-GAINS & GLEANINGS-
By J. Hogan
I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on the radio over Thanksgiving weekend, while my family was in Detroit visiting my wife’s family. It’s colder up in Michigan, and the lyrics about “when the gales of November came slashing” and the area’s relative proximity to where the ore ship took 29 shipmates to the bottom of Lake Superior likely make that old song a more frequent radio offering there.
I’ve never been on a ship on open water during gale-force winter winds, where even with the large waves to toss the vessel about, there’s really nothing to slow down the wind. I have, at least once, felt the winter wind’s unfettered punishment.
I was a Private 1st Class in the U.S Army in February of 1988, and Uncle Sam decided my unit was going to “the field” – Army parlance for off base, in tents somewhere, usually in the woods – on short notice.
It was cold in Pirmasens, a small city on the French border, as we piled our equipment into trucks for the convoy to the field. We thought we’d likely be going to a familiar patch of well-used woods about an hour north of our base, as we’d done before.
We were wrong.
In the wisdom only afforded command staff tucked safely in heated buildings with no expectation of being deployed to the woods themselves short of a declaration of genuine war, our brigade’s orders put us in a quite different spot than suspected.
We were sent to a treeless, broken blacktopped tarmac, the remains of a now shelterless former helicopter base three hours from where we’d guessed we’d be heading.
We arrived as the winter dusk was approaching and set about trying to get our communications gear up and running and our bivouac tents erected. The problem was that small tents afforded no heat options, and it was eight degrees above zero on our thermometer. The bigger tents are usually set up in winter, then wood-burning stoves fired up to chase away the frostbite… but on this particular day the wind was gusting near 50 mph on that mountain, and the few areas of exposed dirt were frozen as hard as the blacktop.
Tent canvas became wind sails and tent spike pounding a bone-jarring futile misadventure.
We broke a thousand safety regulations just to survive long enough to figure out how to make a go of the operation.
My motor pool mechanics broke out an acetylene torch to cook the ground so the spikes could find purchase, then heated the spikes themselves to a glow so the sledge could keep making progress.
Entire teams of soldiers rotated into and out of a sort of army green teepee leaning against a two and a half ton truck, where the entirely unstable ramshackle thing was heated by a lone wood stove only a couple of feet from the tent fabric, with the bodies of shivering soldiers leaning into the canvass to keep it from touching the stove and going up in flames.
That night we were able to get two of our unit’s several big tents up, and we crammed everyone into them for the night around midnight. The wind howled all night, finding every small crack it could to create frigid drafts circling the tent and robbing the little heat two stoves provided.
None of us slept well, and when we got up in the sunlight the wind had dropped to a steady 15 mph or so, but the temperature was below zero for the day.
We did our best to get the rest of the camp set up, and probably got two-thirds of the way there before the early darkness was back. We lay in our sleeping bags, teeth chattering and taking our turn tending the stoves through the night as the wind got worse and worse through the night.
The next morning two soldiers were loaded into an SUV and taken for medical care with frostbite, and by noon, two others were injured tumbling off the top of the cargo bin on the back of a communication truck.
Our commander, Captain Dixon, didn’t know they’d intentionally fallen, intending to feign injury to get sent to the rear where it was warm. Since they both suffered serious injuries, including a broken leg, their ploy resulted in the whole operation being called and we spent the day breaking camp and heading off that miserable mountain.
It wasn’t a smart plan for command and we heard that some mid-level officers were reprimanded for endangering the whole unit, but that’s the Army way. No way we went out there without the full blessing of the Colonel at the top, but he cruised on to Brigadier General before hanging up his boots. It wouldn’t do to let the mess fall on him.
That’s the closest I’ve gotten to winter gales of which Lightfoot sang, and it was as close as I believe I want to.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.