By Terry Coffman

It was in Chiang Mai, under the house built on stilts, that the cobra bit him. The serpent was hiding near the water barrels. It raised its head, lunged, and sank its fangs into Jonathan MacCumberís thigh.

Up until this moment, the only terror he had ever experienced in nature came to him when he was a boy and a bumblebee crawled inside his sock and stung him three times. 

After the snake injected its venom into my friend, the Cobra slithered away towards the tall grass and rice paddy beyond. Within moments, Jonathanís face began to flush. He fell to his knees and screamed. Kaew came running down the narrow wooden stairs. She managed to help him climb to the dwelling above them. He collapsed on the teak floor of the bamboo house. She cleaned the wound with the vodka Jonathan had brought for their tryst north of Ayutthaya in the former Kingdom of Lanna. Within 20 minutes the skin above his knee became hot, and the pain, at the bite site, excruciating.

When Kaew was a young girl she witnessed how cobras kill. It happened on the steps of a temple in Ayutthaya. A Hindu woman, visiting the ancient city, had kissed the head of a cobra. It was meant to be a demonstration of faith. The Indian nun died within minutes. So, Kaew knew, it would only be a short time before her loverís breathing would become difficult. Death would follow rapidly. Jonathan was a large man; the venom might take longer to kill him. Her prayer to Buddha to intercede might bring grace, but in the past her pleas to the Enlightened One were seldom answered. 

They were far from the city, and even if they could reach a doctor in time, she didnít know how to drive the automobile Jonathan had borrowed from one of the royal princes in Hua Hin. She was frantic. An ugly black patch appeared around the wound. Jonathan was hallucinating. In and out of consciousness, he screamed my name. Kaew had no idea who I was or why he called out to me.

She ran to the wooden deck surrounding the hut. Off in the distance she saw two men on a cart pulled by a buffalo. She screamed to them for help, but they were too far away to hear her voice. She sprinted down the staircase. 

As she began to run towards the high grass she hesitated for a moment, what if the cobra might be waiting for her? Love overcame fear. All that mattered was Jonathan. Kaew raced towards the cart. 

When she got within earshot of the men, they turned to see her. Out of breath, legs bleeding from the deep scratches made by razor grass, she stumbled and fell to the muddy ground. The younger man jumped off the cart and raced to her side. She could hardly speak. The one word, Naja, that she repeated over and over, made it clear to the boy that she had either been bitten, or scared, by a snake. He started to look for fang marks on her legs. She pushed him away and pointed to the hut across the field. He did not understand what she was saying. She was speaking in a language he didnít recognize, repeating the same sound, the same word, "Jonathan, Jonathan." 

The boyís father came to their side and looked towards the bamboo house. He was bewildered. The woman was not a peasant, nor, from her dialect, was she from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. Her torn dress was made of fine silk and on her wrists and fingers were gold bracelets and jeweled rings. He surmised that the woman lying in the grass might be of royal lineage.

The two men helped Kaew to her feet and lifted her into the cart. They turned the water buffalo and cart towards the bamboo house. When they reached the dwelling Kaew and the older man ran up the stairs. They found Jonathan gasping for air. The father hollered to his son to fetch a small piece of bamboo and took a lighter and a knife from his pocket. He lit a match, placed the blade in the flame, and leaned over my friend. His boy handed him a stick of bamboo. The old man cut it into a short length. 

Kaewís hands covered her mouth. She knew what he intended to do, it was the only way to save her lover. The knife was sharp and easily cut through the skin of Jonathanís neck and into Jonathanís windpipe. As the piece of bamboo was inserted, mucus and blood squirted from the hole. Then he began pushing on my friendís chest. For hours, the father and son kept Jonathanís heart beating and his lungs functioning. 

By midnight Jonathan was able to breathe by himself. He was alive, but it would not be for long. Where the snake had bitten his leg, a sizable ulcer developed. If Jonathan MacCumber were to survive, the open wound would require immediate medical care, antibiotics, surgery, and likely skin grafting. 

In1926, Jonathanís odds of surviving a cobra bite were less than 10%, and to be treated in a remote area of Siam would make his chances even less. Thousands of people died annually in Southeast Asia from cobra bites. Most never made it to a doctor, and in the Chiang Mai region, there were no hospitals that could perform surgeries, or worse, an amputation. Even if he could get back to the capitol city of Ayutthaya, the likelihood of my friend being able to recover was unlikely. Kaew was desperate to save her lover. She gave the farmer three silver coins and two folded notes. One was a plea to the crown prince to help save Jonathan. The other was addressed to the army commandant in Chiang Mai ordering him to deliver her letter as a telegram to the kingís chief counselor in Hua Hin. He would then forward her plea to the prince. Kaew knew the kingís most trusted advisor (who was a close friend of her fathers) would make sure the prince would receive the telegram as quickly as possible, and more importantly, support her cause to the king himself. She told the old farmer to give one silver coin to the commandant and keep the other two pieces of silver for himself. 

She had used her influence with the royal family to insure that Jonathan receive the best care possible, despite knowing that such help would place her in a position to be manipulated by the prince and others close to the king. Her plea was answered. The King sent his own surgeon to Jonathanís bedside. 

The American Consulate notified Jonathanís mother as to what had happened to her son. They telegrammed to say evacuation was not possible until her son was out of danger. At the same time they assured her that the American doctor, who was the physician to the king, had visited her son in the capitol city of Ayutthaya. The doctor was confident the young MacCumber would survive. In spite of his motherís pleading, Jonathan did not want to return to the United States. Doing so could mean he might never see Kaew again. Jonathan informed the consulate that he would not leave Siam. "Let them rip my leg from me, but not my heart."

Jonathan and I share a long history together. He lived his life as an adventure. Except for my brief stint in the war, mine has been safe and rather ordinary.

My father bled to death on San Juan Hill in1898. It was eight years earlier, at a wedding party in Louisiana, that my mother first set eyes on the man who would become my father. My grandmother, with her son, my future father, came from Virginia to the wedding of her cousin, Captain Jonathan Patrick Knight. Years later my father wrote in his diary, "The day I met my wife I was bewitched. She was the most beautiful woman Iíd ever seen. The sun was setting behind her. Her light hair glowed like the wheat fields that surrounded the wedding party. She had just turned towards me when I first caught her glance. Her clear lake-blue eyes captured me. I had a strong feeling of recognition. It was as if I had known her in another life. We danced every dance. That night the stars shared the sky with a quarter moon and the amber sparks of a blazing bonfire. Fireflies danced in her hair. Several months later I convinced her to marry me. It was no easy task. She had many suitors; I had few prospects."

My sister was the first child. She was born two years before me. My father and mother had a small farm. It was a modest place, a homestead where they planned to raise chickens, cows, cotton and kids. That is, until Captain Knight persuaded my father to join the Rough Riders. 

Spain had sunk our battleship, the Maine, and President William McKinley wanted the Spaniards out of Cuba. Lots of men wanted to fight.My Mother was not happy about Father leaving to go to war. After all, it was a volunteer army. He didnít have to go. She couldnít talk sense to him; he was determined and no matter how hard she tried he wouldnít listen to her. All he could hear was the Captain telling him it was his duty and that the war would be short and heroic. They trained in Texas. My father came home on leave for five days before shipping out for Cuba. His brief stay was productive. The stork showed up in March of 1899, some eight months after a Spanish bullet slammed into my fatherís chest. 

Mother was very bitter towards Commander Wood, the leader of the Volunteer Rough Rider Army. She blamed Wood for my fatherís death. His decision to leave the menís horses behind in Florida, and ordering the cavalry to fight on foot in Cuba, was insane. Mother often said, "My husband was not an infantry soldier. How could Wood have been so stupid? Cavalrymen without horses are crippled on the battlefield. No wonder my husband and Captain Knight died on that cursed hill in Cuba."

She received a letter from his captain. There was no pension, no widowís supplement, just a brief "Thank you" for his service and the Rough Rider pin her husband wore on his cap. 

Mother never remarried. She supported my sister and me through her ability to write. In her day, she was considered to be one of the Southís best humorists. Now, only a handful of old-timers remember her stories. 

I was only a boy, with thick red hair and a face full of freckles when my chance to be a hero came. I received a letter from my local draft board. I was now just like so many other lanky eighteen year olds. I was given a tin hat and a gun, and then shipped off to France to fight Germans. I would come to learn later that they, too, were just boys not much different from me. After only a few weeks of basic training, I came home to say good-bye to my mother and sister. My mother took my simple doughboy cap and clipped my fatherís Rough Rider pin to its side. "Morgan, keep this, it belonged to your father. Wear it and your father will watch over you."

My friends threw a party for me the night before I shipped out. Most of the town showed up, and we danced all night long. I do-si-doed with every woman there. Married, single, plump, skinny, old or young; it didnít matter to me. I figured that if I were going to be shot, why not by a jealous husband rather than one of the Kaiserís boys.

The definition of hero, formed in the immature mind of a teenage boy, exploded for me in the woods outside of Paris in 1918. I, along with so many young American boys, paid back an old debt to General Lafayette. Only fifty miles from Paris, we stopped the Germans as they attempted to cross the River Marne. Over 7,800 Americans were lost on that road to Paris. The battlefield was filled with the sound of rifle fire and artillery explosions. The quiet thud of the mustard gas canisters bouncing along the ground mingled with the cries and screams of men dying or about to die.

I was lying in a blast hole, bullets buzzing over my head, pinned down and unable to return fire. I was shaking like the leaves of the birch trees when the wind blows through the hollows and valleys beneath Spruce Knob Mountain. I began to pray, Lord, let me wake from this nightmare. At first I thought God had answered my prayer because, at that moment, stillness crept over the killing grounds. I was wrong. It was the winds of silence blown by Lucifer over the battlefield, trumpeting the coming carnage. 

I heard the Grim Reaper howl as he leaped upon me. I saw the flash of steel as the blade of the bayonet pierced my leg. The pain was beyond description. My attacker didnít simply lance me and withdraw the scalpel, no, for the coup de grâce he pulled it up and twisted the blade in a thrashing movement, exposing mangled bone and muscle in a sea of blood. I grabbed for his rifle, trying to yank the weapon away from my thigh. My fingers began to shred as I caught the sharp edge of the bayonet. I released my grip as the bastard let out a scornful laugh. The last image I remember before passing out was his helmet shattering into a thousand shining metal fragments.

I awoke in a Paris hospital, remembering the events that brought me to the infirmary. It felt like my leg was on fire. Tearing away the sheets covering my body, I stared with horror at the place where my right leg had once been.

All around me were men, crippled, maimed, blind and insane. I lay in that hospital bed for almost three months. Depressed and feeling hopeless, my thoughts turned to taking my own life. I missed home and I missed my mother. 

Perhaps it was Jonathanís familiar cadence, his speech revealing that he, like me, was a Virginia boy. I was convinced Iíd never walk again, but Jonathan would not let me mourn the missing leg or wallow in self-pity. One day he came to my bedside with a pair of crutches. He said it was time to get my ass out of bed and prepare for re-entry into the world. He told me I had to go home and start a new life. I refused; I was stubborn. He said heíd not leave until I was up and moving, walking from one end of the ward and back again. I cursed him and held tight to the bed railing. He pried my fingers loose and put his arm under my body, pulling me to a sitting position and than he lifted me to my feet. Jonathan forced me to walk. With patience and care, he mended not only my body, but healed my spirit. Toward the end of my stay, I tried to give him the only personal possession I had, the Rough Rider pin from my fatherís military cap. Jonathan pushed my hand away and said he could not accept my gift. As he had done so many times before, Jonathan bent down to change my dressings, and unbeknownst to him, I slipped the Rough Rider pin into his pocket.

Now as I look back upon my giving him the pin that day, I realize fate is not always visible to us. Circumstances of our actions, or the things that randomly happen to us, eventually make sense. What if I had waited? He didnít return the next day or the days after that. The pin was our touchstone, an amulet that bound us together for the rest of our lives. 

I pleaded with the doctors and nurses on the ward. "Where is he? Where did he go? Why was he gone?" No one knew. He had simply vanished. Three weeks later I was discharged with a wooden leg and orders to return to the States. 

The war was still going on when I returned home. One day when I was reading the local paper I saw picture of a fella on the front page who I recognized. He was the country boy from Morgantown who I had sat next to when we rode the train from West Virginia to South Carolina for basic training. He had become a hero. He single-handedly took out a German machine nest, thereby saving his platoon. Hadley Hebb, the hunter of opossums, had become a killer of men just as I had.

I didnít march in parades; I threw my medals into a lake because I was ashamed of what I had done. I had taken the life of so many mothersí sons, stole husbands and butchered childrenís fathers. My bullets tore apart bodies indiscriminately. They sliced through flesh and organs, shattered bones and exploded in cavities and craniums. How many men did I cripple? How many did I kill? Some said I was a hero. But in the eyes of God, isnít a man responsible for his actions? It was I who set men in my gun sights and I am the one who pulled the trigger. 

Before the war I called myself a Christian. After the war, I could no longer say that. The Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill." While my confessor told me that it was permissible to kill Germans because the war was Just, I knew what motivated me. At first it was personal glory, but then it turned into the sheer will to survive. I was ashamed.

For months after I returned I sat alone in the childís bedroom that had been mine before the war. The posters of movie heroes still hung on the wall; comic books were neatly stacked on the bookshelves beside toy soldiers; the slingshot and peashooter that I had hidden from my mother were still safe behind the catcherís mitt in the closet. 

I came home to that innocent childís room in my motherís house as a deformed creature. It was not the loss of the leg that had made me a grotesque relic of what I had been; I had resolved my physical disfigurement. It was my spirit that was a mangled mess; the soiling of my soul was unforgivable.

How can a man be forgiven for such sin? The first boy I killed was lying on his side, his face drowned in mud. When I flipped him over, I saw the crucifix that hung from the chain around his neck. 

My mother suggested that in spite of my wounds, I go to the mountains. "Morgan, take the dog and the old truck out back; take your fishing line, a flask of gin, some sugar too, a slab of bacon, biscuit mix and your sisterís marmalade. Go for a month or more. Camp beside cool springs. See if Old Man Johnson will lend you a horse, then you can ride through the balds and climb the trail to Spruce Knob. Listen to the whippoorwills and cardinals like you did before the war. The trillium will be in flower; the fiddleheads will be ready for the pan and butter; you can even take your fatherís old rifle and shoot a wild turkey or a deer if you need to."

Mother probably thought it was her insistence that brought me to the mountain, but it was something else that made me fleeÖa letter from Siam that brought back stark memories and a precious memento.

Greetings Morgan Boone, 

You are probably surprised to hear from me. I realize itís been a few years since we parted. I am living in Siam. It is a place of great beauty. For me it is Shangri-La and the Garden of Eden all wrapped into one place. Not only is the landscape lush and filled with life, but the people are too.

I came to Siam after the war by way of volunteering for the Red Cross. At the beginning of my time here, I was working in a clinic near the Chi River in the province of Khon Kaen. I have always loved rivers. Much like the veins in our bodies, they are the arteries that carry life. My time at the clinic was fulfilling. I knew I was helping the hill tribe people. Malaria, typhus and snakebites were the scourges that occupied the course of my healing work. It was a short stay. I realized that to be an effective healer I needed to fully understand the people of this part of the world; politics, society and religion all impacted the treatment of disease and the danger of life in Siam. I eventually found my way south to the city of Ayutthaya where I resided for some time. I began to study Buddhism and I ministered to the poor.

There are a lot of stories to tell you about my time in Southeast Asia. Tales about my romance with the beautiful princess of Siam, my discourse with snakes, and my encounter with a mystic monk may intrigue you. But Iíll save them for another letter or two. 

I suppose you are wondering how I found you and why I am contacting you. Locating you was simple. I knew you were a Virginia boy and your family lived somewhere between Winchester and Front Royal. Your family name is well known in Virginia and the mountain that you called out so many times in your feverish state provided clues to where I might find you. 

The day I last saw you I was ordered to the front. I had no time to say goodbye. I grabbed all my gear and jumped on a truck headed for the Belleau Wood. You know what a horrific nightmare that was. Your battalion fought gallantly and many of your brothers gave their lives during that month of slaughter. Major Wise was a great leader and I know you would have wanted to be with him and your buddies. Sometimes, fate intercedes with what we want. I consider you to be a hero. I know the severity of your wounds and the level of your sacrifice for your platoon and country.

On the day the 5th Marines took such huge losses, I thought I would drop from exhaustion and disgust. The revulsion I felt from seeing bodies torn apart and hearing men crying for their mothers was unbearable. But I had to bear it. It was carnage, a horror that is unimaginable.

I was helping doctors amputate Tommy Franklinís leg. I was holding his arms when he yanked my shirt open. The Rough Rider pin you must somehow have put into my pocket fell on his chest. As Iím sure you know, Tommy survived. So, if you havenít already opened the small pouch enclosed with this letter, please find your grandfatherís pin. I accept your appreciation for what I did to help you. But like you and Tommy, Major Wise and all those brave marines who gave so much, we do not expect anything in return. What I will treasure is your friendship. Someday we will meet again. For now, I want us to keep in touch through letters.

Jonathan MacCumber

Off and on, for over forty years, hundreds of letters went back and forth between MacCumber and me. I learned of his adventures and how precious his heart and soul were. I relished his tales of escapades. At some point early on in our correspondence, I wrote that I was useless. My leg had been amputated, my spirit broken and I wanted to hide from everything and everyone. He wrote, "No, Morgan you are whole of spirit. Your doctors and I did not save your life so you could wallow in pity. God has plans for you. You must follow them. To give up will be a sin. My advice is to climb mountains." 

Jonathan stayed in Siam. He did so because of his love for the princess. The intrigue of those in the Kingís court conspired to keep my friend away from the woman who loved him. Kaew was led to believe that Jonathan had died in the hospital from the cobraís bite. 

Unbeknownst to Jonathan, she chose to become a Buddhist nun. 

Soon after being released from the hospital Jonathan searched for the princess. He went to all the places where she should have been. He tried to contact her family, but to no avail. Her home was vacated; the neighbors told him the family had moved away. When he finally gained an audience at the kingís palace, he was told she had married into the royal family and he would never be allowed to see her. 

With a broken heart, he left Ayutthaya for Chiang Rai to become a cobra catcher. For MacCumber, the one who threatens is the one to be embraced. For him, poison became nectar. 

In one of his early Chiang Rai letters he wrote, "Shedding its skin once a month, a young cobra grows fast. When it hatches it does so with venom in its fangs, but not enough to kill anything bigger than itself."

On my 19th birthday, I killed the German boy who wore the cross around his neck. I went on to kill many, many more. And Jonathan MacCumber, well, he never killed anyone or ever wanted to kill anything. From Chiang Rai he wrote, "When I walk on the grass I feel guilty. I catch beetles in my hut and carry them outside. I share my home with fruit flies and bats. I catch cobras, milk them, thank them, and then release them on mountaintops." 

He told me that the cobra lays her eggs and protects them for two months. She leaves her nest before they are born. When they hatch they climb into the bamboo for safety. A full-grown cobra will grow to 15 feet in 10 years. One bite of an adult contains enough poison to kill 100 people.

"Morgan, as I wrote you last month, I had begun my first round of cobra tattooing. It was, and continues to be, both painful and sickening. Yesterday, I completed the first of a series of many inoculations to come. You probably will think what I am going through is barbaric. It is not. It is ancient and traditional. There are incantations to say and chants to be sung while the cobra venom is mixed with black ink. In the beginning, only a small drop of toxin was taken from a cobra and then used to draw words and pictures into my flesh. Using needles made from bamboo or razor blades, the mixture is applied by the elder serpent catchers. Two Buddhist proverbs were cut into my right thigh in Siamese. The first, ĎTo conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.í Morgan, before I can capture the cobra I must conquer my fear of the cobra. The second tattoo is: ĎYou cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.í Over the next year my body will receive more tattoos with more venom and more pain. 

He became the only "Fharang" cobra catcher in Siam. After losing Kaew, MacCumber remained in Chiang Rai for three years. He became highly sought out by the nearby hill tribe people. For them, MacCumber possessed special powers. Also he did not ask for money for his services. Instead the villagers showed their appreciation by giving him gifts. Silver bracelets made by the Kaw tribe women embraced his arms. Rings circled his fingers and toes and hung from his ears. In his silver purse he carried antidotes and prayer sheets. Three silver studded leather belts wrapped around his thin torso under which he tucked a shiny silver cigarette holder, a gold knife and a bag containing seeds for his gardens. He wore fishermanís pants and sleeveless white cotton shirts made by the Akha people. He refused to wear shoes. He had no fear. The snakes in the grass kissed his feet. 

A tribal leader gave my friend his favorite daughter. Her name was Meelo. She was small, MacCumber tall. A year later their son was born. He was named Dusit, which means, "fourth land of heaven," a place similar to the Hall of Souls in Christianity.

In the great monsoon of 1925, the snakes migrated into the mountains to escape the swollen rivers and flooded lowlands. Cobras infested the villages and hid under houses. The people died from cobra bites and thousands of snakes were killed. For the catchers of cobras, it was an impossible situation. There were no places where the snakes could be removed to and the village leaders were demanding death for the snakes. MacCumber could not bring himself to kill the serpents. He collected as many as he could. Separating the males from the females, he put them in barrels and hid them under his house built on stilts. He clamped the lids with nails so they could not escape.

In his letter dated October 12, 1925 Jonathan wrote, "Morgan, my son and wife are dead. I am to blame. Dusit was in his motherís bed when I found them. Their bodies were still warm. The cobra was beneath their blanket. I grabbed the snakeís head; it fought. It twisted its body around my arm. I slammed it against the wall with such force that my arm shattered. I let go and the snake slithered away. I screamed. I prayed. I am ashamed. I loved them both and now there is nothing to hold me in Siam. I donít know what to do. 

For two years I tried to find MacCumber. No Siam official or anyone associated with the king would help. Not even the American ambassador was able to use his influence to find my friend. It was as if Jonathan had vaporized. 

Like most miracles, something is revealed because it is supposed to. His mother discovered my letters in his suitcase. She wrote: 

Dear Mr. Boone.

I am writing you in regards to my son Jonathan MacCumber. A month ago while cleaning his room, I discovered several letters you had written to him between 1922 and 25. They were hidden behind a suitcase in his bedroom closet. I know I shouldnít have read them, but I am glad I did. Maybe the good Lord wanted me to find them, read them, and contact you. Your earliest heartfelt letters of appreciation for my sonís care of you during the war were beautiful. I wept as I read each one. He never shared with me any details of what he had done in France, or that he had saved so many soldiers. 

Thanks to your letters, I realize that Iíve been naïve concerning my son. I thought the boy who left in 1918 would return just as I remembered him. After the war and several years of his not coming home, for reasons I still donít fully comprehend, he returned two years ago to his sister and me. Maybe it was penance or just plain wanderlust that kept him away so long. Itís not that we didnít know where he was. But the correspondence between us was, at best, infrequent. I guess that could be excused by the instability on the war front, and later, the poor quality of mail service in a land of jungles where mainly monkeys and elephants seem to reside. He has yet to explain to my satisfaction why he didnít return right away from France. Until I read your letters I was most angry that my boy didnít come home after the war like he should have. I have to admit, reading your letters has enlightened my thinking in this regard. So thank you Mr. MacCumber. I am now ever so slightly able to understand what possessed him to move to the other side of the planet. More importantly, Iím willing to accept it. 

I must tell you, heís not the happy-go-lucky son that left this place nine years ago. He has become, as I think you know, a kind of recluse. Up until now I thought he had no friends, no colleagues in arms to converse with. I suppose he thinks his sister and I canít comprehend all thatís happened to him. Iím his mother. I know him better than anyone else. But he has successfully bamboozled me by employing his odd behavior, which seems to work well for him as it relates to keeping me in the dark. Iíve come to believe he hides the memories of those years in some far away galaxy inside his head. He thinks by relegating the thoughts accumulated over the war years, and what I call, and I suspect youíd agree with the title, "My boyís lost and found years," that heís safe. I donít know for sure, but it seems to me heís simply trying to place his recollections in a memory prison and throw away the key. Maybe he believes heíll be safe, protected from thoughts of war or whatever happened to him in Siam. But thatís not how life works. We canít escape pain. Sometimes we need a confessor. To hold pain inside keeps it from being expunged. Unless you lance a boil the chances are it will become infected, and then the whole body may shut down. 

As best I can, Iíve tried to help him. But Iíve been failing. Thank God he found you. Your letters reveal you are a wise person filled with compassion. Youíre giving my son what I cannot. I thank God each night that youíve reached out to my boy. I want you two fellows to continue to help each other find peace and renewal.

Yours Truly,

Eleanor MacCumber


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