It all began about a month before school ended. Our teachers at Stuttgart American High School herded us over to the base theater in the Pattonville housing area. After we settled down, a rather imposing man with an impossible mustache got up and gave us a presentation on a new three week summer program for dependent boys. It was based on a civilian program popular in the United States called Outward Bound. The idea was to challenge teenagers through a series of physical and mental activities to build character and begin to partake in objective self discovery. The goal of the program was to help kids realize their full potential through the experience of the real adventure of hiking, camping and mountain climbing. It was designed to challenge them physically, mentally and emotionally as well as helping young people conquer their fear of living in a scary world. This program would be run by some of his Army Ranger friends.
Mr. “Woody” Woodward, a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, had been asked by the overseas director of schools to put together this summer program for dependent kids. He had assembled a corps of instructors from some of his army friends to facilitate the program. In his presentation he sold it well with visions of us all mountain climbing and hiking through the Alps surrounding beautiful Berchtesgaden, Germany. He had me at Berchtesgaden as it was one of my favorite places to go on vacation. It turned out to be much more than any vacation I would ever take in my life.
I had taken a trip to Barcelona, Spain and when I returned I had about a week and a half back in Pattonville before I left for I was supposed to be in Berchtesgaden for Project Bold. We were given a list of recommended items to bring with us and my mom and I ran all around gathering as much of it as we could. Most items were obtained from an Army surplus store near Pattonville. We picked up a canteen, canteen cup, poncho, a pair of combat boots with socks, and a waterproof bag there. All of that stuff came to about $20 bucks. The rest of the stuff we tried to get at the P.X. The combat boots were new, and I spent a lot of time walking up and down Verdun Road trying to break them in. It helped somewhat, but I still got some blisters from that G.I. issue.
I was excited about all of this. I chose to go to Project Bold not only because it sounded cool, but because dad didn’t want me sitting around Pattonville all summer doing nothing with my last days in Europe. He actually offered me two choices: One was he had a friend who had connections in Israel and could get me to work on an Israeli kibbutz all summer farming. “Tempting”, I said to my dad, but the saner choice to my way of thinking was doing Project Bold. Dad agreed with me on this one.
The folks loaded me on the train to Berchtesgaden and I settled in for what seemed to be a long trip. I had very little idea what was in store for me when I got there. I amused myself with a paperback book I’d picked up at the Stars and Stripes newsstand before I left as the train wound through the beautiful Bavarian mountainside.
I got off the train downtown Berchtesgaden and caught a shuttle bus up to the General Walker Hotel. From there I was directed down a nearby road another mile or so to the Hinterbrand Lodge. When I got there, I was given an Army mummy sleeping bag and a pillow, and told to find a bed in a dark and dreary bunk house. The bunk house was tiny with some rickety old buck beds and filled with kids who would be in my group.
The lodge had been there for quite a while. It was a retreat used through the Nazi era for a getaway for Hitler’s buddies. When the U.S. took over the area, it became a retreat for various training functions until Project Bold took it over in 1971. The instructors used the main part of the lodge for their rooms and we were allowed to eat in the common room. Outside were a few small bunk houses originally used (I assume) for German soldiers guarding the Nazi bigwigs which we kids inhabited. Also on grounds was a bunker that was used for storage of equipment and our main source of nutrition, C rations.
I can’t say it was exactly the fun I expected from the hype Mr. Woodward had sold us back in the base theater in Pattonville, but it definitely tested us on many levels. The American military kids at this program were from all over Europe and we mostly felt like we were in some kind of military boot camp. I even think there was a kid from Morocco there. After stowing our gear, the instructors took us out for our first run.
As we were going to hiking and mountain climbing for most of our time there, our mornings started out with some endurance training which began with a run up the mountain trail for about a mile and a half. At the top, there was a small stream bed that the instructors had dammed off, created a 6 foot deep “dip”. We were told to run through the “dip” and run back down the trail to the lodge soaking wet. The water was icy cold and a real shock to the system, but after the third run, we all came to enjoy it as “refreshing” midway through our run. We would do that every morning we were at the lodge.
After changing into dry clothes we would begin our hikes. Our first hike was an eye opener for me. I had walked a lot in my life, but I had not spent a lot of time walking up hill. Even though I was an athlete, this activity required a set of muscles I had never used before. That first day we must have walked maybe three miles, but it seemed like 20. When we returned to the lodge, we were formed into three teams and allowed to meet and come up with a name for our group. My team seemed to be one formed from some particularly low goal setters, decided to call ourselves the “Virgin Dippers” after the run and splash through the dip. We privately called ourselves “VD”.
We began camping out almost immediately. We were given packs to stow our gear and sleeping bags, some large sheets of clear plastic to build shelters, and parachute cord, along with C rations. After hiking for many miles we would stop and set up our camp before it got dark.
We couldn’t have any camp fires, but were allowed Esbit heat tablets. Esbits were a small solid fuel tablet that looked like a big piece of chewing gum. They were meant to be used with little portable Esbit stoves, which we didn’t have, but we were shown how to improvise stoves out of the smaller C rat cans. With these makeshift stoves we were able to heat up our meals and make coffee and cocoa.
The clear plastic was about 10 feet square. We were shown how to make a “grommet” out of a rock and a piece of parachute cord. With these grommets, we were able to suspend the plastic from trees and made serviceable protection from the ever present rain. Another sheet of plastic acted as a ground cloth. Between the two, we kept moderately dry even in the constant rain consistent to the area.
Eating C-rats was always an adventure. We were not really given a choice of which ones we were going to get. The instructors would open the case and turn them upside down so you couldn’t see what you were going to get. I personally didn’t like the B-2 units, although they had some good stuff like fruit cake and candy in them. In my opinion, the worst was Spaghetti. I tended to like the B-1 unit which had a beef and pork entrée. The only one I could not eat was the chopped ham and eggs!
In order to eat C-rats, you had to master the use of something called a P-38. The P-38 was the military’s version of a can opener. It was small and easily carried in a pocket, but they had the tendency to get lost too. Most of us made a necklace of parachute cord with a P-38 tied to it. One smart fellow tied it to the top eye hole of his boot. It was a great idea as he could access the opener when he was sitting on the ground. Unfortunately, he neglected to sterilize it after slogging through those “pure” mountain streams and really got really sick! The accessory pack contained plastic wear, salt, pepper, coffee, creamer, matches and cigarettes, which the instructors confiscated for themselves. There was a small amount of toilet paper included as well which always seemed to be a joke as came in 4 inch squares. You had to save up a few packets before you could take a decent dump. Back at the lodge, we tended to eat well. They would truck in insulated containers of food and serve us in the lodge. It was always hot and good! I remember I hated scrambled eggs up until I got them at the Hinterbrand!
We spent a lot of time learning the ins and outs of mountain climbing and that was one of the greatest things about this whole adventure. The instructors were very knowledgeable and taught us about looking for the right hand and foot holds in a face climb, how to belay a fellow climber, how to safely use the ropes, harness, carabineers, brake bars, and pitons. We learned how to repel, pendulum climb, and chimney climb. We also learned how to use a ice axe to break our slide on a glacier. It was extreme excitement and the kind of fun a teenager would give his eye teeth to experience!
Our camping and hiking trips were amazing. The scenery was very similar to the opening of the Sound of Music. We hiked around the hills and surrounding Berchtesgaden, along wooded and mountain trails that must have been there for a thousand years, to quote the song. We walked over to the Austrian Alps where I remember seeing edelweiss growing wild. We saw magnificent rock faces, mountain meadows and streams, little hidden Bavarian farms, and a tiny mountain tourist rest stop for German or Austrian hiking enthusiasts high up on some mountain peak where we were promised a stein of the world’s best lemonade. I saw parts of rural Berchtesgaden and Bavaria very few American tourist ever saw! It was truly beautiful.
About a week before the end, we were required to perform an exercise in solitude. We were each given a sheet of the clear plastic and some parachute cord, along with on C-ration. We were only allowed to bring a bare minimum such as a change of underwear, a canteen and were told we were going to be placed in the wilderness for an undetermined period of time. We were to build a shelter from the materials we were given and to live out there on our own until the instructor came and got us. We were told we shouldn’t break our solitude unless it was an emergency and we should spend our time thinking about our lives in quiet meditation.
My instructor dropped me off in a small clearing with several rock formations poking up. The sheet of plastic I got was only 4 feet wide but it was about 9 feet long. I couldn’t use it for any kind of tent, but it started to rain so I needed to do something fast. I went over to the rock formation which had a crevice of about 3 feet across and was about 4 feet deep with a nearly flat area for a floor. I found a bunch of dead branches and placed them across the top of the crevice to form a roof. I laid the plastic over the top forming an open ended hooch. It was just big enough for me to sort of sit up and to stow my sleeping bag and gear. I unrolled the bag and settled in.
I stayed pretty warm and dry in the hooch for about three days. It rained constantly so the only reason I left was to take a leak. With nothing else better to do, (after reading and rereading the words on the box of C-rats) I began trying to remember the scenes to movies I had seen and liked. I’d close my eyes and pretend the movie was “showing” on the back of my eyelids. We were cautioned to eat our C-rations slowly and conserve them otherwise we would have to eat what we could forage. I didn’t find it a problem as I wasn’t doing anything to work up an appetite. The morning of the third day I had finished eating my pork patty entrée cold. By mid day, I was ready to take a dump and needed to get out of the hooch.
As I exited the hooch, I accidentally jostled one of the branches that made up the roof. Unbeknownst to me, the sheet of plastic had been collecting the rain water. My bump sent about a half a gallon of rain water directly into my sleeping bag. I went and took care of my “hygienic” needs and returned to the site. I removed my gear and decided it would be pointless to use my sleeping bag for anything. I sat on one of the rocks and tried to figure something out. I decided nothing could be done. My sleeping bag was my source of staying warm at night and it would not dry. I packed up the rest of my gear and headed towards the extraction area.
About 30 yards into the woods I ran across an instructor. He had been sent to check up on me and informed me I had broken my solitude. I felt pretty bad about not making it to the end, but he led me over to a staging area where some of the other guys were. They had broken their solo too. About four hours later the exercise ended and all the guys came back to hot meal and the bunk house.
Another activity that happened at the end was a team building completion of sorts. We were shown an obstacle course with various contraptions built from wood, rope and cable. We had to get all our team members through the course using teamwork. On the last obstacle, we were all standing urging our last teammate to run on in. He came barreling in and slid into the knee I’d blown out playing football, knocking me off my legs. I was hurt, but got up and finished the competition. The next day was our 10 K run, one of the final events of the program. I got up and could hardly walk, let alone run. My knee was swollen. I went to the instructor and told him and was excused from the run. Too bad, I really wanted to do the run.
The last day came and we were given certificates and a poster and sent on our way. I made my way down to Berchtesgaden and screwed around a little in town before boarding the train back to Stuttgart. I spent the trip home and several days thereafter decompressing and reflecting with wonder had this marvelous experience.
Over the years I have reflected a great deal on my adventure in the Alps. I have always been impressed that the instructors who worked and ran us provided us with so many important experiences. I physically learned a great deal about my personal endurance. I came to know and value comradeship and teamwork. I know I came out of Project Bold a more confident person, a skill I would need very soon as I entered the big, scary world of adulthood. Thanks to Woody and his friends, I managed to tick off a wonderful entry into adulthood through the three week adventure of Project Bold.