Ray was terrified of snakes. One day, his fear inspired a group of fellow army recruits to pull a stunt each has regretted ever since.
It happened while on a wilderness survival training exercise. Their platoon sergeant, Owen Mendez, had taken them to a distant part of an enormous army base. It was called The Forks, a special place where two rivers became one.
The base is on the dry plains. Water is scarce. Rivers are a big deal.
That’s why The Forks is unique. It’s in a tree-lined valley of rare wetlands filled with lush vegetation, numerous ponds and a network of inlets. The area looks as if a few square miles of the Florida everglades had been transplanted there. Wildlife flourishes: all manner of birds, plus antelope, deer, rabbits, coyotes, porcupines, beaver, squirrels, rodents, a plentiful supply of edible fish, and . . . oh yes, snakes.
It was late-June. The spring flood season was over making it safe for camping. The patrol had set off early Sunday. The forecast promised a perfect week.
During their initial training, Sgt. Mendez had described the exercise as ‘wilderness’ camping, although The Forks was just 10 miles from the nearest town and less than three miles from the closest farm. No matter. The lack of shelter, toilets, cooking facilities and other amenities was enough of an approximation to real wilderness. Mendez knew his city-raised charges had zero knowledge of wilderness survival and wanted eagerly to experience what they considered the uncharted outback. His plans to oblige turned out much different that even he expected.
The 32 recruits would spend a week learning how to survive in the wilderness. Sgt. Mendez was an accomplished survival trainer. He planned to teach the hand-picked young men to build shelters, make cooking fires, dig latrines, construct platforms for their tents, scavenge for firewood without chopping down healthy trees, build hunting blinds and set up defensive perimeters. They would also learn, among other skills, to make spears, fishhooks, slingshots, snares, and bows and arrows, to get food and to defend against aggressive wildlife or enemy attacks. The wilderness skills could save their lives if ever forced to survive in the wild, especially behind enemy lines.
This trip formed a small segment in a rigorous training and selection program the recruits were undergoing. Those chosen would join one of the Army’s elite commando units.
The young men were exhausted Sunday night by the time they’d set up camp, and built the necessities. Monday morning, Mendez took them on a full day wilderness orientation march along the banks of the rivers and among the countless little islands scatted through the wetlands. They stopped often to build makeshift bridges from flood-felled trees over streams that crisscrossed the area.
While stopped for lunch on one island, Mendez described the abundant wildlife around them, mostly unseen. He also explained the vast array of edible vegetation, and the medicinal significance of indigenous plants used by the First Nations people who’d lived there for thousands of years before them.
Back at camp, the exhausted men quietly made their supper in small groups around campfires.
In no time, the injection of nourishment transformed these still-growing young men into the mischief prone, testosterone-driven scalawags characteristic of their age: late teens and early 20s. Among them was a trio hatching a particularly nasty plot. Later they would call it a practical joke. No one found it funny.
The idea had come from an unexpected source. On Sunday evening, while setting up camp, a group of the recruits had stumbled upon a large snake, often called a bull snake.
The harmless reptile is similar in size and appearance to the dangerous rattlesnake. It aroused fear among some, prompting one to throw a hatchet at it. To their surprise, the hatchet unintentionally severed the snake’s head.
The men proudly displayed the dead snake’s remains in camp for all to see, as spirited young men will. Sgt. Mendez insisted it be dispatched to a thicket of willows away from the camp where it could become food for other animals. At least, that was Mendez’s plan.
On Monday night, the scheming trio couldn’t get the snake incident out of their minds. They also remembered seeing Ray’s terrified reaction when the snake’s corpse had been displayed. He clearly had a phobia about snakes.
The trio slipped away from the evening campfire into the darkness, looking for the headless snake. They found it. One man seized the tail gingerly and slipped it into a clear plastic bag held open by a second accomplice.
Back they snuck to the campfire, quietly debating nefarious ways to inflict the dead snake upon their unsuspecting fellow recruit, Ray.
Lights out was fast approaching. That focused their plan.
“Back in a minute,” said Tom, one of the trio, as he slipped away. He snuck into the tent Ray shared with two others.
Tom slipped the cold plastic bag containing the snake into Ray’s sleeping bag and pushed it down near the foot. He returned to the campfire and the other two plotters.
“Done,” he said. All three grinned menacingly. Their dastardly scheme had been launched.
A few minutes later, Sgt. Mendez declared 10 minutes to lights out. The campfires were properly extinguished and the young men headed for bed.
The trio of plotters huddled in the tent they shared, waiting for Ray to climb into his sleeping bag.
Suddenly, out of the calm darkness came a horrific piercing scream. Ray’s tent blew apart as he bolted out toward the campfire, jumping as if trying to keep both feet off the ground at once.
The three schemers huddled in their tent, holding pillows to their faces to stiffle the sounds of their laughter; their eyes streamed with tears.
Mendez needed more than 15 minutes to bring Ray under a semblance of control. Moments later, one of Ray’s tent-mates turned from rebuilding their collapsed tent.
“Sarge,” he called. “Do you have a moment, sir?”
Leaving Ray with friends, Mendez went over to the young man. The recruit held a bag with the dead snake. After the earlier incident, Mendez had recognized Ray was suffering from an irrational fear of snakes. He understood such conditions can be debilitating to the victims. And Ray was clearly a victim.
Even in the dark, it was not difficult to read the anger that swept across Mendez’s flushed face.
“Who’s responsible for this?” he roared.
None of the men had ever seen him this angry.
Eventually, the guilty trio stepped forward. They admitted to their complicity. Mendez sat them down in the darkness on a log away from Ray, still barely rational but supported by friends trying to calm him.
Minutes later, after ordering the three confined to their tent for the rest of the trip and sending the others back to bed, Mendez returned in the darkness to where he’d left Ray. The frightened recruit was nowhere to be found. Somehow, he’d slipped away in the darkness while his friends were returning to their tents.
Mendez ordered everyone back out of the tents, except for the culprits. He lined them up beside the main campfire. The only lights were the flashlights each man carried.
“Has anyone seen Ray?” the sergeant roared. Not one had.
He organized a search party of three squads, each headed by an experienced corporal. A fourth squad was ordered to build a roaring fire. It would serve as a signal in the dark, both for Ray and to help keep the search parties oriented.
The squads set off working an agreed pattern, first scouring the area around the camp. Next they searched through the wetlands and along streams near the river. By then it was after 1:30 a.m. Still, there was no sign of Ray.
Sgt. Mendez had become deeply worried. He tried to not show it. He’d known soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some had taken their own lives. Ray’s stress level was similar. Finally, Mendez radioed all searchers to return to camp for a rest. But by 2:45 a.m. everyone was eager to resume the search. They were worried about Ray, one of the brightest and most popular recruits in the platoon.
The one direction they’d not searched was along the road to town.
Mendez took a squad of five other men and spread them across the dirt road in the moonless dark. He and Cpl. Ben Khalid took the road. He assigned two to each of the roadside ditches. Hints of light were appearing on the horizon as their search of the road neared the tiny town.
Still no sign of Ray.
Then, the search team entered the small town, experiencing the pre-dawn calm of its main street. Nothing stirred, at first.
Then, in the dim light of dawn Mendez saw a hint of movement at the far end of the street two blocks away. It wasn’t Ray. A dog was wagging its tail, ignoring them. Its attention was focused on something else they couldn’t see.
Mendez and his five men walked wearily down the dirt street to the dog, thinking it may have cornered a squirrel or some other stray wildlife. Despite their arrival, the dog’s attention remained focused under steps leading to the entrance of a store. The steps were open behind.
Cpl. Khalid turned on his flashlight, expecting to find a squirrel, gopher or raccoon on the verge of making a break for it. Instead, a pair of eyes stared back at them from between the open-backed stairs.
It was Ray. His big brown eyes resembled those of a deer caught in headlights. His body was in a tight bundle, arms hugging his knees firmly to his chilled body. Mendez eased over beside the steps, next to Ray, finally talking him into leaving his hiding place. He wrapped Ray in a blanket from his backpack and then held him tight. It was mid-day Tuesday before Ray agreed to rejoin the camp. Hours later they were packed and headed for home.
Ray didn’t qualify for special ops. However, he went on to become a high-ranking military intelligence officer, and later a respected leader in civilian life. But never again did he speak of, or to those three culprits.
‘A Snake in the Sack’ is Copyright 2014 by James Osborne All Rights Reserved
(Author’s Note: Irrational fears, also known as phobias, are more commonplace than most of us realize. Sometimes they can be debilitating reactions over which an individual may have little or no control, to things or experiences like spiders or heights or even going outdoors, that others find not unusual. Some people can be seriously disabled by irrational fears, others may not even be aware what they consider an aversion is in fact a phobia. Opinions are divided whether severe phobias can be treated effectively using therapy or drugs.)