Sleeping With Snakes
By Grady R. Stone
Date of story: 1963
HQ Batt., 1st Bat., 11th Marines, 1st Mar. Div.
During my six-year hitch with the Marines, I had many opportunities to sleep out in the boondocks in all types of terrain, from the sands of the Mojave Desert to the forests of Central America. And also, in all kinds of weather, from rainstorms in the mountains of California to summer nights on Veagus Island in the Caribbean. But the one time that stands out most in my memory, is the time I slept with a snake.
The communications company I was assigned to was ordered to participate in a field exercise with Headquarters Batt., 1st battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, which is an artillery regiment. We provided communications between the OP’s (observations posts) and the FDC (fire direction center) and also manned a communication safety network. The “safety net” was in the event on any accidents that might occur in the field and we had to “media-vac” someone out ASAP, to passing on information from the base camp to units in the field, such as someone’s wife having a baby or a death in the family, and so on. I really enjoyed these trips to the field because you were out there applying your training but mostly, because they didn’t mess with you as much as they did when you were in garrison. No morning inspections, no making up bunks, no marching to chow, etc.
On this particular exercise I was assigned to man the safety net which I had done on other occasions. During these exercises the various batteries (gunnery units) would set up in a certain area, which means the howitzers (cannons) would be placed in position, sometimes dug in, and would conduct fire missions for as long as the CO (commanding officer) wanted to stay at that particular spot. This could be anywhere from as little as four hours, up to 2 days in one location. I always parked my jeep a good distance from the guns but not too far from the command tent. Even though I could still hear the guns firing, which was quite loud, I could sleep fairly well considering the circumstances. It’s funny how you can become adjusted to your surrounding, no matter how extreme they may be. If I heard some unusual sound other than the guns firing, I would wake up.
Just before it started getting dark, I was laying out my sleeping bag beside my jeep when my “comm chief,” who happened to be a staff sergeant this time out, came over to let me know when I was to go on radio watch which was early the next morning. We made small talk for a few minutes and then he left. I slipped into my sleeping bag, zipped it up to my waist and lay down on my back. Suddenly, I felt something under my bag that was moving around in a pretty violent manner. It felt as if it were wiggling and squirming around trying to get out from under my bag and it couldn’t move very well with me lying on top of it. My first thought was, “Oh my God, I’ve lay down on a rattlesnake.”
Rattlesnakes were quite plentiful in that part of California and we had been warned many times to keep an eye out for them. I had observed quite a few rattlers on various occasions, but always from a safe distance. A very safe distance. And here I was, lying on one. Thoughts of how to get away from this thing was running through my mind a mile a second. No matter if someone was close by, which they weren’t, I still had to raise up quickly, get to my feet, still in the sleeping bag and put some distance between this snake and me. In my mind eye, I could see that snake striking me in the back as soon as I gave it just a little room to move. What to do? Now remember all these thoughts were taking place in fractions of seconds but it felt as if it was much longer.
Time for action. I carefully unzipped my bag as far as I could without raising up, gathered my courage and in one motion, sprang to my feet, moved to about 10 feet away from where I was lying, turned and started looking for the snake. At first I couldn’t see anything, but then I noticed something moving but it seemed pretty small for a snake. On closer inspection, I realized it was a section of “comm wire.” This is the type of wire that is strung between various field phone switchboards and used as civilians would use telephones. And as I looked around I noticed that my comm chief was a short distance away, shaking his leg. It started coming together. He had snagged his boot on the comm wire, which was running under my sleeping bag, and he was jerking his leg trying to free himself, and that made the “rattlesnake” move around.
After getting my heart rate down to a safe level, I started laughing. The sergeant thought I was laughing at him until I explained what had happened. Then we both had a good laugh, even though my laughter was to relieve my tension and his was that he thought it was a good one on me. Leave it to say, from then on I always checked my sleeping ground very carefully.