So you guys want more SF stories? Here’s an SF story from the ancient past — specifically, 1981.
That year finds Your Humble Blogger as a new guy in the 10th MI Co. (CBTI), the integrated intelligence unit of the 10th Special Forces Group. By that we mean, all the group’s intelligence disciplines were clustered here, under the leadership, usually, of SF qualified officers and senior NCOs with ODA and staff time. The disciplines included all-source analysis, HUMINT, SIGINT, IMINT, and CI. In later years, these units would be broken up and smaller all-source cells pushed down to the battalions. Nowadays the intelligence specialty personnel are not expected to pursue SF qualification (which, nowadays, would remove them automatically from the intel unit and reset them on the team-guy track) but that long ago it was a common aspiration of both the all-source analysts (who found it eased rapport with the ODA and ODB guys) and the intel collectors (who, in those days, operated independently as teams in their own right, and therefore had to match the fieldcraft skills of the ODAs, also). In that unit, nobody shrank from physical and moral challenges, and everybody pursued hard, realistic training.
It was almost exactly 35 years ago, and the weather where we were that day, in the mountains of Vermont, was much like the weather for yesterday’s Seacoast bike ride: gloriously sunny, dry and calm, and just under 90ºF (32ºC, for those whose nation has yet to land men on the moon). Mountain Warfare was on the menu, along with some UW training. This was not technical climbing; this was basically a lot of uphill hiking with the occasional scrabble over rocks. (It has probably gotten more uphill in the last three-dozen years of remembering). But this is less about the training, and more about how 1LT Dave went from our most liked to our least liked officer.
We really did like Dave. He was like us: young, irreverent, smart, and he’d rather be on an ODA than stuck in a CI officer billet. But he did his best in that job, and frequently went the extra mile to organize tradecraft training for those who needed it, primarily the CI cell and the operational detachments.
It was when he strayed from trade- to fieldcraft that we came to curse his name. His family had had a retreat in the Vermont mountains, and he offered that as a base for a week of fieldcraft and tradecraft training. The field points were hiking in, living out of poncho hooches as we did, and then, after the rural tradecraft work, hiking (again) to a particular riverbank spot where we would find rubber boats, then running the rapids of the river back to an RV point where trucks would meet us for the ride back to civilization. There was probably some more hiking than that; hiking always loomed large in our legend, you might say. Most of our planned hiking was along the Long Trail and the Vermont portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Dave planned the hike based on several hikes from his childhood memory. Some of the trails he had in mind were not marked on military maps, but it didn’t matter much as our key waypoints were mountain peaks, which are rather unmistakeable; the hike was along a by-section of the official Appalachian or Long Trail, so in high summer we could count on lots of company. The civilians must have been wondering who were the armed goons with the oversize packs, whose mother had dressed them funny.
As we started off the first morning, Dave uttered the words for which he would come within a heartbeat of a lynching: “It’s pretty steep at the start, but as I recall it levels off after the pond.”
About 6 hours in, most of it spent on 40% or higher slope, an ill-advised detour through some mountain laurel, and a few stretches climbing rocks on all fours, we came to a pond. We couldn’t see what was ahead because of the thick vegetation, but we all expressed relief. “It levels off after the pond!” We were stripped to t-shirts and had to periodically reapply bug juice, as both black and yellow flies were in season, and sweat — which we all did, profusely — sluiced the insect repellent off.
The pond! It would level off after the pond, thank a merciful God, and Dave’s memory.
Now, our faith in God survived the coming evolution, but our faith in Dave’s memory was badly shaken. Because rather than leveling off after the pond, the terrain seemed to redouble its rate of ascent; the Green Mountains, which peak out from around 3,700 to 4,400 feet (call it 1130 to 2000 meters) are not exactly the Himalayas, but it was the going down to 2500-3000 feet between peaks that was kicking our teeth in. We finally crested the Big Daddy (Mt. Mansfield, site of the Stowe ski resort) and discovered we had an RV to make with trucks to Dave’s family’s place.
We tumbled down the hill (in some cases and at some times, literally tumbled). We were bruised, sore and exhausted. Some of the guys were having cramps. On this descent, we passed a couple of college cuties hiking the trail. We figured we looked studly, in our filth and sweat and arms and accouterments. They quickly set us straight. We looked like overladen, crushed and beaten gun-toting hobos in coincidentally-matching rags.
At the bottom of the trail, Dave met us. He was fresh. He probably smelled fresh, not that we could confirm any fragrance from where we stood amidst a small herd of human wildebeests. From the wrinkle of his nose and his rapid backstepping, it was clear that the fragrance we couldn’t smell on each other was evident enough to normal humanity.
“I thought you said it leveled off after the [censored] pond!” (Before the Army, we had never known that “mother” was only half a word).
“Sure it does. You have to take the left where the trail is blazed…”
“Didn’t do that, did you. Did I forget to tell you?”
The next day, tradecraft classes resumed. As we dispersed to conduct various types of technical communications, every single guy had something to say about that everloving pond.
In fact, a couple of years ago, we ran into Dave, now an executive with a Federally Financed Research & Development Center. And he knew how we’d greet him (and did!)
It levels off after the [censored] pond!
Nowadays he takes it with good humor. And since 1981, he has never, ever told anyone it levels out after the pond.