The Coral Snake

February 14, 1943 – New Hebrides Islands

Just looking at the beautiful shore invites a curiosity that all adventurers involuntarily pursue without caution. The heat of high noon was blistering as our motor barge neared the shore of the recreation grounds. We were only five minutes from the palm-studded beach, which was actually owned by the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Company. Millions of manicured palm trees were grown in these tropics for their products. There were no wild animals of a threatening nature that lived here other than spiders, flies and lizards. Such an environment made living here a Paradise.

One could find in this land all the wonders of vegetation ranging from watermelons, oranges, limes, lemons, wild peppers, mangoes, spearmint leaves, pineapples, sugar cane, cotton, bananas to tangerines. Outstanding in the burgeoning palette of wild flowers seen everywhere were the orchids blossoming on trees.

The motor barge deposited its happy campers on the sand carrying their swim trunks, baseball gloves and towels. We were all still kids at heart ready for a good time. It didn’t take long for everyone to strip down and run for a swim in the inviting tropical water. This carefree form was like a touch of home. For a moment I stood in awe pondering the millions of coconut palm trees and the wealth they represented.

The boys had already gravitated to one tree in particular. It was of a different species growing with a host of others along the shores of the water. Its branches were so wide that one could walk on them without any trouble. This area was obviously “Tarzan” land. Some adventurous movie-goer with a vicarious sense of thrill had earlier attached two ropes to some of the high branches to simulate a “Tarzan” swing line. Already the more fearless of our group were echoing the Johnny Weissmuller jungle cry of the apes—swinging out and splashing into the deep waters.

The guys waited in line patiently for their turn at this new challenge. The time came all too soon and I was next. It was a high climb to the jumping position. When I looked down, I was filled with palm-sweating mixed emotions. Certainly this potential danger was far less a challenge than being strafed, bombed, or even torpedoed. I was almost tempted to say “forget it” but that would have been too easy compared with the razzing I would have received. It was a dizzying height looking down into the water, but if I had to jump over the side to abandon ship, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment. I made my decision. I’ll do it no matter what!

I gripped the rope, which had been looped to a broken branch; the higher end was tied to a section of the tree projecting far over the water. It was time. I pulled the rope taught, took a deep breath, tensed and jumped to the screaming strains of animal fear, swinging down, down and up, up, then let go, sailing through the air and fell, shattering on the flat tropical water below. My whole body smarted and water was forced up my nose into my throat. What a thrill! Thank God! It was over!

I gleefully daydreamed while treading water. Now this was living! John Hall had nothing on me! There’s only one thing missing! That movie version of the beautiful native girl with a white flower in her hair waiting for me on the beach. The reverie lasted ‘ti1 I swam back to shore. One of the guys said, “Hey, Eis! That was one hell of a Tarzan yell!” I sheepishly smiled and then swam off content with having escaped an embarrassment. By sheer luck, the “Tarzan” call was happily misinterpreted.

Still relishing the moment, I thought I’d like to do it again. It really wasn’t that bad. As a matter of fact, it was fun! Maybe another time. At this point, I was ready for another adventure, so back into the crystal clear waters I dove, but this time wearing my diving mask to explore life under water. It was wonderful. The mask offered protection and clear vision. It was like looking through a window without the salt water biting into my eyes.

Diving down to a fifteen foot depth was like visiting another world with miniaturized mountains and valleys of coral and sea vegetation fanned in dramatic color and texture. Its swimming inhabitants painted in flamboyant design varied in size and shape, darting singly and moving in schools with the uniform grace and precision of ballet dancers. The distant clarity of vision was astonishing. With all the hundreds of fish swimming in diverse directions, life beneath the sea was in a state of perpetual movement. The activity before my eyes was swirling and massive, yet none of the fish collided… at least not in my view.

Such harmony of movement seemed to justify a statement I once read about the sea—that life on land was lived far less in harmony than life beneath the sea. It implied more than traffic. Its meaning embraced behaviour. Fish both large and tiny like Angel fish would swim right up to my face, peering into my eyes without fear. For the first time this concept seemed understandably believable. Even small, dark, striped snakes swam harmlessly and silently by, as an integral part of a peaceful and harmonious family existence beneath the sea. It was a whole new experience for me. I continued to swim, testing my ability to hold my breath for longer periods of time with each dive. It became a game. I was totally enraptured by the new discoveries unfolding at greater depths.

Then it happened. The silence and crushing weight of water pressure gave rise to a strange dizzying sensation. I began to slip into a warm, dark, peaceful oblivion. It was frightening. My subconscious alerted me to imminent danger. I reacted involuntarily, fighting blindly, swimming to the surface with lungs bursting for oxygen. It wasn’t until minutes later, after this weird episode, that I clearly understood the message. I did not swim as deep. This undersea diving and its pitfalls are too uncertain for foolish chances.

I continued to swim with measured caution and respect, watching three boys with rather interesting undersea gear readying themselves for some spear fishing. One wore a mask similar to mine and a pair of wide, long rubber shoes that looked like huge webbed duck’s feet. Actually these webbed shoes provided the only physical source motivating him through the water.

In his hand he carried a spearing device unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was improvised out of a two-foot piece of wood tubing with a diameter of about one inch. At the back end a wide rubber elastic band was attached to both sides of the tube as in the principle of a slingshot. A four-foot arrow-like spear is laced into this tube from the opposite end, now creating a guided spear slingshot with excellent close-range accuracy. He was spearing fish with astonishing rapidity.

After watching for a while I swam back to the beach to dry off and relax with my shipmates, ending the well spent day. Before long our motor barge picked up its tired group of kids and headed back to our home where all our day’s adventures would be told and retold. As we neared our ship, I thought of dinner. Although I was not really hungry, I had great hopes that fish would not be on tonight’s menu.

Postscript:

It wasn’t until three days after we left the floating dry dock, ARD5, that we finally set course for home. En route, I picked up a tiny survival manual, which showed a picture of a coral snake that looked like the one curling and swimming around me during those afternoons near the beautiful shores of Espiritu Santo. It stated that this coral snake was extremely dangerous. One bite and you died in a matter of minutes. My only reaction was “holy shit!!”

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One Response to The Coral Snake

  1. Mark Nania says:

    George: Not only have you captured emotions with your drawing, you also managed to portray vivid images of your experiences with words. Your gifts are boundless. Happy Birthday and thank you for sharing these special moments.

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