Where were you on Valentine's Eve and Day in 197O?
For some of you, the question posed might be an easy one. For others, you might not be able to recall, but for this older fella' walking down memory lane, it’s an easy one. I was one of the early arrivals at Fort Benning for the start of Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS), arriving on February 6. 1970. My orders said that the course was scheduled to start on the 7th but, alas, upon arrival I found that the actual start date would be February 14th. That meant I would spend a full week on the OCS campus as a transient, meaning the powers to be had a fresh body to carry out whatever tasks they had in mind. Thankfully, there were a few others with me so at least I wouldn’t be at it by my lonesome.
We spent a week getting the company barracks spit polished and clean, moved furniture into rooms, cut grass, trimmed hedges, ran errands for the cadre staff and were worn out at the end of the day. Thankfully, since the program wasn’t officially underway, we really weren’t harassed and were even given free time a couple of times during the week to go to the PX and a few other places on base. But the entire time we thought how the clock toward the completion of our twenty-six week program wasn’t even going to start until the end of the first week.
By Valentine’s Eve, we were ready to get the long-term “Hell Week” underway but were also apprehensive. After all, one afternoon a lieutenant, one of the officers designed to serve as a Tactical Officer (one for each platoon of the company, plus the Executive Officer) arrived and asked me what I expected. I said that I really didn’t know but I knew it would be much more demanding and grueling than Basic Training. After all, Basic really wasn’t too bad at all once you got used to the fact that you were in the Army and you did what you were told. And it did get all of us in shape.
But the Lieutenant in his answer said only this, “Private, you had status then.”
He smiled and walked away, leaving me to ponder and ponder I did. And while I didn’t know what to expect the next morning, I had seen from a distance during my week’s labor a few of the active OCS companies in action. The candidates were running everywhere with officers and a few enlisted cadre screaming in their face wherever they went. And then, when they returned from classes and physical activities during the day they were muddy, exhausted and not happy campers.
By late in the day, all of the candidates under orders to our training company had arrived. We received room assignments, were told there would be a brief meeting in the mess hall after the evening meal and that things started officially at five in the morning. Thus far, they merely looked down at us like we were "slugs" but there was no physical or mental anguish to date and we knew that would change quickly when it did.
Just like clockwork, at the end of the evening meal a young second lieutenant with a high and tight haircut stood up at the middle of the cadre table and told us all to listen up. He was going to give us a few things we needed to know for tomorrow. And he did, advising us of the dress for “fall out” at quarter after five in the morning. He further said that after formation and our first run at dawn, we would clean up, go to the mess hall for breakfast and then to the battalion classroom for our introductory meeting with the battalion staff and meet our tactical officers.
Funny how things were different in the morning. When we spoke to an officer in response to a question the only acceptable answers were “yes” or “no”. And in answering the question we would say, “Sir, Candidate (last name), yes, or no, Sir.” Any mistakes meant dropping for pushups. And if we were in a hallway and an officer approached, we were to brace at attention with our forearms and hands thrust forward until he passed. That started immediately, even before we went to the classroom. One unlucky new Candidate even knocked himself out when he threw his head back into the hard wall. The officer had a staff enlisted man pour cold water on him as he sat on the floor moaning. And then he, and we, moved on.
We assembled in the classroom but something seemed very strange. Every exit doorway was manned by at least two tactical officers, dressed in crisp fatigues and wearing the high and tight haircut. They were lean and mean because they had only recently been commissioned after themselves completing OCS and they didn’t want to be there at all. " "TAC" officers, as we learned to call them, spent long hours and weekends observing, controlling and harassing us and they all knew that when their twenty-six- week duty was up they would likely be off to Vietnam.
The battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel who was nearly as fit as the junior officers, approached the podium as we stood at attention. He told us to take our seats and he welcomed us, saying that our families would be proud that we desired to be officers in the greatest Army in the world. He told us to be proud of ourselves as well but then, suddenly, he stated that it would be a tough and long road to get where we wanted to go and we would begin our journey immediately. He then quickly turned the meeting over to his staff training officer who came to the podium in his dress greens and simply said this one thing.
As he reached under the podium and pulled out a thick manila folder, he pulled a handful of something out of the bag and yelled, “You have five seconds to get it on.”
“IT” was OCS brass to be affixed to our collars and he threw it at us as did each of the tactical officers at the doorways. They then rushed out beside the rows of seats, strategically located, as they screamed at us to get it on and get their approval before running back to formation. We had no idea how to wear them, many of us didn’t find any brass in the melee and they kept the organized chaos going until we either got it on our own, someone helped us with it or we realized there was a box of brass at the exit table with pictured instructions. The only thing I remember well was the comments “Hurry up” and “You guys are so stupid you’re bound to wash up” with a few choice words thrown in.
Well, obviously I made it through that day and each day in the twenty-six weeks of “paradise”’ that awaited me. And it was twenty-six weeks of pain, sweat, chiggers and bugs, sunburn, near heatstroke as well as some pretty complex studies to be mastered. It was pressure, organized pressure, designed to toughen us up and be able to respond to situations we had never experienced. But it's amazing how all these years later I chuckle and remember some funny things that happened as well. There was very little that seemed funny at the time.
Now I know today's OCS is only twelve weeks long and that if it is too hot, candidates can pull out a red card saying they are in fear of heat stroke. I understand that even the Marines allow that today. And the swearing and the bullying is something that modern America calls outlandish and is supposed to not be done any longer. But I also know that if we ever have to go to war against some of the terrible tyrants in the world, they don’t apply our compassion to their soldiers and if our soldiers aren’t prepared, all could be lost. So, I’ll just have to say as miserable as it was at times, looking back I know it was the way it was because it needed to be. And I’m glad I had the experience for it taught me a lot about myself and what I can withstand.
I’ll write more about Army life over the next few months from time to time, probably with a few more stories about OCS as well as duty as an officer out in the world. After all, I spent eight years on active duty and it provides another significant chapter to my memory bank. Oh, those memories, it’s a good thing that we get to the point that we can just laugh about them. But I’ll never forget Over Choppy Seas at what we lovingly (sometimes) referred to as the Benning School for Boys. And I'll never forget that Valentine's Day when I had no idea it was Valentine's Day at all. And believe me, I heard about that later.