This story also first published in Proud to Be: Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2. (2013)
“Dad, can we please go camping with my Cub Scout pack this weekend?” Jacob asked, as he climbed into the back of my car outside of his school. “It’ll be so much fun, and all of the other scouts are going!”
I looked over my shoulder to watch him buckle his seat belt. “Yeah, I saw it on the calendar. I already made plans to go. Your mom has to work, so she won’t be able to go with us.”
His eyes lit up as he pumped his fist. “Yes! It’s going to be so awesome!”
When we got back home, Jacob hopped on his bike and went down the street to his friend’s house. I climbed up into the attic above the garage and started digging around. I was looking for our tent and wondering what else we would need to bring. At the bottom of a dusty stack of cardboard boxes I saw “Cold weather camping stuff” written in black marker.
“That figures; it would be on the bottom” I thought out loud.
I moved the boxes off of the top, and gray insulation dust swirled up from the floor as I made a new stack. My eyes itched, and the dust made me cough. After moving the last box from the stack, I reached down to open the one that I wanted. I used my keys to puncture the clear packing tape, and opened the flaps.
The contents took me back a little. The very first thing that I pulled out was a desert camouflage Gore-Tex jacket and rolled up underneath it was the matching pair of pants. I held up the jacket and thought about my last combat tour in Afghanistan. It was the third of my four deployments. It had been so cold out there in the mountains, and we were told not to carry too much because of the elevation. I rolled the jacket back up and set it aside. Reaching into the box again, I pulled out a pair of cold-weather combat boots. Now, these I can definitely use this weekend, I thought. It was late October and there had been frost every morning lately.
I kept flipping through the box and pulled out a couple pairs of gloves, a ski mask, a scarf, some old long-sleeved undershirts and a bottle of arctic rifle lubricant. I threw the gloves into a pile of things to take camping and set the other stuff to the side so that I could repack it all. I found two sleeping bags folded flat at the bottom of the box. Mine was black. It was one of the three pieces that came with an army-issued sleeping-bag system. Jacob’s had Scooby Doo on it. I carried the sleeping bags, boots, and gloves over to the attic entrance and dropped them onto the garage floor below. I went back over and put the rest of the stuff back in the box and closed it up.
Still looking around for the tent, I wondered what else I should bring. My mind started to wander, and I began thinking about all of the times I had spent nights in the field as a soldier. I hadn’t been camping since I left the army, three years earlier. A tent still sounded like a luxury.
I found our green three-person dome tent shoved in the back of the attic behind some boxes. I grabbed it and slipped the shoulder strap over my head. I climbed down the ladder back into the garage. I set the tent down with our camp chairs and grabbed the other things I had dropped down from the attic entrance. I placed it all in a pile near the garage door and thought about going inside.
Instead, I climbed back up into the attic. I knew that there was an old army rucksack up there somewhere, and everything we needed would fit into it. Wishing I had taken more time to organize stuff when I hauled everything into my attic, I started digging around again. After opening five boxes of Precious Moments figurines, baby clothes, and Christmas decorations, I finally found what I was looking for.
I pulled my old green rucksack out of a box and opened it. My Kevlar helmet and rifleman’s vest were packed away inside. The ammo pouches still had empty rifle magazines in them. The ear plugs I had used in Iraq were still clipped onto the top of the vest, and there were still unopened first-aid dressings in the pockets. In another pocket I found a small folded up section of a map of Baghdad. An intersection on the map was circled in red pen, and I remembered my friend Kyle who had been killed there. I closed my eyes and saw the stucco buildings standing guard around that intersection; their broken window panes and bullet riddled walls told tales of earlier battles. The streets had suddenly cleared out, and we sat there quietly, waiting for something to happen. The single rocket screamed as it streaked across the road and slammed into Kyle’s truck, bringing with it chaos and confusion. My heart started to beat faster, and I took a deep breath. I could still smell the mix of smoke, dust, and gun powder in the air, and I heard a panicking voice come across the radio again as they sped away from the contact, leaving a trail of black smoke in their wake.
“I’ve got two down! Two down! We are pulling back. I can’t find a pulse!”
The intensity of the shockwave from the explosion came back to me, and I could see the smoking truck speeding away as we moved toward the enemy. We opened up with everything we had and rained hell on that small piece of the city. Our machine guns punched holes in the walls and doors, and our lieutenant called for air support. We were still firing when Apache attack helicopters swooped in low over our heads and released their Hellfire missiles, making loud swooshes followed by ear shattering explosions that sent bits of stucco, splinters of wood, and pieces of broken glass raining down on us. The dust and smoke made it hard to see and even harder to breathe. Gunfire and the explosions were all that could be heard, and we still weren’t finished. Air Force fighter jets screamed overhead, and we were directed to back away from the intersection. They flew high over the city streets, making pass after pass, releasing their bombs. One at a time, the buildings on each side of the intersection erupted into giant balls of fire. Black smoke, dust, and debris rose high into the sky while we yelled and cheered. When the smoke cleared, the buildings were gone. A city block in each direction had been reduced to rubble, but Kyle didn’t make it.
I refolded the map and put it back into the pocket where I had found it. Since I didn’t need body armor for camping, I reluctantly set it aside. I dropped the empty rucksack to the garage floor below and climbed down the ladder.
Jacob came home from his friend’s house, and all he could talk about was going camping. All through dinner it was all we heard about. He could hardly sit still long enough to eat.
“Mom, Dad and I are going camping tomorrow,” he said with enthusiasm. “I can’t wait! I’m going to get to shoot a bow and arrow, and go hiking, and they will even have a bonfire,” he went on and on. “Maybe I’ll even finish up the things I have to do to get my wolf badge.”
“I know, honey,” my wife said. “I’m sure you’re going to have a great time, but you need to make sure you’re careful out there, and you have to be good for your dad.”
That evening after dinner I made a list of everything that I wanted to take camping. I hadn’t been out to the woods for a long time, and I didn’t want to forget anything. Never mind the fact that this camping weekend was going to be at a Boy Scout camp with a lunch room, bathrooms, and showers. I wrote down everything I could think of. I’ll need to bring a first-aid kit, Gatorade powder, extra socks, and my diving knife. I continued writing: Para cord, bungee cords, entrenching tool, rain jacket and pants, insulated undershirts and pants, tent, chairs, combat boots and shooting gloves. The more I wrote, the more I worried about missing something. I wondered if I still had my foil casualty blanket and if I could find my fluorescent VS-17 signaling panel. They went on the list. I scribbled down map pens, sleeping bags, extra water and food, a red-lens flashlight, signaling strobe light, extra batteries, and d-rings. Adding more to the list, I wrote soap, hand towel, wash cloth, baby wipes, toothpaste, and toothbrush. My list filled an entire page of notebook paper, and I still had this terrible feeling that I was forgetting something.
I went to bed that night, worrying about being prepared. Theresa slept, while I stared into the darkness of our bedroom. I finally drifted off to sleep sometime after three. When my alarm went off at five-thirty, I felt like I had just fallen asleep.
Theresa got up, got ready for work, and left the house. I took Jacob to school that morning and came home to pack after I dropped him off. I would have to pick him up a little after three, and we would need to leave just after five when Theresa got back home. The camp facilities opened up at four so that campers could get their sites set up before dark. It would be close to six before we would arrive, and it would be dark by seven.
I spent the morning packing and checked each item off of my list as I stuffed it into my rucksack. The pack held everything except for our tent poles and our two camp chairs. Those we could carry separately. My rucksack held enough food, water, and survival gear for us to get by in the woods for a few days without resupply. I had everything we would need to stay warm in the cold weather, and all of the right stuff for directing a medevac helicopter in to our position. I was prepared for whatever might happen.
Three o’clock came, and I picked Jacob up from school. He was practically bouncing off the walls when he jumped into the car.
“Is Mom off work yet? What time are we leaving? Jameson said that his dad is taking him right when the camp opens. When can we go, Dad?”
“Settle down, Jacob. I already told you that we won’t be going until your mom gets home from work. She’s off at five tonight, so we should be able to leave by a quarter after or so.” I looked back to see that he was buckled, and then we headed home.
Once we got back to the house, Jacob asked for a snack. While he ate a stick of string cheese, I loaded our gear into the car. “Is there anything special that you want to take tonight, Jacob?”
“Can we take stuff to make s’mores?”
“Yep, it’s already packed,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Nope,” he said, as he pulled another strip from his string cheese and dangled it over his open mouth.
I stepped out into the garage and looked around for anything that I might have missed. I still felt like I was forgetting something, like I was unprepared. Theresa got home a just after five, and we chatted for a few minutes about her day.
I kissed Theresa goodbye, and told her to enjoy the quiet weekend. “We should be back in town sometime Sunday afternoon, but call me if you need anything. Hopefully, my phone will have signal out there.”
Jacob had disappeared into his room, so I peeked around the corner of the hallway and said, “Let’s go, Jacob.”
Jacob came bouncing down the hall like he had just finished a case of Red Bull. He ran outside and climbed into the car. I followed him out, and we headed toward the Boy Scout camp.
I drove through the camp’s entrance. There was a gate that could be locked across the country road, but it wasn’t attached to any sort of a fence. As we rounded a bend and entered the gravel parking area, I saw families unloading camping gear from their cars and walking off into the surrounding woods. Other parents and scouts stood in line at a card table situated near the edge of the parking lot. Scout leaders flipped through papers attached to clipboards and highlighted names as the campers checked-in.
I looked around. We were surrounded by woods. A few buildings were situated here and there with woodchip trails stretching between them. A single street light stood at one end of the parking lot.
I backed into an empty parking space near the exit and turned the car off, pulling the trunk lever as I got out. Jacob and I stepped around to the open trunk lid, and I lifted it up. I handed him the camp chairs, and lifted my rucksack. After slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, I cinched them down and clipped my flashlight and diving knife onto my belt. I closed the trunk and made sure that the car was locked, and we walked toward the back of the line at the card table.
When it was our turn, I gave the scout leaders our names. They marked us off with an orange highlighter, and one of the men seated behind the table pointed to a woodchip trail and explained where my son’s scout pack had made camp. Jacob carried our camp chairs, and I hauled the over-packed army rucksack down the trail to our campsite. As we reached the small clearing where Jacob’s friends were set up, I noticed that the tents weren’t arranged in any particular fashion. Camp chairs were scattered here and there. Kids were running all over the place yelling. Some of them were carrying colored light sticks in their hands, others had them tied around their necks, and still others had flashlights. It wasn’t dark yet, but it would be soon. Moms and dads were sitting around on picnic tables and in lawn chairs. Some were drinking coffee or hot cocoa already, and others were drinking sodas that they had brought out in big coolers.
I immediately felt uncomfortable. It was too noisy here. We were too visible. Where was the security around this place? What kind of an idiot would set up a camp this way?
Jacob dropped the camp chairs next to a tree and watched his friends. “Can I go play, Dad?”
“Yeah, I can get the tent up. It’s pretty simple. Come back and check-in with me before it gets too dark.”
“Okay!” he yelled as he disappeared down a trail with the rest of the kids.
I went to work on the tent. A few minutes after I started, another dad came walking over. I noticed his desert combat boots and his camouflage pants as soon as I saw him.
“How ya doing? I’m Mike,” he said.
I stood to shake his hand and introduced myself.
“I saw your boots and your rucksack. Army?”
“Yep, almost ten years,” I said. “What about you?”
“I just got out last year, when I got home from Iraq. Can I ask you something?”
“Did you have a hard time packing for this little trip?”