1969 Explorer Encampment

The idea of ‘An irresistible force meeting an unmovable object’ is a paradox that has made its mark through history from 3rd Century China to 2008’s Chris Nolan film The Dark Knight, but other than an epic 1978 clash of wills between my Mom and my youngest sister, it hasn’t been something dealt with in my life. My challenges have more often involved the skewed version –  indifferent effort colliding with half-assed resistance. Such was the case when I was bundled off to an Explorer event at Elemendorf Air Force Base in March of 1969.

The indifferent effort? Exploring – Scouting’s program for older boys aged 16-18. In addition to developing character and civic pride the program was also designed to introduce the young men to future vocations and career fields, but in reality it was just another way for my folks to work more exposure to the Church into my life. There were no uniforms or organization, just a room full of teenaged boys arguing about the Beatles’ White Album or the Jets winning Super Bowl III while a parade of disinterested adult advisors changed out on a monthly basis.

The half-assed resistance? March in Alaska where there is no spring – a period between winter and summer  referred to as ‘Break-up’, a term referencing both the ice on bodies of water breaking up and roads turning into a semi-frozen quagmire created by water from melting snow trapped on the surface by permafrost deeper down in the ground below. Daytime temperatures are warmer and the days are longer, but the snow will still be around for six to eight weeks. It’s a maddening situation not unlike my little sister humming the same off-key tune over and over while I was trying to do my homework, so when a three day activity for area explorers was announced for this particular Spring Break I gladly signed up, especially when the alternative was three extra days staring at the wall. I was also still figuratively on the lam after my involvement in a rather out-of-control party just a few weeks earlier. I’d managed to avoid the wrath of a parent who’d tumbled to exactly what had been going on, but I still spent most of my time with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach and was prone to jump a foot or two into the air when the telephone rang unexpectedly or an unfamiliar car turned into our driveway.

The event was known officially as an Explorer Encampment and was sponsored by one of the more active Explorer posts in Anchorage comprised of guys I’d gone to church and school with in Anchorage five years earlier. While encampment events would be split between Elemedorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson we’d be bunking at an unused squadron barracks on Elemendorf. As a service brat, the Spartan environment was reassuring rather than unsettling as it was to most of the other guys, and as we settled into the barracks Wednesday night I was looking forward to a couple of days respite from randomly ringing telephones. It prompted a thought that maybe a change of venue might provide me a little respite, but then sounds of shuffling cards and murmured bets started up in the next locker bay.

I’d forgotten about Blake Townsend.

Free agency figures prominently in our faith but so does adherence to very specific standards of behavior that most teenagers would find excessively restrictive, but in Blake’s case it wasn’t a matter of resistance as much as it was a personal challenge. Wednesday night lesson on pornography? Blake had PLAYBOY snapshots tucked inside of his scriptures. Guest lecture by a state trooper on drunk driving? Blake had two beers stashed in his coat pocket. Three day Explorer Encampment designed to foster citizenship and character? Blake had set up a portable casino, which at this point consisted of a poker game with two players: Danny, a member of our Explorer post from home (not the sharpest knife in the drawer) and Stevie, a kid from Anchorage wearing a field jacket and prone to waving around a Marine Corps K-BAR knife given to him by an older brother upon his return from Vietnam.

As was his habit, Blake had shared his plans with me beforehand, though whether it was to shock me to or gain an accomplice I’d never know. I was just as indifferent to ‘the rules’ as he was, but my inner fifty-year old man balked at the crassness of his theological guerilla warfare – if you disagreed with the prohibition on alcohol don’t get blitzed on Friday night and then sit piously in church on Sunday thumbing your nose at both doctrine and worshippers. Blake’s floating card game added to the internal Stukas dive-bombing my stomach. I really didn’t like the card playing, but I wasn’t firm enough in my convictions to stand up to Blake, so I just avoided the issue by pulling a pillow over my head and trying to sleep.

Thursday / Elmendorf Air Force Base

After a mega-caloric breakfast at the dining facility downstairs we were taken to the ramp area to see static displays of various types of aircraft and a lecture on the training pipeline for pilots, then after waiting the requisite thirty minutes after lunch we went to the fieldhouse and the base swimming pool. The highlight of the day was our visit to the cavernous blue-lit Alaskan Air Command headquarters with its wall-sized situation map which through the miracle of 1960’s slide projector technology would update every fifteen minutes.

Walking around the base triggered early childhood memories of walking around NAS Alameda with my Dad and I found myself feeling at home for the first time since we’ve moved north from California seven years earlier. I liked the discipline and sense of duty – and the jets were just totally bitching –  but I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that the uniforms made everyone look like bus-drivers so ‘Air Force’ dropped down several spaces on my list of possible future vocations.

When we returned to the barracks that evening I found that Blake’s casino had grown in scope. Instead of a simple draw poker game he had recruited one of the Anchorage Explorers to run a blackjack game while he continued to run the poker game. While not much money changed hands Danny had managed to gamble away all of his money and Stevie had managed to cut himself with his knife. Once again I rolled over and let myself be lulled to sleep by the soft sounds of shuffling cards and murmured comments like

‘Call, deal or fold’.

Friday / Fort Richardson

We’d been fed so well on Thursday that Friday’s breakfast was almost an afterthought before we loaded up and bussed over the FT Richardson where our day started with a demonstration of setting up camp in an arctic environment. The afternoon was spent watching an M551 Sheridan Armored Reconnaissance vehicle go through its paces while the evening was divided between a tour of the post’s wildlife museum and a lecture/demonstration by a Green Beret trooper.

Seeing this guy was like hearing dog whistle and I sat up and started paying close attention.

This particular Special Forces sergeant was attached to brigade headquarters after recently returning from back-to-back tours in Vietnam. It was a struggle to keep up as he started to rattle off his qualifications – not because he kept toggling between three languages in which he was fluent, but because he looked so totally freaking bad-ass in his tiger-stripe camouflage uniform and beret while running through function checks for the half-dozen foreign weapons displayed in the table in front of him.

I briefly tried challenging him with my second-year Spanish skills but his rapid-fire reply stunned me back into silence and I spent the rest of the time listening intently. Between Roger Donlon’s book Outpost of Freedom and Dickie Chappelle’s coverage of SF basecamps in National Geographic, I already had some idea what the Green Berets were all about, but I couldn’t tear myself away from what this team sergeant was saying.

His comments on duty, teamwork and bravery struck a resonant chord as I sat contemplating them during the ride back to our barracks on Elemendorf, even when Blake moved to the seat behind and started taunting me about avoiding his portable casino. My first thought was to just slouch down in my seat and pretend to sleep, but then the sergeant’s words echoed again and I thought: ‘If that guy can face down a battalion of Viet-Cong with just a ten man detachment I can stand up to Blake Townsend’.

I turned around.

‘Why do you have to screw everything up like this? You can drink anywhere? You can gamble anywhere? Why do you mess up a situation where people are trying to do the right thing?’

What followed were two minor miracles.

  1. Blake Townsend was at a total loss of words.
  2. His face manifested five different emotions all at the same time.

His face hardened into a scowl and he started to reply but then I heard the voice of our adult leader, Al, come from just over my shoulder in response to Blake: ‘Dave’s right. If you can’t stand the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen. Find somewhere else for this crap’.

…at which point a third miracle occurred. Blake sat back in his seat, tucked his cards and other his gambling paraphernalia into his pockets and remained silent for rest of the trip back to our barracks on Elemendorf AFB where he remained silent and detached until our trip back home the next day….and I found that my internal Stukas had stopped the airstrikes on my stomach.

In a perfect world that would have marked the end of Blake’s badgering, but between Hurricane Camille, Vietnam, and Richard Nixon’s inauguration, 1969 was far from perfect …and neither was Blake. He still made it a point to badger me about being a ‘goodie-goodie’ but the comments weren’t quite as barbed and ended quickly when I replied in the negative. It took me years to snap all the Legos together, but it was at that point on that dark bus traveling between Elemendorf and FT Richardson that my spine got shiny and peer pressure lost its terror for me.

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