Dad's India Adventure
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The following text is transcribed from letters home that my father wrote to his parents while he was in the armed forces during World War II.

SOMEWHERE IN INDIA

Our first trip to the jungle lasted about one week, with not too much happening.  However, I will sketch briefly over it causing as little agony as possible.

We boarded our train (any resemblance is entirely coincidental) about eight P.M. at a large station which featured hundreds of Indians lying on the hard cement, each trying to outsnore the other.  I guess it runs in the blood, as their fathers must have slept on nails.

At approximately four a.m. I was awakened by what sounded like a banshee's wail; 8 seconds later my head met the stubborn iron arm-rest at the end of the bench.  Holding onto my head with one hand, and the other on the window-sill, I elevated myself to where I could look out and see a disappearing moon behind a tall coconut tree.  Disgusted, I lay down for more shut-eye only to once more be rudely awakened by someone trying to kick the door down. The station-master just wanted to send the train back to town.  After being assured that this was our destination, we got off and left our baggage in his office,

We next inquired as to the whereabouts of the District Magistrate, who is the big shot of the local area.  We were told he wouldn't be up before eight so we wandered about the river docks, which were next door to the railway station. 

Besides being used for transportation, the river held several other functions. People washed their clothes and took baths there; they also used it for drinking water and a public latrine. 

The town looked very small, but it contained 19,000 people I was told.  However, I argued that they must have counted the cows and dogs twice, which is very unfair, to say the least. 

By eight sharp, we had found the District Magistrateís office, after using a mixture of Indian, English and sign language, to inquire it's whereabouts. My  buddy held the view that if you spoke English clearly and slowly a person couldn't help but understand you. 

This Indian Magistrate ran true to form. After we had told him our mission, he politely informed us he would gladly help us to procure what we wanted, only it took an expert to catch and handle snakes, so if we would only leave our address and so on, he could send the village sop-wallahs (snake men) out to do the necessary work, and they could bring them to us.  He couldn't seem to understand what two officers (he started calling us Lieutenants and we couldnít change his view) of the U.S. Army wanted with snakes.  We told him we would catch our own, so he let us have the use of one of his assistants to see that we were successful.  We caused much excitement by registering at the Dak Bungalow (a government operated hotel). No doubt we were the first or one of the first American soldiers to enter this town.  People would stroll by our room all evening just to see us. The girls would look when you weren't watching them, but the minute you turned around, they turned their heads and pretended they didn't know you existed. 

Two days later we managed to secure the use of a forty-foot motor launch, through the courtesy of a source I cannot reveal because of military information. We started at dawn on a thirty mile trek up the river with the assistance of an Indian guide, who claimed to know of a certain village which had many snakes in the vicinity. 

Upon arriving at the small village, the entire population gathered at the shore-bank to see the Sahibs.  We were escorted to the head-man's hut to await his arrival.  Meanwhile we were presented with coconuts to drink and strange fruits to eat, while a small boy fanned us.  To myself I said, "Burns, this is the life for you - that is, until you can get home.Ē However, this effect was slightly marred by the huge crowds of people which peered in at every door and window to watch our every movement.  I now know what an animal at the zoo feels like. 

The head-man soon arrived to greet us.  He was rather old and the only man who spoke English at all in the village.  He was very polite, and asked a lot of questions about America, as most Indians do.  We soon asked about the snakes, but much to our disappointment he regretfully informed us that the snake business wasnít what it was cracked up to be, i.e. that farming was more profitable.  However, he would send his sop-wallahs out in a few days and maybe they could catch some, and maybe they couldn't - and it would cost us twenty-five rupees per snake caught.  Little did this man know, but he had heard of the Americanís amazing wealth and notoriety for throwing it away.  We put on our song and dance, no mommie, no poppie, Bachshee's (gifts) Sahib, but to no avail.  Reaching no agreement, we soon left the village for our bungalow to think up a new angle. 

After combing the local area, we only captured two snakes.  One a big black Dauman, about seven feet in length; the other a common hooded Cobra, about four and a half feet in length. 

You perhaps wonder how we caught these snakes.  We hunted mostly at night, as the snakes come out at night more to hunt for food.  We each carried a straight stick about three feet in length.  If the snakes tried to get away in the brush, as they usually did, one of us would pick him up by his tail.  However, if he chose to fight, we had to place a stick over his neck and over his tail, than pick him up.  Picking them up by their tails was rather dangerous as they were constantly striking.  The Cobra was without doubt the meanest snake I have ever seen.  He was ready for a fight day or night.  He would patiently wait for a chance to fang you, and he just about did on several occasions. 

The evening before we were to return home, we were out 'til about midnight with our flashlights looking for more species, when I heard a noise in the under-brush to my left.  Flashing my light there, my heart jumped quite a bit when I saw a cat with fiery eyes about five yards away.  After a snarl, he slunk away in the underbrush.  I learned later that it was only a Civet cat, but he looked big enough to do plenty of damage if he were cornered and had to fight. 

We had been gone long enough, so we boarded the train for town.  On arriving at headquarters, the General requested we bring the snakes into his office and let them loose.  When we heard this news, Barrett looked at me, and I, in turn, looked at him.  Our mouths must have dropped considerably.  We each knew that if the Cobra nipped him, we would be peeling spuds for the duration plus. However, we agreed to do it, as it was the only thing we could do. 

The first thing the General did when we walked in was to ask us if we could handle them safely.  We both hesitated a moment, then in unison answered, ďOh yes sir!" I don't know how it sounded to him, but at that moment my voice didn't sound very convincing to me.  However, we first pulled the seven foot Dauman (non-poisonous) out and held him in our hands.  For some unknown reason the General looked at me and said, "I'll bet you're a Texas boy who has caught plenty of rattlers."  I put on a slow smile and in my best southern drawl answered, "Yes Suh!''  After all, who was I to call a General a liar for a thousand miles. 

On the way back to camp our truck had an accident and the Dauman I was carrying dropped in my lap when his earthen container broke.  A 2nd Lieutenant, sitting across the aisle -- without knowledge of our baggage about fainted but I quickly took off my hat and presented it another home. 

The special service captain wanted us to take the snakes around to various camps for display and lectures, but we said we would after we had another and better trip to secure more snakes.  He finally agreed as the General was in favor. 

So that's how we started our second trip to the jungle this time really to penetrate it. 

I will tell you that in my next letter.

[2nd Letter]

Calcutta was rapidly fading in the distance and once again we were aboard the tonerville trolley bound for the jungle in our quest of snakes and adventure in God's vast animal kingdom.  A thousand square miles to hunt, fish, play, and thumb your nose at civilization.  Barrett and I both liked this job very much -- no army regulations, no army boss, in fact to narrow it down, no army. 

This trip we were much better prepared for jungle life.  We had a box of rations, jungle knives, tropical helmets, flashlights, carbines, and plenty of ammunition. 

In our train compartment were also some British flyers, but unfortunately they got off about midnight.  I say unfortunately because later, about 1:00 a.m., we were lying across the seats about half awake, when the door started to open.  (The train was traveling about 20 mph.)  In climbed an Indian beggar-thief.  Let the Irish have their banshees, the English their ghouls, and the Americans their Frankenstein -- surely this was something out of an Edgar A. Poe nightmare.  Long, thick, matted hair, that stood straight up (at the time mine did likewise), long snaggle teeth, and wild protruding eyeballs.  Quickly Barrett kicked him in the chest and out the door he flew.  I spent a lovely night smoking cigarettes with my carbine across my lap.  This section of Bengal, we had heard, had acquired a reputation similar to the Natchey trace in its hey-day, and now we were ready to believe anything. 

Upon arriving at Khulna, we were welcomed by our friend the Military R.7.O., an English Sergeant who was evacuated off the beach at Dunkerque. He soon had us situated once again at the Dak Bungalow where I imagine we are remembered for our crazy antics. 

For noon chow we usually went across the street to a little restaurant which only opened when they saw a customer approaching.  I guess I will always be fascinated by the sight of Barrett eating five or six helpings of eggs and french fries washed down by as many glasses of lemon-squash, while I struggled through a measly two.  However my turn came at the banana session.  Religiously twice a day I would go around the corner to my favorite banana stand.  How the proprietorís black-beady eyes would shine when he sighted me approaching!  Carefully I would select two dozen of his best and ask him how much.  Whatever price he named, I would hurriedly divide by three and announce the price I intended to pay.  His act would have done credit to the great Barrymore himself, but he reckoned without my Scotch nature.  Usually after a brief struggle I triumphantly bore my hard-earned loot home and proceeded to devour them in a matter of minutes. 

At the first break of daylight we were awakened as usual by strenuous voices pitched in a minor key chanting some Indian number just off the hit parade.  We tried curses and colorful promises of mayhem but to no avail.  The grave yard shift at the Air Raid Warden's office just outside the door didn't understand English.  We usually got up however as the mosquitoes held target practice about this time and they are notoriously accurate. 

We soon made friends with a Christian Indian boy who had his heart set on reaching America -- after we had painted the picture bright with malted milks, time and a half for overtime and hot-dogs.  We also came to know two Indian army officers residing temporarily at the Bungalow.  One a Major, the other a Lt., and both were Sikhs.  You can usually notice a Sikh very easily.  They do not cut their hair or shave, wear an iron bracelet, wear short underpants, use a wooden comb, and carry a knife with an iron handle.  I figured the Major must have back-slid as he was shaved -- they aren't supposed to take time out to shave as they always must be ready to fight. Can't blame the Major though, as he was only a recruiting officer. The Major liked American cigarettes and wanted to talk about Hollywood and fast cars.  The Lieutenant was by far a more intelligent man.  He has a brother living in Stockton, California, and he was very much interested in American agriculture.  He knew American agricultural history backwards and forwards.  I was rather ashamed because I was raised in the center of the best farming in the world and knew nothing about it while a Sikh farmer from Hashmir knew it by heart.  Enough for that. 

We soon began to make arrangements for our trip.  We first went to the Forestry service to secure a permit for entering the Sundarbuns.  After the director gave us our permit, he referred us to a Capt. McClain, a British officer who supervised the greater share of boat traffic going into the jungle.  He informed us we could travel on one of his crafts leaving in the morning at daybreak to take supplies to the Indian Armyís lookout posts scattered through the interior.  However, he said, we had best board the boat that night so as to be sure of not missing it.  He also warned us the boat did not stop long at the posts.  Just for a few hours or at the most overnight.  We were glad to get the chance however, and accepted. 

Back at the Bungalow we immediately started preparations.  We were sitting out on the porch cleaning our carbines and Barrett noticed a crow sitting on a telephone pole a block away.  Casually he bet me a rupee I couldn't hit it, and just as casual I accepted.  Whatever made me do it, I don't know. Target shooting isn't practiced in the best of circles of any large Indian town no matter how uncivilized it seems.  When the Indians saw I was going to fire, they gathered around.  I admit it was a lucky shot and I hit the bird dead center (my grandfather once shot it out with Chief Throwing Bull) and it didn't hurt our prestige in the least.  (My grandfather didn't do so bad himself).  Upon hearing the shot at least five hundred Indians appeared immediately out of the drowsy looking town to gather around our porch.  Also about a thousand crows accumulated on the telephone wires and squawked their lungs out.  About half an hour after the crowd had dispersed, I noticed a few Moslems kneeling and praying on their small straw mats.  I distinctly heard one say, "Allah, protect us from these white Yankees." 

I'11 never forget that night as we boarded the boat.  It was raining in sheets and as black as a Harlem alley at midnight.  About 11:00 p.m. we hired four rickshaws to transport ourselves and our equipment to the river where the boat was docked.  Upon arriving, the Indian officer in charge cordially greeted us but sadly imparted the news that the only fairly dry place to sleep was on top of the fresh water tank, next to a half a dozen bleating goats. What a night for sleep!  Between the mosquitoes, enveloping aroma and the bleating, we didn't have a chance. My mother told me there would be nights like this -- but not -- no, never for the sake of a snake. 

At dawn we pryed our eyelids open to welcome the sun's warm rays and the boat's departure from Khulna.  Surprisingly enough we found two Englishmen aboard ship, who wore shorts, long socks, said good morning, and looked wide awake.  The crew were mostly Moslems and not too bad looking in appearance. 

We soon cast off and started slowly down the middle of the wide river.  On both sides of us were small, fertile farms, quiet and peaceful in the morning sun.  Huge boats filled with wood and jute were slowly coming up the river propelled by human muscle.  The Indians used these same style boats centuries ago and still find them adequate for the purpose.  As the hours slipped serenely by and the sun rose higher, the vegetation grew thicker and civilization faded away like darkness at dawn. 

The Sundarbun area is a maze of islands -- half jungle, half swamp.  It possesses the haunting quietness of a swamp, but with its seclusion often broken by the shrill call of a jungle bird or the cry of a jungle beast.  The terrain is low and flat, some places with high grass, some places with knee-deep mud, but wherever you go there is the inevitable growth of vegetation; threes, bamboos, and pointed ground spikes (a piece of root which extends out of the groundís surface for a bout six inches with a very sharp point.) 

Later in the afternoon, as we were vigorously loafing in the shade of the pilot house, we saw the first of many of the barking deer.  (So called because they bark like a small puppy.)  We graciously offered the first shot to the Indian officer.  But he refused, modestly stating in so many words, that he was ole sure-shot himself, and once he started hunting there would be no game left for the sahibs.  The Englishmen said since this was our first trip, we rated first shot -- so Barrett made the first kill at about one hundred and fifty yards.  The amusing part was our cheering gallery on the main deck composed of the Indians.  No cheering enthused until the buck had fallen, but when the craft cut its motor and nosed for shore, their whispers were of hope and anxiety.  Their religion forebade them to partake of meat unless the animal had been killed by knife, so therefore Barrettís shot should not be instantaneously fatal. 

After the sharp report of the carbine, three Indians quickly jumped off the boat and waded to shore - then, amazingly enough, ran full speed (barefooted, mind you) through the harvest of the plentiful razor-like spikes.  Immediately after disappearing into the growth, excited shouting took place between the Indians on land and the ones on board.  A minute later the Indians drug (I know itís improper English, but whoís writing this, you or me?) a struggling, exhausted five point buck to the bank of the river where they cut its throat with one slash of their wicked surka knife.  With much ado the dead buck was brought aboard for inspection, dissection and digestion.  (Thatís what you call corn off the cob, Barrett my boy.)  Deer meat and rice were a big treat to the Indians as well as us, and it wasnít long before the meat was consumed. 

Since the boat didnít travel at night, we stayed each night at one of the many Indian air-spotters posh.  This one was typical of all we later learned.  A dozen Indian Army youths, two or three small huts.  During off hours there wasnít any place for them to go, but they managed to amuse themselves by catching and training pets, such as birds and monkeys.  The high-light of their drab life was once a month when the ration boat (such as ours) came around with a goat, fresh water, canned supplies, cigarettes, and various sundry items.  How childlike they were at every camp when we arrived.  They looked as if they wanted to dance and sing at the same time. 

After Calcutta and all the beggars there with their pitiful and disgusting cry of ďBachshee SahibĒ, I had grown slightly indifferent to the Indian question as has many another American soldier -- but no such thing did we find here.  We offered them cigarettes, but they would accept none.  Instead they offered us theirs and would not be satisfied until we had taken some.  They then proceeded to offer us everything they had in the line of rations they got once a month such as candy, fresh fruits, foods, etc.  They did much to bolster our falling opinion of Indians. 

At this particular stations, they were terrorized by a tiger which persisted in drinking at a water hole a hundred yards from camp and then entering their compound and nosing around.  So at nightfall Barrett and I headed for the waterhole and vicinity to a await his majesty.  But a fruitless task it proved to be.  The night wore on, the mosquitoes bit harder than ever and our legs were cramped.  After two or three hours we gave up and returned to the compound for some sleep. 

The next three days proceeded about the same as the first.  During the heat of the stay we shot dear from the boat and occasionally hunted tiger or snakes at night, but the more dangerous game seemed to elude us. 

During the discourse of the three days, Barrett had four bucks to his credit and I had three so we were satisfied in that point.  But on the morning of the third day, old sure-shot himself, with all due pomp and ceremony, came dragging his long, heavy artillery off the gun rack and unassuming-like, told the cook to grease up the skillet.  Breathlessly in hopes of a marvelous exhibition of marksmanship, we watched in silence as he loaded his piece.  Due to circumstances beyond his control, however, he missed the first buck, the second and so on, until at the end of the day, we found he had collected a bunch of ingenious alibis for his failure.  The two Englishmen bagged one deer.  Two of the deers that Barrett and I got were both killed instantly.  The Indians told us they couldnít eat any part of them because of their religious practices mentioned aforehand, but we requested the skin and antlers for souvenirs.  A short while after this job was completed by the cook, I noticed a hind-quarter gone.  Again later, I noticed another hind-quarter missing.  On the following day, all the eatable meats had disappeared from the carcass.  I didnít want to ask any embarrassing questions, but I couldnít help wondering to myself... 

On the fourth day we were informed we were going to stay at Tiger Pint for two days.  We were told that this is where the Governor of Bengal does his hunting, so we concluded that this indeed must be a hunters paradise.  It is a small area extending out into the Bay of Bengal and it has plenty of game, such as tiger, deer, snakes, wild boar, giant lizards and other smaller game. 

The first day we faithfully hunted for snakes, but not one did we see, or even a trace of any.  In the late afternoon we went swimming in the Bay, and what glorious fun that was.  The cool, lean breeze and the pounding surf - quite a contrast to the humid hell of Calcutta.  We did have to be careful of swimming out too far because of sharks.  I never went over my waist-line.  I have a horrible fear of sharks - give me a good, clean, honest cobra anytime.  We also couldnít take off all our clothes as an Indian boy was along and since nakedness is taboo in their religion we didnít want to offend him.  However, once in Calcutta I saw a man nonchalantly walking down a busy thoroughfare and all he was wearing was some ashes on his head.  After finishing the swim we went back to the island where the lookout station was located.  After an hour of talking we started to paddle back to the boat, but found the tide had come in and the current too strong to combat, so we were stuck there for the night.  That night we had an Indian dinner and I canít honestly say I enjoyed it, although I think Barrett did as he ate everything they brought him.  I managed to eat some bananas and bread.  Their bread looked like pancakes; all you had to do was roll it up and start from the end, but it tasted flat so one bite was enough.  After dinner we slept on the porch of a hut with a borrowed blanket.  It was a beautiful night as usual with moon and stars galore.  And believe me, the mosquitoes made the most of it.  When I awoke in the morning I had twenty-two bites on my hands alone. 

This was our last day in the interior before we started back for Khulna, so we promised ourselves the pleasure of a full day of hunting.  In the morning we started out, Barrett and I, with rations for one meal and high hopes for a tiger.  The Englishmen would not come along as they openly admitted being afraid as some of the Indian woodchoppers had been killed and partially devoured by some of the man-eaters.  The limeys respected our marksmanship, but they didnít see how a small caliber carbine would stop a large Bengal tiger.  Well, there were fifteen shells in each carbine and we could fire them all in a matter of a few seconds.  They still doubted if the bullets would carry enough power to stop a tiger, but we pointed out that a G.I. in Assam killed a charging rhinoceros with a carbine. 

Quietly we moved off into the heavy jungle.  We had to be careful not to make a sound.  I confess I felt like I was back home playing Indians again as a small boy, but this time it wasnít without some degree of danger.  After about two hours of walking, Barrett who was leading, stopped and asked me where camp was.  Without much hesitation or doubt I pointed back and to our left, as usual I was wrong and he was right, as it was later proved to be directly to our right. 

Later in the afternoon we came upon fresh tracks not more than a few hours old which indicated that two large cats had been walking side by side.  I say large because after measuring the stride we started figuring the size of them and we came to the conclusion that if they got us, we would just about amount to dessert for them.  We hurried on as fast and noiselessly as we could in hopes of seeing them.  We walked slightly staggered to each other about two hundred yards apart.  The one in the rear as quiet as possible and the lead man (sucker) in front a little bit careless so as the one in the front would drive the game to the one on his left.  This went on for hours with not much results as far as tigers went.  However, we did scare up other numerous creatures such as deer, wild boar, and lizards.  Barrett saw the wild boar as I drove it in front of him.  The boar came face to face with Barrett rather unexpectedly and both were much astonished -- anyway the boar did a rapid about-face and left the vicinity pronto.  He sounded like a runaway freight train crashing through the growth.  We tried to grab a lizard which was about seven feet in length, but they were very fast and always managed to slip into a convenient hole in the ground.  During all these hours we spent on the trail of the tigers it wouldnít have surprised me if they were up a tree somewhere watching us sneak furtively around and at the same time laughing behind their whiskers. 

Towards dusk we gave up and returned to the compound where we learned the ships passengers and officers were going out to the beach to hunt deer by moonlight.  We split up in two parties for the hunt.  I was in the first party which secreted themselves about one hundred yards from the beach and the deer were going to be driven past us, between us and the Bay.  Barrett was in the second party which was to do the driving. 

After about an hour of waiting, we could look to our left and see the deer moving cautiously out of the jungle ahead of the beaters.  First one deer would move quietly out and look slowly about, smelling the wind to see that all was well.  Fortunately, the wind was in the wrong direction for him to smell our scent.  He would then omit a short bark and the main herd of about fifteen or twenty would come out following a short distance behind him.  Lastly, a rear guard consisting of one huge buck would follow a distance behind the main herd, occasionally barking as a signal for the ones ahead to move on.  Finally when they came abreast of us we opened fire.  The light was poor and they were running full speed the moment the first volley had died away.  I donít know about the rest, but I had killed enough deer and consequently fired high.  The rest must have done the same because all the deer got safely away and I donít think anyone was disappointed but ole sure-shot. 

The next morning we bade farewell to the lads at the compound and headed back for Khulna.  Oh, yes, old sure-shot finally got a deer.  Some old doe who was too tired to run finally became his victim at a distance of perhaps one hundred yards and his faith and pride were once more restored. 

The next day we reached Khulna and immediately went to our room at the Bungalow for a days rest before returning to Calcutta.  Upon reaching the Bungalow we found a small crowd gathered in the front yard.  There were two Indian snake men there with approximately six cobras apiece.  It seems as if they had heard of us and our expedition to catch snakes.  Seeing as how we failed to find any snakes in the jungle we bought five snakes for a sum of five rupees each. 

After cleaning up we went to eat.  I noticed I had a terrific headache and not much appetite, but gave it little thought.  Barrett as usual had his four or five helpings of chips and eggs while I was contented with lime squash.  At nightfall we boarded the train for the final lap before the journey was completed.  The headache hadnít improved in the slightest despite several aspirins.  I also still had no appetite, just thirst and had no energy.  Occasionally I sensed chills and then fevers.  Upon reaching Calcutta the General again requested we show him the snakes which we dutifully did and then he gave us instructions to exhibit them at various clubs and hotels around town.  We immediately did, but Iím afraid Barrett did all the work as I was very tired and had to stop and rest after walking or standing for a minute or so.  I finally gave up and went on sick call where I was told I had malaria and was sent to the hospital.  During the eight days I was in the hospital Barrett managed to give a series of successful lectures and exhibitions in and around Calcutta.  He certainly deserves credit for working day and night explaining and lecturing about snakes so Allied troops would know more about various reptiles they would encounter in the jungle. 

But all good things finally come to an end, Iím told, and this one proved to be no exception.  After I had been out of the hospital a few days we were both given orders from Headquarters at New Delhi to ship out.  Barrett was to report to an Engineer in Burma and I was told I was going to China with the Signal Corps, where I am now writing this. 

Well, consequently, our greatest army adventure is now over and a thing of the past.  Others will forget it, but not us.  To Barrett and I, this strange and exciting mission was truly the highlight of our overseas experience that we can tell our grandchildren many years from now and feast upon it ourselves in fond memory. 

The End

 

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