A right of passage changes one's definition.
Forty years ago this month, the Colonel was headed for Quantico, Virginia, with 250 other NROTC (Marine Option) midshipmen, and entrance into a crucible of physical and mental heat and pressure.
Three years previous, the Colonel had arrived on campus as a freshman to begin his matriculation at the cultural epicenter of the New South. The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), and the little town of Oxford which hosted it, were hardly a decade removed from actual occupation by federal troops sent to quell a redneck insurrection surrounding the entrance of James Meredith. Ole Miss was also a little over a decade removed from the heyday of Rebel football in which the boys in red and blue had dominated the SEC and won National Championships.
The shock-waves of that era, like the fading roar of a storm-pushed wave crashing on a beach, still echoed on campus. Their effects were everywhere, both physical and psychological. The columns of the university's administration building -- the Lyceum -- still bore visible marks of the fusillade of rifle fire directed at the federal marshals holed up inside. Sent to usher Meredith on his integration march through the doors of the Lyceum, those feds were now pinned down behind them, and would be until troops of the 101st Airborne Division arrived.
Meredith was an echo heard but little discussed.
Football greatness, on the other hand...
The last great Ole Miss quarterback for a generation, Peyton and Eli's daddy, was now playing for the 'Ain'ts. From the heights of gridiron glory the Rebels had fallen fast and hard. The fall of 1974 would show just how hard: a 3 and 8 season was punctuated by a homecoming loss to South Carolina. The Gamecocks went 1 and 10 that year. But Rebel nation believed it was only a season away from renewed glory atop the polls. One season turned into forty before that happened, but that isn't important right now.
During his first years at Ole Miss, the Colonel was awash in the reverberations of past generations. And, it wasn't all about Ole Miss.
He had been offered, and had accepted, a full-ride NROTC scholarship out of high school -- a Marine Corps specific NROTC scholarship, that would result in a commission as a jarhead second lieutenant upon his accomplishment of a bachelor's degree. Oh, and there was one more requirement...
The Colonel would have to survive "Bulldog" -- the Marine officer corps' version of basic training.
Marine option NROTC midshipmen went (and still go) to Bulldog the summer between their junior and senior years. Every day of those preceding three years had some easily detectable gravitational wave emanating from a Marine camp on the shores of Chopawamsic Creek -- the home of the Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School. Every day was spent in some sort of preparation for Bulldog -- the seniors who had just returned from their crucible and the Marine officers and NCOs on staff made sure of it.
So, layered over the Colonel's undergraduate studies toward a degree in Political Science and History, were three coats of paint -- red and blue, black and white, and scarlet and gold.
Everywhere on campus were reminders of the history of Ole Miss, dating back to its founding in 1848 -- statues, plaques, and bullet holes. The red and blue, and black and white.
Everywhere in the Colonel's sphere of fellow travelers on the road to military service, and the hard men preparing them, were reminders of the history of the Marine Corps dating back to its founding in 1775 -- stories, plaques, and bullet wounds.
The ultimate objective was pinning on gold bars and becoming an officer of Marines. Qualifying for that commission required a degree, so a liberal arts education was a by-product for the Colonel. But, if truth be told in the Colonel's case, the layer of scarlet and gold was thick and smothering, nearly to the detriment of all else.
The intermediate objective, one of the pigments in the scarlet and gold, during the first three years of the Colonel's matriculation at the Harvard of the South (Harvard, by reciprocal agreement, refers to itself as the "Ole Miss of the North") was preparation for the summer of '77 and an appointment with a cadre of hard men (combat veterans all) who would provide the heat and pressure for a crucible and right of passage.
Semester studies may have temporarily satisfied examination requirements for transitory classes, but countless more hours than those were dedicated to steeling mind, body, and spirit for a summer of scarlet and gold hell.
The mission of the Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School (OCS) is: "to educate and train officer candidates in Marine Corps knowledge and skills within a controlled and challenging environment in order to evaluate and screen individuals for the leadership, moral, mental, and physical qualities required for commissioning as a Marine Corps officer."
That mission statement contains the phrase "controlled and challenging environment." From a candidate's perspective, while certainly "challenging," the environment of Bulldog was anything but controlled. Particularly the first few weeks. "Chaos" is a better word.
Chaos, heat and pressure, and very little sleep.
But, and credit goes to those who prepared him, the Colonel thrived in the chaos, heat and pressure, with very little sleep.
In August, when he, and the four others who had gone to Quantico with the Colonel, strode back onto Ole Miss' campus, it was as a changed man, now defined in a way only a few others were. He thought he was ready to take on the world.
In a way he was. In a larger way, he had no earthly idea what the next three decades would throw at him.
But, Bulldog was always the touchstone.