It is with a very heavy heart that I join so many others in saying farewell to Bill Withers today.
His song “Lean on me” was the theme song for my company in boot camp and every time I hear that song, I am reminded how much we need each other in troubled times.
Rest in Peace my friend. Thanks for your service!
“Bill Withers, whose songs like “Lean On Me,” “Just The Two of Us,” and “Lovely Day” are staples in soul music and beyond, has died from heart complications, his family told The Associated Press on Friday (April 3). He was 81.
In the statement, his family praised the legendary singer-songwriter for his work and dedication to his loved ones. “We are devastated by the loss of our beloved, devoted husband and father. A solitary man with a heart-driven to connect to the world at large, with his poetry and music, he spoke honestly to people and connected them to each other,” the family statement read. “As private a life as he lived close to intimate family and friends, his music forever belongs to the world. In this difficult time, we pray his music offers comfort and entertainment as fans hold tight to loved ones.”
Between 1971 and 1989, Withers released eight studio albums, one live album and garnered three Grammys for his powerful songs that gave hope and love to fans to this day. Born on July 3, 1938, he overcame a stutter as the youngest of six children in Slab Fork, West Virginia. The death of his father at 13 would later inspire him to join the Navy at 18 but a gleam of wonder followed him as he grew curious about songwriting.
Withers enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 17, and served for nine years, during which time he overcame his stutter and became interested in singing and writing songs
After serving for several years, Withers relocated to Los Angles in hopes of starting a music career in 1967. During this time, he worked in an aircraft parts factory and penned “Ain’t No Sunshine.” In 1971, he signed to Sussex Records, owned by Clarence Avant. Withers worked with legendary composer and artist Booker T. Jones to release his debut album, Just As I Am. “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Grandma’s Hands” were clear standouts on the album as well as its cover. The photo used was taken during Withers lunch break at the aviation factory.
He didn’t face a sophomore slump as the 1972 release of Still Bill gifted the world the gospel smash, “Lean On Me.” The track would go on to win a belated Grammy as Best R&B song in 1987 and gain bigger popularity when it was featured in Morgan Freeman’s 1989 film, Lean On Me.”
June of 1972 was a pivotal month and year for many people. It was the month I found my “soul”
Watergate, Hurricane Agnes, Vietnam bombings, Nixon’s reelection, and the month I entered the Navy. Through all the years since then, I have managed to hang onto “The Keel” which is the graduation cruise book they gave out back in the day.
It smells a bit musty and the bindings are starting to give after forty years, but it still serves as a reminder of my days becoming a sailor.
Grandpa Mac went to boot camp in the Navy’s old training center in Cape May New Jersey. Dad went to his World War 2 boot camp at Naval Training Center Sampson New York. He left a great legacy of memories with the letters his Mom saved and they appear in my book “Love Your Son Butch”. I had requested to attend boot camp in San Diego or Orlando Florida so of course I was sent to Great Lakes Illinois, just north of Chicago.
The Keel has some great pictures of the structure and discipline of boot camp
You open it up and the inside cover has a spread showing the Flags Battalion in their crisp dress blues and white leggings.
Every foot is perfectly aligned with every other marching foot. The recruit commander of the flag corps is a sharp looking young man with a sword who reflects the new diversity of the Navy.
I like the dedication page too. It reads:
“The time spent undergoing recruit training is not easy – nor is it intended to be. Rather it is a serious and formative experience for anyone preparing for life as a sailor.
In years to come, this book will hopefully recall the pleasant and not so pleasant, the exciting and the routine, the humorous and the gravely important moments spent at Recruit Training Command, Naval Training Center, Great Lakes Illinois.
The keel is the backbone of the ship. This cruise book – The Keel – is dedicated, therefor, to every Navy-man who has completed training at Great Lakes and become the enlisted man, the sailor, the backbone of the United States Navy.”
We arrived in the middle of the night from the airports of America and looked forward to a restful sleep. Camp Barry was the receiving unit and the bunks were probably leftovers from the second world war.
That restful sleep amounted to about an hour when the young recruit petty officers came shouting and banging into our lives. These guys were on their service week and they took a special delight in welcoming us to their Navy. We had no idea that they were a mere six or seven weeks ahead of us. They all seemed very salty.
Over the next few days, we would be clipped, stripped and ripped of our hair, clothes and dignity. There was a war on after all and any one of us could still have been sent straight to Vietnam (a fact that was repeated often by the recruit petty officers keeping us in line. We were given new gear, taught how to stand (nuts to butts) and found out that speaking was a rare and special privilege not to be abused.
Finally, we were assigned to our first company. I was assigned to company 201, a rifle company, and spent the first week with them on the grinder drilling with our ancient 1903 A3 rifles.
I think they weighed about 9 pounds but they had a magical way of gaining weight throughout the day. By nightfall, they weighed over ninety five pounds but in the darkness, reverted to their original weight. By morning, they were back to normal again until we were ready to start our sixteen count manual of arms again. Wisely, the firing pins had long ago been removed and there was no danger of any of my shipmates playing that guy from the movie Full Metal Jacket.
Somewhere along the way, we had been asked if we had any interest in music or being on a drill team. Vague promises about special duties and avoidance of harsher things like mess cooking during service week were used as bait for the uninformed. Being uninformed myself, I had let it be known that I like to play brass instruments. Truth be told, I was already starting to see that life in a rifle company was going to give me limited opportunities for individualism and I was already bristling about that. (This disturbing trend would follow me throughout my career and I blame the people who encouraged it in my formative years.)
And so it was on or about June 26th 1972, I was ordered by my less than happy company commander to pack up my gear and proceed to the Special Band Unit a few buildings away. With a few other shipmates, we packed up our bags and marched to the building at the far end of the camp near the giant drill halls.
The recruit at the quarter deck of the service unit building directed us to the top floor (three flights up) and told us to select an empty rack and wait for instructions. More and more boots like us arrived until the entire top floor was full. By this time, our training kicked in and without being told, we all put our gear into the small storage lockers next to our racks and as the day ended, we were ready to find out what was up next. At the end of the first day, we had still not seen our Company Commander (the all important person who is your momma and your poppa according to the first guy we had met).
I think we were too frightened of the specter of being shipped off to Nam in the first hours after graduation so when the bugle called taps, we all went to our racks. As I remember it, no one thought to assign any sentries and lacking leadership of any kind, most of us got the first real night sleep in ten days.
The next day, we discovered the error of our ways
The man who was our Company Commander dropped by and was less than amused at our lack of security. I don’t remember his specific words, but will never forget their meaning. We had entered a world of shit, his particular world of shit, and we were going to make up for embarrassing him in front of the Battalion Commander who had actually arrived at 0430 to welcome us to his battalion.
I will never know the true story of his role prior to that day but in later years surmised that a typical SNAFU had occurred and we were all either early or he was not properly informed that we had arrived. I do remember wishing I was back in Company 201 as we spent a long period of time doing pushups that were designed to recover his honor.
I do remember his face. He was a large black Chief Petty Officer (Commissary-man) who looked like he had spent a lot of time sampling his own work. His belly draped over his belt like one of those Sunset awnings on a hot summer’s day.
By our third or fourth hour together, he tired of watching us go up and down and vomiting in the passageway. His tension never did leave him that day and he continued to discover our failure to meet his current or future expectations. The veins in his temples almost took on mythical proportions. We did eventually march to chow, but even this simple evolution was distasteful to him as he continued to question our ability to exist on his planet as human life forms.
We stood at attention a lot that day. His time in Vietnam must not have been kind to him because he had a lot of anger pent up for one person (even one with his stately girth). Sweat poured out of his body as he tried his best that first day to impress upon us that we had not escaped our fate as boots just because we could play a horn or twirl a rifle. He assured us that by the time he was done with us, we would be begging to go back to our rifle company. He assigned double the amount of sentries for the night, gave us one last searing glance, and promptly left before taps.
We never saw him again.
Rumor has it that our actions had caused him so much internal stress that he went home that night and had a heart attack. That is just a rumor since no one actually told us anything. In fact, for most of the next week, we did not have any adult supervision at all.
The Navy can be a complex organization and oftentimes assumes that the mechanisms are working just as they were designed. This has led to some very painful memories like the loss of the Indianapolis at the end of WW2. While our situation was nowhere as dramatic in comparison, we were certainly an example of how things can go wrong if the system fails.
We did wake up with the bugle calls the next morning and the lights came on at the appropriate time. I was rather sore from the previous day since I was not really a physical fitness guy before boot camp. I assumed they would toughen me up when I got there and it made sense to leave that to the professionals. Each of us showered as quickly as we could and waited for the Chief to return. We waited all the way up until breakfast. At that point, two of the guys took charge and said that they would rather take the hit for eating than take hits for something else and not have chow. Sailors do have their priorities after all.
We formed up, marched to the chow hall line, ate and returned and waited some more. That routine lasted for another four days until the Battalion Commander made another surprise visit. He seemed pleased at the fact that we had a sentry this time and that the place seemed rather nicely organized.
None of us had wanted another day like our first with the Chief so we were on auto pilot. Sure we wondered where he was but we also thought he was playing a giant head game with us. So we pretended he was going to be there at any time.
The Battalion Commander went up to one of the guys (who was standing at attention at his bunk like the rest of us) and asked him where his company commander was. Crap. How do you answer that since we hadn’t seen him for days? Is this part of the game? How many pushups will this result in?
“Our company commander is missing, Sir.”
“What did you say lad?”
“Sir, he hasn’t been here since Monday night.”
“So who has been watching you for the past four days?”
“Sir, we figured he was coming back at any moment so we have been watching ourselves.”
His face was as white as a ghost as he recognized the situation. This group of recruits had been operating on their own without any supervision at all and worse still, he did not know about it. The realization that the Chief was MIA probably also crossed his mind but he did not share that with us. He picked the two tallest guys and told them they were in charge until further notice. If anybody screwed up until this was all sorted out, their asses were his. Then he left.
You know that feeling you get when you realize you just dodged a bullet?
Multiply that by a hundred guys on both sides of the third deck and you will know how we felt. We retired to the smoking lounge and decided to try and make the best of this until the next shoe fell.
Surely that dreaded Chief would show up again and we would be back in his world of shit. But for now, it was smoking and joking and coking. The weekend was a blast as we found a blank pass book and decided to give ourselves a reward for our new circumstances. I was anointed as the recruit company clerk and kept the passes from becoming too out of hand. I can’t watch Bill Murray’s movie Stripes without smiling a bit.
Our company anthem became a new song on the radio called “Lean on me”. It was the first time that I was close to young men from Chicago and other inner cities and I had not been exposed to much of the music they were used to. But it was a unifying theme we all embraced. To be honest, it was one of the only times I felt that close to all my brothers for a very long time. The real Navy would break us apart again for years but for that one summer, we all leaned on each other.
The Battalion Adjutant and Commander came back on Monday morning
They quietly interviewed a few of us about the previous week. To this day I will never understand why, but they assigned all of us to different rifle companies for drill and instruction. We would still remain as a unit for the band, the choir and the drill teams. No new Chief or Company Commander would be assigned to us but we would be monitored by the Adjutant for the remainder of our time. We would march to meet our drilling company after chow each day and spend our day with them up until we went to our various service units. Then we were trusted to return to our barracks each evening after show and do our routines.
My suspicion was that they didn’t want the world to know that we had been running amuck by ourselves for those days
They probably also wanted to hide the fact that the Chief was missing for almost a week and no one was aware of his absence. Is it just a coincidence that it happened in the exact same week that the Watergate cover up started? We will probably never know.
I kept my recruit stripes for the remainder of my time at Great Lakes.
Our company never had a discipline problem and we helped each other to make sure we stayed below the radar. The rifle company I was assigned to (Company 215) ended up as the honor company that August. I’ll write more about them on another day.
I had waited over forty years to tell this story
My hopes are that the statute of limitations have finally run out. I’m really sorry for that Chief (whatever his name was). But I will never forget that he gave his all for a whole day to make us the great bunch of sailors we were.
Mostly, I will never forget the time when a song became a way of life.
This picture is at the Base Chapel. I guess it explains why we were never really alone when the Company Commander left us. In my mind and heart,
I still believe that holds true today.