Being a military brat

A few years ago, I attended an all-class reunion for one of my high schools, the overseas one.  The reunion was held in the American South. I now live in the buffer zone between the rolling hills of the wooded American Midwest and the open spaces of America’s prairie. Travel is nothing new to me, but because I’m no longer in danger of being abandoned on a different continent from my children and husband, I don’t fly. I don’t have to fly now, so I won’t. When I can afford it, I do take trains. I love trains.

For the reunion a train wasn’t on the agenda so getting from here to there and back again took a few days of driving each way. On my return journey in the passenger seat, and while scavenging the names of towns along our route for character names, I entertained myself by sketching out a mystery story.

What could happen at a reunion?

Would old grudges now be passé? Or would the lack of ‘closure’ keep alive long-ago hurts? Military kids rarely have long friendships — somebody always moves. Sometimes, these moves happen in the middle of ‘things’ — friendships, feuds, puppy love, or broken hearts. What happens when these former-kids get back together? Have they really and truly said goodbye to all that?

In stories, the Three-C’s: conflict, conflict, conflict, are the necessary ingredients among the characters.  So, by the seat of my pants (I’m usually a devout plotter), I whiled away the miles throwing the characters into each other’s way.

Remembering my story

After I returned home, Life took over, like it does, and I forgot about the story. Then late last year, my graduating high school class at a stateside school held their 50th anniversary reunion (yes, we were all astonished at the number, too). The get-together, local this time, reminded me of my story. Could I revive it? I gave it a shot.

So, without further ado, Kaleidoscope: A Murderous Reunion.

 

In this era of identity theft, for military kids who had no connections other than their long-ago temporary home, how do you really know whether the people who show up for a reunion are who they say they are? And what do you do when one of those people repeatedly makes mistakes?

 

The story will remain active on the blog for two weeks from the date of publication.

The story is now inactive.

Christmas Day 2018 is now in the memory books. The incense from last night’s midnight service has dissipated, the stockings and presents have been opened, and Christmas dinner is digesting. Everyone can sit back and take a breath, especially the mail delivery workers and Christian clergy.

For military kids, today’s celebration probably didn’t happen in the place where they were born. They’ve either moved from one house to another, from one state to another, or from one country to another.

Wherever they are, cheers to all the young military kids of today and a heartfelt hope that their parents are either with them, or are safe where they are.

Cheers also to those who grew up following their parents around the country and the world and for whom Santa didn’t arrive in a sleigh, but by camel, in a tank, riding in a half-track, being driven in a deuce and a half, flown in courtesy of the crew of a C-130, or landing on a Naval transport by helicopter.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and season’s greetings to everyone.

 

Christmas collage

A variety of Christmases. Top row: three places shown; five altogether. Two middle rows: three different homes in one place. Bottom row: four homes, not including my Army assignments.

 

During this holiday season, I’m missing the at-home sights and sounds of not only an American Christmas, but also those of my other-cultures, traditions given to me through my nomadic military travels (in countries with Christian traditions).

In watching my grandkids, I think it must be nice to be grounded in one’s life, to know who and what you are and not to miss parts of your own life with a sharper pang than that generated by ordinary nostalgia. I don’t know if a settled life is ‘better’ and a nomadic life ‘worse’ (or vice versa) but being from one place might have less existential angst.  Or maybe not.  Hard to tell from the vantage point of having had just the one childhood.

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I’m in luck concerning my first culture, English, the one I think of in my child’s mind as ‘the way it’s s’posed to be.’  At a young age, you don’t know you’re not living where you’re nationally-assigned to be living.  You also don’t know that what you’re experiencing as ‘normal’ is a mix of two cultures, that of your parents, and that of the country in which you live. All you know is that you’re home, and that’s that.

I’m lucky that crackers, as one element of my early Christmases in England, are now readily available.

 

23 christmas crackers

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Another part of my other-culture heritage is seeing the Gombey dancers from Bermuda.  When I was a kid, the dancers didn’t seem to be as well-organized or to have as good P.R., as they do today, but again, that observation may be a result of the childish attention span.  Still, they’re something I remember seeing on the island around Christmas.  I think we could do with some Gombey dancing around here.

23 Gombey men

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From the decades I spent with my husband in Europe comes the memory of Christmas markets.  Everywhere we went during December we found Christmas markets.  Some were big and some were small, but they all contributed to the seasonal spirit. One of the items commonly found at the markets are figurines for the household Nativity scenes.  The items are expensive and collections are often added to one piece at a time over the years.

A French-culture specialty are santons.  Where Americans limit their Nativity scenes to manger-scenes, the people of Provence have the tradition of making an entire village to host the Nativity.  One display we saw in the city hall of Strasbourg, France filled the entire lobby and the scene was a multi-room panorama as visitors moved through the ‘town.’  Butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers, old men playing boules (like bocce), mothers in houses bathing their infants, beasts and birds and houses and scenery.  C’est magnifique!

The last Christmas we spent in Europe, we visited the Marché de Noel in Mons, Belgium.  The marché (market) was small with little huts selling thick waffles, utterly scrumptious frites (fries should be called Belgian fries rather than French fries),  hot drinks, and little gifts. The main hut displayed a Nativity scene. In the Mons market, the chief attraction was an ice-skating rink.

If we made a video recording of our visit, I haven’t the slightest clue how to get it off our last-century video tape and make a computer file of it, but I’m in luck — other people have recorded their visits and uploaded them to YouTube.  This video ends with a left-handed caress for good luck of the little brass monkey outside the city hall of Mons.

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The biggest, and to me the best Christmas market is the Christkindelsmarkt in Nürnberg, Germany, a market that takes place under the gaze of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), a city symbol memorialized in a clock that I sent to my parents from Germany, many years ago.  With coddling, our clock still ticks away and plays its tune.

 

12 23 01 Clock

In Nürnberg, the Christmas market spectacle is magnificent as the church rises above the ‘streets’ formed in the market square by row upon row of red and white striped tents. In the tents, innumerable glass ornaments on the counters and hanging from the ceilings in the tents sparkle under the spotlights.  The visual feast is accentuated by the aroma of the small bratwurst (never called “brats”) grilling in the open-air, little sausages that tease the nose and make the mouth water. Mingling with the smell of grilled wurst is the wafting scent of Glühwein (mulled wine) for the grownups and Kinderpunsch (mulled punch) for the kids.  The Christkindlesmarkt is a sensory delight.

 

With your feet frozen from hours of wandering on the cold cobblestones, it is an absolute treat to find a Konditorei (a German café specializing in coffee and cake) and sit at a linen-draped table sipping hot chocolate and nibbling a slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (Black Forest cherry cake) with your boxed gingerbread house at your feet.  The event is a lasting memory.

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I suppose I wouldn’t be missing all the kinds of Christmases I’ve known if I were in a festively-decorated house, watching the twinkling of the lights on my Christmas tree.  But no, I have cats, specifically, two young cats whose mission is to investigate anything and everything in the house. I’m waiting for them to grow up some more before introducing them to a Christmas tree.  Until then, I have my memories and the entertainment of watching the cats chase through packing paper from catalog orders and jump in and out of empty shipping boxes.

01 Audrey after candycanes

Happy Holidays!

1965: Planes in the backyard U.S. Air Force plane over St. George's Harbour, Bermuda, taken from our backyard on Kindley Air Force Base.

1965: Planes in the backyard
U.S. Air Force plane over St. George’s Harbour, Bermuda, taken from our backyard on Kindley Air Force Base. This plane is the same type as one involved in a crash I heard.

Regardless of the era, military service can be a dangerous line of work. Many military jobs involve either work with dangerous materials or vehicles, or living in an area in which one’s country’s efforts are not appreciated, and it has been this way during the decades following World War II. On one hand there is the point that many of the military actions seem to be imperialistic in nature — “Americanization” — and that we shouldn’t do that. We should stay home, tend to our own knitting.

The flip side to that, from an American viewpoint, is that some country, somewhere, is going to be the ‘leader,’ or perhaps a less domineering view would be the ‘trend setter.’ In any case, one country, or a treaty-bound group, will be the dominant nation. Which country is best suited for that role? Since the top slot will always be ‘there,’ If you don’t want the U.S. to be spending the money, the time, and the people to support the U.S.’s position, which other country do you see as best filling that niche?

Even without a ‘hot’ war in progress, staying alert or supporting other missions have their own dangers, and given the role assumed by the United States of being one of the top dogs in the field of (usually) supporting the downtrodden in many places around the globe, and in the wake of seeing continued deployments to Afghanistan, I was reminded by an article in the Bermuda Sun newspaper of the dangers faced by service members during the Cold War as the newspaper covered the 50th anniversary of an air crash near the island.

Bermuda air disaster, 50 years on, The Bermuda Sun

I well-remember this tragedy because I heard it. I was walking home, probably from the beach on Kindley Air Force Base in Bermuda, and an uncharacteristic boom sounded, as if someone had shot off Anzio Annie, one of the Krupp K5 railway guns used in WWII by the Nazis.

Everyone who lived on Kindley was accustomed to hearing planes as the base was built parallel to the joint military-civilian runway serving Bermuda. We heard everything from Pan Am jetliners, to B-47s, to C-130 Hercules cargo planes, to fighter jets, as well as aircraft whose names I don’t know, and whose job was probably secret. We heard all manner of machines with either propellers or jets, and the runway was so close to everything else, that people could walk along a sidewalk and find themselves behind fighter jets being hit by exhaust. In school, our teachers would pause during lessons when the scream of jet fighters could be heard as the planes hurtled down the runway. Our teachers would wait to continue the lesson until they could once again be heard. Planes were as common, or perhaps more common, than birds.

1965: Kindley AFB, Bermuda Seeing off friends at the MATS terminal, the place where many of us arrived and departed.  In this picture, we're all being blasted by propwash from a Coast Guard plane on which our friend was leaving.

1965: Kindley AFB, Bermuda
Seeing off friends at the MATS terminal, the place where many of us arrived and departed. In this picture, we’re all being blasted by propwash from a Coast Guard plane on which our friend was leaving.

For me, hearing the crash of the two planes, one of which was the same type as the one pictured at the top of this piece, was a reminder of another crash two years before.

U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crashes near Spokane, killing 44 airmen, HistoryLink.org

I didn’t live near Spokane, where the crash happened on Mount Kit Carson, but rather at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the place where the flight originated. The fathers of the families of the neighbors directly behind our house and directly in front of our house were both on the plane. The son of the plane’s captain was in my class. Of all the 44 men on the plane, only something like 3 or 4 were single, not that this was any different for their parents and siblings, but only that one or two fewer people on the base were devastated by the tragedy.

The crash at Ellsworth was the first one I remember. It came on the television with no warning and the families had not yet been told. It obviously wasn’t the last one I remember, given the crash in Bermuda, as well as other crashes during our time there. My time with my career-Army husband has contributed more tragedies, such as the Ramstein Air Base airshow Flugtag ’88 disaster that is recent enough to have footage on YouTube, the horrific Lockerbie terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103, as well as multiple terrorist bombings in the 1970s and 1980s in West Germany.

The effect of the United States military services is far too complex, for better or worse, to be even glossed over in a blog post. All one can do is mention them. The subject is far too complex probably for entire books to sort out. Despite the bad, there is still good, and I hope the people now wearing military service uniforms, and especially the people who continue to be deployed to Afghanistan, are as protected as they can be, that they make the best decisions possible, and even with the odds against this happening, that they all return safely home.

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.

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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.

1951 04 Apr dependents arriving in Europe

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.