In the fall of 1978 I was a brand new member of the student body at Taylorville Junior High. As a hot-shot seventh grader, I wanted to make a good impression. One of my first History/Civics assignments that September was to watch the news for reports about President Jimmy Carter and meetings he was having with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Watch TV as an assignment? Junior High is AWESOME! Each night for two weeks I settled in next to my dad to watch the NBC Nightly News with John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw. I jotted down developments on a note pad.
Whoa! Was that ever BORING! These guys TALKED for two solid weeks! It may have been a historic and groundbreaking summit, but it was about as exciting to watch as a seniors Bocce ball tournament at the Happy Acres Retirement Village. Begin was the head of Israel and Sadat was the head of Egypt. They had some kind of a Biblical Bru-ha-ha with roots that went back centuries. Carter thought if he could get them to sit down and talk it out, they could patch things up. The sit down took place at Camp David. Over the course of fourteen days the three men hashed out what would later be known as the “Camp David Accords”.
Out of my entire two week news gathering ordeal, the only thing that even remotely interested me was Camp David. Just what the heck was this “Camp David”? I was an aficionado of camps since I had just attended my third summer of Boy Scout Camp the previous July. I wanted to know more. The most John and Tom would give me was “the lush and sedate presidential retreat.” I wanted details! Was there an archery range? Could you earn merit badges? Who cooked the eggs in the morning? Where exactly WAS this camp?
But I was in seventh grade and neither the World Wide Web nor Wikipedia had been invented yet. I got a “B” on my summit report and promptly forgot all about Camp David. Since then I’ve heard presidential news stories begin with “upon arriving back in Washington after a weekend at Camp David” but I didn’t know anything about the place. Last week I was watching a movie that opened with a Presidential Motorcade flashing down a blacktop highway underneath a “Camp David” sign. The curious seventh grader in me stirred. I paused the movie and began to research Camp David.
I discovered Camp David is located in the 6,000 acre Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland (a spur of the Blue Ridge Mountains). The Camp itself is 200 acres surrounded by some impressive security fencing. Camp David is 65 miles northwest of Washington. The location is not shown on Catoctin Park maps, but you can see it on Google and Bing Satellite Maps. It’s not open to the public and very little information comes out of Camp David. President Obama held the G8 Summit there in 2012. The few pictures from that event are some of the last we’ve seen from the site.
Camp David is about 90 minutes from D.C. by car, but why drive? The President can walk out the back door of the White House, hop on Marine One, and be warmly greeted at the Camp David helipad in about 30 minutes….very convenient…as long as you’re the President. If you are not the President but are visiting the Catoctin Park, which is a part of the National Parks Service, and just “accidentally” make your way up the road with the “Wrong Way”, “Do Not Enter” and “Go Back” signs you will be greeted by an armed contingent of Marine personnel who will not be warm or pleasant. You will probably wind up in jail.
Even though it’s a couple hundred miles inland, the Camp’s official name is “Naval Support Facility-Thurmont” (Thurmont is the small Maryland town just down the hill from the Camp). When Franklin Roosevelt’s health, and security issues surrounding World War Two, made it necessary for him to stop relaxing on the Presidential Yacht, staffers searched for an alternative. The site “Camp 3” was chosen because it was close to D.C. but its elevation meant healthier lower temperatures and humidity. The camp was originally built by the WPA in 1935 for Federal Agents and their families. The conversion to a Presidential Retreat was completed in 1942. Roosevelt dubbed it “Shangri-la” and staffed it with the former yacht crew who were, of course, Navy personnel. FDR hosted Winston Churchill there in May of 1943.
Presidents love hosting world leaders at Camp David. The place is nothing short of a five star resort. They DO have archery…along with horseback riding, badminton, skeet shooting, snowmobiles, two pools, shuffleboard, tennis courts, a basketball court, a trampoline, movie screenings and much more. There’s even a two-lane bowling alley in the Hickory Lodge. Thirty-six full time navy staffers maintain the place 24/7/365. They all have a Top Secret “Yankee White” security clearance that requires a nearly two year background check to earn. A tour of duty at Camp David is 36 months. Eleven different two bedroom cabins are nestled into the woods. The “Aspen Lodge” is the largest residence and is reserved for the President and First Family. A world-class chef will prepare your eggs in the morning…or anytime you’d like. Just make a call to the Laurel Lodge for 24 hour room service. Staffers CAN earn a merit badge: the Presidential Service Badge, awarded after 12 months of service at the Camp.
Every President since FDR has used the retreat to some extent. Harry Truman’s wife, Bess, found it dull. Dwight Eisenhower added a one-hole golf course (for practice) behind the Aspen Lodge in 1953 and re-named the facility “Camp David” after his grandson. Ronald Reagan holds the record for most use of the site. He lived at Camp David for 517 days out of his eight years in office.
I think I’m going to send this to my seventh grade Civics teacher and see if I can bring that “B” up to an “A”.
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Photo captions: Photo/Submitted by Allen Stare
Photo shows the Aspen Lodge in the upper left with the Figure “8” pool and Eisenhower’s golf hole behind it. President Barack Obama recently added the second sand trap on the left side of the fairway. Photo shows the Camp David Fieldhouse which contains operations, communications and offices. Next to it with the large greenish roof is the helicopter hangar and below that the white concrete slab is the helipad. Oddly, that half circle to the lower left corner of the picture is the skeet range … directed TOWARDS the helipad. And, yes, that is an American Flag mown into the lawn alongside the helipad.