them. We could even dig into the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and dust off the image of Nehebkau, the cosmic two-headed snake god who guards the entrance to the underworld and helps disembodied souls navigate the mysterious landscapes of the underworld. Personally, I favor a more down-home interpretation, one that holds up the two-headed snake as a kind of symbolic power totem representing all that is bizarre and naturally occurring in the world. In my mind, that’s the real reason that Georgian children have been drawn to this creature like dirt daubers to a doorjamb. To a school kid constantly inundated with rules about the world and exactly how to act, that two-headed snake in the state capitol represents the possibility of glorious abnormality and sheer paradox – the kind that even adults can’t deny. It’s an exception to the very rules of nature, and therefore, well, kind of a badass. For all I know, that snake was a subversive, dissident “Stackolee” character that, on his creation day, might’ve said to the Powers That Be, “Dig it, I know I’m only s’posed to be gettin’ one head and all, and thank you kindly, but, uh, think I’ll go ahead and help myself to an extra serving. Peace out.”
Venerated, adulated, badass or not, I’ll go on record right now and say that the curatorial decision to exhibit the snake’s corpse was a stroke of pure genius – one that officially put the state capitol on the map for fourth graders all across Georgia. Rest assured that I’m not just ladling out my opinion here, either. Whenever Co-Cola and Jim Beam are deeply involved and I find myself sidled up next to an indigenous Georgian or early-enough transplant, I’ll often work in a reference to the two-headed snake, and see what kind of response I get. If there’s no response at all, I’ll deadpan and ask ‘em straight out if they know what I’m talking about. Comebacks such as the following are not uncommon: “Hell yeah, man. You ain’t tellin’ me nothin’ new, ‘cause I first heard about that bi-headed sumbitch from my cousin Tommy when I was in the first grade, after he got back from a field trip to the capitol. He went on and on about it so much that I was chompin’ at the bit to see that Damn Thang for three straight years until my fourth grade science class finally got on up there.”
Recently, Flagpole chatted up Tim Frilingos, the current curator of the museum up at the Capitol. Tim agreed that the museum still draws a steady crowd of middle school kids and visitors of all ages. But he went on to explain that the beloved two-headed snake in all its glory was officially upstaged in 1987, when a two-headed calf was born in Palmetto, GA. Like its serpentine counterpart, the bicephalic bovine met an early demise and was frozen in time by the mysterious arts of taxidermy. Its stuffed and mounted twin-heads now reside in the state capitol, right next to the snake.
Its presence under the gold dome means that the two-headed snake is exceptional for more than one reason. Unlike a lot of beautiful, odd, indigenous things here in the South, our little friend in the state Capitol is actually under governmental protection and display. It’s also proof positive that if you want a dose of Southern magical realism, there’s no need to confine your search to Carson McCullers short stories, roadside oddities, or your local root doctor. You can drive straight to the heart of the ATL, hike on up to the fourth floor of the state Capitol, and feast your eyes on the most celebrated reptilian developmental abnormality this side of the Chattooga. Sure, it gave up the ghost a long, long time ago. But its remains remain, and they’re on proud display.
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