All That Slithers Is Not Cold

 

In Advanced Infantry Training we had received the word about snakes.   We were told there were 100 species in Vietnam.  The first 99 were deadly poisonous - one bite and you had just minutes to live.  The 100th would crush you to death!

Snakes in Vietnam came in all sizes.  Cobras were the largest we saw.   Fortunately for us, the cobras we met were not fast on the attack, but it could be an unnerving experience to meet one face-to-face as you walked through chest-high grass.   Still, to the alert GI, M-16 at the ready, the cobra was just one more target to dispose of.

We encountered snakes most often as we walked through wet, overgrown areas near rivers or streams.  The grass came up to our chins, so it was difficult to see far ahead.   We just kept walking 'til we got to higher ground.  Suddenly the shape of the grass just ahead might change - one blade would appear considerably larger than the rest, and it would bob and sway.  Suddenly that unique cobra-shape would leap into focus.   It seems enormous at close range!  The beady eyes glared coolly at you - time seemed to stand still.  Just as quickly as the cobra materialized, an alert point man would fire a full magazine at the mass in front of him.  Sometimes, if the snake was especially large, we would take a rough measurement.  The record-holder was almost fourteen-feet long and four-inches thick.

2/14th hootches, walkways at Cu ChiAt Cu Chi, a black cobra lived under the narrow boardwalk that went from our hootch to a supply hootch.  It was over thirteen feet long.  The boardwalk was snake's only shade for traveling from one building to another - he used the bottom, we used the top.  His secret was safe until an inebriated GI stumbled across him one night while the snake was hunting.  In a few short minutes a posse was formed and the outlaw hunted down and beaten to death.  However, it had never harmed any of us, and had probably done us a favor by keeping the rats under control.

The big snakes might startle us, but at least we could see them coming.  The little ones were a different story!  Our trainers back in AIT had warned us that the most lethal snake in Vietnam was a green viper less than a foot long and no thicker than your little finger.  It was called a cigarette snake - not for its size, but because its bite was so deadly you had only time to smoke one last cigarette before you were gone.

I met my first and only cigarette snake on a warm afternoon walk through the paddies near our fire base.  We had been walking all day.  We were tired.  We had marched through dozens of flooded paddies with the mud sucking at our feet and sapping our energy.  We had been through several villages checking for suspicious activity or signs of the enemy.  Now it was good to be heading home.  The still water of this paddy was broken only by the ripples we made as we walked from one side to the other, a distance of about 100 feet.

Halfway across, I noticed we were not alone in the water.  A small snake was swimming parallel to us, gradually gaining on the front of our column.  It was like a large earthworm; it was small both in length and diameter - and it was green.  My Advanced Infantry training kicked in - it had to be a cigarette snake!  Then I panicked.  With my foot I splashed water at it to make it go the other way.  I should have known that anything as deadly as a cigarette snake hadn't gotten its reputation by being bullied around.  This snake had a reputation to live up to!   Without slowing a bit, it turned and came straight at me.  I had visions of its climbing my leg, or just biting into it.  And I wasn't a smoker - I wouldn't even get to enjoy my last minute!

I turned and ran.  Galloping through the water, I headed for the nearest dry land on the dike between the paddies.  One of the first rules we followed (after avoiding cigarette snakes) was to avoid dikes - Charlie loved to plant booby-traps in them.   The rules be dammed.  I stepped up onto the narrow dirt ridge and began stumbling along it. 

The snake wasn't interested in anyone else, just me.  It raced across the surface of the water and slithered up onto the dike after me.  I couldn't believe this was really happening.  Who ever heard of a snake chasing anything, let alone something a hundred times its own size.  I was scared, I'll admit it.  I don't know if it could really have hurt me or not, but I wasn't willing to find out.

The story might have ended differently, but a buddy now came to my rescue.  He had liberated an adz-like tool from the last village.  It had a thick bamboo handle and a broad hardened digging edge.  He raised the tool and brought it down on the snake, cutting the head off.  Perhaps it wasn't a cigarette snake - I'll never know for sure.  But I'll tell you this.  I never, ever kicked water in the face of a snake again.

 

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All That Slithers Is Not Cold:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Hootches and Boardwalk Picture Copyright 1995 Dion P. Detrick
Last modified: March 02, 1995