The changing of schools and adjustments to varied types of environment at home and abroad seems to advance rather than retard the average “Army brat”…It is not unusual to hear a five-year-old rolling off such jawbreaking names as Zamboanga, Fontainbleau, Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden. Their geography is firsthand and their speech often has a little Japanese, French, German, or maybe Korean in it…They also know about earthquakes, typhoons, pythons, and perhaps a good bit about ambush and evasive tactics.
– The Army Wife (A semi-official manual of etiquette and household management published by Harper and Row.)
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – I grew up in another country – a place with its own heroes, songs and customs, even its own unlikely vegetation. Whether in scrub pine country or the middle of the Western plains, the Army posts where I lived were always the same lush green. The same shade trees protected well-watered lawns that were always trimmed to the height specified in the Post Rules and Regulations. The flag was lowered in the same “retreat” ceremony at the same time every evening.
Several years ago, on the stretch of California highway that bisects Ft. Ord, I heard a strangely familiar sound, as reassuring as a lullaby. It had been ten years since I had lived on an Army post, and I needed a moment to realize what it was: the distant boom of big guns, artillery practice.
All my childhood games were played against the background of that sound. It meant home, like the whitewashed rocks that lined the driveway to every official building, the Military Police sentries whose job it was to keep out all who didn’t belong, and the row on row of identical “quarters”, graduated in size according to the rank of the occupant.
My grandmother liked to infuriate my father by referring to life off-post as “the real world”. I came to share that point of view, and as soon as I reached college age I put Army life behind me. For years, I managed not to set foot on a military base, nor even, as far as I knew, to meet another grown-up military brat, though my friends constantly threatened to introduce me to one or another. Hearing artillery practice again awakened a flood of long-suppressed memories.
I have made a conscious effort since then to try to understand more about the environment in which I was raised, and I have sought out other people whose fathers were career servicemen. Like Landsmen in a foreign country, we tell stories and jokes that bewilder everybody else. “There is going to be a white-glove inspection of your room in ten minutes, young lady”, I whisper to a new acquaintance at a party and she dissolves with laughter.
But we share more than jokes. For example, everyone I have spoken to found the Vietnam War years especially painful, a time of divided loyalties, shame, and anger. Some tell of having concealed their background during those years; others recall feeling separated from their generation by the prevailing anti-war sentiment. Whatever our views, Vietnam forced all of us to face something we might have preferred to forget: war was what it was all about where we came from.
Small-town, stay-at-home cousins are a staple of military family mythology. Parents repeatedly invoke the presumed boredom of provincial existence to forestall children’s complaints about moving too much and to convince them of their own good fortune. “They’ve never been to San Francisco!” Nancy Conroy’s parents said of her cousins. “They have never even seen New York! Think of it!”
“When I was younger I was proud of being an Army brat and in some ways I still am. I was indoctrinated to be. When we lived at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, I remember thinking that once you left the post everything was ugly and awful. Oklahoma was dry and dusty and the post was as green as a golf course. I thought we were living in an oasis where all the nice people lived. I always liked the way the posts looked and I hated civilian towns because the houses were all different and it looked like they had just been thrown down randomly like a bunch of dice. Once my grandfather came to visit us at the post and he said, ‘Just look at those houses all in a row marching down the street like a regiment.’ I said, ‘Yeah, isn’t it wonderful!’ And he said he didn’t like it. ‘I don’t know how people can stand living in houses all alike.’ ‘But they’re neat.’ I said. I thought houses were supposed to all look the same.
“We were shut off from the civilian world but I thought I knew all about it from reading books. You know, those ‘teen-age books’ about people who lived in Maple Grove on Main Street. There was always a new girl in town: Susie’s Dad got transferred to Maple Grove when she was sixteen and it was all horrible and she cried for a whole year and had an awful time until finally someone asked her out and things got better after that. They made moving sound like a horrible experience. I thought those books were dumb and I thought people in small towns were dumb. When you moved from base to base kids were always ready to give you a chance, to see if they would like you. All of their friends were moving away so they had to. When someone new would move onto our street, my mother would say, ‘They have a girl your age; go over and introduce yourself.’ You were expected to be friendly to new people.
“A friend once told me that he had never asked girls out in high school because he was afraid of being rejected. That made me really angry. I thought, ‘Who the hell is he!’ The rest of us got rejected every day of every year but we’d just brave it out. It made me mad because I always felt I had to do it, whether that was my natural tendency or not. I thought allowing yourself to be shy was a real luxury.
“Even though I loved living on Army posts I always knew I’d have to leave when I grew up. I could never be an Army wife because I didn’t want to do all that hard stuff my mother did. She gave parties and she went to parties and she went to the Womens’ Club and she went to tea and she was a Gray Lady at the hospital. She had to do it to help Daddy. You had to look pretty in your cocktail dress and say nice things and made raggedy old clothes look new. You have to run things behind the scenes and be a gracious hostess and the food had to be right and the house had to be neat and the children had to be neat.
“When there were military ceremonies – and there were tons of them – I would always be taken dressed in a Sunday School dress and little patent leather shoes and white socks. I never understood why we had to go but the grandstands were always filled with women and children. I never paid much attention to what the ceremonies were for – they were just marching, men in khaki uniforms, just marching. It was always hot, and you stood up for this and you stood for that, and the flag went by and you sang the Star Spangled Banner and put your hand over your heart. You felt sort of proud; it was a feeling like people were supposed to get in church. I never get that feeling in church, but you hear people describe it: reverence. And in the grandstands, we were doing our bit. We had come out to respect it because it was worth respect.
“I remember there were wonderful holiday celebrations – Armed Forces Day was my favorite because everyone got to go out and play Army for a day. You could jump off the little tower with a parachute. You got to crawl in all the tents and look at all the equipment and crawl all over the tanks. The medics had this make-up and they’d put all these gruesome, bloody, gory scars all over the faces of the little boys. I always wondered about what place that had in Army training. Looking back on it, the whole thing seems weird – when you think about those guns being used to kill people. It’s kind of like morticians’ kids, it loses its mysticism somehow. You get used to it and don’t think about what it means. Nobody thought about what it meant. I only thought about what the Army meant very, very rarely. I thought about it more after Vietnam. I was embarrassed about being an Army kid. Daddy was retired by then, thank God. I can remember defending Vietnam in high school. There was another actress in a school play I was in who said, ‘Why are they bombing Hanoi?’ I didn’t know, but I figured if they were doing it, they needed to.”
In some families, being a child of the military is akin to being raised in the circus: one is expected to carry on the tradition. When Jack Cole attended military ceremonies as the son of an Army officer, he imagined himself a grown man rising in the ranks – first a lieutenant, then a captain. His subsequent brief, unhappy career at West Point left him ambivalent about his upbringing. He feels betrayed by the military mystique, but admits that “at the age of 41, I still doodle generals.”
“I went to West Point because it never occurred to me to do otherwise. It was always assumed. When I was three or four years old my father had a uniform made for me – a little regular Army uniform complete with Second Lieutenant’s bars and everything. There was even a little medal of some kind. I was the son of a graduate of the Military Academy Class of ’35 and if I got my timing down, I would be a graduate of the Academy 25 years to the day later.
“Indeed I did go to West Point. And stayed for 19 months. I decided relatively quickly after getting there that this was not my dish of tea. I didn’t mind so much the harassment you had to put up with. I didn’t quite understand why shining your shoes and cleaning your rifle and polishing your breastplate even on the inside where nobody could see it made an officer or a leader out of you. That’s what you had to do, so that’s what I did. But when we got to English literature and studied Hamlet in terms of whether he would have made a good platoon leader, I thought perhaps it was a waste of my time. And I pretty well concluded that if there was going to be another war, which was, after all, the only purpose of being in the Army, that it was going to be fought by a bunch of guys behind panels of buttons and there wasn’t much fun or glory in that.
“When I was a kid I thought what my father was doing was terribly important. I thought if the Army had any brains it would make him Chief of Staff. I kind of wished we had a war… then it would still be there when I got into it. But at West Point I felt a great disillusionment with the mission of the military. And then there was the developing notion that if we do have a war it isn’t going to be very interesting. There aren’t going to be any tanks rolling across the lines to Moscow. There won’t be any Moscow. There won’t be any Washington. They’ll all be incinerated, as will we. The whole thing is irrelevant – the notion of being a valiant leader of men leading a platoon into combat. And when you think about the politics of it! As recent events have demonstrated, we don’t have any business fighting against indigenous armies that are engaged in revolutions on their own soil.
“And by that time, I certainly knew that I didn’t want to spend thirty years in the peacetime Army. I had seen my father and other officers who were just about to go nuts with boredom. So I said ‘the hell with it, I’m going to college and law school and be a journalist or a politician. I told all this to my father and he said no. He wouldn’t sign the papers for me to leave. So I finally said, ‘Well I know what to do now, and that’s to flunk out.’ So I took the math exam and worked it backward. I managed to get the exam perfectly wrong, and that was how I finally left West Point. But I could never make anyone there understand that I really didn’t want to be a cadet or a Second Lieutenant or even a Lieutenant General. I was fed up with the whole thing. And I got mad about it. I got angry as a kid gets when he finds out there isn’t any Santa Claus or that the Virgin birth is a pleasant myth. You get put out with the people who told you that as a child and wanted you to grow up believing it.”
During the sixties, Denny Partridge became an expert in figuring out ways for her husband to avoid the draft. He managed one deferment after another – teaching, theological seminary – until finally he achieved Conscientious Objector status. These developments appalled Denny’s parents. The second child and eldest daughter in a family of six, Denny had grown up on a succession of Navy bases. Disagreements over the Vietnam war put severe strains on family unity. In one effort to convert her parents to her political views Denny sent them a copy of Soledad Brother for Christmas. While her older brother served in the military as a Public Information Officer at Da Nang, Denny joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a left theater whose work included plays against the war.
Denny still maintains a strong sense of family: a legacy, she believes, of the constant moving. “We had to depend on one another,” she says. “And even to this day, I basically feel that it’s my family against the world, no matter how many fights I’ve had with all of them.”
“We were the total Navy family. My mother came from a bourgeois southern family and my father from a pretty poor southern one. Both my parents had always wanted to leave the South, so the military was really their ticket out.
“When I was five my father went to Korea and we moved to San Diego. We lived in one of those horrible post-war housing projects where it was all just women and children for miles and miles. The project had just been built; there were no trees, and the schools were in trailers. It was really strange: There was an enormous influx of people from everywhere. And no men at all.
“For the next three years, from ’51 to ‘54, my father was away almost all the time. We moved back and forth from San Diego to San Vallejo, depending on where his ship came in. I knew he was at war and I thought he was going to die. My mother took us aside and said there’s a chance he won’t come back. I really liked my father a lot, but I don’t remember crying about it. I just remember some kind of attempt to be extremely brave.
“I do remember meeting his ship in San Diego as an incredible thrill, you know, this mob of women and babies… For all I know about the Korean War and for all I feel completely disgusted about it now, it was very thrilling at the time.
“I think one of the most lasting effects of growing up on military bases was on my attitude toward authority. I was always aware that my parents existed within this institution that could order them around. Even just the word ‘orders’ – that’s what they call it when you get your notification of where you’ll be moving next. They certainly don’t call it ‘suggestions.’
“I was always in trouble when I was a kid and I had a really terrible attitude toward authority. My mother saved all my report cards and they all go like: Reading ‘A’, Writing ‘A’, Geography ‘A’, Math ‘A’, Conduct ‘F’. They all had little notes saying things like: ‘It would be good if Denny could try a little bit harder to get along with other people.’ I really just didn’t give a shit about getting along with anybody. I trace it partly to all the moving. I still have a really terrible habit of burning bridges and making enemies that stems from those days of thinking, ‘Heh, I’m not going to be in this school next year so I can just tell the teacher ‘fuck you,’ which I did all the time. I always felt I could get away with the maximum because I had no stake. I could just pick up and go and start again. In every school I had problems. it would always happen toward the end of a time when I was living somewhere when I would have these horrible conflicts with teachers. But I always knew there was no lasting damage. Next year, new school.
“To this day, I don’t like the idea of taking orders from anybody on any level whatsoever. I’ve never been able to be a satisfactory employee; even the Mime Troupe was too much structure for me sometimes. And the ironic thing is that when I first joined the Mime Troupe and people found out my father was a military officer, everybody thought I was a cop. it was incredibly depressing to me to discover that.
“They took me because I have theater skills, but everybody was real suspicious. They didn’t think I could be a decent person. They couldn’t understand it.
“I felt really torn because I knew if I denounced my parents as reactionary then I’d be accepted. But I couldn’t. My brother was a lieutenant in Vietnam at the time. I was really afraid for him – I’d have dreams he was dead – and I hated it that he was there. I could have accepted it if he hadn’t liked it, but he really liked it … And then my parents would talk about him like he was this fucking saint! I was in a rage against my family all the time. But I wasn’t going to attack them and I didn’t want anybody else to attack them either.”
©1980 Ann Banks
Ann Banks is studying the Military Family on her APF fellowship.