February 13, 2012

Sunday morning was cold. It was our first real taste of winter and I had no desire to go outside. But Rudy had other ideas. "My bathroom is the great outdoors and that is where I really, really, really need to be. Now!" I was just beginning to feel better after my week of feeling quite rotten but I could not argue with him. Lady Laura was not yet dressed so I was chosen. "Please. Please. Please. Take me out. I gotta go!!"

I bundled up as best as I could and opened the door. Rudy rushed out and a frigid blast of winter rushed in the house. I stepped outside and felt the wind blowing cold against my nose and cheeks. I pulled my stocking cap a little further down over my ears. I wished I had taken time to put on a scarf ... but it was too late now.

As Rudy tended to business my mind rushed back to the winter of '73-'74 ... one of the coldest times in my life. The winter was exceptionally cold even for Pennsylvania and I had one of the dumbest ideas I've ever had. At that time I was the Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout Troop that consisted of about ten boys; all with special needs. Back then, if a boy couldn't cope with normal scouting activities he was placed in the special needs troop.

Prior to that position I had been the Assistant Scoutmaster of a "normal" troop for several years. We had an excellent Scoutmaster and he taught us well in running a Boy Scout Troop. So I was comfortable when I was asked to take over the special needs troop. I was assured that all the boys were well behaved, good kids and that proved to be true. I quickly grew to love these guys and that summer we had many activities - which they preformed nearly as well as any troop. I was proud of them and I felt that they could handle anything that Scouting would require of them.

It was in that light that I planned the great winter hike of '73-'74. It was to be an overnight hike and camp out on top of a mountain. At the time plans were being formulated we had no idea that the date selected was to be the coldest night in many a year.

When that day came we gathered at a local truck stop and I told the boys that perhaps we should cancel the hike until the weather was a bit warmer ... maybe in June! But the boys would not hear of it and the camp out was still on. But they did agree to a compromise. Instead of hiking several miles to the planned camp site, I borrowed a van and we drove there.

The top of the mountain proved to be quite cold with a steady wind blowing. It took a great deal of effort but the boys finally managed to get the tents set up and a fire going. The afternoon was spent wandering around the woods identifying local fauna which proved to be a challenge because plants look very different without their leaves. After we got tired of that, some of the boys took off "to find a bear's den." They never did and I'm not sure what they would have done if they ever did find one.

As the sun set we stoked up the fire and tried to stay warm while huddled around it. We drank hot chocolate and told lies about who had lived through the coldest weather. I told them about my experiences with Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica while in the Navy. But I don't think anyone believed me because they all knew that my coldest time in the military was winter in Spain. We did not know yet that that night the mountain would supply us all with the same "coldest weather story".

When it came about time to go to sleep we had out first major mishap. A cold blast of powerful wind hit the campsite and a large limb came crashing down and wiped out one of the tents. Fortunately no one was in the tent but it was ripped to a point that it was useless. I gave the two boys who were to sleep in that tent my own tent. I made a hammock out of my sleeping bag and told them I would sleep there.

That idea might have been fine most any other night but not this one. The boys retired to their tents and I climbed into my "hammock". It wasn't long before I felt like a Popsicle because I could not get into the sleeping bag. I managed to lay on top of the bag but the wind was relentless and I was so cold my teeth were chattering. I could not get to sleep. I took that hammock down and crawled into the sleeping bag as it lay on the ground. But this also proved to be a bad idea because the cold ground prevented the bag from getting warm.

Some time earlier the fire had gone out so I could not get warm that way. Just after midnight I was cold and miserable and walking in circles around the camp trying to get warm. It was about then that I gave up - I knew how I could get warm - even if I was a "sissy" compared to the boys in the troop. I got into the van and started it up. It wasn't long before it was warm inside and I decided to sleep in the back. With the heater running!

But before I could get settled in there was a knock on the side door. Before I could even see who was knocking the door opened and one of the boys jumped in. He was a blue as a Smurf and said he wanted to sleep in the van, too.

Within the next five minutes all of the boys were in the van. Tents and sleeping bags were no match for the weather that night. Just before 1 AM I told the boys to go back outside and pack up the camp - we were getting out of there! It seemed like the words were barely out of my mouth before they were all packed and ready to go.

We drove back to the truck stop and everybody had a steaming cup of hot chocolate. While we sipped on the chocolate we tried to decided what to do next - nobody wanted to go home in the middle of the night and admit the mountain had defeated us. As we were talking the truck stop manager, who had gotten involved in the discussion, told us that we could move the tables and chairs out of a corner of the restaurant and sleep there. The guys were all for this and in no time sleeping bags were rolled out on the floor. It took a couple more hours but they finally managed to settle down and get tucked into their bags.

Later that day their parents picked them up at the truck stop and most were impressed that their scout had spent the coldest night of the winter on top of a frozen mountain. I don't know how many of the boys confessed the truth but Lady Laura didn't know all the facts until ... well, until she reads this!