Army Brat

With a father in the military, the question was never where we were from but where we were going next.

FOR VARIOUS GOOD REASONS, I’ve always hated the question “Where are you from?” My first two replies are usually “Everywhere,” which is clearly false, and then “Nowhere,” which has some truth to it. A third answer, the one I always end up giving, is “Well, I was born at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina,” which doesn’t really tell you where I’m from, since I lived there only three months. Then I’ll say, “My dad was in the Army.” But that doesn’t work either. How can you be from a large, land-based fighting force?

I’m not the only one with this problem. Many military brats—children of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—are also rendered dumb by a simple question. Our fathers, in the infinite wisdom of their Armed Forces masters, were transferred from post to post (or, in the Navy and Air Force, base to base), sometimes after three years, sometimes after three months. We brats learned long ago not to think too much about where we were from. The important question was, Where are we going next?

My father, Robert Hall, was an Army doctor, born in Spring Ranch, Nebraska, and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he dreamed of being an orchestra conductor. He joined the Army out of Harvard Medical School in 1943, fought in the Good War and then seven years later in the Forgotten War (Korea, remember?). Afterward, he met and married my mother, Jane Carroll, who had been born and raised in Oswego, New York, and had gone to Cornell University. Dad was a lieutenant colonel when I was born, in 1957, at Fort Bragg, where he was jumping out of airplanes as the corps surgeon with the 18th Airborne. Then came Pensacola, Chapel Hill (where my sister Sue was born), England…and, for the next thirteen years, posts in Germany, Georgia (sister Betsy), Virginia (brother Tom), Texas, and, while my dad was in Vietnam, Hawaii (sister Jenny). By 1972, when we landed for our second stint at San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston, just in time for my sophomore year of high school, I had lived in fourteen houses and gone to eight schools. I’d caught fish off our front-yard dock from the Chesapeake Bay, and I’d fled from an actual German shepherd in Darmstadt, Germany. I’d played in the red clay of Georgia and the black sand of Punalu’u Beach. I’d been to the top of Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and I’d seen the Grand Canyon four times on our numerous cross-country drives in a giant unair-conditioned Plymouth station wagon. But I wasn’t from anywhere.

Like many of my fellow Army brats, I put down roots in the first place I settled as an adult, Austin. Years later, I found myself making a living as a journalist. A Texas writer. I read the classic Goodbye to a River and underlined the passage in which John Graves writes that if a man “wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tries to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink in his pen.” Great. I had no sense of place, no connection to the dirt or the horizon above it or the people on it, no weird neighbors or longtime boyhood friends who’d given me hell every time I’d done something stupid. Places, yeah, I had plenty of those, some I’d even lived in long enough to see the leaves change.

Growing up Army was like growing up in small-town America, on the well-armed, highly scrubbed side of the tracks. On every post there was a theater (where movies cost a quarter in the seventies), a bowling alley, a youth center, a library, a club for officers and one for NCOs, each with a pool. At the post exchange you could get cheap jeans and records and at the commissary, cheap hamburger meat and milk. At the post chapel, under one roof, you could go to Catholic Mass, Protestant worship, or Jewish services. Enlisted men and their families lived on one side of the post in small, uniform bungalows; officers and their families lived on the other, in larger homes that also looked alike.

The Army is all about order, conformity, and discipline, and much of daily life was too. Children said “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” men opened doors for women, privates saluted colonels, and yards were kept well trimmed. So was my hair, no matter how much I protested. (It was the sixties out there, but in here, on the post, it was the Army.) The generals may have given the orders, but the clock controlled everyone. Each morning at six, no matter if we were in Hawaii or Texas, the bugle would play reveille from loudspeakers somewhere on the post, and the enlisted men in their barracks would get up for their day, and officers like my Dad would go to their jobs at the office. Civilians who worked at the PX or the commissary would drive to the post. We’d catch a bus for school and roll by the privates doing their jody calls with the sergeants calling cadence:

“Sound off!”

“One, two!”

“Sound off!”

“Three, four!”

“Sound off one, two, one, two…three, four!”

At five on workdays a cannon would fire, and all life would halt—cars would stop and drivers get out, soldiers at the motor pool working on trucks would cease, kids would put the baseball in the glove. Everyone would face the direction of the post’s main flag, which was taken down to the tune of retreat, played by a bugle over the same speakers. Soldiers in uniform would stand at attention and salute, while everyone else would stand and maybe put their hands over their hearts. It was ritual, like standing for the National Anthem before ball games. At eleven, taps would play. Lights out.

Yes, the Army was a rigid, authoritarian class society. But it had its bright spots too. The military had been

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