Tag Archives: Snakes

Camping Tonight, Camping Tonight

One of the great failed experiments of my life was a brief stent that I did with the Boy Scouts of America.  I have loved camping and the outdoors for as long as I can remember and the attraction to an organization that represented pup tents and hiking and sleeping bags was irresistible, so in due time I and several of my friends contacted the Boy Scouts.  After a short while Mr. Saysack made contact with us and our parents and we were placed together, along with several guys from the margins of our neighborhood, into something called a “pack” or “troop” or “patrol” or something like that.  While I don’t really remember what they called our little group I can clearly remember that we were number 926.

The goal of the Scouts is to turn out boys who become good citizens and the Boy Scout Oath says it all:  “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”  The Scout Law mentioned above states “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful and thrifty.”  If I was to cudgel my brains for a week I don’t believe that I could come up with a group of kids less likely to succeed in this endeavor.

The core of our group were myself and my friends Wes Miller, Brian Nosanko, Butch Martin and Larry Gerrow.  I don’t know what Butch’s real name was, but I suppose that it could have been Butch.  I knew Butch through my friendship with Wes, and can’t say that I ever really liked him very much, if at all.  Butch lived with a single parent and used the freedom that that condition gave him to run completely wild.  Butch knew nothing about truth, honor, kindness or anything else of that nature.  I lived in a very authoritarian family situation and the utterly unencumbered freedom that Butch enjoyed seemed appealing to me, but any amount of time spent in his presence led me to believe that he was not a person whom I would ever call a friend.  In later years Wes, who stuck with Butch into early adulthood, came to call him “The Worm”.  It was an accurate name.  I have no idea what happened to Butch after we were all about 22 or 23 but I am certain that it wasn’t good.

Brian was more fun to be around, but he had his issues as did all of us.  Brian’s issue was that he was an enormous liar.  Now all of us would tell a fib every now and then in order to get out of trouble, impress a girl or something like that, but Brian would tell whoppers that were breathtaking in scope simply for the pleasure of telling them.  Most of Brian’s corpus of work I have forgotten, but his dad’s rubber blowtorch and his ability to take the head off of a wasp with a BB gun, or maybe it was a bow and arrow, stood out from amongst the throng.  One time Wes and I tried to count all of Brian’s lies and, with a little enhancing of our own, arrived at the number of 1,000.  Brian, who we called “Fantastiko” in a modification of his real last name, was outraged by this activity.  “It’s not more than 700” he declared.  I’m not making this up!  Brian was last seen wandering burned out, befuddled and homeless on a beach in San Diego many years ago.  I doubt that he is alive today.

Larry was just a normal guy, for our neighborhood anyway.  He had an edge about him and would not hesitate to fight over issues that I could not see the worth of, but he also had a good heart and was a lot of fun to be around.  We spent a lot of time just hanging out, daydreaming and competing with each other to tell the biggest lies about our significance, frequently with an eye towards impressing Susan Smith, who was not nearly as impressed with either one of us as we were with ourselves.  Larry moved out of our neighborhood in my early teens and I lost track of him.  I was told that he walked into a liquor store that was in the process of being robbed and was shot and killed, and I assume that this story is true.

If you have read any of my other stories you know about Wes.  He was also from a single parent family and was a handful for his mother, but Wes had a better grip on life than did Butch.  Wes always did have a sense of order and of right and wrong, and in the end turned out very well indeed.  We still write to each other to this day.

So we became part of the group numbered 926, and Mr. Saysack began immediately to try to mold us into something like Boy Scouts (a fool’s errand if ever there was one).  None of us were any good at tying knots with ropes, starting fires with a bow, or any of that other merit badge stuff.  In fact, I am not aware of any of us even earning a single merit badge.  For my part I lacked the self confidence necessary to even conceive of so doing, and the other guys just didn’t care one way or the other about it all.  What we mostly wanted out of the Scouts was the hiking and camping, and hike and camp is what we certainly did.

Our experiences were pretty much what you would expect them to be.  We cooked simple meals over campfires, with the scoutmaster doing the more complicated duties and us ineffectually trying to clean up.  We pitched our tents and gathered wood, climbed trees and descended from lower branches by climbing down ropes, and best of all, we hiked.

I loved the hiking and often engaged in that activity with my father.  He taught me to take water in a canteen, wear a hat to keep the sun off of my skin which refused to tan, and most important of all, find and carry a longish stick to use as a walking stick and also as a snake finder.  The mountains and deserts east of San Diego are full of snakes, some of which have a diamond pattern on their backs and a big rattle on their tails, and father taught me early about the wisdom of letting them know of my presence well before I put my shoe down in the midst of their coils.  Rattling my stick in the brush as I walked would alert the snakes to my presence and they in return would rattle their tails to alert me to theirs.

On one particular hike I was more interested in goofing off with my friends than paying attention to details like those mentioned above and we found ourselves running single file down a narrow path through the low chaparral in the hills east of the city.  The scoutmaster and his assistant had told us to stay together as a group but of course we blew that instruction off as quickly as we could.  I don’t remember just why we were running down that path but running we were, and I most vividly remember what happened next.

I heart Butch scream a short distance ahead of me, followed by a shouted curse word by Larry and then the same from Brian.  Wes and I had time to pull up and then we crept forward to see what was happening.  A couple of yards in front of us we saw a small widening in the path with a huge rattlesnake coiled on the edge of it.  It seems that the guys burst into that clearing running at full tilt as the snake was crawling across the path.  Snakes, as you undoubtedly know already, cannot strike unless they are coiled, and this snake was surprised by the appearance of three idiots who flew noisily over his head before he could coil for action.

He was most certainly coiled appropriately when I pulled up at the edge of the clearing and was sending an unmistakable message that any further interference with him was going to be paid for in the most painful of ways.  The three boys on the other side of the clearing were howling for the scoutmaster and Wes and I ran back up the path to find him.

Mr. Saysack came back with us and calmly assessed the situation.  Picking up a large rock he advanced to as close to the snake as he safely could and threw the rock down upon the snake’s head.  He repeated that process with another rock and then, holding the snake’s head down with a stick just in case it was only playing possum, extracted his Boy Scout knife from its sheath and cut off the snake’s head.  We dug a hole in the dirt and buried the head several inches deep, since one can step on the head of a dead snake and still receive an injection of venom through its sharp teeth.

Mr Saysack then skinned the snake and ordered two of the other boys to make a campfire.  We all carried with us our collapsable mess kits which included a frying pan that could also be used as a deep plate, and Mr. Saysack proceeded to use several of these pans to fry up chunks of that snake, using its own fat as oil.  Most of the guys indulged but I resisted eating any of that snake.  They said that it tasted like chicken.  No surprise there.

On another campout we were joined by several other groups of Scouts where we enjoyed joint adventures and some competition.  I recall one boy from another group trying to get a swimming merit badge by entering a standard swimming pool, swimming the length of it, and exiting the deep end, all without making a sound.  This is an impressive enough accomplishment in it’s own right, but in this boy’s case it was made all the more so by the fact that he got nailed on the shoulder by a drowning honey bee while making his exit.  None of us noticed this until he was declared successful, at which time he hopped around that pool like a jumping bean.  The stinger was extracted and a poultice of shredded potato was applied, and the boy’s status grew by leaps and bounds even among our own group.

Later in this trip we engaged in a match of “capture the flag” with another group of Scouts.  I knew that I was no way close to being fast enough to dash up a low hill and capture the other team’s flag before they could catch me, so I hatched a plan to crawl through the tall grasses on my belly like a reptile and catch them by surprise.  I moved out to the right edge of the field which stood between our two flags and began to execute my plan silently and invisibly.

I don’t know how long it took for me to use what the Army would later teach me was a “low crawl” to cross that field and begin to approach that low hill where their flag fluttered in the breeze at the summit, but I would say at least a half hour and probably more.  I had crawled through thistles and the occasional cactus, with bees and wasps fluttering around my head and anthills everywhere to be avoided, but finally I was at the base of that hill, well rested and ready to explode out of hiding, race up that hill to where the flag was, and carry it past tired defenders to the accolades of my fellow Scouts.

It was at that moment that Tim Jensen, one of the members of our group from the margin of the neighborhood, popped into view from the other side of the hill, snatched up the enemy flag and ran whooping past the boys of each group.  Tim was a pudgy kid who had less athletic ability than even I did, so I cannot adequately express how greatly it vexed me that he used some stratagem similar to my own to earn the cheers of our side.  I arose from my hiding place and took my time coming in, dragging my feet and pouting all the way.

We didn’t exist as a group for long.  Mr. Saysack grew tired of wasting his energy trying to make Scouts out of us, and we were just hitting the years where girls and cars and music and smoking and everything else was successfully competing for our attention.  My parents separated then and now I lived in a single parent family too, with predictable results.

Rumor has it that the Boy Scouts retired our number, not wanting to take the chance that anything like us would ever come around again.  I don’t know if that is true, and in fact it probably is not.  But we really were not what Robert Baden-Powell had in mind when he started the movement over 100 years ago.  Still we had fun, and while we were Scouting, however poorly we accomplished that endeavor, we were not doing anything worse, and for that I guess the Boy Scouts of America deserves a round of applause and a tip of the hat.

A Snake’s Tale

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.