Camp Tapakegga Death March

During my scouting days, we would visit Camp Tapakegga over in Virginia for a two week period of what was euphemistically related to us as ‘a chance to meet other scouts in the spirit of camaraderie’ by our Scoutmaster.  What we invariably heard was ‘a chance to mess with our enemies minds’.  To be fair, he was a very jolly fellow that saw the best in everyone he met.  In keeping with his jolly-ness, he was rather short in stature and bald of head.  He was always dressed in an impeccable scout uniform with full trappings down to a silver whistle around his neck on a braided lanyard.  You simply had to like the guy – and we did.

The second trip to this camp one summer took place about a month before we were to report to school for the year.  This meant that in Washington DC, the temperatures were ranging from hot to parboil, but in the deep jungles of Virginia at altitude the days were significantly cooler.  We looked forward to this as much as we could if only to get some relief from trying to play while being encased in ninety-five percent humidity on days of over ninety degrees.

This trip was to be an exceptional trip because we were told that what we termed the ‘Girls Auxiliary’ would also get to go, albeit to a camp about five miles away (and over a mountain).  Now, with us being boys and the girls, er, being, er, girls, we indulged ourselves in quite a bit of fantasy regarding any activities that might get us together.  This, we were told in no uncertain terms, was Strictly Verboten.  Well, we thought, there were various levels of Verboten.

In due course the appointed time to load up the busses arrived and we all sausaged ourselves into them with all our accompanying baggage.  It appeared as if an entire division of Marines was embarking on some assault if looks were to be believed.  An entire twenty-four person bus was loaded to the gills with our tents and common kitchen utensils and whatever other items we would need for this campaign.  The rest of us climbed into whichever bus we were assigned and stowed our personal gear in the back (making sure it was over the wheels for weight distribution).

With a Forward, YO, we got underway in four busses, seven private cars, and a step van with all our food.  In what could have been a tactical error, the seven private cars held all the counselors and chaperones save one on each bus.  For reasons known only to them, they stayed right in the very front seat of the bus and conversed only with the driver.  This was fine with us because we had to decide our strategy and this could only be done behind their backs as it were.  I was a patrol leader and had nine others under me.  We were very good friends and, even though we quibbled a bit among ourselves, we wouldn’t let anyone mess with us.  About ten minutes into the trip we huddled in the back of our bus and began plotting.

The trip seemed interminable but we finally arrived at Camp Tapakegga and began setting up our gear.  A few hours later, after minutes of hard work on our part, camp was set up and ready to receive our personal gear.  Patrols were to be together in one area in a circle around a common messing area.  This was so that no matter where you were around the circle, the smoke from the fire would invade your tent and force you out at some time during the morning or evening.

After finishing the evening dinner, washing the dishes, and incinerating marshmallows on the altar of fire we were told to hit the sack.  Following a half-hour battle in which we all played the part of sleeping bag monsters and crawled like inchworms into each others tents, we were told to “knock that crap off” in no uncertain terms after one of us inadvertently knocked over a counselors tent.  He was heard to mutter something about it being a long two weeks.

Next morning, bright and chipper, we emerged from our cocoons and did a short hop-step over the cold ground to the latrines and washed up for breakfast.  What, we exclaimed, where was our breakfast?  Fix it ourselves?!? Oh, yeah, right – no moms here.

I am sure that somewhere it is written that half-baked biscuits, eggs over and over and over and over until you could use them to patch a tire, blackened hunks of what used to be bread, bacon crisps, and what the Navy still calls “bug juice”, will feed a hungry boy for a day filled with adventures.  This is not true, but there was nothing we could do to get more to eat.

After opening ceremonies such as a really horrible bugler scaring the flag up the pole, we were parsed out into our working groups for activities.  Some of us got the task of putting up a rope bridge over the twelve-inch deep, fifteen foot wide creek while others went out on a gathering expedition for ‘food that grows in the forest which you can eat but won’t kill you’.  My patrol was among the latter.  We started out actually gathering, but then began to fantasize crossing the mountain and dropping into the girls camp.

Armed with a pretty good topographical map of the area, Don, our resident pathfinder (because he was the only one who had a decent compass) started us out on the path to the girl’s camp on the other side of the mountain – Camp Nirvana.  I can read a map better than most because my dad dealt with maps every day.  Granted, they were weather maps, but I knew which end was north and those other three directions.  I began to get a tad worried when we appeared to be getting further away from the mountain.  I noticed this only because it was constantly over my left shoulder.

In consultation with the map and making sure that Don knew it was the RED end of the needle that pointed north, we all reversed our direction of travel and once again headed out for Camp Nirvana.  What the heck, we’d only wasted an hour.  We passed the general area of our encampment and struck out in new territory towards our goal.  Higher and higher we climbed until we began to hang onto tree trunks to pull ourselves up the hill.  We stopped and rested while bandaging the head of one of my men who had been beaned by a rock rolling down the hill.  He appeared comforted when I told him that head wounds bleed much more than any other type of wound.

Just as I began to think we should rope ourselves together for the assault on the summit, we puffed our way around a shoulder of the mountain and started down.  It wasn’t as steep on this side so we only managed to start two small slides before reaching a grove of trees where the ground leveled out a bit.  Two of our merry group was ranging out ahead looking for the easiest way through when they suddenly disappeared from view after stepping over a large log.  Carl held up a hand and asked if we had heard that weird bird call: “Sort of a high pitched chirp followed by a gargle” was how he related it to us.

Mystified, we all ran to the log and peered over it.  Both of them were mired up to their knees in black, stinky, goo.  One of them had fallen face first into the swamp but the other was fortunate enough to have fallen on his buddy.  The goo-covered one was frantically trying to rub it off his face and at the same time attempting to stuff his buddy’s face into it.

“OOhhh – Ook.  A Whacha dooin?” cried the ‘clean’ one.

“You’re da one who pushed me over dat log dang it.”

We emptied a canteen cleaning up both of them and started out again downhill.  After a little bit, I asked where our lunch pack was.  Receiving blank stares from everyone in the group we realized we had left it back on the ridge where we had wrapped Gary’s ankle.  Since we didn’t have our lunch pack, we all immediately began getting hunger pains where none existed before.

“Do you really think the girl’s camp is down this way?” I was asked by Gary, “Because if it isn’t, you’re in big trouble.”

I hauled out the map and began comparing the local topography to what was indicated on the map.

“See,” I said.  “Their camp is right at the end of this canyon and we are at the top of the canyon.  All we have to do is go downhill and we are there.”

“What’s this little blue line down the canyon?”

“That’s a creek”

When we parted the trees to investigate the roar from behind them we found a ‘creek’ about thirty feet wide that was hurtling down and over a waterfall about twenty-five feet high.  Our first task was to find some way to get around it and down the canyon.  A few skinned shins and broken fingernails later we were down along a skinny path that followed the ‘creek’.  Ed insisted it was a river, but I stand by my evaluation.

It was with mixed emotions we found a blackberry patch.  On one hand, something to eat was a very welcome thing, but on the other, it tore up our clothes something fierce as we clawed our way through them.  They grew wild completely across the canyon and seemed to go on forever.  Our only recourse was to thrash our way through them.  A couple of our smaller members resorted to crawling on hands and knees along the game trail we were on.

Finally, we emerged, bloody, but unbent (well a couple of us were bent from crawling) into a wide meadow.  As we crossed it I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to whistle the Colonel Bogey March – and did so.  I was joined by the rest.  We hobbled, hopped, and walked, but didn’t march at all.

Before we entered the trees we were halted by a shout from one side of the meadow.  There were two cars there, several counselors, and our scoutmaster standing near them.  He waved us over.

“Have fun boys?” he asked with a huge smile on his face.  “Looks like you had some difficulties didn’t you?”

We were a ragged bunch of guys now.  One head bandaged, one ankle bandaged, our trousers looked like they had been attacked by huge moths, two of us were covered with dried swamp goo and the rest of us sported various bungs, dings, and scratches.

I spoke for all of us when I said: “I bet there isn’t any girl’s camp is there?”

“Oh, they’re camped all right, but it’s the OTHER mountain they’re over – not this one.  Did you think we were really that crazy?  We’ve been waiting all day for you to get down off that mountain.”

“You knew where we were?”

“Yep, we could hear you for the last two hours, crashing downhill and all that.”

And that’s why I was politely asked to resign as patrol leader of our troop.

T.O.M.

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