Basic Training

Senior editor Michael Hall on being a military child, growing up on a base, and starting over.

texasmonthly.com: Do you feel that you missed out on anything that children raised outside of the military would normally experience and probably take for granted? Or do you feel that you had an advantage over civilian kids?

Michael Hall: When we were growing up we never thought we were missing out on anything, especially in places like Hawaii. But later, yes, we wished we had grown up in a place where everyone knew our names, where we got to know our teachers, and where we had longtime friends. I’m sure plenty of civilian kids would have loved to travel and get to start over again in a new town every year. The grass is always greener on the other side of the country.

texasmonthly.com: After seeing TV footage of the Vietnam War, as your father was right in the middle of the Tet offensive, you realized that the soldiers “weren’t playing Army with their friends.” How did this realization affect you and the normal Hall family dynamic?

MH: Both my parents were pretty good at shielding us from the realities of being children of a soldier—thank God. My mom probably prepared us pretty well for what we were seeing on TV back then. If we had known the truth, we’d have gone crazy. Army wives were real heroes too—my mom knew all about the crises in Vietnam and Cuba, yet she kept up the veneer of calm while she went about the normal day-to-day crises of raising a family.

texasmonthly.com: Did you or any of your family members ever experience a confrontation with those outside of the armed forces, perhaps someone protesting the Vietnam War, or heatedly asking you why your dad was involved in such a thing?

MH: We never saw too much from the hippies. Actually, the worst experience with people in the real world was in 1962, when we were on our way from Arizona, where my grandmother lived, to Fort Benning, when we stopped for gas one night in rural Mississippi. James Meredith had recently been escorted into the University of Mississippi by federal marshals, and the Army was helping enforce integration throughout the South. We had an Army sticker on our car that also said my father was an officer. While Mom took my sister and me to the bathroom, Dad filled up the car, paid, then handed the credit card back to the attendant telling him we had been undercharged. The man looked so angry my father thought he was about to lose control. As a group of men watched from a bench in front of the station, the attendant took the credit card, threw it into the dirt, and spit out, “No Army officer is going to tell me I’m wrong.” About then we returned from the bathroom, and my father ordered us quickly into the car, picked up the card, and got the hell out of there. He later said that in all his years in combat, he’d never been so frightened for his life—he thought they were going to kill us all.

texasmonthly.com: You mention that the Army experienced desegregation before most of the rest of the country. In spite of that, was there ever resentment of minority officers or racism present on bases?

MH: I never saw it, but I’m sure it existed—a lot of privates were real crackers.

texasmonthly.com: Did all the ceremony and tradition that the Army practices affect you in a permanent way? Do you feel particularly patriotic or, if not, particularly unpatriotic?

MH: It’s funny, I’m pretty liberal in most things. I also think I’m a true-blue patriot; I’m just not a hawk. I’m glad the U.S. has a big, well-armed military, but I don’t think we should be using it like we’re using it now in Iraq.

texasmonthly.com: Do you feel a connection with those serving in the Army today? How do you think the closures and paring down of many Army bases around the country earlier this year will affect the families who live there?

MH: I don’t feel much of a connection to Army people on the posts, just because it’s such a different, closed world there and I almost never go there anyway (except for Texas Monthly stories—two this year). But every time I hear a story on the radio about returning soldiers, I’m transfixed: How are they dealing with the war? How are these guys going to become civilians?

texasmonthly.com: What was it like to visit the family that is now living in your old house in Fort Sam Houston?

MH: I was nervous—I felt like I was invading their privacy, yet I also felt that, since this was at one point my home, I should be able to come in and see it. They were nice people. She reminded me of my mother, which was really weird, since she kept calling me “Sir.”

texasmonthly.com: What brought you to Austin (or Texas) as an adult, and what made you want to put roots down?

MH: I went to UT-Austin and after graduating decided to stay. Austin has always been a friendly place to young people who didn’t know what the hell they were doing with their lives, and it was a good place to gradually figure that out.

texasmonthly.com: Do you consider yourself a Texan?

MH: Oh, yeah. I’ve lived here 30 of 48 years, which is a good high percentage. Plus over the past 15 or so years, I’ve discovered Texas in a way I never discovered other places I lived. There are parts of the state I’ve visited so much I feel like I’ve known them my whole life—Alpine in West Texas, Caddo Lake in the northeast, the Hill Country around Llano. I think I’ve finally developed a sense of place, something I never had growing up.

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