Copyright 1989
Sam Elmore

ARCTIC SURVIVAL---ARKANSAS STYLE


The twenty-acre "new ground" was located about fifteen miles from Magnolia, on the gravel road towards Taylor, in Columbia County. A host of good neighbors had helped my family clear off the timber, and now the land was bare of trees. At the proper time, the men could get in there with their "middle-busters" and break up the ground for planting.

A dozen-or-so big brush-piles remained from the timber-clearing. By winter-time, the brush-piles would be dried out and easier to burn, after which, the ashes would be scattered across the new field by dragging a log behind a mule team. Until it was time for burning, though, the brush-piles provided fine cover for rabbits and all kinds of birds.

After the first frost, a bunch of us youngsters met at the "new ground" one night, prepared for what we called a "bird-thrashing". We cut limbs from thorn bushes and trimmed them bare, except for a few thorny branches at the top. Using pine splinters for torches, we formed a circle around a brush-pile; then someone kicked the pile to make the birds fly out.

The torches blinded the birds briefly, and we handily swatted them with our "thrashing" sticks. Afterwards, we set fire to the brush piles, cleaned, salted, and skewered our birds, then held them over the fire to broil. In that way, the "new ground" was cleared of brush piles and ready for spring plowing; and, us kids had something fun to do, instead of a chore.

Twenty-odd years after that bird-thrashing, I was in the U.S. Navy and received orders to a new duty station in the Aleutians, on the island of Adak. As a prerequisite to duty in the Arctic Circle, I had to complete a training exercise called "Arctic Survival". Basically, that entailed being hauled out on the snow-covered tundra in a six-by-six truck, in the dead of winter, and dropped off in "never-never land." The ‘survivors' would be picked up four days and three nights later.

There were eight of us in my group, and none of us had met before the exercise began. Each person was issued the same basic survival kit, which consisted of: one-fourth of a parachute, to serve as a ground cloth; one pocket-knife; one box of strike-anywhere matches; proper arctic clothing and shoe-pac's; one canteen of water; and......NO FOOD.

We were inspected thoroughly before leaving the Navy base to ensure that we had the prescribed survival gear; but, more importantly, to see if any of us had a hidden stash of pork-chops or T-bone steaks. After a three-hour ride inside a canvas-covered personnel carrier, we were dropped off in the tundra, about an hour before dark.

The truck was barely out of sight when one man came out of his pockets with two Baby Ruth candy bars; another produced half-a-pound of cheese; and a third dragged out two bottles of soda-pop and a harmonica! It crossed my mind that, if we didn't starve (or if grizzly bears didn't eat US) we were sure-as-the-dickens equipped for a PARTY, if nothing else.

No one had been designated as "in charge", and nobody volunteered for that vacant position; so, more by NOT saying than saying, everyone was left to look out for his own welfare.

While there was still light enough to see, I kicked out a hole in the snow, arranged my parachute ground cloth, curled up in a ball like a sled dog and went to sleep. At that time of year, darkness lasted only about five hours and, as it turned out, I had a nice, undisturbed sleep.

The next morning, we discussed the situation, and decided to venture out on a tangent, like wheel spokes, to see what we could find. We anticipated no problem in finding our way back here (wherever "here" was); all we had to do was follow our own tracks in the snow. We agreed that everyone would scout outward for one hour, then head back.

My trail led towards some mounds that we had noticed when we got off the truck. The hillocks appeared to be a long way off; maybe several miles from our position. I was surprised when, after only thirty minutes of trudging, I arrived at the mounds. I walked all around one of them, but it was just a snow-covered little hill (or so it seemed). There were eight such mounds, all the same height; which was puzzling, because there were no other elevations within sight on that flat terrain.

The more I looked, the more puzzled I became. The mounds were longer than they were wide; they were all oriented in the same direction; and, they were all the same size. Strange.

With my mittened hands, I started moving snow away from the end of one of the humps. When I got the snow cleared, I was looking at a....QUONSET HUT, of all things. I REALLY moved the snow, then.

I bared enough of the building to see a door frame. The door had been bashed in, and was lying on the floor. A light layer of silted snow covered the rest of the quonset floor. The hut had the standard corrugated-tin sheathing and thin steel T-bar members, with threaded-rod rafters running across the room. Pine lath room dividers reached from the floor to head-hight.

I had a little prior information about the Aleutian area, and quonset huts in general, because one of my older brothers (Barton) had served in the Yakutat, Alaska, area during World War II, and had told us about his experiences.

I retraced my path to our base area. The others had already returned, having seen nothing worth reporting. After I described the quonsets, we trooped there, and within a short time, had selected our bedding-down sites inside the hut. We kicked down room dividers, broke up the cured pine boards for firewood, and soon had a nice fire dispelling the chill. There was more than enough spare wood to last the extent of the exercise.

Since it was after nightfall, we leaned back around the fire and started telling sea-stories (a two-word way of saying "lies".) In the midst of listening to a tale, I heard some strange sounds coming from the dark end of the quonset.

I picked up a pine splinter, torched it off from the fire, and tippy-toed towards the gloomy end of the hut to investigate. Holding my torch high overhead, I couldn't help laughing out loud at what was revealed.

"Hey, fellers!", I yelled, "y'all get yourself a splinter torch and a piece of plank....bring me a plank, too. It's EATIN' time!"

"What is he carrying on about?", they grumbled....but, they equipped themselves and came to join me.

"Hold your torches up", I told them, "and look-a yonder. There's supper.....and breakfast.....and DINNER! Merciful Georgia, guys! We done found KROGERS!"

Every rafter was lined with English sparrows, parked wing-by-wing. There appeared to be several hundred of them and, it was conceivable that the other seven quonsets were as ‘bird-y' as this one.

I told the guys about bird-thrashing, when we'd cleared the new ground. Some of them had doubts about the idea, but their doubts took a back seat after I got the first bird shucked, skewered, and broiled. They caught on right quick and, before long, everybody had a bird on a stick. We had no seasoning, but they tasted FINE. Good enough for hungry boys, anyway.

For the remainder of the exercise, we patted our full bellies and had a real good time. The guy with the harmonica must have known a hundred tunes, and the one's he didn't know, he readily picked up when we hummed a few bars. At the end of "Arctic Survival", we were not overjoyed to hear the truck coming to get us.