Gordon Lightfoot

On parade at Fort Benning

May 3, 2023 — The passing of Gordon Lightfoot prompted a warm memory of his contribution to my sanity one summer, long ago.

During the blistering South Georgia summer of ’69, 236 officer candidates were training to become officers in the United States Army.  One-hundred-four of us survived to be commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army infantry.

The training at Fort Benning, Ga. was physically rigorous to say the least.  The discipline was strict and iron clad, designed to grind down those who could not take it.

Field Training 1969

In those days, harassment, including being dropped for countless push-ups for petty infractions, was the way discipline was enforced. This technique and others were used to put pressure of the candidates in hopes of weeding out the weak.

All it really did was demonstrate poor leadership technique.  It taught us how not to be a leader, not how to be a leader.

Each morning following a breakfast we were forced to eat in an impossibly short time, we would go to training.  We’d clamber aboard large trailers for field training.  We marched to class on other days.  That’s where Gordon Lightfoot comes in.

As was customary, the classes sang in complex harmony as they marched to their destinations.  Singing as we marched shifted our thoughts and mood to better places.

One song we sang stands out in particular.  As we lock-stepped our way across the post, we choirboyed the adapted lyrics which made sense in the context of where we were and the almost certain prospect of serving in Vietnam.

We sang:

In the early mornin’ rain

With a rifle in my hand

With an aching in my heart

And my pockets full of sand

I’m a long ways from home

And I miss my loved ones so

In the early morning rain

Without a place to go…

Inside page of our class yearbook.

At the time, OCS consisted of six battalions.  We were the 64th company.  The 65th was across the way from us.  That’s a lot of cannon fodder, a fate which was our fear.  For the record, only half of us served in Vietnam and no one died there, a small miracle.

Our 50th and final class reunion in January 2020, not long before the pandemic.  OCS today is a much different and improved experience than it was the summer of 1969.