When I was a ragtag youngster, a well-organized, sparkling-clean place came into my undisciplined life.
It was Fort Benning, the nearby Army post which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.
Today, the post is home to the Army’s infantry and armored training schools, two different modes that fit together like hand and glove. The infantry is on foot, the armored on tracks or wheels.
The post is regarded as one of the Army’s finest, with a proud heritage, and it’s a short drive from Auburn.
About 65 years ago, I first ventured onto the post. A truck-load of youthful street lads were recruited to sell morning and afternoon newspapers, published by the Ledger-Enquirer company, to the eager soldiers. I was among the lads.
The newspapers really sold themselves. We didn’t need to do any barking. The papers were like hot cakes. The soldiers were hungry to find out what was going on in the world outside the military post.
I remember spending a lot of my time running back to where the newspapers were bundled and stored to grab more copies to sell. Each newspaper cost a nickel, so they were a bargain. They sold fast.
Inside the two-story wooden barracks, wide-awake soldiers in starched olive-drab uniforms were up and moving around, making their beds and hurrying out the door, eager to pick up a morning paper on the way.
The barracks were open on both floors, no dividers, and filled to capacity with metal double-decker beds neatly lined in rows. The soldiers made up those beds so tight we could flip a coin on the cover blanket and it would bounce.
In those days, I recall, the post was ablaze with light even as the sun peeped over the eastern horizon. There was activity everywhere, inside and outside. Soldiers were on the move to get to breakfast or to their work stations.
The nearby mess halls were filled with guys chowing down on scrambled eggs and grits. I remember the cooks, who were mostly sergeants, checking in with all the paper boys to make sure we were fed before heading on to school later.
The sight of all that regimen made a great impression on me. The soldiers, and especially the cooks, showed me how to be alert and on the move at dawn.
Down through the years, I was the first up in college and, in the work-day world, the first to arrive at the office. The soldiers at Fort Benning had made a lifelong impression on me. Even as I write this, I can still see the military abuzz at first light with movement and activity, with soldiers stepping it off to and fro, knowing where they were heading and in a hurry to get there.
For my young eyes, it was a sight to behold — a sight always remembered. The soldiers looked fit and healthy in their starched olive drab field clothes and caps. I liked the way they snapped sharp salutes of respect to the officers.
As a lad, the soldiers impressed me with right attitude and work ethic. Those important traits guided me in life.
Fort Benning at that time was about 35 years old and consisted of wood and cement buildings on Main Post, Kelley Hill, Sand Hill and Harmony Church — the four training and administrative areas built up between the two world wars.
We often swapped out sell locations to discover all the sights. There were armored tanks and vehicles stored in some areas while others were set aside for training and administrative work. The post even had a German-style beer garden for the troops when they were off duty and allowed to kick back.
I can still see those massive jump towers on Main Post and how they stood tall at sunrise and sunset. Soldiers learned the art of parachuting on them before their first jumps in nearby fields from military planes kept at Lawson Army Air Field.
I haven’t been on post in decades. Friends tell me I wouldn’t recognize the place today. It’s been modernized with dorms that house the soldiers and administrative buildings that look more like civilian office buildings.
America has an all-volunteer Army today, and modern amenities are necessary to lure recruits.
But I recall how early each morning and afternoon we lads caught the paper truck, a humpbacked old bread delivery vehicle, to the post to sell the papers for a nickel each to eager buyers.
There was no TV news then and very little radio news. Everyone read the newspapers to stay informed.
In the delivery truck, we lads set atop the bundles of papers until we reached our drop-off zones. It was not a pleasant ride. That I remember.
But more than anything else, I will never forget the kindness and generosity of the soldiers. Those hardened, combat-ready guys always showed us tender hearts.
There were the cooks who offered us breakfast, and the day room soldiers who gave us a dime for a 5-cent paper and told us to keep the change.
In all my morning and afternoon hawking of Enquirer and Ledger newspapers papers on post, I can’t recall a single time when a soldier was rude or mean to me.
That was another lesson I learned. I could be tough as nails on the outside and tender as a lamb on the inside. I could be polite and not rude. I could show respect. I could be generous.
All those great life lessons learned from soldiers trained me to be strong and prepared for the worst. When it comes, it can be overcome.
Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives in nearby Phenix City, a short distance from Fort Benning.