A Prison of PerspectivePosted: July 17, 2011
By Iain McLellan Woessner
Growing up as a Military Brat offers you an unusual perspective on the world, at least for me.
You don’t have a hometown. Transient, dragged across the globe and country by invisible hands, orders given from a seemingly endless chain of command yanking you from the school and neighborhood you’ve spent hard years adjusting to, settling into. The friendships you made are gone. The people you met become memories, faces that will fade into a haze. Yet every place you go, every one of those often distant, often alien stations and bases and countries and towns that you find yourself in, they illuminate something.
The world is a very big place. Not on a cosmic scale, perhaps, but certainly big enough to defy the comprehension of any one person. You can’t hold on easily to prejudices or stereotypes, because you are inevitably exposed to cultures, lifestyles and points of view that you would never have known had you not been there. The sheer variety of human existence can be overwhelming. Your place in the world is established as being a very small one. Your father is not a superman, he’s just one cog in a big machine. His actions are dictated by men higher than he, and their actions dictated by even higher men. I understood that. It’s why I don’t like talking about being a Military Brat that much, though I—like most, I imagine—have plenty to say on the subject. I’m tempered by the consideration that my point of view is only one tiny shred of perspective, and I have only seen and experienced that tiny shred of a much larger existence.
This has helped me become objective in ways most cannot. I’m easily able to see both points of view, able to consider either side of an issue. I don’t see things in black and white, but shades of grey, growing darker or lighter. Despite my conceit and arrogance—traits that I’ve had to spend years and years developing, birthing my ego slowly over my 21 years of life—I understand that I am a very small, very unimportant person in the grand scheme of things. It’s comforting, in an odd way, and frustrating in a familiar one. I’ve been told that my life, my childhood, has lent me a “worldly” perspective, and I feel this is probably the greatest gift a military childhood can offer.
For all the heartache, all the pain, all the isolation that you endure, you come out of it in two ways: as an open-minded, even-handed individual, aware and cognizant of the greater world around you, or else you become indoctrinated completely into the only familiar thing you know, into that military machine that burns people and families as fuel. I said that you don’t have a hometown, but I suppose that’s not strictly true. Every military base, for all their individual quirks, every base is largely uniform. The houses are the same. The people are the same. The wives are the same, the children are the same—though even then, in hindsight, I could see the cracks in the psyches of my fellow Brats that deepened into scars and vicious vices. The military itself offers you everything a hometown could—familiarity, a set of morals and values, rituals and rites, and ultimately employment. You could surrender to it and become part of that machine so very easily.
I can’t stand the familiar. I’ve always been drawn to the strange or the otherworldly, to the exotic and distant. Yet now that I am finally away from my family, away from the insular yet endlessly open military world, I find myself desperate to cling to what little shreds of self-made identity I’ve made. Holding them close to me as though another current will drag me away from them. My friends, the ones I’ve made, the places I frequent, the apartment I live in—these are things that I could keep, that I can have, and they don’t have to be taken away in three years. I don’t have to leave, if I don’t want to.
It’s so liberating, and so terrifying. A part of me wants to run back to what I know, run back to a world of unbreakable rules, unshakable ethics. I wish I could know the world as black and white, I wish I could have been those who just embraced what they knew and what was drilled into them and go wherever the chain of command tells me. But I can’t. I have perspective now, and I know that there’s so much more to the world that I could never see as I was, where I was.
If I were to go back to the places I lived as a child, to Puerto Rico or Maryland or South Carolina, I feel that I’d see them in completely different ways. Every day, it seems, offers me something new that I had never known. It’s humbling—that I am a “worldly” person, yet I know nothing of the world. My ignorance is less than some, perhaps many if we’re cynical about it. It’s easy to by cynical, in a way—it’s a natural response to finding out just how little you know and how little you understand.
I would not trade my childhood for anything. Perhaps that’s just because I can’t think of anything to trade it with. There’s nothing of equal value to it, nothing that really strikes me as a fitting substitute. I can’t imagine myself living forever in one place. Even now, as I try my hardest to remain where I am, I feel it an inevitability that I will one day leave. In a way, I still don’t have any choice in that.
Yet now I can choose where my feet will take me. Now I have the opportunity to decide my life for myself. I feel at times my parents don’t understand that. My plight is familiar and understandable to them, but they don’t get the fear that I have. The fear that I will lose my independence again. The fear that I’ll be once again yanked from my life by forces beyond my control, and pitched to the wind like a tattered leaf, twisted this way and that, until I come to rest on some other lawn—similar to where I’d fallen before, but utterly foreign all the same. I can’t do it. I won’t do it.
There’s still so much more I have to see. Human existence is far too beautiful and tragic and vast not to be viewed from all angles. And as much as the military allowed me to see the world, allowed me to breathe the air of a foreign land and walk the beaches of a distant shore, it never offered me the opportunities to see as I have now. There’s a whole world I have yet to experience, and that alone—call it curiosity, call it destiny—but that yearning to expand my perspective, to understand more and more, to cull this ignorance that festers in me and in the hearts of all men—that is what lets me live. That’s what keeps me going.
I guess you could say I felt trapped. I still do, sadly. The bars are different now though. The prison offers a different view, and I feel like I can escape if I can just get my hands on the right tools or find the right loose stone. I’ll scramble through the walls and plunge off the edge, down a cliff and into the sea. And there I’ll swim, floundering for a time. I may drown, but I trust my arms will bear my weight. I trust I’ll know which way the current is going, and I’ll swim against it for as long as I can. Perhaps this time, perhaps now, I can break free, and then there will be nothing but horizon to hold me back.