1st Battalion 22nd Infantry

 

Clarence the Boa Constrictor of Company C 1966-1967

 

Lieutenant Jay Vaughn

 

A Fairly Long Snake Story
as told by the snake's friend, Jay Vaughn

 

Disclaimers and excuses: What follows are memories from 45 years ago. This is the first time I've ever tried to write them down.
Over the years, yarns such as these tend to grow with the telling, so what follows is what I believe to be approximately the truth.
One absolute fact is that I do
not like snakes, never have, and generally avoid them whenever possible. .. J.Vaughn

 

Company C Gets a Mascot

The story of Clarence the Boa Constrictor, began as an idea among the Charlie Company, 1-22d Infantry Battalion
platoon leaders as we prepared to deploy to Vietnam early summer of 1966. Someone opined that it would be a swell idea
to build company morale by having a mascot as we went off to war. We decided early on that a furry animal would be
miserable in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and concluded our mascot should be a reptile. Frogs, toads and turtles were ruled out
as they don't strike much fear in anyone's heart and would be hard to rally around. Nothing poisonous seemed like a safe bet.
Thus, our choices eventually came down to a lizard or a nonpoisonous snake. A lizard would likely escape and so
a boa constrictor seemed like a good option because of its reputation as a frightening jungle warrior.

We set about finding such a beast, while intentionally leaving our company commander, CPT Chris Keuker, out of these plans
in order to give him room for plausible denial should things go badly, which they often did. We learned of a
pet store in Portland, Oregon that had a boa they would sell us for $30. While not part of Charlie Company, my old friend
from West Point days and current roommate, Ron “Zingo” Kolzing, volunteered to come with me to get the snake.
Another friend, Dave “Mopes” deMoulpied had a private pilot's license and suggested we pool our cash, rent an airplane
to fly from Tacoma to Portland to get the snake adding a much needed touch of class and adventure to this otherwise humdrum mission.

The flight into Portland International Airport went smoothly. We rented a cab and found our way to the pet store in downtown Portland.
Not telling the cab driver what we were doing, we asked him to wait for us to dash in and “pick up some things.” We emerged
from the store with a good-sized glass and wooden case and a laundry bag fill with an approximately 7 foot long, 23 pound
boa constrictor. None of us knew the first thing about the care and cleaning of a boa constrictor and the pet shop operator
added precious little to our knowledge. On the way back to the plane, the cab driver kept glancing over his shoulder
at the bag-o-snake and finally had to ask, “What is going on?” When we admitted that we had a fairly large snake in his back seat,
he turned pale and pulled to the curb ready to put us all out on the side of the road. Zingo, a gifted BS artist with a tongue of pure silver,
took charge and convinced the driver there was nothing to worry about. He claimed we were experienced snake handlers
and this particular boa was well-fed and peaceful. The cab driver floored it and hustled us to the airport in record time,
despite frequent periods of driving while looking in the back seat.

Back in our Tacoma apartment, the boa was poured from the laundry bag into his glass home. Other than some false bravado
in the pet store, no one was willing to touch the snake, let alone step up to the thrill of being the first person
to reach into that laundry bag and grab a 23 pound boa constrictor. Eventually, it dawned on us that this creature
might need to eat. Somewhere in our past, we had heard about boas wrapping around rodents, crushing them to death,
and then swallowing them whole after dislocating its jaw. We needed a rodent. The next day, we bought a large white rat
at a local pet shop and invited our friends to a live showing of “Wild Kingdom” at our apartment when the boa would catch,
crush, and devour a full-grown white rat. Since it was not longed for this world, we did not bother to name the rat and also
avoided eye contact with it. Several friends showed up for the show. We closed off the tiled entryway to the apartment
with overturned chairs and put the snake in the middle with the idea that we would turn lose the rat and watch the show,
not unlike the ancient Romans watching the lions eat the Christians. Some hid their eyes to avoid the horror that was to come next.
We turned the white rat loose into this arena of death only to have the rat saunter up to the snake and bite it on the snout
thus causing the snake to turn tail (which is everything behind its mouth) and slither away from the rat who dominated
the center of the arena. What humiliation when the audience roared with laughter. Now we had two pets, a boa constrictor
and an unnamed white rat who both lived in the glass and wood container. We thought that perhaps we had aimed a bit high
with a large rodent and then bought a couple of small white mice. Then we had four pets. We later recalled hearing the pet store owner
tell us that boas only eat when they are hungry and this one had been recently fed. We shouldn't expect it to be hungry again
for a couple of weeks. It finally ate some raw hamburger that we literally shoved down its throat about 17 days later.
I don't recall what happened to the rodents so let's just say they were released into the wilds.

Keeping a good-sized boa constrictor in an apartment complex has a few drawbacks. One time the snake went missing
for several days, during which time we searched everywhere we could think of inside and outside the apartment.
No one slept very soundly during the missing snake episode. We finally found him wedged full-length along the top of the
floor radiator, which required some minor disassembly to retrieve the snake. We did a poor job of keeping quiet
about the snake's presence, as it was such a great conversation starter that we couldn't resist showing it off in public.
It was always good for a laugh or two to bring the snake to the apartment complex swimming pool to entertain the kids,
who were very curious and showed practically no fear of it. Their mothers were less enthusiastic.

Eventually, the apartment manager learned of the snake's presence, coming face to face with it while showing our apartment
to some potential renters. We came home that day to a sign on the door demanding our presence in the her office immediately!!
Realizing we were toast, Zingo suggested we wear our dress blue uniforms with spit shined shoes and all the trimmings
and report to her as we might report to a court martial. She was not impressed but was very insistent that the snake had to go.
She also implied that it would please her if we would go too. Naturally, the silver-tongued Zingo stepped forward,
seized the moment, and appealed to her pity and patriotism, pleading with her that we were soon going off to war
and would probably return either wounded or in a box. Couldn't she dig deep in her kind heart to find the compassion
to give us one more chance? With tears in her eyes, she agreed that we would stay but the snake HAD TO GO.
This was non-negotiable. The snake moved into the barracks the next day.

 

The Snake Gets a Name

The snake needed a name other than “the snake.” We settled on “Clarence” as this was the first name of the 1-22d Infantry
Battalion Sergeant Major, Clarence Aruba. Throughout the history of armies, there has always been a natural love-hate relationship
between know-nothing junior lieutenants and know-all senior non-commissioned officers. SMAJ Clarence Aruba was an outstanding
senior NCO, who took as his solemn duty to convert a motley collection of lieutenants into at least partially useful leaders.
I once heard him say, “The three most useless things in the Army are cold coffee, wet toilet paper, and second lieutenants.”
He was on us constantly to shape up and get serious about our responsibilities and so he was to be avoided, if possible.
We could do nothing right in his eyes and we hated every encounter with this wily veteran of seemingly every battle
since the Revolutionary War. Naming a snake after him was partly an honor but mostly a juvenile statement of sarcasm.

 

A Soldier's Farewell

My hometown is a tiny farming community in Eastern Oregon. A week or so before our brigade boarded the USS Walker
and we deployed, I drove home to say goodbye to my parents and younger brother. While I was there, several neighbors
had a pot luck dinner for me at the grange hall, attended by about 30 people. I'm not proud of what transpired, although
at the time it seemed like a good idea to bring Clarence to the feast. He was in his laundry bag and at my feet under the table.
After a WWII vet neighbor said many good things about me and the community's pride that I would be representing them
by serving my country, I was expected to make a few comments. I thanked them for coming, told them I'd try to make them proud,
and then I introduced Clarence. My dear aunt had been sitting across from me throughout the meal and had been nudging
whatever was in the bag at her feet. When I pulled Clarence out to say hello, she shrieked and just about fainted dead away.
My dear mother was not pleased. In fact she was so disappointed with me that she did not speak to me for most
of the rest of the visit. Bringing Clarence to a banquet was not a good idea.

 

 

Troop Ship Shenanigans

Clarence was carried aboard the USS Walker in my gym bag, which was to be his home and transport for the next year.
Most of the Charlie Company soldiers knew of this stow away snake, but they all kept quiet to see if we could get away with
sneaking a snake across the Pacific. I was housed in a cabin with several other junior officers. Not all my cabin mates were enthused
about sharing this small space with a 25 pound boa constrictor, but by then most of them had learned to handle Clarence
and were not quite as paranoid as you might think. Soon after we sailed out to sea and saw the Washington coastline dip
below the horizon, I unzipped the gym bag to give Clarence some air. I thought I had heard him hissing in there
and should not have been surprised when he ripped out of that bag and immediately climbed up into the overhead pipes,
wrapping himself firmly around a couple of them. My cabin mates were okay with leaving him alone for a day or so to “cool down”
so to speak, although the guy in the top bunk directly beneath Clarence insisted on changing bunks with me.
Clarence was to remain in those overhead pipes for several of the 17 days of our voyage.

While Clarence was still cooling down up above, we had an unfortunate incident in the cabin when one of my mates accidentally
discharged his .45 caliber pistol while showing it to his friends. Others of us were returning from the evening movie
when this happened and when I heard the loud bang, I swear I could see the bullet ricocheting off the bulkheads of the
passageway outside our cabin. Needless to say, this incident attracted attention of the ship's captain real fast. Within minutes,
our cabin was completely filled with shoulder-to-shoulder naval brass, and they made it clear that they did not appreciate
my cabin mate shooting up their beloved ship. Thank goodness, no one was hurt. While all this commotion was in progress,
Clarence loomed above the fray while I prayed fervently that no one would look up.

This shooting incident caused me to realize that Clarence was too exposed in his overhead pipe perch and it was time
to bring him down. I asked for help and quickly learned who my real friends were. Finally, one brave soul, no doubt
an airborne ranger infantryman, stepped forward. We agreed that I would grab Clarence behind the head while he unwrapped his tail.
We had moved the bunks around and were kneeling on the top bunk looking straight up into the pipes that had been the snake's refuge.
We then learned a valuable lesson that snakes are like any other animal and when they are scared, they are prone to empty their bowels.
Let me just say that gravity was working well that day and I was glad to be holding the snake's head when he proceeded
to cover my buddy with a goodly amount of smelly snake shit. Naturally, all those observing this debacle joined us in laughing so hard
that we nearly fell from the bunk. To his ever-lasting credit my stalwart buddy finished helping me unwind the now empty snake
and after we had him safely in his gym bag, marched into the showers, uniform and all to try and put this adventure behind him.

For the remainder of the voyage, Clarence seemed at peace with his gym bag home and we had no more overhead pipe escapes.
Occasionally, I would take him below to help bolster the morale of the Charlie Company troops, but we were careful
not to give him too much exposure lest the word sift back to the folks running the ship. We had a porthole in our cabin
and once in a while troops would congregate just outside and make a lot of noise. It only took one time of holding Clarence
out the port hole and asking nicely if they would shut up or find another place to gather.

 

The 1-22d Infantry (and Clarence) Come Ashore

Finally, we came in sight of South Vietnam. With thoughts of D-Day and the war in the Pacific, we loaded onto LSTs to come ashore.
Clarence had safely crossed the ocean and was ready to do his duty. Most of the 1-22d got onto waiting trucks for a hair-raising convoy
from Quin Nhon to Pleiku. Charlie Company had been named the “honor company” to spend the night in Quin Nhon and then get back
on the LST's and go out and circle around in the bay while dignitaries from South Vietnam and the U.S. Army assembled
to greet this first element of the Fourth Infantry Division into the theater of operations. It was a grand ceremony which included
one proud company of infantry with one boa constrictor safely tucked away in a gym bag.

We spent the night before the ceremony in GP medium tents on the beach, with us junior officers in one half of a tent
that was shared with the Associated Press and United Press International reporters there to cover the next day's ceremony.
Since it was his first night on dry land, I let Clarence out of his gym bag and he promptly slithered the length of the GP medium,
crawling under the canvas sheet that divided us from the reporters. By the time I could run around to their side of the tent,
it looked like someone had thrown a grenade in a pile of pudding. Those reporters had scattered to the four winds
when a rather large snake entered their midst. With apologies all around, I gathered Clarence back into his bag.
Several of the reporters were intrigued with what looked to be a new angle on reporting the arrival of yet one more division
to Vietnam. Many of the stories that were dispatched that day referred to the “Seasick Serpent Comes Ashore” or words to that effect.
Since both Clarence and I were named in their stories, we were almost famous, which led to a story of Clarence's torrid pen
pal love affair, which will be covered later.

Our division commander, MG Collins, arrived in Vietnam when the next brigade landed a few weeks later. He was not happy
to read about a stupid snake upstaging the landing of his famous division. Upon his arrival in country, I was ordered
to report to him and be admonished for my actions. Naturally, I saw my career slipping away before it even got started.
In fact, General Collins turned out to be a man of good humor who thought the whole thing was good for morale.
His parting words were something to the effect that he now knew my name and would be watching for any more attempts
to upstage the good soldiers of his division.

 

     

A photo of LT Jay Vaughn
holding Clarence, from one of the
newspaper articles done about them.

Note how Clarence is wrapped around
the right ankle of LT. Vaughn.

 

Combat Operations

Clarence's duties were limited to laying around the Charlie Company orderly room as part of the welcoming committee for
replacements reporting to the company. He also served as guard for the MPC (Military Pay Certificates) when I would be
the pay officer for the soldiers in hospitals around the country. I would pile the MPC's in Clarence's gym bag with the snake on top.
I never lost a dime. Clarence gave us a scare during a mortar attack on one of the brigade firebases near Pleiku. The attack
happened to coincide with the exact time I had let Clarence out of his cage for a little exercise. When we all started
ducking for cover, Clarence slithered under a quarter-ton vehicle and proceeded to wrap himself around the rear axle.
I knew I could not let him get too tightly wound after our experience on the troop ship, so I crawled under there after him.
The rounds kept coming and I can recall thinking at the time that just maybe it would be smarter to let the snake go and get some
sandbags between me and those mortar rounds. Anyway, God takes care of small children and fools and was on my side that day.
We both made it through that attack without a scratch.

Much of the time, I was a rifle platoon leader and was beating the bush looking for Charley. During that time,
Clarence was under the care of the company clerk, whose name escapes me. He took excellent care of Clarence
by finding him small birds, frogs, and occasionally other snakes to eat. Our main worry was that the Vietnamese who worked
inside the fire base would steal Clarence and turn him into a bunch of wallets or belts. At times, I had the duty of
company executive officer, which meant I was in the company rear worrying about resupply, personnel and, most importantly,
mail deliveries to the troops. Once or twice, Clarence would accompany me on a helicopter ride to the bring mail, hot chow
or supplies to the company in the field. The troops would always ask if he was along. During these trips,
he rode in my backpack, which was an eerie feeling when he began moving around. I was worried about him getting loose
on the helicopter and falling out.

One memorable trip to pay some troops in a hospital was when Clarence and I had to wait at an airstrip for a ride to the
division base camp in Pleiku. While we were waiting, a company of South Korean soldiers landed and formed up right in front of us.
I had never encountered our ROK allies, although I had heard that they were proud and fierce fighters and not to be trifled with.
My first mistake was to let Clarence out of his bag behind this formation. Before I could catch him, he headed
straight through the ranks causing this otherwise highly disciplined unit to break ranks and scatter. My second and
more serious mistake was to laugh. It was not the least bit funny to the ROK captain company commander,
a very tough looking gentleman, who for several minutes screamed words in my face that I did not understand
but was able to deduce their meaning, given the purple color of his face and how much his veins seemed to be popping out.
His tirade continued while I gamely tried to stuff a reluctant 7 foot boa constrictor back into his bag before he was drawn
and quartered, if that is even possible with a snake. We waited for our ride on another part of the landing strip.

 

 

Clarence Falls In Love

An interesting episode in Clarence's tour of duty began with the arrival of a letter from a lady in New Jersey addressed to
LT Clarence Vaughn. She had seen the newspaper article of the division's arrival in Vietnam and felt moved by her patriotism
to exchange letters with a lonely soldier. She had me mixed up with Clarence. With a little help from a friend, Clarence wrote back.
He corrected the name confusion and said his name was Clarence B. Reptilias, recently from Central America, who now
proudly served with American soldiers. He described himself as tall and slender and usually very quiet.

More letters were exchanged and were read at company formations. The lady told us about herself. It became a central part
of mail call to see if there was a letter for Clarence because I requested ideas about what should be in Clarence's letters.
Remember that this was an all-male infantry unit filled with lovestarved grunts who had not seen a round-eyed American girl in forever.
Their suggestions mostly revolved around asking for pictures showing as much skin as possible. She complied as best she could
within her own bounds of decency. When she asked for pictures of Clarence, he stalled. Eventually, the company supply sergeant
began writing to her and, in effect, snaked the snake. We all appreciated the good-hearted intentions of this nice person
and are grateful for her support.

 

Epilog

When my year in Vietnam ended, I left Clarence in the good care of the Charlie Company clerk.
What finally happened to him will have to be told by a Charlie Company trooper who was there after July 1967.
I like to think he was eventually released into the wilds and is now a huge menace in the Central Highlands.
That or he was treated as a delicacy in a Vietnamese home. Whatever, I was almost as glad to say goodbye to Clarence
as I was to get on that beautiful airplane heading home. My high school sweetheart and I had been talking about getting married.
She knew about Clarence and was more than a little curious as to whether or not Clarence would be with me.
She never actually said that would be a deal breaker. It probably was.

 

 

**********************

 

About the author:

Jay Vaughn graduated from the US Military Academy Class of 1965.
Airborne & Ranger Schools at Ft Benning, GA,
Ft Lewis and Vietnam, 1-22d Infantry, 4ID October 1965-July 1967
Transferred to MI Branch, aide to CG US Army Security Agency
Tulane U., New Orleans, Operatins Research Systems Analysis MBA
Arlington Hall Station, VA
Ft Leavenworth, KS - CGSC
Staff and Faculty, USMA
I Corps ROK/US Group, Camp Red Cloud, Korea
Combined Arms Test Activity, Fort Hood, TX
Pacific Command, Camp Smith, HI
Bn CDR, 105th MI Bn, 5ID, Ft Polk, LA
Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA
Intelligence Center and School, Ft Huachuca, AZ
Retired at rank of Colonel in 1993
Taught mathematics in grades 7-12 and at the community college level.
Current pursuits: Grandkid chauffer, dog walker, gofer

 

Story and photos copyright Jay Vaughn 2011

 

 

 

 


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