Snake Encounter

Robert Flournoy

Copyright 2023 by Robert Flournoy   

Photo by Worldspectrum at Pexels.
Photo by Worldspectrum at Pexels.

We were in Cambodia, but not by any stretch of the imagination were we supposed to be there since it was off limits at the time. The North Vietnamese army was there, but restrictive rules of engagement prevented us from taking it to them. 

We were recon, trying to determine strength and position. So, twenty of us moved silently through the dense triple canopy jungle for twelve hours a day, quiet as napping monkeys, sleeping in the dirt at night, vigilant to the dangers that lurked about us. Noise discipline was almost spiritual, atavistic instincts awakened from a ten thousand year slumber. We could pass within yards of other humans and they would not know we were there. Not a word had been spoken for the five days we had been out, hand signals and whispers our only means of communication.  

Trepidation was palpable as we inched along through the gloom. On the sixth day our column was moving quietly through this wet hell when the point man's shot gun went off like a nuclear surprise. The pent up tension in every man exploded with an eruption of automatic rifle fire, our tracers zipping off into the dark around us, grenades flung with flat crack bangs, the noise horrific. It ended as suddenly as it had begun, dead silence descending upon us like the wet humid air that we sucked in, adrenaline pounding, our young hearts racing as it dawned on us that we had received no return fire.

I motioned the men to remain prone, rifles pointed off to both sides of the column, and I crawled slowly to the front, where all the commotion had begun with the point man's shotgun blast. Arriving by his side, I found him shaking like a leaf, his pace counter lying flat on his back, silently laughing.  

What the hell?  It took me a moment before I understood what I was seeing. A headless twenty foot long python was hanging from a tree limb in front of me, the blast from the shot gun having severed its' massive head, turning it to mist. Our point man glancing down to assure secure footing, and looking up to find himself face to face with this monster, had recoiled in horror, unleashing his buckshot as he fell backward.  

Survival mode kicked in as I realized that the whole North Vietnamese army now knew we were there. We had to get the hell to an LZ for extraction before they found us, but not before we all hurriedly huddled underneath the massive reptile hanging from the tree limb for a quick photo. It was so dark that the guy who had the little camera tucked into his ruck had to use a small flash. Why not at that point?  We made it safely out, and back to the firebase on the other side of the border, wilted with fatigue and gratitude.  As the beer made its way into our weary minds, the legend of the now forty foot snake was born, the point man animatedly telling us of his courage and heroic behavior. We nicknamed him stinky drawers (stink for short), something his pace counter never let him live down. 

For those that are not acquainted with the term or duties of the pace counter (step counter), he was the soldier responsible for literally counting the steps the unit took as is serpentined its' way through the jungle. Relying on unreliable maps that the French had made decades before, it was easy to get lost in dark triple canopy forest that required climbing ravines, crossing streams, and negotiating around gullies, ever vigilant to the fact that there were people out there who wanted to kill you. The pace guy would watch his compass, and count steps to maintain a sense of position, as close as possible. It was a job that required intense concentration, resisting the compulsion to keep looking up, because he too was at the front of the column,  total unknown in the gloom ahead. He and the point man worked as one.

One of the most heartbreaking things I saw in SE Asia was the slaughter of a small herd of elephants who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. While on patrol during the monsoon season, we came upon a coffee bean plantation, not very large, maybe three acres of cultivated hillside.  It was open country, the coffee bushes being only four feet in height, but we were loathe to cross over and continue on our predetermined route because of our exposure, not being in the surrounding jungle which offered concealment.  So, we detoured around the open area, hidden by the foliage.  

I got a hand signal that I was needed up front, and upon arriving at the head of the column I was greeted by the bones of half a dozen elephants, killed years ago by an air strike, the pilots thinking that the movement below them was enemy troops. That was the only explanation I could think of, as the bones of these massive creatures were shattered in many places.  

In the early days of the war, there were sad instances of tigers being killed in the heat of combat, and mighty animals such as these elephants was equally sobering. 

In the latter days of the terrible tragedy that was Vietnam, it was a heart rending reminder of the utter devastation that had been laid upon that country before we sank into the gorilla tactics that I had inherited. As I have aged I have often lamented over what our indiscriminate fire power and defoliation programs (Agent Orange) did to the wild life that had been so abundant before the French, and then we, arrived. 

These magnificent animals, not that common to begin with in the central highlands, represented yet another painful reminder of what we left behind. This on top of the human birth defects that still, to this day, plague some of the population, caused by the toxins in our vegetation killing campaign to deny the enemy cover. And, of course, the cancers that many of our vets are dealing with, caused by the same poison

There is no end to the heart break and misery suffered by the animals and the boys that found themselves somehow in the middle of a bewildering situation not of their making.  The suffering of the innocents continues to this day.

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