We had intentionally found as remote a place as was available
in Arkansas, a "primitive" campground in the Ozark National Forest. The
only conveniences were several picnic tables, an outhouse, and a water
spigot. There were not even any signs designating the campground, no chains,
gate, or whatever--just a clearing in the woods next to a stream and off
of a very unimproved gravel road miles from nowhere. The last town we had
seen was a small hamlet, an old mill town, about 15-20 miles back. We were
Marcia and I with our three kids, ranging from toddler David to nine year old Erin, had joined our friends, John and Judy, with their two young daughters for a four day camping trip. We were pleased with our location, even though we had endured several miles of torturously rough gravel road to get there. We pitched our two tents just a short walk from the creek and in the shadow of the tall woods; it was a nice, relaxing spot.
Our closest neighbor (only two other parties were there) was a man from downstate with his two sons. He had camped here often and was familiar enough with the place to warn us about the copperheads--the woods were crawling with them, to hear him tell it--and water moccasins which populated the stream like flies at the dump. But he was a country boy and he took it in stride: just keep your eyes open, he said, and beat 'em with a stick if need be.
Our neighbor, while he wasn't patronizing, addressed us in the tone you'd use for the uninitiated, the greenhorns needing guidance-which our yankee accents and unfamiliarity with the Arkansas woods must have encouraged. But his tone dropped a notch when we strolled back into camp laden with arm loads of split oak firewood that I had neatly cut with a double-bitted axe. And I think he was watching when we started our campfire with one match, and when we cooked supper in cast iron cookware over the fire. What might have clinched it was the next day when he and his boys were rolling up camp to go home. We offered him a homegrown watermelon, one of several monsters I had brought along from our garden. I noticed his tone was entirely different from the day before, bordering on respect.
The rain started during our second afternoon in camp, but we made the best of it. We cooked another good dinner; our firewood supply was dry, covered with a tarp. It poured rain all night, and we emerged the next morning damp, bedraggled, and not particularly well rested, although the kids were in fine spirits and raced in and out of the tents tracking mud as we fixed coffee and breakfast.
Light rain was intermittent that third day. We adults played rummy, entertained the kids, and worked at keeping our tents clean and dry. By noon we had the entire place to ourselves; the other remaining family had left. Possibly we alone were dedicated enough to camp in the rain.
But that afternoon we witnessed a curious arrival. A dirty, slightly battered, older model Ford Pinto with a Louisiana license plate pulled up a short distance from us. Two young guys got out, scruffy looking, long-haired, and unshaven. The one guy looked to be in his twenties and his friend could not have been eighteen yet. But they were remarkable for one thing especially: here they were camping, in the rain . . . with no camping gear--no tent, no cooler, none of the paraphernalia that people who plan to camp normally bring.
We were confined to camp by the weather with little to do, so we watched as our new neighbors brought out a ragged sheet of visqueem, clear construction plastic, for a crude shelter. They hung one end of the sheet over the driver's side door and shut it, and propped the other end with sticks over a picnic table. They went off into the woods several times, came back with some limbs and branches, and managed to get a small fire burning, but with wet wood it sputtered and smoked more than it burned until some time after dark. John and I and some of the kids traipsed past our neighbors on our way to the outhouse and water faucet, and confirmed by close observation what we had seen from a distance. These two were unprepared for camping. They looked very much out of place.
Over at our camp we were all a little tired that evening, and that may have helped fuel our imaginations. As we speculated about our neighbors' circumstances, we couldn't help but consider some of the stories we had heard over the years of bloody, brutal crimes committed at remote campgrounds. Of course we all laughed about the prospect of being alone with psychopaths miles from anywhere, but as time went by the question that loomed in our minds was: what if they ARE desperate and dangerous? What other explanation would there be for such an unlikely-looking situation? We breathed not a word of our suspicions to the kids.
The way you whistle in the dark, we laughed and carried on over supper as if nothing were amiss, while glancing often at the next camp. Their eerie, sputtering firelight illuminated the two figures and their car and threw menacing shadows into the surrounding timber. Although we could not make out what was said, the sound of voices and occasional laughter floated our way from that sinister scene.
Giving in to fatigue at about nine that night, we all crawled off to bed, each in the company of his or her private thoughts. What happened that cool, damp August night, far from civilization and deep in the Arkansas wilderness, wouldn't be known until daylight, when the tales would be told.
In our tent Marcia agonized and fretted but couldn't
sleep. "What if they come here in the middle of the night?" she whispered.
"What chance would we have, unarmed and without warning?" So quietly, surreptitiously--we
didn't want to alarm our friends--we moved our sleeping kids into our station
wagon and locked the doors. Marcia slept in the front seat, keys
in the ignition, ready to make her escape. All four of us adults had tried
to play down our suspicions, and in an effort to comfort Marcia by appearing
unconcerned (and also because the car was crowded) I slept in the tent.
Or rather I wanted to sleep.
I was exhausted, and being one of those lucky few to whom sleep comes easily, I could have dropped off in a minute. But the scenario I imagined was: what if my family were savagely attacked and I survived? Death I supposed I could handle, but how would I live with myself having let my family and friends die?
Fighting to stay awake, I waited until I thought Marcia would be asleep, and then I crept quietly across to the far side of our camp where I sat guard at the picnic table. My axe was locked in the station wagon underneath my sleeping daughters, and so I chose the only weapon I could find. I awaited our attackers armed with a shovel.
As I sat staring at the nearby campfire looking for clues in the movements around it and straining unsuccessfully to hear what was said, time passed slowly. Our fire was dying, no lanterns burned; it was obvious that everyone here had retired -- when would they make their move?
I devised my strategy. To begin with I would have the advantage of surprise. Shooting a flashlight beam on the approaching pair, I would demand loudly, "What are you guys up to? What's going on?" This would not only stop them short but also alert our camp. And with the light in their faces, they would not know how I was armed (or unarmed as was actually the case). Beyond this point I knew we'd have to wing it.
Over and over in my mind the possibilities played out. My plan might catch them off guard, forcing them to leave us unmolested. Or I might be forced into battle, and to that end I began thinking about how to most effectively wield a shovel, but of course that depended on how the assailants were armed. It all came down to waiting...and waiting.
Their fire would fade occasionally, and I would think, all right, any time now. But then I would hear limbs being broken and see a rising shower of sparks as the coals were stirred, and then shortly the flames would rise again. The night dragged on interminably.
Without giving away my position with the flashlight, I could not read my watch, but it must have been near midnight when their talk and activity finally ceased and their fire died for good. But I was still not satisfied, so I waited, shivering and squinting into the darkness for about another hour. Half-frozen and beginning to doze, I finally gave it up.
I tripped in the dark and cracked my shin with the shovel blade before crawling dispiritedly into my sleeping bag, a little before one o'clock in the morning.
In the morning it was raining. Around seven, the
kids splashed into the tent wanting breakfast. Marcia dragged herself in
behind them. Her neck and back were sore from sleeping behind the
wheel of the station wagon. (With four people breathing in close quarters,
the car had apparently been a sauna, as well. If Marcia had tried
to drive away she probably would have done it blind, through a fogged windshield.)
I had slept soundly -- but not long enough -- we were both exhausted. Dragging
myself out to start the fire, I looked across the way. There sat the derelict
Ford, its crude plastic awning collapsed over the picnic table in the rain.
John and Judy emerged from their tent with their girls. Feeling a little foolish, I was reluctant to mention my guard duty. But then Judy told her story.
She also had felt uneasy. Judy had imagined that the attackers would slit her tent open with knives and come in that way. And she also had resorted to the only weapon she could devise from our meager store. Judy had lain awake stiffly for an hour or two with a flashlight in one hand (again, the element of surprise), and--with her finger poised in readiness--a spray can of deodorant in the other. Surely a face full of deodorant spray and flashlight beam would slow them down.
Only John was well rested. Only John, of us four adults, had felt secure enough to sleep. So it was he who woke about four in the morning and watched from his tent door when several people with flashlights did come crashing through the woods (from the other direction--unbeknown to us there was one other camp uphill from us). It was John who called out, "What's going on?" and learned they were headed to the creek with fishing tackle.
So the Arkansas massacre never took place. As we broke camp that day, preparing to leave, John and I and the kids visited our neighbors in the Pinto, and left them some of our hotdogs and a watermelon. It seems the older brother had gotten time off from work unexpectedly and had picked up his younger brother and headed out for an impromptu camping trip. At least that's what they said . . .
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