Spiders and Snakes


In 1974, the year my oldest daughter was born, Jimmy Stafford came out with the song, "Spiders and Snakes." And boy! Could I identify with that sentiment! I don't like spiders and snakes, or "bugs" of any kind, especially the ones that can fly, crawl, slither, wriggle or move in my direction. When I was just a kid, every summer, when the clover was in bloom, I couldn't wait to run out in our yard and feel the grass beneath my bare feet. Every year, I'd invariably step on a honey bee and get stung. Once when I was helping my Mom clean out the garage, we came across a black widow spider. I had it on the end of a stick, which it quickly ran up, attacking me, causing me to drop the stick, run in fear, leaving my dear Mother to contend with the "spider from hell."

Throughout my life, even to this day, mosquitoes love me, spiders adore me, and my head attracts anything that flies. Oh, I guess by the time I became a teenager, I didn't cry anymore when a bug flew my way, but I did flinch, duck, sidestep, run away, or anything else to avoid an encounter with one of nature's "hit squad".

Animals were never a favorite thing of mine either. Barking dogs, mooing cows, clucking hens, and the likes intimidated me. Not to mention the foul odor that some of them eminated. When I was a little boy, Roy Rogers was "King of the Cowboys", and that's what I wanted to be. Only problem is, I was afraid of horses and didn't like the way they smelled. There's a picture of me taken at New Salem State Park where I'm around the backside of the covered wagon. That's because I was afraid to have my picture taken around the front side with that old stinking oxen. I'd never made it as a pioneer.

So, in March 1967, here came this "small-town Midwestern" to Vietnam. I had just turned twenty-three in February. Actually, I was one of the older guys in the Company, even counting the NCOs who had served in World War II and Korea. While mature in some areas, I sure wasn't mature when it came to "creatures". I don't think it was until I moved up to Supply in April, 1967, that I saw anything weird. I only saw it once, and it moved so quickly and disappeared, that I thought I was imagining things. On the inside of the Supply tent was this "good sized" lizard. It might just as well have been a fire breathing dragon. It was there one second and gone the next. Even though I encountered it only briefly, its mere presence kept me from getting a good night's sleep for several days. I knew it was coming for me in the dark of night.

Next came that "Stars 'n Stripes" picture of that brave warrior who killed that eleven foot Cobra at Camp Radcliff a few months before I arrived. I still have that article somewhere. When I close my eyes I can still picture that soldier grinning from ear to ear, holding that dead snake by one end with his arm stretched high above his head while the other end rested on the ground. Even though I can't remember ever seeing a live snake in the whole two years I was in Vietnam (unless it was in a cage), after seeing that picture, I imagined one at every turn of the corner and in every nook and cranny. However, after a while working in Supply, I felt pretty safe. Weren't no slinky snakes in Camp Radcliff anymore. They'd been run out. Just like St. Patrick did in Ireland.

Then came "Operation Marrauder". May 31st, 1967, I believe. Here was my big chance to finally get out and see something besides Hon Cong Mountain with the 1st Cav patch looking out over Camp Radcliff. Seemed like a good idea at first. Then came the mountain, the jungle with its stifling heat and all those bugs. By the time we reached the top, I was out of water. Actually, I was out of water before we reached the summit, but had filled my canteen up with some water I found in some depression in the ground made by what I figured was a water buffalo. Popped an iodine tablet in, shook it up and waited, probably less than the alloted time before it was safe, to drink it.

Coming down the backside (on my backside) was easier. I was pooped, but found that I could pretty well slide down the hill. Things were going great until I hit this dead log full of ants. Me, the log, and the ants went sliding down the last twenty feet or so when we three came to an abrupt stop. That's when I found out that I wasn't as pooped as I thought I was. It didn't take me long to get to my feet, brush off a slew of ants, and get as far away as I could. The Charlton Heston movie based on the short story "Leininger versus the Ants" kept running through my brain.

Our journey to the main road took us passed a pond where we filled our canteens, popped in some iodine capsules, and preceded to drink the contents down long before the prescribed time to do so. We traversed the rice paddies on high ground and found ourselves a hundred yards or so short of the highway. Things were looking up until we looked around and found that we were in the middle of a water buffalo herd. (Roger Miller was right, "you can't roller skate in a buffalo herd"). We couldn't even breathe because a large male had sensed our presence, began sniffing the air, pawing the dirt and suddenly raced towards us. One of our party shoved a round in the chamber of his rifle, took aim, his finger ready on the trigger when the beast suddenly came to a halt. As we all stood their, hearts pounding, eyes wide opened, a small child about five years old, came along side the critter; hit it with a stick a couple of times and drove it back over to the rest of the herd.

About the time I got over the water buffalo, I found myself on Quarry Guard duty. Now this sounded like a fun evening. Least it was different and away from Camp Radcliff. And the best part was, no hiking. Just sitting! I'd heard stories about seeing Tigers while on guard duty and thought this sounded interesting. We journeyed through An Khe enroute to our assigned bunker on the side of the quarry. I had a clear line of sight down the hill We were on the highway side of the quarry. Three men to a bunker, one on, two off during the night. When we first got there, all three of us sat around smoking cigarettes, chatting and checking out our area. Along about dark, the leader of our group said he'd take first watch and told me and the other guy to get a little rest in the bunker. As we started to crawl in, lay down and get some rest, all three of us observed a scorpion crawl down a beam on the inside of the bunker and go in between a couple of sandbags. Needless to say, for the next few hours, no one went in the bunker. In the early morning hours, it started to rain and the tempature dropped enough to make things uncomfortable. The other two prefered the scorpion to the cold and rain. This tough Midwestern prefered the weather to the scorpion, so volunteered to pull guard the rest of the night. There was no way I was going to get any sleep with that monster around.
One evening in Supply, Marion Alandi waltzed in with Ruffin's monkey on his shoulder. He was working in Supply at the time with Sgt Lapp and me. Ruffin was going on R&R and wanted someone to take care of his monkey, Paula. Alandi had volunteered to take on the task. Thank God for Sgt Lapp. In no short order, he told Alandi what he could do with that monkey. I don't think I would have survived with the monkey sleeping in the same tent with us.

If you were in Pleiku on Engineer Hill shortly before we moved to Ban Me Thuot, you might recall a group of guys crowded around the ditch outside the Mess Hall. They were looking down at some strange bug in the ditch. I was the guy standing way back away peering in over their shoulders trying to get a peek without having to get too close. If I recall, it made a hissing sound and looked as though it could fly. It looked like a giant pinching bug only the pinchers were mounted vertically, not horizontally. I believe it might have been called a "rhino beetle." One guy kept poking at with a stick, and I just knew it was going to take off and come straight at my head. I decided I didn't want to be around when it did, so left. I don't know what happened to the bug.

By the time we got to Ban Me Thuot, the compound was established and all the snakes were sent packing. I heard they killed a few. One quite large. Company A only spent two months at Ban Me Thuot before moving to Khanh Duong (Sites one and two). So, I'm not sure where I was when some of these next events happened.

I'm guessing Ban Me Thuot (just before Marchewka went home) is where this happened. I was in the CP, with Dave and another fellow one evening. It was dark outside, and we kept hearing something hit the screen wire. At first we thought it was one of our guys playing a trick on us. When I went over to where the noise was coming from, I saw this huge hornet keep flying into the screen. I quickly armed myself with one of those "OD" cans of bug killer and drenched that sucker. The hornet immediately fell to the ground outside. I started to cheer, but that was short lived, as it wasn't dead. And now, there was no screen to prevent it from flying in under the slats. You've heard the expression, "mad as a hornet", well there's a whole lot of truth to that saying. It began darting to and fro around the office. Chewka picked up a clipboard, swinging it wildly in the air, until he finally connected. It sounded like a bat hitting a ball. The hornet was knocked clear across the room. But it still wasn't dead. It was crawling around on the floor, trying to get air borne again, when Dave planted his boot on it. You know, jungle boots aren't good for smashing bugs. The bug gets caught up in the tread. Needless to say, it took several stomps before it stopped moving. Lying dead on the floor, it didn't look near as big as it did rocketing around the room.

Then there was the incident with the rat. I think this happened at Khanh Duong, site one. I awoke to the sound of a few choice words, a slapping sound, some more choice words, more slapping sounds, more words, and then finally, everyone awake in the tent hollering and asking what was going on. To which Hazen replied that, a rat, the size of a beagle, climbed up the tent pole beside his cot and dropped down onto his mosquito netting. He had hit it with his fist sending it flying to the top of the tent, only to have it drop back on to his netting. After several more blows, he was finally able to knock it to the floor and it raced out of the tent and off into the night. The next night Lady slept on my cot with me.

I think it was also while we were at site one, that either an Officer or PSgt Smith and I were headed back to the Montagnard village in a jeep. I was driving, and luckily wasn't going all that fast because of the road's condition. Now, here in the good old USA, we have signs that say, "deer crossing" or "cattle crossing"; but there was no such sign on this road saying, "elephant crossing". I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye coming out of the jungle along the road. In Vietnam, elephants have the right of way and even if they don't, they'll pretty much take it. A jeeps no match for one either, so I slammed on the brakes and let it pass. The driver of the big fella looked down at us and smiled as if to say, "you'd better stop."

It wasn't too long before I was to go home that this last story happened. We were working on the perimeter bunkers. We had placed a string line so as to get all the bunkers to be properly aligned. It was the start of the work day and I was looking at the line and noticed it sagging. I couldn't figure out why it would be sagging until I spotted this stick on the line. I couldn't imagine how a stick got on the line as there weren't any trees around. I started to go over and remove the stick. As I reached for it, it moved. Now sticks aren't supposed to move. And there wasn't a breeze to make it move. Then too, sticks don't have eyes either and this one did. Turned out to be one of those Asian walking sticks. They get to be a foot long. And this one was every bit that big if not bigger. I called a few guys over as there was no way I was going to touch that thing. One of the guys from the CP, I think, picked it up and put it on his shirt. I'm not sure what happened to it in the end, but I think it was kept as a pet. Somebody put it in an empty ammo can and it filled the can up length wise.

These are a few tales from my time in Vietnam. I still don't like "spiders and snakes" but don't freak out as bad as I did in my younger days. I may even hold a snake if I'm convinced it isn't poisonous. As a matter of fact, I have a picture of me taken while on R&R to Bangkok holding a huge python. But bugs still bug me. My wife, Norma, kills the ones that get in the house or car.

Tony Durbin


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