Apropos of nothing more than needing a subject about which to write, the dilemma of where I’m from came to mind. Not having a well-defined place of origin is one of those small social inconveniences like having eyes of two different colors, a haircut for the wrong gender (too long or too short), or very out of date eyeglasses frames. None of it matters, but people find a way to comment on it anyhow.
I have a slight, non-standard American accent. No matter where I live I don’t sound like I’m “from around here.” Of course, people understand me but some vowels are “off,” or I’ll use a word in a wrong way. If, after a few moments of talk, the people I’m speaking with have any curiosity about it, I’m asked where I’m from, and I hesitate. It seems like an easy enough question to answer. After all, how can you not know where you’re from?
If I’m being a nosy parker, most people to whom I’ve posed the same question will usually say where they were born, or where they grew up. They know where home is. Maybe they moved around the area, perhaps from house to house in the same town, so they know the local roads, the television stations, the sport teams and famous players, the old restaurants and high school hangouts, and not only the weather but the long-time weather forecasters as well. They can say, “I’m from …” without any hesitation.
When I am asked where I’m from, I usually say, “The Air Force.” It often takes my questioner a couple of beats to figure out what I said and my reply usually gets a half-hearted laugh. I should probably just pick one place that I’ve lived before, but then I get asked something specific about it and I hesitate again while explaining how I only lived there a few years a long time ago. Either way, people look at me as if I’m making stuff up.
I was born in a “temporary” WWII-era military hospital on an Air Force base on the east coast of the U.S., and for three months lived in the city of my birth, which wasn’t where either of my parents were from. Just like everyone else I’ve carried my birthplace identifier with me as long as I can remember, carefully writing it on any form demanding the information, but not having any feeling for what it was like there other than what I’ve seen in the few photos in our album from those three months, or from impressions given by newspaper pictures (it’s a famous city). I often feel like a fraud by claiming I’m a native daughter because my knowledge of the place is that of a person who has read a tourist brochure. I can describe famous landmarks but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I know more about Paris, the one in France, than I do about where I was born. It’s a trait I share with all my children, none of whom remember where they spent the earliest days of their babyhoods.
While I was still a babe in arms, my dad sailed away on a Navy ship to England after traveling with me and Mom to St. Louis so she and I could stay with my godparents, my dad’s brother and his wife. We have pictures of my cousins playing with me, but it’s like looking at old photos of them playing with a neighbor’s baby.
A quarter of the way around the world, Dad settled in to postwar-London and after four months found a house to rent. Once my father had a place for us to stay, the Air Force allowed Mom and me to board a Navy ship to sail to Europe with a boatload of other dependents, including a family who would live down the street from us a decade or so later, but who, at the time, were just names on the ship’s manifest and of no more importance to us than the rest of the dependents trekking to other countries to be reunited with husbands and fathers who’d also managed to find apartments, houses or quarters.
A few years after sailing to England, my parents and I sailed back to the U.S., with my dad stuck again in the hold of yet one more old Navy ship, while Mom and I were in a small cabin. Fed up with being shipped in steerage merely because he was enlisted and not an officer, Dad laid down good money for first class tickets on a train to St. Louis. There he bought a light green Chrysler station wagon and we drove the rest of the way to South Dakota where I spent my elementary school years. In the natural course of things, I acquired a brother and a sister.
To me, my brother and my sister were actual South Dakotans – they had memories of the place we lived when they were born — but I was from someplace else, a place more foreign to me than some actual foreign places. Reducing my sense of being from any one place, I couldn’t even claim the country where I’d made my own first memories.
Then we moved again, but this time it was wonderful and I didn’t care where I was from — I’d be from there.
I spent junior high and the beginning of high school in beautifully rainy and sunny Bermuda. It was like a permanent vacation, what with swimming from a friend’s back porch, sailing in St. George’s Harbour and water skiing, but eventually reality reared its head. Even though I wanted to be a minor league diddlybopper on a blue Mobylette from jus’ do’n de rood, b’y, I wasn’t from there. I could be made to leave. When we left England, I didn’t know what it meant to leave home and it was an adventure. This time, I knew, and the adventure wasn’t as exciting.
By that time, the military transport of people had switched to airplanes and these planes eventually took us to the town where I’d graduate from the remainder of high school, but not with any sense of belonging. While working on the senior class float for the homecoming parade, one of my classmates looked at me, cocked her head like a curious dog, and asked, “When did you get here?” By then, I’d been in that school two years. If Dad hadn’t retired, it would be almost time to leave and be the new kid again at another Air Force base.
Despite the wild, blue yonder coloring my entire life, by the time I graduated from school I was a civilian even though I didn’t feel like one. I still addressed adult men by rank and last name, and could sing the Air Force song as well as the songs of the other services. My natural vocabulary included words, phrases and acronyms such as: housing list, quarters, and civil engineers, which all had to do with where we lived, or rather, where we used to live. Getting to our (former) quarters often included front or side gates in the base fence, and the guard shack.
The traditional words about where my dad had worked included SAC and MATS, headquarters, bomb wing and bomb squadron, bivouac, NCOIC, AFSC, and my dad’s service number.
Recreational words, which as the dependent of a retiree I could still use, included service club, base pool and base beach, base library, snack bar, BX, Class Six (for Dad), and the all-important ID card. Grocery shopping was done at the commissary. Eating out meant an outing to the NCO Club. Going on vacation, which had meant furlough or leave, involved signing out and signing in, both of which invariably happened either just after or just before midnight to make the most of traveling time.
Traveling to other places involved TDY (Dad went by himself) or PCS (we went, too) and may have included a B-2 bag. People stayed in places called a VOQ, a BOQ, barracks or a guest house.
Airplane stuff was indicated by flight suit, flight line, prop-job, B-52, KC-135, C-130, C-141, fighter pilots, afterburners, Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds.
Scary things were alerts, sirens, and evacuation. Scarier things were loud booms out of nowhere, chaplains arriving at quarters, and Mount Kit Carson which was someplace in Washington state and the site of a fireball from a plane flying into a mountain.
Still, normal, everyday routine outweighed the scary stuff and my transition to civilian life didn’t last long because I joined the Army. My brother and sister chose the Navy and Air Force. Eventually, I became the wife of a soldier and passed along the legacy of Brathood to my children. I’m not “from” any one place, and neither are they.
I was born one place, lived the longest in another, graduated from school someplace else, and my favorite home was yet a different place.
Where am I from?
The Air Force.