BY Carl Mills May 2016

It is now 2016 and I’m searching for the families of Sgt. Bob Jackson, CWO Harry Warman, Sgt. ‘Corky’ Anderson and many other past-members of 400 Squadron for the Ad Astra stone project. I think about these great folks, some gone, some not well and the many untold stories. One story which seems to permeate the fog of time is the Jackson/snake tale from the 1969 summer camp at Divers. It was the last day of camp for 400 – the last hour of camp.

Divers was, in the 1930s, one of many emergency airfields available to commercial aviation that crisscrossed the isolated areas of Canada. It was located about a half hour flying time north of North Bay and was totally remote. It was completely abandoned but had been used by the CF-100s from RCAF Stn. North Bay for air-to-ground firing of the gun packs and the ground was littered with brass casings. There was a lake close-by for the fishermen, an outdoor bathtub for those who preferred hot water scrubbing, lots of tentage – just like camping. The weather had been cooperative, it had been an exceptional deployment, and now it was time to go home.

Everything that we needed to do to break camp had been done. All of the other aircraft had departed except for the CO, L/Col George Georgas, and a few others who were waiting to hand-over to 411 Sqn. for their part of the deployment – they were late flying into the field. It was chilly, even for July, and it was going to be dark when we got back to Downsview. Everyone was muttering unkind things about 411.

On an impulse, the CO said, “Mills, get some snakes for my kids.” “Snakes, what?” was my reply. He spoke louder, “a bunch, big, hissy live ones with lots of teeth.” “Yes sir – are you sure?” “I’m sure - take Jackson.”

Sgt. Robert Jackson (aka Jackson)was a big, stoic fellow with a rambling walk. He had perfected communication in silence and always seemed to be around when there was chaos. The more chaos the more profound and slanted was his impish grin. Part John Wayne (without the weapons) with a touch of Schwarzenegger (without the weapons) but mostly sprawling, unafraid, and determined in his demeanour. He always got the job done but on his own terms. He would have been good in war except for one weakness.

We had a few things in common – we had both been construction site electricians, both had a thing about airplanes, of course, and both had a slight disdain for higher authority. But, I was soon to learn that we did not share a common regard for snakes.

I had a date that evening and, although I was looking forward to some “pit hissing in the hissing pit”, I really did not want to smell like a real snake. I grabbed a white bucket but Jackson wasn’t grinning as he followed me into the bushes.

I didn’t mind snakes, I knew that they would be harmless garter snakes and at this cool temperature they would probably gather into a ball for warmth – they also had a strong pungent odour. It wasn’t long before we smelled them. I said, “Jackson, you hold the bucket on its side and I’ll push them into the bucket”.

“They might bite but they won’t hurt, when we see them, we’ll have to run because they’ll scatter. Remember, they are more afraid of us”. Still no grin.

There they were - a one-foot ball with heads and tails sticking out in all directions. “Run,” I shouted with enthusiasm and rushed toward the ball. There were short ones, long ones, fat ones, eyes glaring, tongues flicking with mouths open, hissing, darting, squirming, and striking. There were lots of teeth, exactly what the CO wanted.

I landed on my knees right in front of the ball with the bucket. Snakes were already beginning to disperse from the ball – some over my arms and my boots – between my legs - there were snakes all over the place. Talk about a writhing and squirming hissing pit - wow - they were very angry.

“Run”, I shouted but there was no Jackson. There were snakes all over the ground - there was the white bucket but still no Jackson. One was going up my sleeve as I looked for Jackson. Then I saw him, he was already about 30 yards toward the aircraft and I’m sure that his feet were not touching the ground - I didn’t even hear him go. I was distracted by a snake, which darted at my crotch – there were very angry snakes everywhere.

I kept grabbing snakes by the hand full but the nasty creatures kept winding on me and had to be unwound in the bucket. They also had a lightning way of launching from the bucket. Because the lid was too far away, I had to sit on the bucket to keep them in while I gathered. I could feel them hitting my butt as they tried to escape.

To get to the lid, I had to crab-walk with my butt over the bucket. The northern snakes were not afraid and Jackson had gotten it right.

In the end, there were about a dozen snakes captured in the white bucket, however, by the time we reached Downsview the lid had come off and several had escaped into the aircraft fuselage during the flight.

CAUTION: This video contains language which some may find offensive.

Someone decided that the aircraft could not remain in service with live snakes on board. The aircraft was grounded for several days but no snakes were ever found. Some were seen avoiding the Otter as it sat forlornly in the hangar. Several declined to work on the aircraft and Jackson was not seen for a few weeks. The offer to paint a vicious snake head on the nose of the aircraft was not allowed.

The CO thanked both of us but Jackson and I never spoke of the event again.

With the exception that Jackson never flew in that Otter again, I don’t recall that anything else ever changed with him, we just made sure that snakes were not included in his work schedule.

Written 47 years later while sipping slivovitz with my 86-year-old mother-in-law in Toronto.

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