After 50 years, San Marco cadets recall their days at Gordon Military College

After 50 years, San Marco cadets recall their days at Gordon Military College
Jacksonville members of Gordon Military College, Class of 1966 who attended their 50th class reunion in Barnesville, Georgia, were (back row) Judge Tyrie Boyer of San Marco and Peter Reems; front Henry Archie Ray, Jr. and Tom Baber of San Marco.

It’s been 50 years since members of the Class of 1966 received their high school diplomas, and while most recall their secondary public school experience as the “good ole days,” the handful of Jacksonville students sent by their families to attend military school out of state recall their high school experience somewhat differently.

In 1964, 15 public Jacksonville high schools, including Alfred I. duPont and Landon High, were disaccredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, due to Duval County’s “inadequate financial support.” To avoid the stigma of a Duval County diploma and to feel confident their children would receive a quality education, many parents looked toward Gordon Military College in Barnesville, Georgia as an alternative.

“Gordon was founded nearly 100 years ago, not only as a private military school for boys, but also as the town high school for the city of Barnesville,” said Tom Baber of San Marco, whose father chose to send him to Gordon as an alternative to Landon High. “Parents were looking every which way to get their kids in an accredited school. Kids from Jacksonville had a hard time going to college. I guess if you went to a state school, it was no problem, but if you wanted to go out of state, there were problems,” he said, noting after graduating from Gordon he spent his first two years of college in the junior college there before transferring to the University of Miami. “Gordon offered a cost-effective way to get a diploma from an accredited high school with a good reputation for quality education.”

Gordon Military College

Left to right: Tyrie William Boyer, Class of 1966, Thomas M. Baber, Class of 1966, Pledger Delane (Pete) Reems, Class of 1966, Henry Archie Ray, Jr. Class of 1966, William Barnett, Class of 1967

Only four of the 15 Jacksonville members of the Class of 1966 attended their 50th reunion in May. Included in the ranks were two from San Marco, Tom Baber and Tyrie Boyer. Frank Carter, formerly of San Marco, also was in the class but did not make it to the reunion. Bill Barnett of San Marco also claims Gordon as his alma mater, but graduated from the military school the following year.

When Baber attended Gordon there were 144 in his class. The majority were boarding students from throughout the United States, and 79 were local, including 34 women who attended for the education and did not participate in the military program.

Gordon ceased to be a military college in 1973, when it was incorporated in the Georgia University system as Gordon State College. But Baber remembers it as a remote school, where the boarding students did not interact much with the locals other than at school. Gordon was a place where he didn’t have a car and the local girls did not associate much with the boarders.

When Baber and Boyer first arrived at the school, the telephone company had recently switched from operator-assisted “party line” phones to dial phones, causing the school to hold a special telephone class. “They taught everybody in the entire school how to operate a dial phone,” Baber recalled. “We thought we were in the back woods.”

Baber said the campus had changed after 50 years. “One of the locals told me the administration wanted to remove as much of the vestiges of the old Gordon as possible (including the cannon that was fired by the cadets every day),” he said, noting most of the barracks had been torn down as well as the college buildings and library. “The old gym was still there. It still felt like the same school,” he said. “In the town, the old Dairy Queen was in the same place with the same sign. It looked the same. Back then there was no food service on Sunday night so we were on our own. Most of us ended up at Dairy Queen or other restaurants.”

Boyer recalled the time his mother brought three girls up from Jacksonville so he and his friends could go to the prom, then hung around to chaperone, “to the chagrin of one couple.” He also recalled his days in the barracks as a time of many practical jokes, which he illustrates in the following reminiscence:

“I was raised in the 1960s before marijuana and other drugs became popular among teenagers in the South. However, we chased girls and swiped a little whiskey from our fathers’ liquor cabinets. At least I did, which caused my parents to think I was not living up to my potential.

“Then something happened, which made it an easy decision for my parents to send me to military school: All of the high schools in Duval County were disaccredited. As a result, in January 1965, I moved to Barnesville, Georgia, to live in the barracks at Gordon Military College.

“If one could survive the barracks, the experience was positive. I say ‘survive’ because an awful lot of people did not last long and returned home in six months or a year.

“Most of the people living in the barracks were regular teenagers. However, several of my classmates selected Gordon Military College over reform school, a choice provided to them by a juvenile judge. “You may enroll in a military school or I will send you to reform school,” was what the judge told my first roommate and his friends after they burglarized a hardware store after a night drinking. They chose military school.

“The first day I reported to the barracks, the radio played the song, “Mrs. Brown, You’ve got a Lovely Daughter.” I was shown how to fold my underpants, undershirts and socks and where to store them. A demonstration was given on how to iron uniform shirts and trousers – use a Windex spray bottle filled with starch and water so our clothes were stiff as bricks. I also learned to make a bed with hospital corners and the top wool blanket so stiff a half dollar would bounce when tossed in the middle.

“Everything had a special place except the “civvies” in which I’d arrived. Barracks life began each morning with reveille. Within several minutes, every cadet was forced to stand at attention next to his door so the cadet with the most rank could make sure we were truly awake. I can attest it is possible to sleep while standing up because, believe it or not, sometimes cadets would remain standing long after being dismissed.

“Next, we had a short period of time to get dressed before reporting outside for the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Those in charge of each company would announce “all present or accounted for.” That was followed by a march to breakfast, which usually included something called SOS. High school, with excellent instructors, followed breakfast. All of the male teachers wore uniforms with officer rank insignia. ROTC and parade field exercises were also daily events.

“Life after dinner was controlled by cadets who had gained rank during the years I had spent at home in Jacksonville. When they passed us in the barracks hallway, we came to attention and pressed ourselves against the wall so our superiors could pass more easily.

“We had an hour before enforced study time, which lasted two hours. Then we prepared for the next day – unless those with rank interfered. At least once a week, the interference included some type of punishment administered by the cadet corporals, sergeants and lieutenants.

For instance, a whole barracks, except for the corporals, sergeants and lieutenants, would be ordered to do sit-ups and push-ups and leg lifts just before taps and lights out. Some individuals were singled out to assume the “dying cockroach position,” where the cadet would lie on his back with his legs and arms pointing toward the sky until exhaustion made it impossible. One especially innovative cadet in charge of Pound Hall barracks found several discarded tires, which he ordered particularly recalcitrant lower ranked cadets to place around their waists before running in circles until they collapsed. Although I was not a regular participant in that activity, I did have the opportunity to participate once or twice.

“If you lived in the barracks and had been promoted to sergeant or above, you were allowed to have a television in your room. Otherwise, the only way to have a TV was if everybody in the room was on the honor roll. I’m sure it frustrated some of our sergeants that my roommates and I stayed on the honor roll the entire time we were there. On multiple occasions we were asked to show our report cards to prove we qualified.

“Practical jokes were constant in the barracks. I had flip-flops, which I wore to and from the showers daily. They were the first thing I put on when I got out of bed. One morning I stepped into my flip-flops and started toward the latrine, only to fall on my face. The flip-flops had been nailed to the wooden floor. Another time, I became mortally ill at breakfast causing me to report to the infirmary. When I got out the next day, I found out someone had put Burma-Shave into my toothpaste tube, another cruel practical joke.

“Of course, I could give as well as take. Along with my roommates, I regularly short-sheeted other cadets’ bunks, making the sheet so short anyone taller than four feet would not be able to extend his legs. We also safety pinned underclothes together, causing other cadets to remove the entire shelf of underwear while choosing an undershirt after a shower.

“Although most of us did not have whiskers, we still shaved once a week. We were told shaving helped prevent acne. There was one brand of shaving cream that could spray its contents 10 feet or more. It was not unusual for shaving cream fights to break out. Sometimes when we found a cadet sound asleep, we gently put some shaving cream into his hand. Someone would tickle his nose with a feather – hoping the sleeper would slap it away. It did not always work, but when it did … well you can imagine.

“During my junior year, I took chemistry along with my roommate who had burglarized the hardware store. Believe it or not, he got our teacher to allow him to do a science project on distillation. Guess what we brewed under our bunkbed? That was the first white lightning I ever tasted.

“The next year, my roommate and I sneaked liquor from home into the barracks and worked hard to hide it. We removed the screws from behind the speakers of his stereo and opened up the back. It was the perfect storage spot, and we were never caught.

“Occasionally we would sneak muriatic acid from the chemistry lab back to the barracks. We added the acid to some cadets’ Windex bottles containing the starch and water mixture. When first sprayed onto a shirt or pants before ironing, nothing was apparent. However, when the iron was touched the cloth it would scorch, turn brown and brittle like ancient paper. An arm or a leg from the garment would burn off at once.

“I remember one of my friends and I returning from the Christmas holidays with a Christmas decoration called “angel hair.” It was supposed to look like snow and was made of white fiberglass. Accordingly, it was not readily visible when we decided to put it in another cadet’s perfectly stored underpants. Before breakfast was finished, he was scratching like a hound and had developed a rash that looked like measles. He went to the infirmary where they gave him some sort of pajamas sans underwear. In a day or two the itching stopped and the rash disappeared until he came back to the barracks. After he once again wore the fiberglass-infused underwear, back to the infirmary he went.

“I was fortunate to quit smoking by the age of 20, but at Gordon I was a regular smoker, two packs a day. Cigarettes cost 25 cents per pack, and nobody prevented smoking in or around the barracks or between classes. It seemed like everybody had a Zippo lighter and lighter fluid. You could spray an entire can of lighter fluid under somebody’s door and it would not be noticed until you lit it from the outside. The flames on the inside always caused a commotion.

“When we were not playing pranks on one another, we played poker and gambled our allowance. I read a book called “Poker According to Maverick,” (a vintage poker instruction book printed in 1959), and soon became pretty good at five-card stud, seven-card stud, and five-card draw. We did not play many wild-card games. We also played a lot bridge and chess, but not for money.

“After getting a pass for a four-day weekend, one of my buddies, the roommate who chose Gordon over reform school, and I hitchhiked in uniform to New Orleans. Our parents would have been terrified had they known. We funded the trip using money we had won playing poker in the barracks. It was legal to drink in Louisiana at age 18; but since we were 17 we had to make fake IDs before we left. At that time, Georgia driver’s licenses did not require photographs, and it was fairly easy to make a fake license.

“To get back at the cadets with rank who abused their authority too often, “blanket parties” were held from time to time. Someone on the top bunk would throw a blanket over the head of the abuser so he could not identify the partakers. Other cadets would hit the covered victim with their fists. I can honestly say I never participated in such an ambush, but I did know when some such events were to occur and I kept my mouth shut. In retrospect, I regret I did not warn the unfortunate recipients.

“With all the hijinks that occurred in the barracks, it was good to be on guard. But, by and large, it really was not a dangerous place to live. Although I never achieved a rank higher than PFC (private first class), I truly believe Gordon Military College helped me prepare for the rest of my life. It surely helped when I joined the military and went through basic training, AIT (Advanced Individual Training) and OCS (Officer Candidate School),” said Boyer.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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