Army Brat

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

December 2005By Comments

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 desegregated in 1948, putting it far ahead of the rest of the country when it came to race relations. Black, brown, and white served together, sometimes under black and brown officers. Almost all of my classes were racially mixed, and for the most part, everyone got along. And as structured as life on the post could be, it usually wasn’t that hard to get out in the world or just run wild. Some posts, like Fort Sam Houston, were wide-open; two main San Antonio roads, Harry Wurzbach Road and New Braunfels Avenue, cut through it. Fort Shafter, in Hawaii, was different, with a barbed-wire fence around it and armed guards at the gates. At night my friends and I would take off our clothes and run naked on the post golf course, flying in the breeze and yelling at the locals on the other side. It’s true; we really were brats.

As a boy, I loved playing Army with plastic guns, going on search-and-destroy missions through the neighborhood, hiding in trees, and killing and being killed by my friends. Our heroes were Medal of Honor winners—not just obvious ones like Audie Murphy but those we’d read about who had rolled over onto grenades that had been thrown into their foxholes. One guy, I remember, rolled over onto two. We were surrounded by the artifacts of war. Tanks, planes, cannons, and helicopters sat on corners or in fields, where soldiers would hold parades and drills. Once, at Fort Benning, in Georgia, I walked through the small parking lot behind our house and found a bag of bullets sitting against a curb. It wasn’t that big a deal, really. Everywhere you looked, you saw soldiers in uniform, walking to class or the PX or just standing around talking. The dead were everywhere too. When we first lived on Fort Sam Houston, in 1966, we’d take buses to the elementary school, which was in the rural eastern part of the post, and we’d pass the perfect rows of marble headstones in the national cemetery—veterans of World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. Seven years later, when we lived there a second time, we’d take buses to Robert G. Cole High School a little farther out, and we couldn’t help but notice that there were a lot more graves.

We followed my father, who got the orders, but my mother, like a lot of Army wives, kept the family together. She was the organizer, the cheerleader. At dinner she used to say how much she liked the Army life. We got free medical care, our rent was low, and everything at the PX and the commissary was a bargain. We kids were getting to see the world, she would insist, and we were becoming resilient little people, adapting to each place. My mom loved the sense of community on posts. That first night in a new house, someone would always bring over milk, beer, and food. We were all in this together, even if, as it seemed in the sixties, everyone else was against us.

MORE THAN ANYTHING, we hated the moves, the long drives in a hot car with squabbling siblings and impatient parents, then getting to the new post and having to be the new kid all over again at the new school. And then eventually having to say good-bye to all that: your best friend, your life. When we left Fort Monroe, Virginia, I remember my five-year-old sister Betsy screaming and crying as we drove away. Her two little friends, who were standing with their mother in front of the house we were leaving, were bawling too. It was as if someone had died. My youngest sister, Jenny, thought every time we moved that she’d never have another friend again. She would, though. Moving meant we got to start all over again with a clean slate. New friends, new life.

And then would come the reminders of what our mutual mission was, where we lived, what our father did for a living. Once, my church youth group went to Brooke Army Medical Center, the post hospital on Fort Sam, to sing Christmas carols. There were maybe fifteen of us, mostly kids between ten and sixteen years old. Everything went fine until we got to the burn unit. We walked in and were shocked by what we saw: men with no skin and no faces. We stood mute for thirty seconds, except for a couple of the younger girls, who started crying. Finally, a doctor realized what was going on, angrily rushed toward us, and yelled, “Sing!” We stumbled into a carol, looking down at our shoes.

My mom got her first taste of the extremes of Army life back in October 1962, after President Kennedy had ordered Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to get his missiles out of Cuba. We were living at Fort Benning, within range of the missiles, and Mom was eight months pregnant with Betsy. Dad got orders to get on a plane, which he did. He didn’t say where he was going (a naval base near Norfolk, Virginia, where an invasion force was being put together and he was to be the head surgeon), and my mom knew not to ask. She went to our neighbor, who had seven children, to see if, when the time came, the neighbor would deliver her baby in the basement if the missiles were flying and Dad wasn’t home yet. He came back three weeks later.

The first time it penetrated my skull just what Dad did was in early 1968, when he was in Vietnam and the Vietcong launched the Tet offensive, sending tens of thousands of soldiers to try and kill him. He was in General Westmoreland’s headquarters in Saigon, ground zero for much of the carnage, and he wound up sleeping on the floor of his office for two weeks. I remember seeing TV news footage of the street fighting and photos of dead American Embassy guards in the pages of a magazine. They weren’t playing Army with their friends. A couple years later, the war was really going badly (Tet had been the turning point), and even we brats knew it. Dad would kiss me good-night each time he had to return to Vietnam, and I’d lie in bed crying as quietly as I could, certain I’d never see him again.

But he made it, and his next assignment, his last, was probably everyone in the family’s favorite: Fort Sam Houston. We loved our house, a huge old mansion, and Dad was the commanding officer of the Brooke Army Medical Center for a year. Fort Sam was also where I came of age—first girlfriend, first rock band, first writing. It was the place where I actually got some of my bearings. This October I returned. I was on something of a quest: Can an Army brat go home again?

THE ANSWER, OF COURSE, is no. At Fort Sam, not only can you not go home again, you may not even be able to get in the gate. The main San Antonio streets that used to run through the post don’t anymore, not since September 11, and all the entrances are armed by guards in blue uniforms. I had to enter at Walters Gate, one of the few that let visitors in. I drove through and was immediately lost in all the new pavement and concrete barriers. It took five minutes to get oriented. Finally I saw the old theater, where I’d watched so many movies so many years ago, and headed in its direction. It was closed, and a sign out front read, “No unscheduled usage.” I drove across MacArthur Parade Field on New Braunfels Avenue; now its traffic lights were wrapped in tarp, and the “Fort Sam Houston” arched gate was closed. I drove past the Officers Club pool, where I’d spent endless summer days talking to pretty girls and where one June 1975 night I’d streaked a cocktail party. The pool had been filled in and was now an empty field. Just down the street was my first girlfriend’s house, my favorite building in 1975. But all the houses had the same shape, white facade, and red-tile roof, and I couldn’t figure out which one it was.

I kept coming to dead ends, roads that used to go somewhere but now were blocked off. I drove toward the high school, past my friend Eddie’s house, where my first band had rehearsed. It and the whole neighborhood was in the process of being demolished; huge piles of bricks lay everywhere. I drove through the rural area of the post, past Salado Creek, where my dad taught me to drive, and saw signs posted saying, “Training Area 10A—Off Limits.” I passed the elementary school where I’d gone to third grade forty years ago, and soon the gravestones of the national cemetery appeared on the left, where I knew they’d be. But now the field across the street, which used to be vacant, was full of headstones. I turned toward my old high school, half a mile away, and the rows of graves went all the way down, stopping right across the street. This was the field my sister Sue used to ride her horse in, the field where my friend Brenda, drunk for the very first time in her life, ran screaming into the darkness one night in the spring of 1975, making us chase her down.

I drove to the house we’d lived in for three years, which looked exactly the same, down to the lead-based white paint, which was peeling off the porch. The sign on the front door read, “Ltc. Brown.” David was a surgeon in his early forties, about to ship out to Afghanistan; his wife, Susan, seemed to be the same age, a friendly Tennessee girl turned Army wife. The Halls had raised five kids here, the Browns four. They had been stationed in Hawaii too, and also at Fort Benning. Susan showed me a painting of their house there, and it looked exactly like ours. She loved the Army life, she said, how everyone knows everyone else—even the guards at the gates—and she loved this house and the neighborhood. Until recently, when someone had stolen a neighbor’s bike, she had left the doors unlocked, and she told me the neighbor kids were always coming and going, sometimes knocking, sometimes not. Susan reminded me of my mother, cheerful and optimistic, yet she was five years younger than I. And she kept calling me sir.

She gave me a tour of the house. The two huge front rooms seemed even bigger than before, but the kitchen was the same and so were the porches. My old room was now their daughter Emma’s. Where her bed was, my desk had been, and her desk was where my bureau used to be. A poster with cats was on the wall where my poster of Bart Starr once was. I thought about how many other posters had been on these walls, the dozen or so kids whose room this had been between me and Emma. It didn’t belong to any of us. It belonged to the U.S. Army.

Lieutenant Colonel Brown seemed uninterested in my quest until I told him my father had been both a battalion surgeon and a corps surgeon. This impressed him. “A corps surgeon, huh?” he said, and I told him some of what I knew of my father’s combat experience. When I left, I wished him luck in Afghanistan. “Tell your father hello,” he said, “from one battlefield surgeon to another.”

WHEN I WAS A KID, my dad was a hero to me for the medals he won in the field: one Purple Heart, two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars (with V for “valor”), among others. Later I thought he was one for staying in the Army because he thought it was the right thing to do, even though he could have made a lot of money and been a lot more comfortable in private practice. Now I’m just grateful he never pressured me to join up, something I, like him, never wanted to do. I went to college and tried as many careers as I could: journalism, law, making sandwiches, waiting tables, pouring beer, playing rock and roll, fixing computers, and, finally, journalism again. It turns out that my upbringing gave me some handy tools, like the illusion that I could keep reinventing myself. Plus, all those times getting thrown into new situations with total strangers helped me learn to size people up pretty quickly, and I can talk to anyone anywhere anytime. Long drives don’t bother me at all. And I can be ready to go at a moment’s notice.

There are worse things than being unable to explain yourself or having a rambling childhood. You adapt. You learn. In Austin I lived in sixteen houses before I finally bought one, married, and had a son. He’s two now, and at his age I had already moved three times and was living in Mytchett, England. I take him for walks along the nearby creek and point out the water bugs and the bushes growing out of the banks. He’s seen the leaves of our backyard pear tree change twice now, and he’s helped me clean the grave of Banjo, the cat who used to sit next to him when he nursed but died before he turned one. The neighbors tell me how much he’s grown, and I hope they get to see him streak naked around Little Stacy Pool. Someday, he’ll probably hate his parents, his trendy South Austin neighborhood, even the city itself. But he’s never going to be puzzled about where he’s from.

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