I was eligible for the military draft during the Vietnam War, but I wasn’t going – no way. I felt that the war was immoral, and I wasn’t about to go over there and kill or get killed for it. And so I hid out way hell and gone in the Rockies until the world was safe from Nixon. I lived like a bear in old mine tunnels above timberline and sometimes came down to make a few hundred bucks banging nails or pouring beer or tuning skis in the little mining/tourist towns of Central Colorado. It was a pretty good life, and I was damn glad to finally abandon it.
I joined the US Army in 1975 to settle societal debts. I took the job of driving tractor-trailer rigs, as that was about as non-warlike a task as I could find. Stationed at Ft. Lewis in beautiful Western Washington, I found opportunities to go up into the High Country that I loved. Some of my climbing partners were the officers who supervised me down at the fort, and so I inadvertently made some social connections. I’d lead some climbs, giving orders to those who ordered me around in Army life. It was pretty good.
I got wind of a program for training the 2/75th Rangers in winter mountain survival, and of course wanted to take part. I was no Ranger, but an old draft dodger who certainly knew how to thrive in winter in mountains. My climbing connections came in handy and I got special dispensation to take the course. I had to first go through about half of Ranger training, which was more annoying than educational. Whatever makes those guys ‘special’ must be in the half of training that I missed. It pissed me off that they didn’t let me jump from an airplane.
The school itself is highly respected in the mountaineering world. But to me it was kid camp on skis. I’d been in the mountains most of my life, and so living in that environment was second nature, but for whatever reason this Colorado kid had never learned to ski (My parents were Carolinians). I did learn over a month of skiing for 12 hours each day, and got damn good at it. I came to see skiing as a best expression of my identity. I was no longer just a hippie draft dodger in a pickle suit, but a SKIIER!
The following summer, as I was driving trucks around the Pacific Northwest (pretty good duty), I heard that the Winter Mountain Survival School was taking applicants for instructors – two positions open. Like the school itself, the jobs were only open to Rangers, and I wasn’t really one. I found out who was driving the bus full of Rangers to the interview, and traded to get myself assigned to the job. Once on the mountain I just strolled in with everyone else, ready to make my pitch.
This was a group of Rangers, about 16 of them, and damn formidable. But the point of the presentation was to show leadership and an ability to convince new trainees that we knew what we were talking about and could be trusted with their lives way up in those scary hills (after all, there are Rangers from Manhattan). Most of the presentations were on appropriate backcountry stuff like how to field dress and elk or tanning buckskin. I gave mine on increasing efficiency of the internal combustion engine by timed application of nitrous oxide gas. Nobody there had a clue about my subject (which is actually sort of stupid), and so I was free to bullshit and make it all about presentation. Half of the score was rating of the presentation (swayed / not swayed) by the other applicants in secret ballot, and we were free to vote for ourselves. I came in second behind a guy who told a very good story of growing up with his wolf biologist parents. Hell, I voted for him because he was a better candidate than me.
The evaluation included a few physical and psychological tests, and in the end the wolf guy and I were selected as the two new instructors to teach winter mountain survival to a bunch of Army Rangers. My problem with carrying out the job was that I was due to end my Army enlistment before the next winter season was out. I’d never have thought I’d do it, but I put in for an extension of 6 months, thinking that I might even get in on the Army’s world class climbing school next summer. Full 3-year re-enlistment never considered. I started teaching the winter course and was really enjoying it when the Army came down and told me that my extension was denied and that I was becoming a civilian whether I wanted to or not. Well shit – probably for the best. The Army and I never did see quite eye to eye.
That very short tenure of teaching young Army Rangers how to live in the mountains was probably the most significant job I ever had. Hell, for all I know there may have been a McChrystal of Patraeus among my plebes, and all of my war resistance went down the drain.