Once a Brat, always a Brat.Posted: February 6, 2014
My mother made the dreaded phone call early on a Thursday.
“Your dad died this morning at six o’clock.”
I took it for granted that my father would be buried in Fort Sam Houston’s cemetery. I also assumed he would be buried in his uniform, so I was somewhat surprised that Mother had not laid out his dress blues, but a dark suit – a “civilian” suit.
“Mom,” I protested. “Don’t you think Dad should be buried in his uniform?”
“No,” she answered slowly, as if she were talking to a child. “Remember, your father had been retired much longer than he was in the Army.”
That was a shock almost worse than the news of my father’s death. A civilian longer than a U.S. Army officer? Well, I thought, that may be the truth, as my mother and father knew it, and to a large extent, the truth for my two younger brothers. But for my entire childhood, from 1938 until my second year in college in 1958, the truth was my father lived and breathed the US Military. Therefore, every moment of my first twenty years of life was dictated by the whims of the United States Army. Where I would live. Where I would go to school. What friends I would accumulate. What discipline I would attain, and what goals I would aspire to. From the sound of Reveille each morning to Retreat each evening, I was reminded of my station in life: I was a Military Brat.
I was always “different.” I was always the new kid in the classroom, the new kid on the block if we lived as “civilians” in town, the new kid in one of the cookie-cutter quarters in an endless series of military compounds.
I still choke up when the National Anthem is played, whether at a ballpark or concert. The strains of Sousa marches bring tears as I picture parades of uniformed men saluting as the flag passes. “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir” have not yet ceased to be an automatic part of my vocabulary. Merely climbing into a cab on a dark night in Chicago, the smell of fermented cabbage assaulting my nostrils caused me to blurt to the driver, “You’re from Korea, aren’t you?”
I saw the reflection of his white teeth in the rear-view mirror as he grinned, “Yah. How you know that?”
My one word reply: ”Kim Chi.”
The yearning to hear the Austrian/Bavarian phrase “Gruss Gott” bestowed on me whether entering or leaving a shop, or merely passing a native on the streets along the Danube River, will never leave me.
I will always cry at “Taps,” not so much as it reminds me of my father’s military funeral, but that it reminds me of my own lost childhood. “Taps” may as well have been sounded for me at my father’s retirement ceremony, for a unique part of me died, too: That part of me that reveled in being an officer’s daughter, with certain privileges of rank, along with that part of me that rebelled — in spirit at least — against the restrictions imposed upon me by that same privilege of rank: Officers’ kids must not misbehave, under any circumstances, as it reflects on your father’s career. Military Brats were as regimented as our fathers.
I cried in recognition when I read Pat Conroy’s foreword to Mary Edwards Wertsch’s book, Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood from Inside the Fortress. Like many other Brats, I have the uncanny ability to close a door and never look back. When I lost my house to a foreclosure some years ago, I felt strangely distant, uncaring, that the house I had purchased after a divorce, where I had lived for ten years as a newly-single woman, was no longer mine. I shut the door and turned the lock, got into my car and drove away. Without a tear. Never going back.
I can do the same with a job. Although I made friends easily in my jobs as a temporary secretary, when the time came for my departure, (orders) I gathered my few personal objects, bid my co-workers farewell, and walked out the door. A day or two later, I was in another place, with other people, and I had no time to mourn the prior loss.
Marriage suffered, as well. When I’m gone, I’m gone. No lingering goodbyes, regrets, longings for what could have been. It was over.
I will never know what it’s like to live in one town, in one house, for longer than a few years. I longed for that, some time ago, but now I wonder if the life I lived – a global nomad, in a sense – wasn’t the best kind of life for me. I gained an enormous appreciation for my country, my flag and all things patriotic.
I was somewhat bemused by the surge of patriotism displayed after 9-11-01. I confided to my Brat friends, “I don’t know what all the fuss is all about. After all, we were raised with all this.” I had long ago placed the “Proud to be a Military Brat” sticker on my car, and wore my pin just as proudly. Some people snickered at the word “Brat” on my lapel pin, while others flew to my pin as a moth to a flame. They understood; they were Military Brats. .
In civilian schools, I was way ahead of others, with the exception of math, which I understand is a common deficiency in many Military Brats. We were all studying fractions when our new school taught decimals. And vice versa. History, languages and geography were a snap, however. I gaped in astonishment when a high school student confused Austria with Australia and asked if I had a kangaroo.
Poor souls – having to live their entire lives in Killeen, Texas. They didn’t know the ecstasy of Bavaria in the summertime; concerts in the town square, the terror of knowing the enemy was right across the Danube River, or 38th Parallel, and could attack at any given moment — and they did, in the case of South Korea.
We were in Paris on June 25, 1950. At the news, Dad’s leave was cut short, and we hurried back to Dad’s base in Austria, our hearts thudding in fear that war would simultaneously erupt in Europe.
While we were in Korea, two years earlier, we had experienced problems with the Russians. They had control of our electricity above the 38th parallel. Now and then, as we watched a movie in a tent, the power suddenly went off. But we didn’t miss a beat – generators were cranked up, and the movie continued.
Homework was completed by kerosene lantern – “no electricity” was no excuse for not handing in our assignments. Not in a dependents’ school, no sir.
In Europe, we were obliged to keep a suitcase packed and under the bed, ready to evacuate and meet at pre-determined checkpoints, just in case — Pro-Communist May Day parades gave our teachers near heart attacks when we hung out our schoolroom windows and taunted the marchers for their squeaky shoes; we could hear them coming from blocks away. On those May Days, we rode home in an army bus with armed guards “riding shotgun,” listening to stones pounding the sides of the bus – only to hear a rumor that those weren’t stones… they were bullets. I doubt that was accurate and I’ll probably never know. Like other Brats aboard the bus, I found the possibility of being involved in an “international incident” both exciting and historic. Never concerned for my safety, I knew the Powers That Be would take good care of us Dependents.
Years after we had left Seoul, Korea, my father, who had returned after the Korean War to serve as Military Advisor to the ROK, sent pictures of our former quarters. Aerial strafing and bombings had pockmarked HQG27. All the windows were boarded up and South Korean soldiers were scavenging the hardwood floors for firewood. I looked at my bedroom window, thinking, “I played with my homemade dollhouse right there.”
I recall my father sweating the exquisite timing required for our drive from Linz to Vienna through the Russian Zone of Occupation, lest we be arrested for “spying.” It was difficult to keep my face expressionless as Russian guards peered intently at our “papers”—holding them upside down.
I sat under a huge tree near the Spanish Guard Tower on Donatusgasse, in Linz, Austria, looking over the Danube River into the Russian Zone of Occupation. Immediately upon arrival, my dad drilled into my head, “Don’t ever cross the bridge into the Russian Zone.”
Our fear, then, was of the Russians. Although we were able to see into the Russian Zone from our perch high on the hill overlooking the Danube, and realized they could also see us, we managed to co-exist.
I was to recall the edict: “Never cross the bridge over the Danube” years later, when, on a nostalgic return to Linz with my grown daughter, we took a wrong turn and actually crossed the Danube.
My reaction was knee-jerk, instantaneous, and highly vocal. “We can’t cross the river,” I gasped. My daughter and our friend Jennifer looked at me, startled. “I mean, we couldn’t do that when I lived here…”
Realizing how insane that must have sounded, my voice trailed off.
But I remained uneasy until Jennifer turned the jeep around, and we departed the Forbidden Russian Zone.
For the remainder of the afternoon, lest I suffer another trauma, we were careful not to drive over any bridge spanning the Beautiful Blue Danube.
Once a Brat, always a Brat.