It's Memorial Day again. Time to remember those who pulled us through but didn't make it back themselves. This story features a man who died prematurely, but not before he saved my life. Seems right to tell how those lost soldiers lived and mattered on this Day, rather than lament how they died.
It's complicated. This story has three parts, all about snakes - which are linked to at the bottom. But for those seeking clarity about why this story is offered on Memorial Day, there is also a prequil about how I got into this situation and an epilogue about the Gunny.
Here we go:
This story does not take place during an official Year of the Snake. Closest one of those I could find was 1965.
These three stories are an account of my personal Year of the Snake, from Spring 1968 to Spring 1969, where changes in my military life were punctuated by visits from snakes. It is also the story of how I went from hopeless fuckup to improbable, unjustified, absurd badassery.
NOTICE: Some animals were harmed in the making of this story.
I came to Vietnam with an artillery battalion (105mm) that had been re-activated at Fort Carson. We were supposed to land at Saigon, but ended up in Danang. It was about 8 days after the Tết Offensive in 1968, and the Marines needed more Army artillery in I Corps. We had been especially equipped with extra 2nd Lieutenants.
The idea was that we would supply extra or replacement artillery Forward Observers to the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) units who were becoming airmobile, but were constantly flying out of range of their own fairly immobile artillery. I was one of those carefully vetted and specially-selected artillery 2LTs - I’m sure it was just a coincidence that we all came from the same OCS class and most of our last names began with the letters D, E or F. I was barely twenty.
Pretty soon (after inadvertently pissing off my Battalion Commander) I found myself attached to the American advisor team (MACV) of 2nd Battalion, 1st ARVN regiment, 1st ARVN Division out of Huế . We were going to liberate A Shau, an old Special Forces base way the hell and gone over by the Laotian border. A branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran down the middle of the A Shau Valley.
The valley is in steep mountain jungle, with a river running through it. Right next to the river was a redball (a dirt road) that was the east branch of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The place had been defoliated for years, arclit and skyspotted to the max and pocked with water-filled bomb craters. The rest was covered in low, thick jungle - because that's what grows after you've killed all the trees - not high enough to block sunlight, but just high enough to block any hint of a breeze to relieve the heat and humidity.
We were dropped into the south part of the valley but north of the abandoned A Shau Special Forces camp. Third Brigade of the US 1st Air Cavalry tackled the north valley where the Ho Chi Minh Trail branched out of Laos. Our plan was to parallel the east side of the river. There were jungle mountains on the east and west (Laos) side of the valley. It was pretty rainy, so the river was fishboned by tributaries coming down out of the mountains. In between the fishbone tributaries were steep ridgelines. So if you’re paralleling the river, you’re crossing one of those damned tributaries, climbing steep, muddy uphill, then steep muddy, slippery downhill, then another stream, then do it again.
It began raining about 5 PM and rained until about 9 AM. Then the sun would come out, and the temperature would rise into the high 90's F. Every day. There were leeches everywhere, including inside your pants - especially inside your pants. All the overhead cover had been defoliated away, and plant life was thick and tangled up to about three or four meters.
We were about 400 ARVN, and four Americans - a Marine 1st LT, a Marine Gunnery Sergeant and an Army Sergeant First Class as the MACV advisor (co-van) team. And me. Important people:
Lieutenant H, the team commander, was about 35 years old - pretty old for a lieutenant. He was like a god to the Vietnamese. I’ll tell you why: Most American advisors were young captains with about four years service. The Vietnamese senior officers had been working at war way longer than that. It is galling to have a still wet-behind-the-ears “advisor” assigned to you supposedly to teach the art of modern war.
Lieutenant H was not that. He’d been a Marine for going on nineteen years. He was an NCO who got a field commission. And here’s the best part: he enlisted at age 15, and at barely sixteen he was at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea in the winter of 1950. This is one of the most famous battles in the history of the Marine Corps. Even the Vietnamese officers had heard of it. Lieutenant H was a small guy - my height - not very physically impressive, and balding. But he had gravitas for the Vietnamese; they would do anything he said.
It helped that he didn’t say much. He was quiet and friendly. When he consulted with the Thiêu tá (Major) who was our battalion commander, he spoke privately, and he never told anyone else what advice he might have given. He was very clear on the idea of “face.” I never saw him mock or speak badly of one of his counterparts. Or anyone else. Whenever anyone praised his Marine history, especially if they mentioned Chosin, he would nod and brush it off with a little smile on his face.
The Gunny thought Lieutenant H was the bee’s knees too. Gunny was about 32 and was a Marine Gunnery Sergeant all the way to the ground. He was a big Greek, about 6' 2" and darkish with a full Greek mustache barely within regs. Plus he had one of those beards that needs shaving about 5 minutes after the last shave. He was the best NCO I ever met. I don’t know what special elixir the Marines give to their E7's, and never to E6s or E8s, but there is something extraordinary about them, and the Gunny was all of that. Gunny was on his second tour.
And then there’s me. I was completely unprepared for any of this. I had minimal, simulated jungle training. I was in no kind of shape for the march we were on. The heat was killing me. The uphill was murder. The downhill was worse. The tributary steams were muddy and leech infested. I was beat to hell after the first day. I was also cursing and whining under my breath. I was a wreck.
Plus, I got dysentery the first day. At 5 PM it started raining. Everyone hunkered down. The Americans gathered in a circle and the Gunny reached into the Tardis ruck that all Gunnery Sergeants are issued upon promotion and produced a bottle of Courvoisier Cognac. He put a little in a canteen cup, and passed it around like consecrated wine. We all got a sip.
I was wet and cold and dysenteried and I didn’t really drink, but I remember that sacred cognac glowing slowly down my throat like the war gods’ mercy to a muddy, be-leeched POG. This became a nightly ritual.
(I tried Courvoisier once after I got out of the service. It’s just as I thought. I don’t like Courvoisier. It needs leeches and rain, and it should be served in a canteen cup.)
Daze of Correction
The Army SFC had given up on me in disgust. Maybe the Gunny too. I don’t know. I think Lieutenant H asked the Gunny to give me a hand. All I know is that after a cold, wet night with three trips to the woods, Gunny had two pills from his magic ruck for me when morning came. He told me to chew them. To this day I don’t know what that was, but that was the end of dysentery. I didn’t shit for seven days.
The next day, when we started uphill, I started muttering and cursing, and the Gunny said to me, “Sir, you may not think people can hear you. But they can. Sets a bad example for the binh sĩ’s [ben-shee - ARVN privates], don’t you think?”
Ouch. Thus started days of correction. The Gunny made sure I dried my socks, taught me how to fill my canteens and purify the water, taught me how to adjust my ruck, taught me to avoid getting demoralized by always being completely soaked (keep your head dry), showed me how to clean my gear and on and on and on - all the thousands of things you need to know to live in the jungle. He punctuated each lesson with “Sirs,” not angry, respectful, and each “Sir” stung like a dope-slap from God.
By the third day I had concluded that I was an idiot, worthless piece of shit and a disgrace to the military, my family and the United fucking States of America. I was completely played out.
Garden of Eden
And then a miracle happened.
We came down one steeply sloped ridge line, and instead of a muddy leech wallow, there was a mountain stream straight out of a Coors commercial. It was about 4 meters wide, crystal clear with a boulder-strewn bottom and a cool breeze flowing downhill with the water.
Suddenly all the binh sĩ’s started shucking their web gear. They piled into the stream and started washing and doing laundry. Lieutenant H went up to talk to Thiêu tá. He came back with the news that Thiêu tá had put two companies on flank security while everyone got a bath and laundry break - HQ and the remaining company would return the favor in 40 minutes.
Good enough for me. I headed out to the middle of the stream with all of my gear. It was glorious. I started dunking everything I owned in the stream, including my rifle and ammo, and carrying it back to the bank to dry off. I washed everything, then settled down on a rock sticking up out of the stream, took my nasty pants off and started banging them on the rock and washing them in the water.
The Gunny Ain't Buying
As I was doing all that, the Gunny was having an intense discussion with Lieutenant H. Gunny didn’t think there was any flank security. Lieutenant H shrugged, then sat on the bank and commenced washing his stuff. The Gunny stomped to the far bank of the stream in full battle-rattle, ruck included, and sat on a rock under a bamboo break with his boots in about 10 inches of stream.
That is the image in my head of the Gunny even now. It was a hot, sunny day. The jungle was piled right up against the stream. Gunny was on a rock streamside, bamboo overhead, with all his gear on, rifle in one hand, rifle butt in the stream. He had his helmet on and was wearing a green T-shirt and fatigue pants, Marine web gear under his ruck straps.
He was glaring at all the naked and semi-naked soldiers. The only concession he made to the miracle stream was to put one hand down in the water and then splash the back of his neck with it. Then he carefully changed hands on his rifle, and did the same thing with his other hand. He never lost contact with his rifle.
I don’t think the Gunny was afraid we’d be attacked. I think he was unwilling to be humiliated - be a part of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) catching us - literally - with our pants down. He didn’t mind fighting. He didn’t mind dying - that was the risk you took. He did mind fighting badly and dying foolishly.
After a few minutes an ARVN Senior Sergeant in his skivies looked over at the Gunny and yelled something in Vietnamese. The Gunny was in no mood to chat. “Không hiêu” [don’t understand] he yelled back. The Sergeant yelled again and gestured at the Gunny. Gunny just looked at him.
The Vietnamese Sergeant shrugged, went back to the shore, got a US entrenching tool, turned and locked the blade sideways, grabbed the handle and splashed across the stream straight at the Gunny. The Sergeant was pretty buff, no body fat, but he was only about 5' 4". Gunny looked at him astonished.
The Sergeant splashed up to the Gunny. He said something in Vietnamese. The Gunny said, “Không fucking hiêu damn it! Are you crazy?” Then the Vietnamese Sergeant swung the entrenching tool like an ax at the bamboo over the Gunny’s head. I saw a long piece of bamboo cartwheel out of the bamboo break and splash into the stream.
Then the Sergeant splashed back to his binh sĩ’s on the other side of the stream saying something evidently very funny in Vietnamese. The Gunny just sat there looking surprised.
I’m not sure of that last part, because I had departed that drama for a little drama of my own. I found myself in that slo-mo place that happens when you’re riding in a crashing helicopter or a car skidding towards the edge of a cliff.
I was sitting facing downstream on a rock protruding from the water mid-stream. I had my pants, now pretty clean, but not on me. All the rest of my gear was on the bank. As I said, the stream was crystalline. I could see all the way to the bottom. On one side of my rock was something that was clearly the tail of a large, dark-emerald-green snake. On the other side was the head of the same snake, almost touching my bootless foot.
I knew a little bit about snakes. Triangular head? Yep. This is bad. I was sitting very still. I estimated the snake at about 5 feet long.
I moved in slo-mo. First my foot directly away from the snake’s head - no side to side movement - then I shifted over to the snake-tail side of the rock and sloshed away. When I felt safer, I looked back. The snake was still there, but now I could see a huge red cut where the snake was wrapped around the upstream side of my rock. The ARVN Sergeant had almost sliced him in two. He was hanging together by a shred.
Me too. Fuck this shit.
Welcome to the Jungle
No. Fuck me. What the hell was I doing out there without my gear, not even a knife? What the hell was I thinking? Did I imagine the war would stop while I took a bath? Did I think the war wasn’t real? Might as well think bamboo vipers aren’t real. All it means is that when some viper drops in on your space, you’ll lose valuable time complaining, “This can’t be happening!” I didn’t like bamboo vipers well enough to give them that edge. I didn’t like the war either.
I moved to the bank thinking furiously as I dressed and geared up. Look at the Gunny. Top soldier. He’s careful. He keeps his gear about him. Yet, if he had stood up... Maybe that snake would’ve climbed back into the bamboo. Maybe it would’ve bitten him on the helmet. Maybe on the neck, and that would be all she wrote for the Gunny. That’s what it’s like here.
Death is here. What the hell is the matter with me that I can’t see that? Am I afraid? Well yeah, but y’know not so much. Am I more afraid to ignore my death, let it catch me in some dumbass move and leave me forever a dead fool, good riddance? Yeah. That. Not acceptable. I need to wake the fuck up.
Company for Breakfast
One of the nights around the Courvoisier, Lieutenant H had made some remark about “having breakfast with your own death.” I think it was in the context that if you keep your death in sight and close about you, things like Courvoisier taste much better.
The phrase struck me as I stood streamside...”breakfast with your own death.” I own my life. I need to own my death. I can’t let it surprise me, come out of left field. I want to see it come. I want to meet it. I’m not willing to die as a fool hiding his head in the sand, pretending it’s not real, pretending I’m immortal. My death belongs to me as much as my life. I needed to get both into some kind of order.
I sloshed back to the middle of the stream and picked up the viper with the bayoneted end of my rifle. Yeah, dead. Took the snake upstream to where the Gunny was. Maybe he wanted it. Maybe he had some Gunny Sergeant magic in his ruck that would turn the viper into a nice dinner.
If so, I’d have to eat lightly. Company was coming for breakfast tomorrow. I wanted to have an appetite.
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