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"Life At Camp Despair"

survival training 1

(As shared by S. Maier - Flight Paramedic)

It has been many months since I was forced into survival training and despite the passage of time, the horrors I endured that night still haunt my dreams to this day.

It started out like all bad ideas do, with the best of intentions. Send the crews out for a 24 hour episode of both survival and rescue training thereby satisfying the CAMTS requirement and getting them some additional rescue work.

And so it began on a bright sunny day this past fall that Howard, Glenn and I met up with our instructor at Sonic before we headed out. We had been told ahead of time that the only supplies we would be given were those that we either carried on our person or that were contained in the STAR Flight survival kit. I was enjoying part of a cheeseburger when we were told it was time to ship out and so without much thought I tossed half of it out and we headed to parts unknown. In retrospect not eating the rest was a mistake.

A short time later, we arrived in the wilderness of Western Travis County; an area so vast that a man could get lost for at least 30 minutes before he stumbled across some sort of civilization. With that in mind I really didn’t feel the need to plan ahead too much. Sure I stuffed some extra items in my flight suit to keep myself entertained while we were out there but it was only 24 hours and we were all pretty jovial at the start. Then without warning, a rather unceremonious inspection was made and I lost my craisins, tuna, snickers, antelope jerky, power bar and some other staples of survival. I guess Rescue Kenny wasn’t kidding when he said we would be on our own. At first we laughed like idiots because the sun was high we weren’t really uncomfortable and we figured how bad could it be it was only 23 more hours. Then the instructions came.......and they were pretty simple. “Take this survival kit and fend for yourselves over the next 22 hours 57minutes.” And with that, Ken wandered off to make his own camp.

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Well at first it was all one big joke, we talked about what type of shelter we needed and what we thought the weather would do and all the stuff you might consider if you were a boy scout. The bad thing for us was that none of us had ever been boy scouts and so we didn’t possess the necessary skills to build a shelter. We hurried about cutting down small cedar trees and leaning them across one another to make a crude lean to shelter. We tried to provide ourselves with some protection from the wind but the truth is we all figured that we were in Texas and how cold could it possible get.

With our great engineering project completed we set about the business of securing water from the local cesspool. There is nothing more refreshing than a tepid glass of brown water from a stagnant pool of water surrounded by cow dung. I know that the water filter we used is supposed to filter out all the bad stuff but when there a dirt particles floating in the water it really makes you wonder how it can stop bacteria but not clumps of dirt. Of course we all had to take a swig in some sort of bizarre “rite of passage” ritual that had me wondering if next we would have to drink the blood of our enemies to steal their soul.

Now that we had both shelter and water we moved on to securing the other two essentials of wilderness and food. I was devastated to discover that there were no herds of wild cheeseburgers roaming the countryside and that chocolate bars don’t grow on trees. Fortunately Glenn must have been a Geico Caveman in his former life and promptly fashioned himself a spear from a pocketknife and a stick. In a scene that surely could have given anthropologists some insight into behaviors of primitive man he set out to stab the fish. I watched this with great amusement and it dawned on me that in the last thousand years or so we have traded many of the skills we needed to rise to the top of the food chain for newer ones such as being able to use a cell phone and drive a car, neither of which will help you stab a fish with a stick. That didn’t stop Glenn from repeatedly trying to reclaim his title as Lord of the Cedar Trees and even though he tried his best the end result was that all he managed to do was stab himself in the mouth with his mighty spear. The agony of defeat still pains him even to this day.

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By this time, the sun had begun a slow descent and the chill of the evening was beginning to make its presence felt. We had already resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no food during this little adventure but we were not prepared to go without fire. This might be the one instance that the skills gained in the realm of fire starting greatly outweigh those of years gone by. So despite Rescue Kenny’s attempts to teach us how to start a fire with a stick and some rocks we decided that gold old fashioned 20th century technology was better and used lighters and Sterno to start ours.

The night settled in around us and we sat there staring at the fire wondering what to do for the next 18hrs. We hadn’t done anything to make our shelter more livable since we first erected it and after a few minutes of sitting in the dirt it occurred to us that maybe we should try and make some sort of bedding. The three of us set about this in vastly different ways; Howard made his bed out of cedar branches and used his mylar as a blanket. This plan may have made him comfortable but if you have ever tried to sleep next to someone wrestling around under a mylar blanket it is only slight less noisy than a freight train plowing into a glass truck. Glenn laid his mylar on the ground and filled it with moss and tried to make a mattress. In theory this was the best idea but as with many great ideas there are always some problems when lecture meets lab. This was no exception and before nights end the inherent flaws of a mattress made with moss and taped together showed themselves. I watched both of them expend considerable time and effort and decided that a better plan was not more work but less so I scrounged around and found and old lawn chair that had washed down the creek. I set this next to the fire and sat down thinking that if I could just drift off into a coma-like sleep that I could make it through the night.

At first this worked great and I think I was more comfortable than either of the other two but then disaster struck when the structural integrity of a plastic chair left exposed to the elements failed and I found myself sitting in the dirt. I was left in quite the pickle at this point. It was already well into the evening, I had no bed and the others didn’t look very sympathetic to my plight since I had already mocked them repeatedly. I tried to position myself around the fire in all sorts of ways but I just couldn’t seem to find a spot that I didn’t roast one side of my body while freezing the other. Then I must have had passed out from complete exhaustion because then next thing I knew I was out. I think I might have been able to sleep the rest of the night away but a strange sound drifted across the campground and rousted me from my slumber. What eerie sound caused me to wake up you was my comrades. They had woken up and were laughing at me because I was twisting around in the dirt like a weasel taking a dirt bath. That wasn’t even the funniest part, I had come to rest with one foot too close to the fire and the heat had caused my boot to get so hot that the sole melted off. So for the next 8 hours I would hobble around on uneven boots as a result of my excellent fire building skills. This simple adventure was quickly becoming a nightmare.

The rest of the night was pretty uneventful. We passed the time staring at the fire, checking the time every eight minutes and taking turns venturing into the record low temperatures for wood to keep our roaring bonfire alive; all while complaining about how miserable we were. As the sun crested the nearby hills a glimmer of hope also dawned in each of our hearts. The kind of hope that a young man feels when he know he won’t have to do anything like this again for at least another year, and that his time in Camp Despair has come to a close.

As I look back at this event I am convinced of two things: the first is that mylar was invented by idiots and the second is I am no Grizzly Adams. I survive best in a sprawling metropolitan area.

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Charles Brotherton
County Executive

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