Avoid the Mulberry Bush at All Cost

Here I am autographing a copy of Journal of a Fast Track Life for our grandson, Ronnie. Chapter 23 chronicles an unforgettable incident that occurred during my basic training at Lackland Air Force base in 1961. Because it’s his favorite chapter, Ronnie and I always greet each other with the final words of that chapter: “Never ever quit.” See the excerpt below for the full story.

The year was 1961. The place was boot camp at Lackland Air ForceBase in San Antonio, Texas, in the summer. The specific incident was part of a rigorous daylong obstacle course exercise.

Midway through the obstacle course, my fellow troops and I were sent into a burning house with no gas mask, challenged to find ourway out safely. After a few desperate minutes, I found my way out. Somewhat disoriented, I stumbled outside only to hear some male voices singing, “Here we go around the mulberry bush.”

At first, I thought I was hallucinating. Then I saw three very tall, athletic guys holding hands and singing the mulberry bush song as a rough looking drill sergeant barked his orders. The sergeant was unrelenting and harsh.

I quickly realized that the problem was that these three guys had failed to scale the two-story cliff that was the next step on the obstacle course. I looked at the rope that was the key to scaling the cliff and glanced back at the three poor athletes who were holding hands.

All of this caused me to approach the cliff with strong determination. I was not about to let myself fail and have to hold hands with those guys and sing around the mulberry bush. Fortunately, my determination prevailed, and I scaled the cliff successfully.

For reasons I have never really understood, the image of those three athletes being humiliated by a drill sergeant has been imbedded in my mind for what is now more than half a century. It’s an image that has flashed to the forefront every time I have faced a difficult decision or challenge. It has consistently provided me with the will and determination to make bold and tough decisions at times when the odds have seemed stacked against me.

Throughout my book, I have chronicled many barriers that I have had to confront in my fifty-plus years on the firing line in the public arena. The voices of those three athletes singing about the mulberry bush resonated in my mind as I probed the Bernard King eligibility issue, as I plowed ahead with the “impossible” plan to merge the two community colleges in Memphis, as I fought to keep UT Nashville alive and relevant when the federal court case clouded its future, and as I raced uphill against all odds in the gubernatorial campaign. The list goes on and on outside the pages of this book, and ever present in every case was the memory of those three guys holding hands and singing.

Bottom line: Stand strong against all odds, steer clear of that dreaded mulberry bush, and never ever quit.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 23, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.