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A Hello to Arms

A number of years ago, a major television network sent me to summer camp. Well, it wasn't summer and it wasn't a conventional camp. It was the end of November and it was a week-long commando camp for civilians on the Gila River in Arizona, near the Mexican border. It was kind of a fantasy camp for adults who never outgrew playing Army as kids.

As a screenwriter, my job was to attend the camp in order to write a TV-movie satire about it. The commander knew I was writing something (I think he thought it was more homage than satire) but the campers thought I was one of them, which, in most ways, I was.

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I invented a story about a civilian commando camp that is so paranoid about mythical enemies that when it encounters another, equally paranoid group in the wilderness, a war breaks out between them. I wanted it to have the satiric tone and quality of a "Dr. Strangelove."

We all arrived at night, and the commander told us the rules of the camp. Rule No. 1: "If you're tear-gassed, just walk into the wind." Rule No. 2: "Don't shoot at the illegal aliens as they cross our perimeter."

The camp was completely law-abiding, and I had no evidence that anyone had ever shot at any illegal aliens. Still, the tired tone with which he relayed Rule No. 2 gave one pause.

A "hooch" is a little pit you dig to sleep in, and my hooch-mate was a delightful young Swede who had wanted to be in the Swedish Army more than anything. But he hadn't been accepted because throughout childhood he'd made so many homemade bombs that various body parts weren't working quite right, including, obviously, the one that exercises judgment.

The commander was a 20-year Green Beret veteran (now in the Reserve) and wasn't anyone you wanted to cross. He was about 220 pounds of muscle, and as a 16-year-old growing up in Yuma, Ariz., his hobby had been to pick fights with multiple Marines outside their local base. He claimed that once he'd gone into his commanding officer's office and bit the head off a live snake in order to impress his superior (this doesn't work as well in a job interview for, say, IBM). I believed him.

So when we encountered a large rattlesnake out in the wild, I didn't know what to expect. One of the two other former Green Berets who taught us was named Frenchy. Frenchy, while he had been born a French-Canadian in Quebec, had moved to Orange County, Calif., as a small child and was later a high school cheerleader, which isn't the image you have of a commando named Frenchy.

So Frenchy came up behind the rattlesnake, and while I thought he would dazzle us with his bravery by handling it, I also thought he would let the snake go. Instead, he took out his .45 and - Bam! Bam! Bam! - riddled it with bullets.

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If the snake had had hands, I'm certain it would've held them up as if to say, "You got me, guys." Instead, the snake was served for dinner, and it tasted nothing like chicken. More like a wallet with bullets in it.

When the commander taught us hand- to-hand combat with pugil sticks, he offered a football helmet to anyone who would challenge him. Possibly no one since Goliath has made such an unattractive offer, but sitting there watching the other campers fight each other, I developed a plan. I was the only one who would take on the commander.

MY understanding was that the pugil sticks (they look kind of like immense Q-Tips) were supposed to approximate a bayonet in battle, so if I poked the commander, theoretically I would win. Over by some bushes, I saw where prairie dogs had burrowed several holes. Certainly there was a complex of tunnels under the soft dirt and sand. If I could lure the much heavier commander over to those holes, they would collapse, he would lose his balance, and then I could strike.

That's exactly what happened. The commander stumbled when the prairie dog tunnels collapsed, and at that instant I successfully penetrated his defenses and poked him in the chest.

What I hadn't counted on is how angry that would make the commander, and the force with which he would whomp me upside the head until it felt as if I was looking out the ear hole of my helmet.

When I finally remembered where I was, I resolved to show that while I might weigh about 75 pounds less than the commander and have infinitely less hand-to-hand combat skill, that didn't necessarily make me weak.

Each camper took turns leading an "operation," which was usually at night. We would walk miles in complete darkness, with no moon and no flashlights. Guys would walk into thigh-high cactuses, which we came to call "nature's land mines," and would suppress a scream so as to not give away our position.

Once, we were all huddled under a poncho looking at our map with the dimmest of infrared flashlights. Joe, one of the campers, finally decided he'd had enough. He was the brother of the most gung-ho of the campers, but Joe just wasn't as into it as his sibling.

"This is stupid!" Joe yelled, stomping off with a real flashlight, and I can still hear the hoarse yell-whispers from the others as he disappeared into the darkness: "Joe! Come back! Joe!"

WHEN it was finally my turn to lead my troops to an objective past an ambush somewhere along the way, I knew it would be something tough. While the commander and I got along great when I was conscious, Frenchy and I weren't quite on the same wavelength.

When one of the campers was driving a pickup full of campers at Baja 500 speeds around corners on a sandy desert road, I politely asked him to slow down.

When he refused, I asked him to stop so I could get out as a show of protest. Frenchy took it as a show of cowardice, and he was furious.

So the ambush set up for me was special. Decades of mountain climbing and backpacking had taught me to read topographical maps carefully, however, and by reading the map more thoroughly than our instructors, I led my platoon to our objective, and we ambushed our ambushers.

The commander and I left with respect for each other, although my ears were still ringing occasionally.

When I got back home, in a meeting with the network, the executive in charge of our project said, "Forget 'Dr. Strangelove.' Go rent 'Meatballs II.' That's what we really want."

I mistakenly had thought they wanted a sophisticated antiwar satire. I sat through "Meatballs II" with approximately the same expression on my face I'd had when the commander whacked me. When I told the network that gross camp jokes were not my forte, I was let off the project in much the same way I'd been let out of the pickup truck.

All in all, I realize now, I'd rather deal with the commander.

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