"'Lost' in the Boondocks" by Larry Bucher

One day in June (approximately) 1960 my best friend, Bill Mote, and I were off duty on the same day and had the urge to go boondocking. Many readers will remember that out by Tract D, the army transmitter site, there was a small waterfall. I had been told that this was the source of the Mareb river. (Years later I learned that this was not exactly true, but close - the waterfall stream does flow into the true Mareb, and does so rather close to the Mareb’s true source.) I knew from maps that the road south to Adwa/Axum crossed over the upper Mareb at the little village of Debarwa. The straight-line distance from Tract D south to Debarwa appeared to be no more than 15-20km, around a six-hour hike we guesstimated. And the entire route appeared to lie within our legal 25-mile radius (to go beyond which, we would have had to seek official permission via special request chits, a process of at least a day or two).

So the plan, hastily conceived in mid-morning, was that a non-hiking friend, Gene “Tex” Rolston, would drop us off at Tract D then take my car and proceed later to Debarwa, to meet us there at about 1700. Tex did his part flawlessly. When we did not show at 1700 he waited. And waited. And waited. Finally around 2100 he was sufficiently concerned that he returned to Asmara and reported our nonarrival.

Meanwhile Bill and I had set off from Tract D around 1100, making our leisurely way down the bebouldered river bed, which was not totally dry at that season but was about as dry as it ever gets. The hike went just as planned in its first stages, interesting, enjoyable. The afternoon wore on. The sun began to lower a bit. There was nothing yet on the horizon ahead that resembled any landmarks around Debarwa. An Eritrean passed by on a trail high up on the hills a way back from the river. He hailed us, we held a long-distance shouted conversation in garbled and broken Tigrinya/Italian. He asked where we were going. I had a hard time making him understand; I was familiar only with the Italian spelling (Debarua) and mispronounced it badly. Finally I got it across. I asked him “how far” and his shouted reply caused me my first serious concern that we had better get a move on: “Troppo! Troppo! Troppo!” (Too much!)

We later learned that our “campsite” was about halfway to Debarwa. I hadn’t misread the maps, but I had made totally inadequate allowance for the twists and turns and meanders of a river bed - to say nothing of the ups and downs over boulders.

We moved up out of the river bed to walk on the bank, where straighter-line progress was possible and faster. When the sun set we reverted to the river bed to be sure of not losing our way and kept going by moonlight - but the moon, too, went down at about 2100. We saw nothing yet even resembling the faint lights of a village. The night was now too dark, I felt, to risk the possibility of a disabling fall if we kept going. (We had clambered down/over/around too many such potential hazards during daylight.) So we hunkered down to await morning.

We wore only short-sleeve shirts. It was chilly; an intermittent very light rain or heavy mist added to our discomfort. The leafy branches that I tried to pile around myself were no help at all. We tried to sleep; Bill had little success, I had none at all. Around 0200, tossing and turning, I noticed something odd: a star near the horizon was moving around in a most peculiar fashion. Stars do not do that. It got my attention. It continued its strange motions, I realized it had to be a flashlight, and alerted Bill.

When the lights drew abreast of us, I hailed the searchers and there were relieved cries: “There they are!” “There’s Bucher!” I said, “Who’s there, and how much trouble are we in for getting you out here?”

The reply came in the unamused voice of Lawrence W. Covert, the navy OIC: “Let’s put it this way, how much trouble would you be in if we hadn’t come out here?” I answered truthfully that we were in no trouble, had been stopped only because of the darkness and would have found our way out in the morning.

We walked on downstream with our rescuers, who had come in from the Debarwa end. There was more water in the river here, we often went through ankle- or calf-deep stretches. I began to experience some discomfort from sharp gravel that had sloshed into my high-top boondocking shoes. The OIC was a bit irritated when I requested a stop to empty them. The stop didn’t do much good, the gravel was soon as bad as before - and only back at the barracks did I discover that both ancient shoes had become separated from their soles all around the heel end! No wonder! I had a pair of chewed-up heels and a pair of ruined socks.

Aside from my sore heels, Bill and I emerged at Debarwa in much better shape than most of our rescuers, who were quite exhausted. The one exception was the OIC himself, who showed no fatigue and outpaced everyone. Back in Asmara the next morning we were sent to see the Kagnew CO, who rerouted us back to the navy OIC, who asked us only about what had happened in the CO’s office. Discipline-wise, we escaped unscathed. We escaped even the desk-pounding chewing out we deserved. However I had to endure all too many jibes and digs about having gotten “lost”. I maintained then, and still insist, that we were never “lost” - merely delayed by darkness.

End of story? Not yet, there’s some more . . .

Some weeks before our misadventure Bill had bought himself a small handgun from a street boy. Highly illegal, and foolish to boot. He had had it along and, when we realized a search party would find us, he did not want to be caught with it. He piled a small cairn of rocks over it and left it there. But it developed that when our nonarrival was reported, questions had been asked as to whether we were armed. Tex had said he thought we had a gun. We were grilled on the matter a day later, and the truth came out. We were ordered back to the Mareb valley to retrieve the gun.

Trekking in from the Debarwa end, Bill and I somehow became slightly separated from the two other sailors who had joined us for the excursion. We were in a spot of high vegetation, head-high and more, when some rocks began to fall around us. We thought it was horseplay by the other sailors. Then I caught momentary sight of the dirty-white garment of a rural Eritrean, at just about exactly the same time that his latest rock struck me on top of the head and knocked me briefly to a squat. My first instinct was to give chase and retaliate, but I was bleeding quite a bit (besides being slightly stunned) and in no condition to do so even if Bill had not forced me to sit back down. We never caught another glimpse of the rock-chucker; I’ll never know whether he was angered by trespassers on his land or animated by general anti-ferengi sentiment. Whichever, he must have been pleased.

Bill yelled angrily at the other sailors to knock off the rocks! They rejoined us and protested innocence. We got my bleeding stopped with the aid of someone’s T-shirt and proceeded onward.

We found the gun. We were surprised to see that someone had found Bill’s little cairn and uncovered the gun, but had not touched it, just left it there in the open. We returned to Asmara, where my scalp was stitched back together (I still have the scar), and turned in the gun. The Master-at-Arms demolished it with a sledgehammer. It was, they said, originally a starter’s pistol with a completely solid “barrel”, designed only to shoot blanks for track meets. The barrel had been bored out to enable it to launch bullets - very dangerous, we were told.

And that is the end of the story, finally, except for a sad postscript. Some readers are likely to remember Bill Mote. After his navy hitch he had a long career as a Merchant Marine radio officer. Chubby in Asmara, he grew grossly fat in later life, had a myriad of obesity-related health problems, and died in New Orleans in June 1996, only in his mid-50s, only a few years after retiring. Tex Rolston, our accomplice, is also gone. He died in Texas in 1976, just a year or two after retiring from the navy. I don’t know the circumstances.

Larry Bucher


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved