Monday morning, eight o’clock. Feeding time for the snake.
Biggest snake I ever saw. An 18-foot Burmese Python named "Pete".
Pete resided in a 20-foot cage in a shaded area next to the U-2 hangar at U-tapao Air Base, Thailand. When the U-2 launched every day at three in the afternoon, hardly anyone showed up to watch that.
But once a week—every Monday morning—a sizeable crowd would gather at the side of that hangar to observe the feeding of Pete the python. And for the show that preceded it.
Iron Mike would be there. In fact, he was part of the show.
Breakfast was always a live chicken. Apparently, the python liked chicken. It must have tasted like something the reptile had eaten in the wild, perhaps like something the creature’s mother had encouraged it to try with those familiar words, “Come on, you’ll like it. It tastes like chicken!”
At eight o’clock someone would bring out the chicken. Iron Mike would jump for joy, hooting and hollering. He’d even do back flips like a monkey. Actually, he was a monkey. He resided in a much smaller cage next to Pete the Python’s.
Iron Mike lived for Monday mornings. He knew what was coming. The chicken. It would always go into his cage first thing.
Now monkeys must be the horniest animals on the planet. Iron Mike proved that every Monday morning at eight o’clock with the assembled onlookers cheering him on.
When he was through, his fouled fowl would be transferred to the adjacent cage as the weekly entree for the patiently waiting python.
The cheering would stop, the crowd turning reflective as the hapless chicken met its demise. Meanwhile, Iron Mike relaxed in his cage, the hint of a satisfied smile on his face. Had someone offered him one, he probably would have smoked a cigarette.
In the cage next door, the python had a lump in its throat—the chicken.
The show was over. Invariably as the crowd began to disperse, someone could be heard to say,
“Now that’s what I call going out with a bang!”
“Snake” was a big black fellow. He was the flight engineer on another crew and he was a good one. It was two in the morning when I ran into him in Pattaya Beach, where my crew and his were enjoying liberty. I was ready to head back to U-tapao Air Base to get a little sleep before assuming watch officer duties at seven. Snake was ready to go back as well. The base was 45 kilometers away. Snake and I decided to share a taxi.
In Pattaya Beach, taxis were called Baht Busses. They were little Japanese pickups equipped with camper shells and a wooden bench seat along each side of their truck beds. They roamed incessantly up and down Pattaya’s main street, which ran along the beachfront. If you needed a ride, you just jumped on a passing Baht Bus, found a seat on one of the benches, paid the driver one Baht (about five cents) and rode as far as you wanted to go.
We flagged down an empty Baht Bus, asked the driver to take us to U-tapao and agreed on a fare for the out-of-town trip. The driver explained that he would be making a quick stop to pick up a friend, who would ride along with him in the front of the pickup. “For safety reasons,” he said. Snake and I climbed in the back, each of us occupying one of the bench seats immediately behind the cab.
The two-lane highway running between Pattaya and U-tapao meandered through the lush, green countryside of Thailand. It passed through an occasional village, but mostly there was nothing along the way but palm trees, jungle and elephant grass. And it was dark, particularly at two in the morning.
About halfway to the base, in an area where the highway was totally deserted, our Baht Bus suddenly turned off the pavement and braked to a halt in a small clearing in the head-high elephant grass. Our driver and his friend opened their doors and scrambled out. My body tensed, my pulse rate went to a million. Snake and I frowned at each other, but otherwise did not move. Both of us knew what the two Thai men had in mind—to separate us from our valuables. Such robberies were commonplace in Thailand. What we didn’t know was just how far these particular fellows were prepared to go. We eyed them warily as they scurried around to the back of the Baht Bus. They shouted at us, ordering us to get out. One of them brandished a knife, the other a broken bottle. Snake calmly held up his left hand, motioning for me to remain in place, though I had no intention of moving. The driver shouted even more furiously. We stayed put. The two men started to climb inside. Snake’s right hand went to his waist. Our would-be attackers froze when they came face to face with his .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun.
He glowered at them, the whites of his snake eyes, conspicuous in the dark, flashing menacingly. He jerked the barrel of his .45 from side to side to wave them off.
“Get back in da truck,” he commanded them in a deep, authoritative voice. They did - quickly. In a matter of seconds, we were back on the highway, once again en route to U-tapao Air Base. Snake slipped his .45 back inside the waistband of his trousers. “Dumb shits,” he said.“Yep,” I responded, thankful I’d run across him that morning and had not attempted to venture back to the base alone.
A few miles further down the road, my adrenaline level and heartbeat finally returned to normal. Snake told me he never went on liberty overseas without his weapon. No telling how many regulations he was violating.
Who knows what would have happened if Snake hadn’t had been illegally carrying his .45 that night. Chances are we’d have been cut up and left in the middle of nowhere as breakfast for a big passing python.
But one thing was certain: Snake’s secret was safe with me.
LONNIE "SNAKE" STOGLIN
Oct 16, 1940 - Feb 22, 2011
“Even snakes are afraid of snakes.” — Steven Wright
The Air Force major was regaling my P-3 crew with tales of daring do in his F-4 Phantom fighter jet. I ordered a cold Singha beer and joined them on the verandah overlooking the Gulf of Siam.
My flight engineer, Gary Davidson, introduced me simply as “another member of our crew.” I shook the major’s hand and pulled up a chair.
It had been a peculiar introduction. Gary deliberately had omitted the fact that I was the crew’s patrol plane commander—the leader of this ragtag bunch—and that I was an officer. He flashed a conspiratorial wink in my direction and I knew that once again he was up to some kind of mischief. There was an old saying in the Navy that enlisted men were sly and cunning and bore watching at all times. Davidson was out to prove it. The major went on with his stories. He boasted at length about having saved his aircraft on several occasions, twice landing badly damaged F-4s aboard Navy carriers.Clearly, he was prone to exaggeration. Then he related how thrilling it was simply to peer down at the earth from an aircraft cruising miles high in the air, figuring to impress a bunch of earthbound yokels like us.“It must be great,” Gary said, feigning envy. “Us sailors, we wouldn’t know anything about that,” he added. “Aboard ship, all we got’s ocean—far as you can see.”I got the gist of Davidson’s charade. Obviously, he’d led the major to believe that we were enlisted crewmen ashore on liberty from some Navy rustbucket. I wasn’t sure why.In truth, we were in the middle of a ten-day detachment to U-tapao Air Base, Thailand, flying daily surveillance missions and conducting coordinated operations with British Navy units in the Indian Ocean. We were on liberty, all right, but not from any ship.For our squadron’s flight crews, these excursions to Thailand were welcome respites from the grind of a six-month deployment in the Philippines. For Crew One, they were cherished opportunities to party.Seldom did we remain on the base overnight. Instead, we opted for rented bungalows in Pataya Beach, a coastal resort forty-five kilometers from U-tapao and three hours south of the capital city of Bangkok. A popular destination for Australian tourists, Pataya Beach was Thailand’s own little Riviera.Pataya featured a number of beachfront clubs like this one. In all of them, bands played American rock, nubile Thai women got naked on stage and customers guzzling Singhas sat around tables on open-air terraces overhanging the gently lapping surf. “Major,” Davidson said, “just how fast can that F-4 go, anyway?”“Well, I’m afraid that’s classified,” he said condescendingly. “But I can tell you...it’s more than 600 knots.”“Wow!” the wide-eyed Davidson responded. “I understand what you mean about information like that being classified.” He looked around as if ensuring no spies could overhear him, leaned closer to the major and spoke in a low voice. “Like the top speed of our ship. Don’t let this get out, but it’s way over six knots.”“Hmmm,” the major said, assuming he ought to be impressed by this revelation. “What’s the name of your ship?”I decided to play along with Davidson. “The USS Waddlethromp,” I put in. “Fightingest refrigerator ship in the entire Pacific Fleet.”“Really?”“Yes, sir,” I said. “You know, the Waddlethromp was right alongside the Pueblo when she was captured by the North Koreans. Man, did we get outta there fast.”The major nodded. “Good move.”Davidson kept the deception going. “But that was nothing, major. What’s really exciting is trying to keep the lettuce cold out here in the South Pacific. Believe me, in this heat it’s a ball buster.”“Imagine so,” the major said, trying to picture that.“Another beer, major?” Gary asked.“Sure. Thanks.”“Comin’ right up.” Gary motioned a waitress over and ordered another round. “Always happy to buy a drink for a good man.”“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the rest of the guys murmured.Then Davidson got serious. “You know, it’s too bad our officers won’t come drinking with us lowly enlisted men like this. Just doesn’t happen in the Navy—at least not on the Waddlethromp.”The major welcomed the compliment. He raised his beer bottle and clinked it against Gary’s, smugly eating up the adulation. Actually, my navigator, “Foggy Bob,” had been introduced earlier to the major as an ensign, the only officer present. But Foggy had remained somewhat aloof and was sitting apart from the rest of us quietly looking on.“Major,” Gary said, struggling to keep a straight face, “we have a custom in the Navy. Maybe you know about it. It’s called ‘wetting down.’ When we have an officer we really connect with, we wet him down.”The major glanced anxiously over his shoulder toward the waist-high guardrail that enclosed the terrace. There was no question in his mind what Gary was suggesting—that he was going to be tossed over it into the drink.“I know all about that custom,” he said, holding both his hands up as if to say stop. “Thanks just the same, but I really wouldn’t want you to do that.”“Major,” Gary said, “you’d better put your watch and wallet on the table.”“No, no, no, no. You don’t want to be doing this.”“Major, put your watch and wallet on the table.”“I’m serious, fellas. You’re going to get into real bad trouble, I’m warning you.”Undeterred, Gary tapped the table top with his index finger and spoke even more sternly. “Major, put your watch and your wallet on the table. Right here.”The major turned beseechingly to Foggy Bob. “Listen, you’re an officer. These men work for you. Tell ‘em to knock it off or they’ll wind up in the brig.”Now Foggy Bob was a meek, fragile little guy, clearly out of place in the Navy. He was a redhead who wore a tidy mustache and goatee along with a necklace of love beads left over from the time when he’d lived in a commune before joining the military. His voice was squeaky and high-pitched as if he were only now entering adolescence.But this may have been Foggy’s finest moment. He played the role of himself perfectly. With a deadpan expression on his thin face, he shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms up in a gesture of helplessness. “You know,” he squeaked, “whenever they get like this, there’s not a darned thing I can do with them.” Then he rolled his eyes, flipped his hands over limp-wristedly and said, “Go ahead, guys.”Way to go, Foggy!The major gave up. He stood, took off his watch and removed his wallet from the rear pocket of his trousers, but left his shoes on. “Okay, okay,” he said. “But I don’t want you to touch me. I’ll do it myself.”With that, he turned, climbed over the guardrail and jumped fully clothed into the shallow surf.We were dumbfounded. It had all been a bluff. Since we had no way of knowing whether there were rocks or other hard objects immediately under the surface of the water, we never had intended to actually throw him off the terrace. But, unpredictably, he had jumped in without our help. My entire crew, even Foggy, rushed to the handrail and peered down. At first, we couldn’t see the major in the darkness. He was completely submerged and we feared he’d knocked himself unconscious. Finally, though, he gained his footing and struggled to a standing position in the waist-high surf, spitting and fingering salt water from his eyes. When he sloshed dripping wet back onto the terrace, Gary returned his valuables to him and bought him another beer.“Major, that was the most amazing thing I ever saw.”“Thanks.”“I don’t think any of our officers would ever do that.” Then Gary turned to me. “Would you, sir?”
The major picked up on that. “Wait a minute. Why did you call that man sir?”
“Oh,” Gary said. “Because he’s a lieutenant—a captain in your language. He’s also a P-3 aircraft commander and we’re his flight crew.”
“But...but...what about that ship...the Waddlethromp?”
“Fightingest refrigerator ship in the Pacific Fleet.”
Crew 1, Follow Us!
When speaking to military crowds, I like to begin my remarks with a question: “Ever been to a Navy base as an Army or Air Force captain?” The typical response is a smattering of giggles, nods and knowing smiles as some members of the audience anticipate where my question is leading.
“And,” I continue, “when you called for lodging or transportation and identified yourself as ‘Captain so-and-so,’ could you just hear the sailor on the other end of the line snap to attention?” Now even those who’d never enjoyed the experience themselves, but had heard their friends tell of it, are smiling. Others look guilty. A few seem worried, as though some sort of overdue military justice might be served upon those foolish enough to fess up.
Until I tell them, “If you ever find yourself in that situation……I say….go for it! If an Army or Air Force captain—or even a Marine captain—can be treated as a Navy captain for a day, I say, enjoy the promotion!”
Of course about now while the audience is accepting this unusual bit of nowhere-in-the-book advice with tentative relish, their unit commander, suddenly petrified by the vision of his being shipped off to Leavenworth for suborning such a blatant violation of the UCMJ, has jumped up, begun waving his arms with vigor and shaking his head NO!!!
To forestall his rushing to the podium with a hook, I pretend not to notice and forge on.
“And the reason I say go for it is because, way back when, the Air Force did something even nicer than that for me. Here’s how it happened.”
Back in 1964 when I signed up for Navy pilot training, the Navy offered a path to commissioning called AVROC—the Aviation Reserve Officer Candidate program—and that’s the one I chose. The AVROC program allowed you to complete Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, over the course of two summers while you attended the college of your choice during the regular school year. Once you completed both summers of AOCS and graduated from college, you’d be commissioned an ensign and begin flight training in Pensacola.
By the spring of 1968 I’d finished AOCS and was back at Southern Colorado State College in Pueblo wrapping up the last few credit hours I needed for graduation when a letter from the Navy showed up. It said something like, “Boy, it’s time for you to get your butt over to Olathe, Kansas, get commissioned, then head on down to Pensacola and start learnin’ how to fly.” Why Olathe? That’s where I’d been processed into the Navy in the first place, and in order for that recruiting district to receive its just reward, its commander was supposed to swear me in.
I arrived at NAS Olathe near Kansas City on a Friday afternoon. My commissioning ceremony was set for 0800 the next morning in the Captain’s office. And it was not a group thing—no one else was scheduled to be commissioned that day. Problem was I didn’t even own a uniform, as we’d been required to turn in our AOCS duds at the end of the program.
So I headed straight to the Navy Exchange to buy the only uniform a brand new starving college grad with a wife and two kids could afford, your basic “ice cream suit.” That’s a set of Summer Whites—white short-sleeve shirt, white trousers, white shoes and socks, white belt and a white officer’s combination cap. Oh, and one set of black ensign shoulder boards, each bedecked with the single gold stripe of an ensign and a gold star to indicate eligibility for command at sea, the insignia of a line officer.
Thanks to the Navy Exchange seamstress who agreed to tailor my “trou” for me while I waited, within an hour I was in a BOQ room with my spiffy new uniform hanging in the closet ready for the big event. That done, I proceeded to the Officers Club for dinner—which would follow a “Commission Eve” celebratory adult beverage or two at Happy Hour.
A few too many, as it turned out, for when eight O’clock Saturday morning rolled around, I was still soundly abed, contentedly and obliviously sawing logs. A persistent, angry pounding on my BOQ door sometime later gradually dragged me into a state of semi-consciousness. It was the recruiting district’s Command Master Chief whom the Captain had sent to find me and haul me back to his office. The master chief was not about to return empty handed.
My swearing in was a bit unusual, preceded as it was by a butt-chewing and an unforgettable lecture about timeliness, responsibility and one other thing I can’t recall. Not exactly the way I’d imagined launching my career as a naval aviator.
Three days later I was in Colorado Springs, my immediate family’s home since the (unrelated I assure you) advent of Prohibition in 1919. I donned my three-day-old Summer White uniform, replete with my three-day-old ensign shoulder boards, and, with my first set of permanent change of station orders in hand, drove over to Ent Air Force Base (former home of NORAD, today the U.S. Olympic Training Center) to arrange the movement of my household goods from Pueblo to Pensacola. The transportation office where that would happen was situated in a large wooden building originally built as a warehouse, by all appearances.
Immediately inside the entrance and at the top of a carpeted stairway there was a customer service counter with four stools standing empty in front of it for customers like me. I straddled one, laid my three-day-old white officers combination cap on the counter and handed my orders to the civilian lady sitting at her desk on the other side. She began efficiently typing up the necessary forms, asking me the occasional question along the way. Clearly, she was a pro at her job.
After a while I noticed that eight or ten Air Force enlisted folks were huddled at the back of the room, collectively flipping back and forth through some great big manual. Every minute or so, they would pause and swivel their faces in my direction. Then they’d all shrug their shoulders, turn back to their book and resume flipping through it willy-nilly. Finally, a young female airman emerged from the huddle and sidled toward me, her face twisted in utter confusion, one eye closed and the other squinting at my left shoulder board.
“Scyewz me, Sar,” she said, “what rank are yew?”
“Why, I’m an ensign,” I said proudly.
“Oh,” she said. “Uh...is that like a…..gen’ral?”
After a moment’s hesitation, I smiled and said, “Same thing.”
“Okay then,” the airman said, clearly relieved. “Thank yew, Sar.” She turned and rejoined her office mates, a satisfied I-told-you-so expression on her face.
The savvy civilian lady typing my paperwork tried to hold back, but finally lost it and laughed herself nearly out of her chair.
So there you have it. I’d been commissioned for only three days and the Air Force had made me a one-star general—an instant promotion of six ranks from O-1 to O-7.
And I think to myself, “Say, this Navy gig is gonna be a piece o’ cake. At this rate, in another couple of weeks I’ll be ready to retire!”
Sergei Kryuchkov was KGB. More than that, his father, Vladimir Kryuchkov, headed that organization, the most formidable espionage agency on Earth—much larger and more powerful than the German Gestapo had ever been.
I met Sergei in Geneva, Switzerland, in the late 1980s when he was a senior member of the Soviet delegation to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.
The Soviet Union still existed then. Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge. The Cold War continued unabated. Nevertheless, the United States and the Soviet Union were about to complete the START I Treaty, the first pact between the two superpowers that would actually reduce rather than merely limit their strategic nuclear weapons.
One evening at a diplomatic reception hosted by the Soviets in their Geneva mission, I found myself in a protracted conversation with Sergei Kryuchkov, known KGB agent and son of that agency’s head spook. We were sipping red wine—rotgut Soviet red wine—from paper cups.
It was a typical diplomatic reception—200 people, half of them Americans, the rest Soviets, grazing from a buffet table brimming with finger food, exchanging diplomatic half-truths diplomatically.
The Soviets always put out good food at their receptions, better than the stuff we served at the American mission when it was our turn to host. However, because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s desire to reduce alcoholism among government officials, the Soviet mission was prohibited from serving hard liquor at its diplomatic functions. Beer and wine only—Soviet wine at that.
Our side was not similarly constrained. Whenever the Soviet delegation arrived at one of our receptions, its members shot right past the food table, hot-footing it to our fully stocked bar like hallucinating desert survivors pursuing an illusionary oasis.
When we Americans showed up at a Soviet reception, we went first for the food; visiting the bar was but a diplomatic obligation.
So Kryuchkov and I were talking. I was about to say something I’m sure would have been quite profound when he took a sip of his rotgut Soviet red wine and made a contorted face.
“Excuse me for a moment,” he said, forestalling my profundity, then walked purposefully to the bar. He returned a moment later sporting a fresh drink, something other than wine. He was beaming.
"You know," he said through a broad grin, "when you're really thirsty, nothing beats a Coca Cola!”
Pepsi beats Coke!”—The Pepsi-Cola Company