I have never in my life purposefully sought to have much in the way of dealings with snakes. Surprise encounters did take place from time to time, and I have written elsewhere of spending an evening sitting on a pile of wood in Vietnam almost right next to a large king cobra, and being chased in Georgia by a water moccasin that was too stupid or too truculent to care that in addition to fishing gear I also carried in plain sight a 12 gauge, double barrel shotgun. I have had other encounters with snakes however and in one case the encounter was quite intentional. I now propose to tell you that tale.
Vietnam forty years ago was a place where there were many ways that one could die. When I was there in the middle of a war I made the acquaintance of the cobra mentioned above, but there were more snakes there than cobras! The bamboo viper, which is green and blends wonderfully into its surrounding jungle, is so poisonous that the GI’s in the U.S. Army called it the ‘step-and-a-half snake’, since that was about all of the time that you had after being bitten before you did a face-plant onto the jungle floor. I feared and hated those snakes, and would not hesitate to kill one.
But not all snakes in Vietnam were our enemies. One snake, Leroy was his name, was in fact quite welcome in our company. You see, we had a rodent problem in our living quarters. Well, heck, we had a rodent problem throughout the entire country of Vietnam, but that is a different story. At the docks where we worked unloading supplies from barges, LST’s and freighters of all kinds and sizes, the rats were huge and we needed terriers to keep them sort of under control. The rats there were too big for a cat to handle. At our base camp about twenty miles away from the docks, where we had assembled aluminum prefabricated bunkhouses called ‘hooches’, we were free of the river rodents but plagued by a much smaller variety which nonetheless had appetites as big as their gargantuan riverine relatives. Any morsel of food, such as what might have arrived in a care package from the family back home, was fair game if it was left out by accident or the result of a drunken stupor. Even worse was their sweet tooth for our marijuana. We would stash our weed in paper-covered bundles in the insulation of our hooches on the off chance that we might have to endure a surprise inspection. We didn’t fear inspections too much because, well, what were they going to do to us if they found something that they didn’t like, send us to Vietnam? Still, it was an aggravation that we could live without so we hid the weed in the insulation.
But the mice found our weed. One evening we parted the fiberglass batting to retrieve our stash and found the paper wrapping gnawed through and most of the weed eaten. A few teaspoons of dope remained but it was sprinkled with mouse droppings, as if the dirty rats wanted to rub it in a little. We decided that this meant war, and we retired to the enlisted men’s club to hatch our plans over a few dozen cans of beer. The result of those deliberations was Leroy.
My friend Chief and I made a trip into Saigon the next day to replace our devoured marijuana, or ‘can sa’ in Vietnamese. As we made our purchase we explained, with some translational difficulty, our problem to Papa San, our Vietnamese supplier. Once Pop understood the problem he laughed a good belly laugh and said “No problem. You come back tomorrow. Con ran numbya one. No more trouble with numbya hukin’ welve chuot.” We figured out that a ‘chuot’ was a mouse, but had no idea what a ‘con ran’ was. If it kept our con sa save however, it was fine with us whatever it was.
Chief and I arrived the next day and, as promised, Papa San was there with a large burlap bag tied off at the top. The bag giggled and squirmed a bit when Pop moved it, but otherwise lay perfectly still. “That con ran” we asked? “Yah” replied Pop. “No charge. Onna house.” “We take a look” we enquired? “Soo-ah, I show”. Papa San took a knife and and cut the string which bound the sack shut. Chief and I peered into the open mouth of the sack and then jumped back about three feet at the same time, because staring up at us was what looked like a very large snake. “No worry for GI” said Pop. “Con ran numbya one for GI. No care about GI. Con ran eat chuot. chuot numbya one for con ran. Con ran numbya hukin’ welve for chuot. I tell you before, con ran numbya one.” We had never been given a bum steer by Papa San before, so we agreed to take the snake. We offered Pop some money but he wouldn’t take it. We were good customers and, as he said, the snake was on the house.
When we got back to our hooch that evening we hauled out our sack to show the guys the solution to our problem. The reaction was mixed. Ray Harris, an African American from West Memphis Arkansas, hated snakes and nearly put a turd in his underwear when he saw Leroy. Chief (not the Chief with whom I went into Saigon, but a Native American from Oklahoma) was not especially pleased, but agreed that desperate times required desperate measures. Phiz was one of those guys who actually liked snakes, so he offered to switch bunks with Ray so that he would be well off of the floor where Leroy would mostly be crawling. It took lots of coaxing, but Ray finally gave in and Leroy was turned loose to become the newest member of our family.
Leroy, it turned out was only about four feet of some kind of constrictor. He was a pretty snake, as shakes go, but we almost never saw him. We tried to keep the doors of our hooch closed as much as possible to keep him inside, relying on keeping our screened windows open and fans ‘requisitioned’ from among the supplies which we off-loaded from the freighters at the docks to keep our hooch ventilated, and we noticed immediately that the rodent population began to decline. Our weed was never again tampered with and even some foodstuffs were safe to leave out, as long as it wasn’t something that a snake would like. One drawback was that when you returned to your hooch after an evening of sloshing down beers at the EM club and turned down your blanket you might find two beady little reptilian eyes staring back at you. You just never quite get ready for that. I would lift Leroy gently out of my bunk and place him on the floor and he would slither away to curl up in somebody else’s bunk. After making sure there were no snake turds in my bunk I would then crawl into the sack and not give Leroy another thought.
Ray never did get used to Leroy though, and one night it was Ray’s turn to stagger home late and find Leroy in his bed. Out of the darkness we heard a decidedly un-manly shriek and then the voice of Ray shouting “Shit! Goddammit! Goddammit! Somebody get that f___ing snake out of my f___ing bed!” Larry Wiest, a logger from the Pacific Northwest, lifted Leroy out of Ray’s bunk while the rest of us tried to calm him down. It was of no avail. Ray grabbed his pillow and blanket and went to crash in the hooch of a friend in Headquarters Company. Ray remained our friend and hung out with us but he never slept in our hooch again. Ray left Vietnam three months before I did, glad to be going home and especially glad to be as far away from Leroy as he could get.
Leroy was still living with us when my turn to rotate back to the states came around. The snake had grown to almost six feet in length and was getting quite fat on the ample food that was available. That amiable reptile had become very much a part of our little family and we came to leave the doors of our hooch open once Leroy had established it as his home base. We would hear reports of his midnight slitherings in other hooches but most of those guys didn’t mind a little rodent control, so they didn’t object too much.
None of the guys to whom I wrote after I left Vietnam ever mentioned Leroy, and I suppose that one day he just crawled off into the Mekong Delta and rejoined the natural world. I hope so, and I hope that there are hundreds if not more little Leroys crawling around the marshes and jungles of southern Vietnam to this day, keeping the vermin under control and living the good snake life.