I reported to Ft. Benning, GA and was assigned to the Ranger Combat Conditioning Committee. We were attached to the Ranger School, but not part of it, and that was good: Rangers earn their elite status by learning to fight under the most difficult conditions. That meant nine dirty, weary, hungry weeks patrolling swamps and mountains, eating berries, rodents and rattlesnakes and playing at war while supervised by "lane graders" who took pleasure in finding ways to challenge their charges.
My arrival coincided with the first day of a training cycle, when new students, all volunteers, are introduced to the weary weeks ahead. The students assembled in a U-shaped formation and the Ranger sergeant major introduced them to Lightning, his six-foot timber rattler. Then he put a white rabbit into the snake's cage. Lightning coiled. The rabbit froze. Finally it twitched — and faster than the eye could follow, Lightning struck. The rabbit jerked, twitched, quivered. In two minutes it was dead.
"Before today is over," bellowed the topkick, "Every one of you will handle this killer snake with your bare hands."
At that moment a staff car turned the corner and drew to a halt behind the snake cage. The rear door opened and a tall officer emerged. He wore a lieutenant colonel's silver oak leaves, and the distinctive yellow-on-brown shoulder tab that identified him as a Ranger. He strode angrily toward the formation.
"Sergeant Major, I thought I warned you about trying to scare these men with that sick, old snake," he said.
"No sir, you never said nothing about it," said the sergeant major.
"I know that snake, and he's had his fangs removed," bellowed Lieutenant Colonel Denham. "What did you do, put a drop of atropine from a gas mask kit on the rabbit, so he'd go into convulsions?"
"These men are never going to learn a thing about handling snakes until you use a rattler with all his equipment," said the colonel.
"I'm telling you, Colonel, that Lightning's got all his equipment. He's a killer. He'll croak you or me quick as he did that rabbit."
"Bullroar. I'm no more afraid of that old snake than I am of the bogeyman."
"Well, if you feel so strongly, Colonel, maybe you'd like to put your money where your mouth is."
I stared at the colonel as if he was nuts. So did every one of the 200 students.
The sergeant major reached into his pocket and took out a wad of bills.
"Right," said Denham. "I'll wager a hundred dollars that I can put my leg in that toothless, sick, elderly, worn-out snake's cage and let him bite it, and be no more bothered than if I was bitten by a mosquito."
"You're on, Sir," returned the noncom.
"How about another on the side? I'll bet every man here a dollar. My two hundred dollars against your one dollar each," said Denham.
"What do you say, Rangers?" bellowed the sergeant major.
The ranks responded with a raucous cacophony of derision.
"Let's get the snakebite kit out here," yelled the sergeant major, and a medic came forward with a canvas bag adorned with a red cross.
"We better let someone hold the bet, because after Lightning bites him, the colonel will be on his way to the hospital," said the sergeant major, looking around. Just then a field ambulance, emblazoned with a huge red cross, turned off the blacktop and onto the gravel street. The sergeant major stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. The ambulance stopped and the driver's head poked out the window.
"Bring that meat wagon over here, Specialist, I'll have a load for you in a minute," bellowed the noncom. The driver rolled up, then unbuckled a canvas stretcher. I stepped out of the shade to see, and the sergeant-major yelled at me to come over.
"This damn-fool has just bet these Rangers a dollar apiece that he's not afraid to stick his leg in the cage with Lightning. Will you hold the bet, young sergeant?" he said.
I was speechless.
"Won't take a minute, Sarge. Help us out here." So I walked up and down the ranks, collected a dollar from each man, then took the sergeant major's money. Colonel Denham handed me three crisp hundred-dollar bills.
An almost palpable hush descended on the ranks as Denham strode resolutely toward the wire mesh cage. The sergeant major took out a key, broke open the heavy steel lock, pulled it off the hasp. Then he hesitated.
"You really want to do this, Colonel? Ol' Lightning could kill you."
"I'm not afraid of being gummed by that senile, toothless snake," roared Denham.
The sergeant major shook his head in disgust. He took a big forked stick from the top of the cage, then opened the door a few inches. Someone in a back rank coughed, and then it was dead quiet. Denham put his right leg in the cage.
Lightning had flowed to the center of the cage, where he wound himself into a huge coil. When Denham's leg moved, ever so slightly, the snake struck at the khaki trousers, recoiled, struck again.
Denham didn't even twitch.
The sergeant major forced the huge snake to the rear of the cage with the forked stick, then jammed the lock on the hasp.
Four hundred unbelieving eyes followed Colonel Denham as he strolled over to me and stuck out his hand. I handed him the money.
"Sergeant-major, I'll be back at the end of the course, and I expect to see a healthy, poisonous rattlesnake by then."
The sergeant major's mouth hung open. He snapped his jaw shut and swallowed.
"Yessir," he said.
The staff car rolled up and the driver scurried around to open the rear door. The sergeant major exchanged salutes with the colonel, then turned back to the company.
And as Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Denham, who had left most of his right leg behind in a blazing Sherman tank during the Battle of the Bulge, got into the car, he carefully rolled up his pant leg to reveal the wooden prosthesis that had replaced it.
"See you in nine weeks," he said to the sergeant major, who as a teen-aged PFC had pulled Lieutenant Denham from the burning tank.
The sergeant major turned back to the troops. "Today, Rangers, we have learned about the dangers of making assumptions, the importance of planning, and the powerful effect of surprise," he said. He went on to say that after Denham lost his leg, he spent years in hospitals, learning how to walk. He could have retired on a nice pension, and spent his life mourning his lost limb. Instead, Denham fought to stay on active duty. Anybody who ever spent an hour around him would never again believe that having only leg is a handicap if you don't want it to be.
So I'll bet $200 that after stumbling around swamps and mountains for weeks, sore, exhausted, bug-bit and ravenous, what kept some of those 200 students from quitting Ranger School was the thought that one-legged Ernie Denham became a Ranger AFTER he lost his leg.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.