Living near retreat has peaks, valleys

Compound: Camp David, which lies in the mountains outside Thurmont, is a source of both pride and concern as America wages war.

March 27, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

THURMONT -- No signs point to nearby Camp David, and it is not wise to walk up and down Main Street seeking directions to the presidential retreat.

Especially not as President Bush huddles there today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- a wartime strategy session that, at least temporarily, turns this slow-moving Western Maryland town, population 5,800, into the center of the political universe.

"If somebody asks [where it is], we're required to report it to the Secret Service," says James L. Fuss, the otherwise amiable Thurmont police sergeant.

But the locals can tell you where the compound is, if they are so inclined. It is a secret most everybody here knows. If that sounds like a paradox, it is but one of many in this mountain community that is both folksy and worldly, anxious and serene.

Camp David is hidden in Catoctin Mountain Park, a 5,810-acre federal property outside Thurmont that boasts nature trails and meadows, screech owls, trout and white-tailed deer. With the arrival of spring bringing the rush of creek waters, it's hard to conceive of a more placid place.

And harder still to imagine that -- with Bush and his principal war ally in residence -- it is one of the most heavily secured and technologically wired spots in the world. And potentially one of the most endangered.

Clutching her 1-year-old daughter to her chest at a downtown playground, Bobbie Jo Gray says she can't help but focus on the potential peril of living near the compound where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt plotted World War II strategy with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Once called Shangri-La, the camp was renamed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his grandson. Bush's father used the retreat during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.

For all of her 31 years, Gray has lived in this throwback town with its 100-year-old, stone-and-brick bar and grill, and its barbershop that features a working red-and-white barber pole. She has grown accustomed to the comings and goings of presidents.

But lately, the mother of two says the familiar chop of helicopters and drone of circling fighter jets have begun to sound more ominous.

"Before, I didn't pay attention to the helicopters," Gray says. "Now, it's scary for your kids. I just try not to think about it, really."

Some other residents have had precisely the opposite reaction. "You hear the planes and, to me, it's a good sign because you're being protected to a certain degree," says Marlene Megee, who has lived here for 24 years.

Since the war began, many of the city's stores have been festooned with American flags. If anti-war demonstrators are spotted here during Blair's visit, "They would probably be coming in from the cities. They wouldn't be from here," says Town Commissioner Edward G. Hobbs, 47, who owns a downtown hardware store bearing the family name.

The city has generally had good relations with Camp David. The mayor, Martin Burns, is a deputy director at the Pentagon's Marine headquarters who once did a tour of duty at Camp David.

The compound wasn't always the fortress it is today.

In the 1970s, visitors could ride up a mountain road and see the retreat's fencing, but now the road has been diverted.

"They used to land their helicopters in the parks. Now, there is more of a buffer," Hobbs says.

Like many in town, Hobbs seems proud to be associated with a place so connected to history. The city, he says, has long managed to bask in the reflected glow of Camp David with little downside.

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