Moose, skunk and pepper oil: No, it’s not a recipe for trail mix. It’s about one festive night at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, the once U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School, in the Fall of 1983. The Commandant, as President of the Mess, ordered a Dining In, and all officers were required to attend. These dinners are remnants of our fading “British Tradition.” Although stiffly formal (requiring dress uniforms, perfect grooming and every decoration in place), they were also free-for-all roasts. We were permitted to insult each other viciously while the President refereed. After they posted the Colors and we sang the National Anthem, we toasted everything from the Commander-in-Chief to the Commandant’s dog, and stood for humorous toasts repeatedly throughout the meal.
At one point, a Captain on the staff rose to inform the President of the Mess about the exploits of a good friend of mine whom we’ll call Don. It went something like this:
“Sir and assembled officers, it has come to my attention that our colleague Don, known to one and all as our Great White Hunter, has extended his fame through extraordinary skill, courage and bravery, having hunted and killed a moose in the frozen reaches of Maine. This feat was particularly dangerous and required a high level of skill, as the northern moose is known by all to walk very fast. Having done the deed, he and his cohorts field-dressed the beast. Each grabbing a leg, they began dragging it through the dense woods to the distant road where the cars were parked.
“It was exhausting work, and they welcomed the pause as they crossed the path of a Maine native strolling by. The Mainer noted that they were dragging the moose hind-end-first, and that this method increased the difficulty due to the lay of the moose’s fur and the huge antlers snagging on shrubs and saplings. Catching on in an instant, Don directed his team to reverse their orientations and drag the animal from the other end. Hurrah! The task was much easier now, and their progress through the woods was much faster. But after an hour or so, they noted that they were getting farther and farther away from the cars!
“To make matters worse, the daylight was rapidly fading. What to do? Calling on his broad knowledge of such situations, and wishing to avoid panic, Don assured them that if they would shoot three times on the hour and half hour, the rest of their party would find them. With the help of ropes, flashlights and added muscle, the team would not have to spend the night. They all agreed, and began the signaling at 5:30 p.m. when the woods were already dark and still. By 8 p.m., they had neither heard nor seen any help coming and were beginning to get worried, but Don’s quiet confidence calmed them. Then at 10 p.m., they lost all hope...having run out of arrows.”
The joke got a huge laugh, and Don, fully capable of dishing it out, took it in good humor. He and I played our own mischief on a Lieutenant Colonel whose battalion’s "warrior spirit" yell was “Raw meat! Kill Russians!” Don talked the cook into covering a raw steak with Szechuan pepper oil (which is basically culinary napalm) and setting it on our victim’s plate. To his credit, he ate it without a blink, effectively stealing our joy. The party went on through the night with banter, drinking, games and horseplay.
I did not bring my car, so I could walk the mile-and-a-half home without getting a DUI. Well past midnight the brisk air was invigorating, and I was sober enough to stay on the sidewalks. Rounding the final corner, I strode up the hill to my house, readying my key to slip in quietly. I heard a scurrying noise in front of me, where the land beside the sidewalk dropped off to the left, and thought I might have spooked some animal. At my front door the key went in with no fumbling, and I was inside removing my shoes when my wife shouted from the other end of the house, “What is that smell?!?”
Apparently I had been moving quickly enough to be trailing the scent of skunk spray that covered my dress blues. Knowing that the word would get out, and that I would be the butt of jokes for the foreseeable future, I put a note about it in the “read file” that all the directors had to see the first thing every morning. Still, I took it hard for months.