Columbus, Georgia—Military town and “home”

Where there is a military post or base, you will find a military town. Sometimes there is a love-hate relationship between the “townies” and the military, but one thing is for sure: military towns are where many career military men and women retire, and paydays guarantee towns ongoing economic prosperity. And, for many Military Brats, military towns become “home”, even if you are not born there.

Near Fort Benning, Georgia, on a stretch of the muddy Chattahoochee River that separates Georgia from Alabama, is a town called Columbus.

Like so many towns situated next to military bases, the build up of military installations during World War II and beyond meant more soldiers spending their pay locally, boosting the local economy, and turning small, rural towns into growing, thriving small cities.

Columbus, Georgia is a military town, and an adopted home town for thousands of Military Brats and retired military personnel.

I learned a long time ago to make sure and say, “Columbus . . . Georgia”, otherwise people think you are talking about Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio and Columbus, Georgia are totally different—in climate, culture and people.

Just outside the post in Columbus is a highway called Victory Drive, which is lined with dozens of used car dealers, pawn shops, retail stores, bars, motels, and clubs where women don’t seem to earn enough to keep themselves fully clothed, laundromats and more.

Hardly a Saturday or Sunday goes by where you don’t see small groups of military recruits walking here and there, miles from post, looking for something to do away from Fort Benning and away from the watchful eyes of their Drill Sergeant.

When you combine soldiers away from home, out on a weekend pass with alcohol and small groups, there would sometimes be some trouble, whether it was a fight with the local civilians, or a dispute over payment for some companionship or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Besides civilians robbing a liquor store or having a domestic dispute, soldiers getting into trouble would often get front page newspaper coverage, but because so much money flowed from Fort Benning into local businesses, after a few years most civilians simply accepted the fact that there would be trouble from time to time, but without Fort Benning, Columbus would be just another sleepy southern town.

I lived in Columbus a few years before we left for Germany in the 1960s, and again in 1968 when my dad was in Viet Nam.  My grandparents had retired in Columbus, and two of my dad’s brothers lived and worked in Columbus.

After I graduated from high school in Frankfurt, Germany in 1974, I worked for a year near Bad Nauheim, saved my money. I finally left the “nest” in 1975—my destination was Columbus, Georgia—my adopted “home town”. My goal was to find a job, start college and to begin life on my own.

Mill town beginnings
Columbus, Georgia was basically a mill town for many years, with some light industry and manufacturing.
Its location next to the Chattahoochee River gave it a waterway for receiving raw materials such as cotton and other goods from around the state, and a way to transport finished goods.

Water provided many mills along the river energy by turning giant water wheels, which powered spinning and weaving machines in the factories located on the edge of the river.

Most businesses paid very low wages when compared to other parts of the state and the rest of country, partly because there is an endless supply of military retirees coming to the area.

Many retirees found the relatively low cost of living in Columbus appealing, especially when there was easy access to the post’s PX and commissary.

Even though many retirees were making half of their active duty pay, they could enjoy a relatively good living working for a local company to supplement their retirement pay.

Payday dollars
While some of the local town folks may not have liked the fact that the military trained cycle after cycle of troops, who came to town and left after a few weeks, sometimes causing trouble, the flow of dollars from soldiers to the local economy allowed the town to prosper and grow in ways not possible otherwise.

Though recruits came and went after basic training, there are thousands of military personnel and their families living both on base and off base, contributing to the local economy.

Through local churches, schools, civic clubs and other means, military personnel and their families live and work as a part of the local community, and like most “military towns”, there is a cultural melting pot where people from all over the country and spouses from around the world come together.

While many of the “locals” who are born and raised in Columbus will have a southern accent, Columbus also has a large number of people who have the neutral “military” accent, making it easier to identify Military Brats.

Education in a military town
Columbus has a technical college and a university. In the 1970s the university was known as Columbus College, a small four year liberal arts school, which had night classes for working students and was a terrific tuition value when compared with the larger universities such as University of Georgia.

Many military personnel contribute local tuition dollars by attending college.  Education is vital to promotions in the military, and the families of military personnel often attend college as well.

Many retirees also take advantage of the G.I. Bill to pursue education and training after their military career, leading to new careers or personal fulfillment, courtesy of Uncle Sam. And on some occasions, retirees would become professional students, drawing pay for attending class, and changing their majors every year or so.

As a Military Brat “transitioning” to civilian life, I liked going to Fort Benning once in a while and flashing my I.D. card to get into the PX, commissary,  or better yet, access to the post craft shop. Several pieces of bachelor furniture came out of the post craft shop and into my bachelor pad, as well as some shadow boxes, artwork frames and other items.

Though my family was thousands of miles away, a visit to Fort Benning was like going back in time and reliving when we lived at Fort Knox.

I started my college education at Columbus College, and my career as a graphic designer at a small printing company called Diversified Printing Company, where I worked full-time while putting myself through college.

Learning the printing trade
In the 1970s, printing was part art and part science, and required printing of ink on paper, and someone to typeset and “layout” whatever was to be printed, whether it was a flyer, a menu, newsletter or weekly church bulletin.

I answered an ad in the local paper for an entry level position at a local printer, and having some exposure to silk screen printing and the literary magazine in high school, I thought I might be  able to land a job in printing.

 After a phone call I found myself in the reception area, filling out an application. While I was only a year out of high school, I had three prior jobs to list on my application. A short time later I was introduced Joe Wheeler, a local businessman who had come to Columbus by way of the military himself in the early 1960s.

While I didn’t know much about the printing trade in 1975, I remember saying that I was willing to learn about the printing business, as I needed some steady part-time work while I attended college.

I was given a job in the bindery department and introduced to a woman named Joan who ran the bindery department. She seemed nice enough, and was just a few years older than my mother.

Joan was British, I soon learned, who had married a soldier she met in England at the end of World War II. They had married, had four kids who were all grown and married. Her husband, Ray, had retired in Columbus some years before.

Between various assignments collating and stacking printing materials I learned that Joan and her husband had been stationed in Japan more than once, as well as Germany. She also used subtle interrogation techniques on me to find out about my family, background and so forth. I later learned that one of her daughters was between marriages, and Joan was actually interviewing possible candidates.

Civilian boot camp
Joan would have made a great Drill Instructor. No matter what you did, it was never quite right, or so it seemed that first week I worked at Diversified. She was a perfectionist, but so was my dad and my mother—so I felt right at home.

Some of the work was a bit mind-numbing, and standing all day was definitely not pleasant. But with the sound of printing presses running in the background, the smell of solvents and inks, stacks of paper everywhere, after a week or so I was hooked on printing.

I don’t know if was that she had a soft spot for a Military Brat, or that I impressed her with my willingness to actually work for the minimum wage I received, I somehow survived Joan’s bindery “boot camp”, and managed to learn something about the printing process.

I later learned that many of her recruits never made it past a couple of days. She expected everyone to work as hard as she did, and few lived up to her expectations.

While the bindery is where all printing jobs are “finished”, I was able to learn about the different types of printed products we made at Diversified. From 2-part carbon-less forms to checks for several banks with magnetic ink to newsletters for a local hospital, I received a crash course in offset lithography and some exposure to letter press work.

Graphic artist beginnings
I had been at Diversified Printing for couple of months and our graphic artist quit—or was fired—suddenly creating a job opening in the art department.

The art department of any print shop at that time, was where typeset text was combined with some creativity to produce finished artwork that was approved by the customer and later photographed so a negative could be used to make a printing plate for the printing press.

Joe Wheeler asked me if I thought I could do “paste up”. After all, I was majoring in art.

I had observed the graphic artist working away when I was on break or during lunch sometimes. She worked at a small drafting table, using a parallel bar, a plastic drafting triangle, an X-Acto knife for cutting galleys of type, a small waxing machine for applying a layer of wax to the back of the galleys of type so they would stick to an art board.

“Sure, I can do that.”

I now had my first taste of the civilian equivalent of a battlefield promotion.

I was now officially in charge of the art department. Mr. Wheeler explained to me that my primary job was to make artwork that was the correct size, that type was to be perfectly centered and everything had to be straight and level.

Growing up in a military family where we had very strict guidelines to follow for everything from cutting the grass to washing the car, I was a natural at following orders.

My first project was a 64 page program for the local Shriners. The Shriners sponsored a yearly circus event that raised money for the burn hospital for children that the Shriners supported.  The program was about 95% ads from local merchants, and a few pages of the actual program of events and listings of all the Shriners and their titles.

Looking back, I realize this project was actually a trial by fire. Joan was a bit upset that her star bindery worker was moved to the other side of the building, and was skeptical that I could do the job. Later I learned that except for Joan’s bindery, every other department of the print shop had seen people come and go.

Carol, who ran the front office and met with many customers, typed invoices and worked with Joe Wheeler on some of his civic projects, showed me the basics of paste up. She had worked with Mr. Wheeler when he had started another printing company years before called Columbus Productions.

There had been some sort of a disagreement over the direction of Columbus Productions was going in, and he left with Carol in the mid-1960s to establish Diversified Printing Services.

In the early days of Diversified, he was the salesman and did some of the camera work, negative work (or stripping as it was called), plating and had a part-time pressman, with Carol helping out on some of the projects. She knew quite a bit about the printing process and did a lot of the day to day managing of the shop as Mr. Wheeler was away from the company selling and working with a lot of the civic leaders in the community.

Over the next few weeks, I turned a box full of ad contracts into a stack of finished “camera-ready” pages, and it was a thrill a few weeks later when I was “drafted” back into the bindery department to help Joan with the collating of the program, to see the final product come out of the paper cutter, neatly bound and trimmed.

Mastering the technology
During my apprenticeship, I mastered the use of our giant vertical reproduction camera, which was used for enlarging and reducing artwork and text. This monster camera occupied about half of our tiny darkroom and could make negatives that were 18 x 24 inches.

I was also introduced to our state of the art IBM Composer, which was a glorified ball element typewriter that could center and “justify” type, provided you typed every line of text twice. Unlike an office typewriter with only one set of letters and numbers, the IBM Composer had dozens of different type “fonts” and type sizes, so it was possible to produce elegant typeset pages and forms.

I also used an old Verityper headline machine that made large headlines for ads. This machine used giant disks that had different fonts as well, which required that you rotate the disk, expose the letter onto a long strip of photopaper, one letter at a time. After setting the headline, the strip of paper was developed in the darkroom and later after fixing, washing and drying, it was pasted into place.

Needless to say, I learned a lot about basic photography and knew my way around a darkroom in no time.

At the end of the Shriner program project, I was given a raise of 10 cents an hour. Minimum wage was $2.10 in 1975, so I was making $2.20.

While I would have worked in fast food or construction or anything really, I found that the technical process involved with printing was both challenging and fun at the same time.  I also learned that printing is actually a manufacturing process and when you’re done with your part of the job, it goes on to the next department, and within a few days you can see the end result—in multiples.

A diamond in the rough
Wheeler realized he had a diamond in the rough and over the next few years he served both as a mentor and a father figure, keeping me busy both at work and involved in various civic projects he was working on. I think in some ways, I probably reminded him of how he was at an earlier age. I was eager to learn more about printing, that’s for sure, and I asked a lot of questions.

I attended college for about two years, then dropped out of college and worked full time for Diversified, at the urging of Mr. Wheeler. I was burning the candle at both ends, working almost full-time while taking a full course load.

After quitting school, I volunteered to work extra hours doing whatever was needed including foil stamping, screen printing, plating, and I even did die cutting on our ancient Price-Chandler letter press.  I had a true apprenticeship, but more than that, Mr. Wheeler mentored me in sales and customer service. 

I also learned how to run a small business, from pricing to tracking profit and loss to improving the technical process to make pre-press production more efficient.

In the 1970s, there was no direct interstate road to Atlanta, so I would often accompany Mr. Wheeler on trips to Atlanta to visit with bank clients and to pick up printing supplies. These trips were great in that we spent some time on the road talking about the printing business, brainstorming. I also learned about many of Wheelers conspiracy theories as we wound through impossibly tiny Georgia towns, on our way to and from Atlanta.

I also learned that Wheeler had grown up on a farm in Kentucky and had put himself through college. After college he had enlisted in the Army and found himself in Columbus and was looking for a way to end his short-lived military career, without involving a stretch of time at Fort Levenworth.

Wheeler found an obscure regulation that granted an honorable discharge to military personnel if there was a vital civilian job going unfilled in time of peace, for which the soldier was qualified.  Wheeler had found a school near Columbus that desperately needed a principal, and he had both some teaching experience and a masters degree. A few dozen Army forms later he found himself back in civilian life. In addition to being a principal, he taught woodworking.

A few years later, he, along with his brother-in-law, started a small printing company, with Joe Wheeler serving as the primary sales force. Later he left the company, but kept stock in the company for many years.

During my time at Diversified Printing Service, I also became quite expert in silk screen printing and mastered the art of creating screens and printing everything from multi-color posters for the local community theatre to campaign bumper stickers and yard signs.

In the late 1970s Wheeler bought a Compugraphic IV TG photo typesetter, which was quite advanced for it’s time, and quite primitive by today’s standards. In addition to running the art department, I did more than my fair share of typesetting. I’m thankful I took typing in high school and my typing speed is fairly high, otherwise I might of found myself out of a job during tough time.

Military connections
While working at Diversified Printing Services, I worked on a monthly newsletter called Communique, which was 16 pages in black ink, which the Officer’s Wives Club of Fort Benning provided the copy for and the advertising sales for as well.

For six years I worked with a number of officer’s wives who were involved and my job was to have the publication typeset and pasted up, and to get the publication proofed and approved every month.

We also published the Golden Heritage Cookbook, which was published by the Officers Wives Club. When I came to work at Diversified Printing, the cookbook was in its fifth or sixth printing I believe.

In 1977 or 1978 we were contacted by one of the officer’s wives who had worked with the club in Columbus, who was stationed with her husband in Colorado Springs, who wanted to create a cookbook for the Air Force Acadamy, and a year later we printed “Wings of Silver”.

It was a cookbook with heavy cover stock tabbed sections and about 100 pages or so on nice coated stock, with original art illustrations scattered throughout.

The cookbook had recipes submitted from officer’s wives, with recipes passed down in families and recipes swapped back and forth during travels throughout the world.

I must confess I do not have either of these cooks anymore . . . victims of one too many moves.

Time to move on
After six years of working at the same printing company, and learning the trade, I was making $6.00 an hour. However, I also realized I would never own a part of the business though Wheeler talked about profit sharing frequently, he had two sons and a daughter.

I also learned through my college educated friends that having a degree in art combined with graphic design would mean getting a much higher salary and more opportunities outside of printing companies in the world of marketing and advertising.

Though I liked most aspects of my job and had made some friends in Columbus, after six years in one place, I was more than ready to move.

In 1981, my father retired and returned to Columbus. Economically, we were in the middle of the Carter years with double-digit inflation, soaring gas prices, and my prospects for advancement were nil.

I decided that in the middle of a recession, maybe that was a good time to finish my degree—and move, but not that far away.

I applied to Auburn University, was accepted, and got credit for some of my college work at Columbus College. I transferred to Auburn University in the summer of 1981. Auburn was a tiny town, about an hour away. But once the students came back from summer break, it was a busy town and full of students.

I made a lot of trips “home” to visit with my family, not just to save some money at the laundromat by using Mom’s washer and dryer, but to also spend time with youngest sister, and my mom, who, like my dad, were having a tough time transitioning from military to civilian life.

The Army spends a lot of time and effort to create perfect soldiers, but no time to help career soldiers mentally prepare for civilian life. It was tough to come home and hear my mom and dad so unhappy. My dad really should have gone for 30 years, and trying to live off base on half-pay was very difficult.

My home town
I like Columbus for several reasons.

First and foremost, it is a military town. I had some history with the town and because my grand parents lived there, it was the closest thing to a real “home” I had every experienced.

I also liked the fact it was not too big. You could live anywhere in Columbus and be across town in about 15 minutes, and if you liked more space, there were plenty of places you could live that was out in the country away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

I finally graduated from college in 1984, 11 years after graduating from high school, and I worked in Atlanta for a couple of years as an art director for a graphic design company. I would make trips to Columbus to visit a couple times a month. Columbus is about 1-1/2 hours away from Atlanta.

After a year or so, my dad found civil service work at the small arms repair shop at Fort Benning, and like many retirees, he started a second career in his mid-fifties, and worked on a military base, as a “civilian”. In a few short years he was running the shop.

I never had the chance to talk with him in depth about how he felt about retirement, but it gave him time to ride the two Apoloosas he brought back from Colorado after he retired, and he seemed happy to be busy.

I was truly grateful that I was fairly close to home after dad’s retirement and that I got to know him better. After I left home, I only saw my family a couple of times during Christmas when my father was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado. My family also went to Germany for the third time, and I did not travel over to see them during this time—airfare was just too expensive.

My father and I spent a lot of time working on my old 1968 Mustang, changing hoses, water pumps and rebuilding the starter a couple of times.

Working on cars was the one thing that we could do together, and this and other small renovation projects around the house bridged our two worlds, giving us a common space to work together in, even if we didn’t have deep philosophical discussions about the military.

My father passed away in 1986, barely five years into his retirement.

He always hated going to the doctor for any reason when he was in the service, and died from colon cancer about six months after his diagnosis.

I was working in Atlanta at the time of my dad’s illness and passing, and it was truly sad driving back and forth during the time he was so sick, knowing that with each trip being made my dad was closer to the end of his life.

And it was truly sad to see someone who had been so in control of his world, to become weak and frail in what should have been the prime of his life.

But I was glad that I could be there for my mother and my sisters.

For many years I knew my way around the town well, and there are parts of Columbus I still can still navigate on autopilot. However, over the years Columbus has continued to grow northward, and major connectors were added around the city—convenient for most, but a little confusing for me.

After my grand parents passed away and my mother passed in 1998, I have not visited Columbus very often.

Joe Wheeler died in the 1990s and one of his sons, Brad, now runs Diversified Printing Services. I’ve visited with Brad once or twice. Brad is the spitting image of his father in size and features—it’s like seeing his father.

The print shop is in the same location, and from the outside, it looks like time has stopped somewhere in the 1960s. But inside the print shop, that’s a much different story.  Most of the old equipment I learned the trade with is now gone—obsolete in today’s computer driven digital world.

There is some comfort in knowing that Columbus will always be there. Hopefully, Fort Benning will be around for a long time, too, and will continue to help make Columbus, Georgia a great military town—my home town.

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  1. Enjoyed your article. I’m an Army brat and also lived in Columbus, but not because of my father’s career. He retired from the military in Augusta and taught at the Signal School at Ft. Gordon as a civilian until he died in 1977. I went to the Univ. of Ga. journalism school and  worked for The Columbus Ledger after graduation (1972-74), covering city government. I volunteered to be the Ft. Benning reporter also since I enjoyed being on an Army base and nobody else wanted the beat. I lived in Phenix City and got my master’s at Auburn in ’75. My favorite place to eat was Emmy’ Schnitzel Haus in downtown Columbus. It’s the best German restaurant I’ve ever experienced in this country, and that includes ones in Chicago, NY and DC. I’ve since edited two weekly newspapers, a daily, and done miles of paste up, and had many of the same experiences you had with printing. The Ledger and Enquirer were still hot type when I worked there, so I’m glad I got that experience.

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