Once a Brat

Location: Fort Worth, Texas, United States

Mother of 3, grandmother of 3. Compulsive writer. Single, not especially "looking."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

April -- The Month of the Military Child

I recently read somewhere that April has been designated The Month of the Military Child.

Cool. It's about time we got some recognition. As Pat Conroy said in his intro to Mary Edwards Wertsch's book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress: We were drafted at birth.

And those traits that we adapted while our military fathers (and increasingly now, our mothers) were serving our country still stick with us.....the unquestioning obedience to our fathers/mothers. The observing of certain rituals, such as stopping the car, exiting, turning in the direction of the flag as Retreat sounded each evening at 5:00. I still almost reflexively salute the flag at that time of day.

So I'm wondering about this Month of the Military Child -- What is the protocol? I mean, what do we do to celebrate/commemorate during this month?

Do we hold a festival of some kind? Do we go to the nearest military installation and salute the flag as it's lowered?

Anybody have any information? I certainly want/need my Marching Orders.

If I find out anything, I'll let you know. And if you find out anything, please post your comment(s).


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Searching for old friends

When you're an army brat, or any kind of Global Nomad, it's difficult to maintain your relationships. I mean, we never had the luxury of going to school with the same bunch of kids and grew to maturity with them.

I had to reinvent myself every three years. Who am I in this new place? What kind of smile do I need to put on? My Girl Scout Smile, or my Mysterious Smile? What do they wear in this new school? Peter Pan collars? In or out? What if I make a mistake and don't get in with a good crowd?

Pat Conroy said it best: "We had no one to compare ourselves to, to measure our growth," or words to that effect. So why do I persist in trying to find my former classmates? I'm a more than grown woman, for goodness sakes. I have "civilian" friends in my "civilian" life. I've lived in Fort Worth for 30 years and have built up a network of good friends who did not live the nomadic life I grew up in. I am constantly amazed at one friend who forgets I didn't grow up here. She asks, "You remember the Cox family, don't you?" And I have to admit, that no, I don't remember that family. I gently remind her that I didn't grow up here, didn't get to see the people grow and change along the way. I arrived, full-blown, in this city and had no experience with its social life.

What I am looking for, I suppose, is someone who remembers the same things I remember. Who was with me the night we all walked home from a screening of "The Thing" at the Gugelhof Officers Club at age 14 and scared ourselves to death imagining The Thing falling out of a wood box in the park we had to traverse to get to our homes --- er, quarters? Who rode the bus with me on the day we got new, sleek olive drab colored school buses? Who was in the spelling bee where we had to drive to Vienna for the finals, and make sure our drive through the Russian Occupation Zone was swift, lest we be arrested as spies?

There are times I wonder if those scenarios actually happened. I have no one to confirm those memories as being true. Not the imaginings of a woman receiving Social Security benefits as a reward for a long life.

If anyone out there can relate to this recurring theme, please let me know. I would like some company as I stroll down memory lane.....While I'm still able to remember.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The Passport Picture

I'm looking at my passport picture, or rather at the picture of my mom, little brother and me, taken in 1946 before we went overseas to join my father in Korea. It's not a smiling picture. They told us not to smile, for some reason. But as I look into the eyes of all three of us, I see fear, resignation, and a vacantness in my eyes. I was tuning out. Unable to face the fact that my dad was gone, and we were to sail across the Pacific Ocean in a few months to join him.
The fact that we had just had our inoculations didn't help our mood, either. Among the myriad injections were plague, cholera, tetanus and typhoid, and something called Japanese B Encephalitis. Man, that one stung like a bee. I remember the typhoid shot as making my arm feel like it was made of lead, and a red rash appeared where it had been injected. Someone at school bumped my arm, and I burst into tears. Geeze, they thought I was a wimp.
We had to get booster shots, too, as we completed our tour in Korea. Fortunately, we knew what to expect from this round of inoculations, and since we were all, at the school, getting shots at about the same time, we were very careful not to bump against another person's arm.
Ah, the life of a military brat. I never knew any other kind of life, though, so I don't know if I liked it or hated it. Probably a little of both. And isn't that typical of anybody as they look back on their childhood? When I hear about kids having been molested, or neglected, or otherwise abused, my heart goes out to them. I don't think anybody had an ideal childhood, to be truthful. Our parents did the best they can, and most of the time we were okay.
At least I feel that way.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Beginning a new series

I'm so new to this Blogging thing, and especially reluctant, like most writers I know, to "toot my own horn." But I'm also learning that if I don't do it, nobody else will -- especially my publisher. I'm an unknown, with a book topic slanted for a specific population, so nobody would want to invest any kind of advertising budget to alert the public about this book. So I'm learning.

And one of the learning experiences in promoting my own book(s) is blogging, and inviting others to my blog, and visiting blogs. Which will occur pretty soon, when my Publicist launches her new promotion campaign. Then I will have some ready-made topics to post, at least for a month. Until that time, and most likely afterward, I will be posting memories I resurect when I look at old, faded, black and white pictures of my life as an Army Brat.

So today I'm looking at where it all began, so to speak. There's a picture of my father in his uniform, six year old me beside him in a neat little school dress, and he is holding my new born baby brother, Gary. The time period is 1944 (see, I told you I was OLD) and the location is the front yard of our rented house on South 5th Street, in Lawton OK.

My father had just graduated from Officer Candidate School, the War was going on (if you have to ask "Which war?"you're much too young to be reading this) and I was aware that my daddy might have to Go Fight the War.

Fortunately, the war ended about the time he finished flight school at Shepard Air Force Base, in Wichita Falls, TX. So he was safe.

But looking at the picture, I can see worry lines on our faces: Dad must have been concerned about his growing family, his leaving us and the possibility of never coming back. At my age, I'm sure I felt the tension in the house, and probably convinced that no matter what happened, if my Daddy left, it would be my fault. Children are so powerful like that, you know.

This seemingly common snapshot of a new growing family is one of the last childhood pictures I have that reflects the tone of that time. Now I look at it and realize, many fathers must have posed for pictures just like this one, and they didn't come home from the War.

God Bless the Greatest Generation. Your children salute you.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Clearing Quarters

I was reading my emails the other day when somebody posted that she was moving into a new apartment that the former occupants had left uncleaned. So she had to go over and clean the apartment before she moved in.....
That would have never happened if she were a military wife. I don't know if that's still in force or not, but when my mother was a young officer's wife -- sometime between 1938 and 1958 -- she would sweat bullets working on clearing quarters before we left for another assignment.
No cobwebs allowed in corners or window sills. Holes in the walls had to be filled in with putty and painted over. Most of the time, we didn't hang things on the walls, just because of that restriction.
Which might explain my current attitude about hanging things on the walls.....I love it when I move to a new house/apartment and I can put my stuff on new walls. Unlike some people I have known and lived with, I don't strategically plot exactly where to put the nail in the wall. One anal-retentive type I was married to for far too long insisted on measuring precisely from floor to ceiling, from one point in the wall to another, considering the studs behind the sheet rock before even considering tapping a small nail into the wall.
Now here's where my rebellion comes in: I eyeball the space and gleefully pound the nail into the sheet rock, mostly. So when I hang the picture, if it's heavy, it pulls the nail out and I'm left with a painting on the floor and a hole in the wall.
So what? I think. I can do anything I want in my own house.
After all, I'm not getting a Quarters Inspection.
Once a Brat, not always a brat when I want to rebel.....

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Monday, March 5, 2007

First Chapter of My Book, Once a Brat......Enjoy!


My mother made the dreaded phone call early on a Thursday.
“Your dad died this morning at six o’clock.”
I took it for granted that my father would be buried in Fort Sam Houston’s cemetery. I also assumed he would be buried in his uniform, so I was somewhat surprised that Mother had not laid out his dress blues, but a dark suit – a “civilian” suit.
“Mom,” I protested. “Don’t you think Dad should be buried in his uniform?”
“No,” she answered slowly, as if she were talking to a child. “Remember, your father had been retired much longer than he was in the Army.”
That was a shock almost worse than the news of my father’s death. A civilian longer than a U.S. Army officer? Well, I thought, that may be the truth, as my mother and father knew it, and to a large extent, the truth for my two younger brothers. But for my entire childhood, from 1938 until my second year in college in 1958, the truth was my father lived and breathed the US Military. Therefore, every moment of my first twenty years of life was dictated by the whims of the United States Army. Where I would live. Where I would go to school. What friends I would accumulate. What discipline I would attain, and what goals I would aspire to. From the sound of Reveille each morning to Retreat each evening, I was reminded of my station in life: I was a Military Brat.
I was always “different.” I was always the new kid in the classroom, the new kid on the block if we lived as “civilians” in town, the new kid in one of the cookie-cutter quarters in an endless series of military compounds.
I still choke up when the National Anthem is played, whether at a ballpark or concert. The strains of Sousa marches bring tears as I picture parades of uniformed men saluting as the flag passes. “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” have not yet ceased to be an automatic part of my vocabulary. Merely climbing into a cab on a dark night in Chicago, the smell of fermented cabbage assaulting my nostrils caused me to blurt to the driver, “You’re from Korea, aren’t you?”
I saw the reflection of his white teeth in the rear-view mirror as he grinned, “Yah. How you know that?”
My one word reply: ”Kim Chi.”
The yearning to hear the Austrian/Bavarian phrase “Gruss Gott” bestowed on me whether entering or leaving a shop, or merely passing a native on the streets along the Danube River, will never leave me.
I will always cry at “Taps,” not so much as it reminds me of my father’s military funeral, but that it reminds me of my own lost childhood. “Taps” may as well have been sounded for me at my father’s retirement ceremony, for a unique part of me died, too: That part of me that reveled in being an officer’s daughter, with certain privileges of rank, along with that part of me that rebelled -- in spirit at least -- against the restrictions imposed upon me by that same privilege of rank: Officers’ kids must not misbehave, under any circumstances, as it reflects on your father’s career. Military Brats were as regimented as our fathers.
I cried in recognition when I read Pat Conroy’s foreword to Mary Edwards Wertsch’s book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood from Inside the Fortress. Like many other Brats, I have the uncanny ability to close a door and never look back. When I lost my house to a foreclosure some years ago, I felt strangely distant, uncaring, that the house I had purchased after a divorce, where I had lived for ten years as a newly-single woman, was no longer mine. I shut the door and turned the lock, got into my car and drove away. Without a tear. Never going back.
I can do the same with a job. Although I made friends easily in my jobs as a temporary secretary, when the time came for my departure, (orders) I gathered my few personal objects, bid my co-workers farewell, and walked out the door. A day or two later, I was in another place, with other people, and I had no time to mourn the prior loss.
Marriage suffered, as well. When I’m gone, I’m gone. No lingering goodbyes, regrets, longings for what could have been. It was over.
I will never know what it’s like to live in one town, in one house, for longer than a few years. I longed for that, some time ago, but now I wonder if the life I lived – a global nomad, in a sense – wasn’t the best kind of life for me. I gained an enormous appreciation for my country, my flag and all things patriotic.
I was somewhat bemused by the surge of patriotism displayed after 9-11-01. I confided to my Brat friends, “I don’t know what all the fuss is all about. After all, we were raised with all this.” I had long ago placed the “Proud to be a Military Brat” sticker on my car, and wore my pin just as proudly. Some people snickered at the word “Brat” on my lapel pin, while others flew to my pin as a moth to a flame. They understood; they were Military Brats. .
In civilian schools, I was way ahead of others, with the exception of math, which I understand is a common deficiency in many Military Brats. We were all studying fractions when our new school taught decimals. And vice versa. History, languages and geography were a snap, however. I gaped in astonishment when a high school student confused Austria with Australia and asked if I had a kangaroo.
Poor souls – having to live their entire lives in Killeen, Texas. They didn’t know the ecstasy of Bavaria in the summertime; concerts in the town square, the terror of knowing the enemy was right across the Danube River, or 38th Parallel, and could attack at any given moment --- and they did, in the case of South Korea.
We were in Paris on June 25, 1950. At the news, Dad’s leave was cut short, and we hurried back to Dad’s base in Austria, our hearts thudding in fear that war would simultaneously erupt in Europe.
While we were in Korea, two years earlier, we had experienced problems with the Russians. They had control of our electricity above the 38th parallel. Now and then, as we watched a movie in a tent, the power suddenly went off. But we didn’t miss a beat – generators were cranked up, and the movie continued.
Homework was completed by kerosene lantern – “no electricity” was no excuse for not handing in our assignments. Not in a dependents’ school, no sir.
In Europe, we were obliged to keep a suitcase packed and under the bed, ready to evacuate and meet at pre-determined checkpoints, just in case --- Pro-Communist May Day parades gave our teachers near heart attacks when we hung out our schoolroom windows and taunted the marchers for their squeaky shoes; we could hear them coming from blocks away. On those May Days, we rode home in an army bus with armed guards “riding shotgun,” listening to stones pounding the sides of the bus – only to hear a rumor that those weren’t stones… they were bullets. I doubt that was accurate and I’ll probably never know. Like other Brats aboard the bus, I found the possibility of being involved in an “international incident” both exciting and historic. Never concerned for my safety, I knew the Powers That Be would take good care of us Dependents.
Years after we had left Seoul, Korea, my father, who had returned after the Korean War to serve as Military Advisor to the ROK, sent pictures of our former quarters. Aerial strafing and bombings had pockmarked HQG27. All the windows were boarded up and South Korean soldiers were scavenging the hardwood floors for firewood. I looked at my bedroom window, thinking, “I played with my homemade dollhouse right there.” (Insert Photo #1)
I recall my father sweating the exquisite timing required for our drive from Linz to Vienna through the Russian Zone of Occupation, lest we be arrested for “spying.” It was difficult to keep my face expressionless as Russian guards peered intently at our “papers”—holding them upside down.
I sat under a huge tree near the Spanish Guard Tower on Donatusgasse, in Linz, Austria, looking over the Danube River into the Russian Zone of Occupation. Immediately upon arrival, my dad drilled into my head, “Don’t ever cross the bridge into the Russian Zone.”
Our fear, then, was of the Russians. Although we were able to see into the Russian Zone from our perch high on the hill overlooking the Danube, and realized they could also see us, we managed to co-exist.
I was to recall the edict: “Never cross the bridge over the Danube” years later, when, on a nostalgic return to Linz with my grown daughter, we took a wrong turn and actually crossed the Danube.
My reaction was knee-jerk, instantaneous, and highly vocal. “We can’t cross the river,” I gasped. My daughter and our friend Jennifer looked at me, startled. “I mean, we couldn’t do that when I lived here…”
Realizing how insane that must have sounded, my voice trailed off.
But I remained uneasy until Jennifer turned the jeep around, and we departed the Forbidden Russian Zone.
For the remainder of the afternoon, lest I suffer another trauma, we were careful not to drive over any bridge spanning the Beautiful Blue Danube.
Once a Brat, always a Brat.
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