The Long Journey Examining the Past: Heartache & Happiness

I wrote a humorous book a couple of years ago called ORLY. The title is slang for “Oh, Really”. That is what people say after they read the stories. I’ve lived a very full life and it has been filled with unusual events. Many of my readers are convinced that most of the stories are embellished or straight out fantasy. I have received many requests for an ORLY 2 but unless you know Oprah Winfrey personally, selling a book is next to impossible. When Circe Olson Woessner, a brat that is involved with the Museum of the American Family found out that I’m an author, she offered to share the book on her blog to see if maybe she could get some sales for me. At the same time, she asked me to write a little bit about my brat history to share with the Museum. She said they are looking to hear our voices. I’m disappointed that what I have written is a little bleak. I wish I could have been just a little bit more upbeat but my voice needed to be honest for the words to ring true. Here is my story.

I’m an Army Brat and have just started the long journey of facing the past. I’ve been reading about other military brats and our stories are all the same. The thing I find strange is that none of them would change their childhood. There are parts of mine that I remember fondly but, overall, what I remember from mine is one heartbreak after another.

My dad started out in the Infantry. This required him to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. He decided to be a pilot and qualified as a fixed wing aviator. He flew that monster plane– the Caribou I think– it was later sold to the Air Force. When Vietnam became a part of my dad’s life, he then decided that he would be of the most use to the soldiers as a helicopter pilot, so he went back to become a rotary wing pilot. He served two tours in Vietnam 66′, 67′ and then again 69′, 70′. He retired to Ft. Campbell, KY in the early 80’s and then died of a heart attack in 1985. We moved to 14 different places in those 17 years. I have counted 42 houses, because we would have temporary housing waiting for base housing. We would change towns close to the bases, for example, Manhattan, KS to Junction City, KS, waiting on base housing. There were also a lot of trailer parks during the times my dad would go back for training, and we’d be there 6 or 8 weeks and then go back to the base where we started. I don’t know how it is now but back then, if Dad was gone, the family was not allowed to stay on the base.  At least that’s what they told us.

I made the best out of every place we lived. I joined clubs, sports teams, and made amazing grades which is unbelievable since there was absolutely no continuation of my education from place to place. I immediately learned the local dialect so that I would “fit in”. I moved every Christmas for 15 years and in those 15 years we moved intermittently due to training or deployments. So not only was I in a new school every year, there were some years I would be in multiple schools. I also started school in January so all the friendships had already been established in August and I found myself repeatedly the double new kid on the block.

Proving myself became SOP. I was a point guard and that was my spot. Basketball probably saved me emotionally because I could count on having teammates. On base, there was no issue because those coaches knew you might be gone come morning so they played whoever was the best at the time. Off base coaches were another story. I became a very adept liar about my dad’s job situation because those off base coaches would sit you on the bench in a minute if you were a military kid, because you might not be there at the next practice.

I think I have started this train of thought because my kids went 4th grade through graduation with the same people and they are still friends with some of those people. I don’t understand. Now as brother and sister, they live in the same town and they are raising their children together- like meals and play dates with cousins??? What exactly is a cousin? They are going to school reunions. I don’t understand. As an adult, I feel very blessed with one child living a mile north of me and one child living a mile south of me.

I think what I want is just to find a few people from my past to validate that I lived. I have not one contact from any base. This was all before social media, and letters would start, but then they would always stop. What I would give if smart phones had happened sooner. From what I have been reading, I was a lucky one. My dad never scared me and my parents stayed together. My dad took immense pride in my successes and when I could beat him at free throws and outswim him, those were good times and celebrated.

My brother and sisters are spread out all over the country. With this writing, I hope to get some responses that will lead me to a place where brats meet online to talk about the fact that we did have a childhood. I have been married to the love of my life for 35 years but he is a civilian so he wonders about me. He is being very supportive of my dealing with this and he wants me to be more “settled”. This might not be the right place for this story and if not, I apologize and maybe someone could guide me to the appropriate place. Thanks for listening.

Heartbreaks

1st- When my dad was deployed to Vietnam twice- we were removed from base housing and had to move into civilian housing. We went to a small town in Illinois where my maternal grandparents lived. I went to first grade there and I loved my school, my teacher, and my friends. We left. I went back in 4th grade because my dad was once again in Vietnam and to my surprise everyone was still there. My friends, the school, were all the same. It was just like I never left. We left again. That was the first time I remember being distraught and the feelings of unfairness were overwhelming. I didn’t want to go. I was home. Then in the 7th grade my dad was sent somewhere else and we once again left base housing. I was furious. I had just tried out for cheerleader and out of 50 girls I was one of two chosen. I was a big deal for whatever that means being in 7th grade. Once again, we returned to that small town in Illinois and I was flabbergasted. They were all still there, I still remember Melanie, Susan, Judy, and Jane. For six weeks, I was in absolute heaven and then we left. I was able to return to base and finish the season but I had missed out on the biggest year of my life and been reminded once again that there really was a life out there where people stayed in houses and schools and there was family and lifelong friends. I wonder if Melanie, Susan, Judy, and Jane are still there????

2nd In 8th grade, my parents decided to go back to college to finish their degrees so we moved yet again to a civilian town where everyone else had been there since kindergarten and I was the new girl. I was called slut, whore, and everything else imaginable. It didn’t matter that I was still waiting for my first kiss. No one would speak to me. I tried out for cheerleader and of course I didn’t make it because I was a no one. One girl finally talked to me and she asked me to play basketball. I never looked back. Basketball was about skill, not who you knew. Get good enough and you played. In that year, there was a dance. Someone stepped up and asked me to go but then he didn’t show up to take me. The other students had bullied him into not taking me. I spent that whole year looking out a living room window wishing I was anywhere else. My biggest success of that year was making 1st Chair All-State Band with my trumpet and earning the right to perform in the Orange Bowl. I can tell you that 8th graders were not very welcomed by those in high school and to be 1st Chair even made me more unpopular but hey- being 2nd isn’t in the military brat vocabulary. I sold candles, candy, wrapping paper, and everything else I could sell. I was going to the Orange Bowl. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have one friend, I was going to the Orange Bowl. We moved. All that money I earned probably went to pay for someone else to go to the Orange Bowl. I am sure that 2nd Chair was very happy to see me go. I have never been so happy to leave anywhere. The good news was we were going back to a base and I would once again have friends.

A side note about this, I went to college in this same town and ended up dating a guy that had been in my 8th grade class. I didn’t remember him and he vaguely remembered me. That is the only time in my life that I had a contact from a past place I lived.

#3 11th grade. A miracle had occurred and I went to 10th grade and 11th grade at the same school. I was the starting point guard and we were an outstanding team. We looked good to make the state play offs. The University of Virginia was looking at me for their program. Great, graduate and go play for Virginia. Plans made and my life on track. I had a group of about 10 friends and we were inseparable. We were inducted into the National Honor Society as sophomores (That doesn’t happen.). We were all in advance courses and elected representatives of our classes. We all started on Varsity teams as sophomores. Then when we were juniors, we beat the seniors at every competition. The seniors hated us but we didn’t care. We had each other. Our letter jackets looked just like our father’s dress uniforms, highly decorated. I held a school record in the Mile. (Once again, 2nd not in my vocabulary.) I had never been so happy. I had never belonged anywhere since 7th grade. November came and the school handed out pamphlets for our class rings. I couldn’t wait to get home and make my choice. I knew that a basketball had to be on one side and my birthstone in the middle. I was so excited. My senior year was going to be outstanding. We were looking good to go to the state tournament and I was only getting better at track so I might be looking at two trips to state in one year in two different sports. When I showed the paper to my mom, I could tell on her face that we were moving. I can tell you things didn’t go well. I asked to move in with one of my friends and finish my senior year. I cried and had fits and couldn’t even function. I had to go back to school and act like nothing was wrong even though my whole world was falling apart. How was I going to tell my friends, my coaches? They were going to get to have their senior years, but I was doomed. In all those years, this was the only time I ever bucked my parents. They were stunned. I was abandoned. My mom was happy about the move because my dad was going to a base close to her hometown. I truly believe that she didn’t give a rats— about the fact that they were once again ruining my life. Not getting that senior ring, not getting that senior year ruined my life. To this day, that day was the worst day of my life. I should have recovered by now, but I don’t think I will.

When these brats say, they wouldn’t change their childhoods for anything, I guess I am a little jealous. They had to have faced the same things I did, what makes them strong enough to believe that all of that was okay. What do they have that I don’t that lets them be at peace? I am strong and resilient and I get back up after every blow. However, a sense of loss is tattooed to my soul.

Insights- those years of travel. I had one suitcase. Everything I owned would fit in that suitcase. I could have it ready to go in a couple of hours. It was red and black plaid. I used it as a child and I took it to summer camp with me as a junior. I guess it finally disintegrated.

One time in all those years, I had my own room. It was closet. I didn’t care. I had two sisters in the room with me for years and I had a new piece of heaven.

I didn’t complain or whine over moving because it is just what we did. I felt like it was my responsibility to make things easier for my mother. How sick is that?

I can remember being so afraid when I turned 21 and I no longer had a military ID. Not having that ID separated me from my younger brother and sister   s. They were still under the umbrella, I had been kicked out. That feeling is almost strong enough to make a person enlist. I did two years ROTC at college but when it came to signing the papers, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face 20 more years on the road with one suitcase.

Good things- we had no idea how ridiculously protected we were on base. It was fenced. There were guards and they were ON DUTY. Anyone that didn’t belong on base was not going to get on base. Everything we needed was right there. We had free medical, free vision, free braces, and all the entertainment anyone could want. My 7th grade year, that was when I had my own room, we ruled that base. The family went to bed and I went out the window. We roamed all night and went to the midnight movies. I can tell you I saw some horror movie stuff that probably still gives me nightmares but boy did we have fun. Looking back, I am going to assume that my parents knew and probably sent MPs to make sure we got where we were going. We did not do alcohol, drugs, nor did we have sex. We knew better. The freedom though to roam, those memories are ones I hope never to forget. That year one of my running buddies revolted, they sent her away. I could write to her but I was not allowed to know where she went. That might be why there was no rebellion from the children of military men because we didn’t want to get sent away. Her name was Charlotte.

I left Germany fluent in German. My only regret is that I did not get to see the Berlin Wall. That was part of the Cold War and it was too dangerous to have children of military personnel anywhere near the wall. I did walk in the Alps and saw the salt mines. I saw the ovens and felt the sheer terror of those camps. I fought my first bully there. I am not a fan of bullies. He was the son of a man that had a higher rank than my father, so that was a big no-no. However, he was terrorizing younger, smaller girls including me. I took him down. When the mom called to complain, the Army stepped in to help me because my mom just asked that mom if she was really reporting that her son had been beaten up by a girl. That would not have looked good on that father, so I skated. He never bothered us again. I also left Germany without my Barbies and without my comics because the movers were thieves. Since that was pretty much my only toys. I ended up in Georgia with my suitcase and nothing else. I was so angry over that loss- I gave up on dolls all together. We had Christmas on boxes again and I am sure that I received a new Barbie but I can’t remember that. I remember that I had the meanest teacher ever and she mistreated me horribly. She put me in all the “slow” groups because I had missed the first of the year so I couldn’t possibly catch up or be normal. The deal was I could read at a higher level than she could and this disturbed her terribly. Our house had a pool and if I cleaned it, my parents would fill it. I worked my butt off and I had a pool. There were mulberry trees in the yard and my brother and I would eat mulberries until we were sick and our fingers were stained beyond cleaning.

Our last move was to my husband’s hometown. When I moved in, he ignored me. There were 25 in my graduating class so it isn’t like he didn’t notice the new girl. We met on a blind date six years later and married in a month. I have asked him over the years why he went out of his way to deny my existence. He claims that it was weird us moving in there like that. He says it was just too complicated to reach out to me.

My children were raised in close to the same disciplinary way that I was. They say yes ma’am and no ma’am. I think that is just polite. We did answer the phone formally and politely. They are both very successful in their fields, they are married and each have a child. They own their homes, mow their yards, and they are good neighbors. I feel like we did a great job parenting with a few mistakes but I believe they know they are loved and always have been.

I’ve been in the same town now for 19 years- I constantly fight the itch to go. This seems to be consistent among the brats. I guess it is habit??? Fortunately, my husband and I can travel multiple times a year and that soothes the itch.

I continue to find out things about brats in common. We either hoard or empty out, there seems to be no middle ground. We all want to travel. If we are in a house for a long time then the furniture changes frequently, and there is a project going on all the time. (Maybe that gives us the sense of a new place.) I have been on a 2-year empty cycle and my house is now magazine pretty. If I get unsettled about something, I clean out a drawer. Many of us have sought counseling for attachment issues or maybe unattachment issues would be a better word. I have not done this because anyone who wasn’t a military brat couldn’t possibly understand and if they were a military brat, then they are just like me and how could they possibly help me?

Finding the military brat Facebook pages has been wonderful. We share a common sense of humor and the topics that are picked to discuss are always central to how we lived. I have learned that there really isn’t anything wrong with me, I am a product of my upbringing. I am not wrong. I am unique. That’s okay.

I don’t blame my parents or the Army for my life. My parents had to go where the Army said and the Army needed my dad at specific places. The emotional shredding that I experienced was just a part of the life. I support the American military completely. Without those that were and are willing to sacrifice everything, America would not be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I have a terrible lack of self-esteem which is crazy because everything I do has to be done at or near perfection. No matter how many awards I win, I still feel that I need to be doing better.

On Mother’s Day, this year my husband surprised me with a dandelion necklace. That means he’s been researching. My daughter gave me a copy of Military Brats.

On Sundays, we attend church together and all sit on the same pew. I feel like the universe is trying to restore some of what was taken from me. I’m glad that the overall view of brats is one of pride for what we survived. Most seem to even have enjoyed the life style and want to do it all over again. Each of us is different. I think I needed roots.

I decided very early that I would not do to my children what had been done to me. We moved them twice for promotions, but after that, I balked and we haven’t moved again. My husband asked me what happens if he gets transferred again, and I told him I would miss him.

How am I now? I am not addicted to anything. I am healthy. I work part time and take care of the grandkids part time. I still wonder about home. Where are you from still sends me into spirals. I belong to everywhere. I have friends that would come and get me, if I was stranded anywhere. I have been coaching various sports for 40 years so I am very community minded. I feel like I have made a difference in the lives of hundreds of players and I am still in communication with many of them. I live every day the best I can doing whatever I can for anyone that needs anything.

I want to thank all the members of the Facebook pages that have helped me so tremendously by allowing me to share my stories, feelings, and hopes. I wish I had started the journey a little sooner but later is better than never. I walked around for about 40 years with a feeling that something was off, wondering why I was different. I functioned and did all I was supposed to do. I didn’t fit anywhere and couldn’t find home. Recently those feelings have diminished. Where I live now is home and hopefully I’ve started some roots for my grandchildren.

Blessings to all the former and current military brats. I want them all to understand far more quickly than I did that we are an exclusive group. I hope they all take the time to search for something that will help them on their journey home.

Lisa Ann Johnston Winfrey, author of ORLY

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