Rain pattered down over the canvas and the leaves. It plinked against pot lids and vibrated the windbreaks on the Coleman stove. It gathered in puddles and ran in shallow streams through the fields and woods around Shiloh. It waxed and waned between fairly strong and barely raining but, for three days and nights, it never really quit. Camped in a break of mixed hardwoods, the scouts and leaders of Troop 80 glumly soldiered on.
Our irregular bunch numbered a dozen or so, scattered in age from 11 to 17. We’d gone to hike the trails that wound throughout the battlefield whose actions marked a key point in the Civil War, but our historical experience turned out to be more accurate than intended.
We didn’t hear any shots fired and none of us contracted dysentery, though a couple guys did declare cases of trench foot, but otherwise we enjoyed a small sample of the mundane misery common to the soldiers who’d fought there in 1862.
We’d arrived and set up camp in the dry, then immediately gone to the visitors’ center where we saw a scale model of the battlefield and watched a brief film. Then we bought all the cap pistols and caps on display in the gift shop. One of our members, a strapping 16-year-old we’ll call “Sam,” also bought a replica of a Union cavalry officer’s hat, he said, because that side won. Sam may have been the first bandwagon fan I ever knew.
We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting up the woods with cap pistols and planned a brisk 14-miler for the morning. Around midnight the thunderstorms rolled in and the lightning made hiking in the rain seem too great a risk.
Plus, the weather was cool and few of us had ponchos. The gift shop probably had some, but we’d spent all our money on cap pistols, so that was out. As it was, we sat in camp and waited. Someone had a pack of Uno cards and we played that until none of us could stand the thought of being hit with another Draw Four. Meals were made interesting by the rain. One big pot of chicken noodle soup was nearly as full when we finished as it was when we started, only much thinner.
Eventually our leaders decided, like the Confederate commanders before them, to strike the tents and retreat by way of Corinth to home. That’s when we noticed Sam was missing.
We were camped well back from any particular highway and were the only group still in residence at the time. He hadn’t been kidnapped because no one would have taken him, which only meant he’d left on a mission of his own design.
Sam often did unconventional things. He would, for example, take the first bite of his sandwich from the geographical center of the thing because, he said, that’s where all the best stuff was. He always had logical reasons for his actions, but the logic didn’t match that followed by any other human we knew. Our leaders combed the campground trails and drove the roads looking for him.
Eventually he came running back into camp from the woods side, arms outstretched like an airplane. Said he’d only “gone for a jog.”
Our leaders’ desire to kill him was mitigated by relief that we were all going home, though, so Sam lived to jog another day.
The experience provided just that: experience, and a basis of comparison for the future.
In itself the trip didn’t come to much, but in the mind of everyone who was there lies the scent memory of lantern fuel and wood smoke, the smell of moss and dead leaves, the sound of rain drops on canvas, the disappointment of a mission that failed and the knowledge that, like life, camping always finds something new and unexpected to throw at you.
Sam was lucky not to find a big chunk of it thrown at him.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.