Our game went awry with the FBI

To the best of my knowledge, my family has only once been officially suspected of conspiring against the president of the United States. And since I was only 9 at the time and did not know what was going on, I found it rather pleasant, even if it did bring out both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Marines - and terrify my parents for a couple of hours.

It was the fall of 1953. My parents belonged to a group of perhaps two or three dozen young families in Washington, D.C., called National Campers. They organized weekend camping trips to the cabin campsites in nearby state parks in Virginia and Maryland.

One sunny Saturday afternoon at Catoctin Mountain Park, in Thurmont, Md., someone organized a scavenger hunt. You probably know the game - whichever team is first to locate five different wildflowers, a 1950 nickel, and so on, wins.

The list of things to collect was made by throwing a lot of suggestions into a hat and drawing out several. One of the young fathers present happened to be George Marder, then a reporter and radio commentator for United Press. We guessed later that he was probably the one who contributed the following odd item to the list of things we needed in order to win: "The next camp down the road has recently been remodeled. There is a new sign at the entrance, a gallows type sign, vertical post with a horizontal post, a few links of chain holding a board with the new name of the camp. How many links are in the chain?"

So while we kids went out searching for the five different wildflowers, and our mothers searched their handbags for 1950 nickels, my father and his friends piled into two cars to go investigate the new sign.

They drove out of the camp driveway and down the mountain road, then into the driveway to the next camp and up to the front gate. They all piled out, through all eight doors of the two cars at once, to look at the newly installed sign. It said: "Camp David." And they were immediately surrounded by US Marines, well-armed.

President Eisenhower had taken over what had been Roosevelt's secret "Camp Shangri-la." He had renamed it after his grandson David. And the president was, as it happened, there that weekend.

The group of eight or 10 rather unkempt young men tried to explain to the Marines why they had just rushed the gate of Camp David. You can picture how well their explanation must have satisfied the guards on duty.

Let's fast forward a few hours. Back at our campsite, every team had located five wildflowers and a 1950 nickel, and we kids were aware that our mothers were getting worried. Had the men gone too fast around that curve at the top of the steep hill? Did they take the wrong turn at the fork and wind up in a sporting-goods store in the next town? They weren't people who usually did that sort of thing. But then a car we didn't recognize came up the road into camp.

It was a whole carload of men in business suits, and our mothers were now in absolute terror. The men came out of the car and displayed credentials. They were FBI agents, who had driven all the way up from Washington. They asked questions instead of answering them:

Were we really having a scavenger hunt?

Who was in charge?

Were the rules written down? They asked to see the lists of what we had to collect.

Who had composed the lists?

They carefully examined each team's collections of 1950 nickels and asked to see our five wildflowers.

I don't think they were very happy about being called out on a weekend. It was rather hot and those business suits really weren't the right outfit in which to enjoy a long drive in the country on a hot day, especially before car air conditioners became commonplace. Still, they eventually finished their questions and went away. Shortly thereafter the marines let the captives go, and our fathers came back to camp, resolved not to make that mistake again.

There were no further complications. In hindsight, I feel a little sorry for those FBI men who lost a whole weekend afternoon at home with their own families. (Had television football been invented by then? I was too young to know.) The memory reminds me that 50 years later, investigating possible conspiracies is a more common and less pleasant job, both for the suspects and the investigators.

My image of FBI agents has been colored ever since by my recollection of that very nice man who was so interested in where I had found all the wildflowers. And I somehow understood that an important part of his job was to get my father to come back, safely, in time for dinner.

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