Memories of an Army bratPosted: February 19, 2019
Life is a bit funny, and sometimes, in the here and now we wonder how we got here. We’ve been told we should not dwell on the past, but we should not forget it either. Things that take me back into my childhood, are memories of food and playthings—things that are a big part of any child’s life. I don’t remember much about my early years. But, I do remember that while in Okinawa, my brother got caught outside during a typhoon and was hanging on for dear life to the screen door… I remember that I had learned to tie my shoes at around then, and I went to my first sleep over…and I’d left it early. The one thing I remember about TV programs was the opening to the horror shows. What it showed was from the knees down… a Japanese solider from WWII stumbling into the TV station at night, walking around and coming upon a lone station employee– the employee jumped with fright– and that’s where it had cut off. Any other memories from that time period, I need to use pictures and family stories to remind me..
Moving to Berlin on Pan-Am…I do remember the flight being empty, because I got to sleep in the middle aisle; at that age, I don’t know if it was a normal civilian flight or one chartered for the military. When we finally got to Berlin, and our father got us to our apartment, he did have some little gifts for us. I got some comics. My bedroom was bare– I only had a desk, a nightstand, a bed with a bookcase-type headboard.
This was the first time I didn’t have to share a room with my brother and I was a bit happy with that.
The thing about that little headboard: I kept my radio and a few other items there, like these little glo- in the-dark plaques. I would charge those plaques and any other glow-in-the-dark items I had, just before bed time and then set them up to be my little night light. My radio was tuned to the only radio station I could understand—AFN. Around my bed time, they would play songs from the 50’s and 60’s.
The thing about living in certain places as a child, is you don’t realize the history of the place, or the importance it played during history. All I knew is that the East Germans had built a wall and that the Allies had to fight to hold on to the west. To me, it really didn’t make much of an impact. I was still going to school, I was still making friends and playing.
The playground had this circular sandbox; I remember me and my friends would dig as far down as we could, and then we would build these little landscapes for our matchbox cars. Then there were the swing set– it was placed right in front of this huge tree, and as kid do, we’d see who could get the highest, then we would see who could jump out of the swing and go the furthest, and if you were brave enough, you would take the swing right in front of the tree and jump. I guess as a kid we were using physics and did not know it. Because, as we learned, if you jumped at a certain point of the arc of the swing, you could get more height and distance (funny how we learn something early in life through play, but when we get older, we forget that we had used the things we were learning in high school as a child.)
There was an ice cream truck, but the difference it was a German-run truck, so we would have to go ask for Deutsch Marks. My favorite ice cream was kind of a soft serve in a cookie type-shell shaped like a clam. We had a convenience store that was run by the PX. I would be sent there, for things like bread, eggs and milk. Yes, one time my dad sent me there to get some cigarettes, and when I couldn’t get them, I got disappointed. So to try to make it up, I attempted to buy him a six pack.
Sticking with the food theme, at the ball fields, there was a snack stand that served different snacks, and what I remember most was the cooking of the hamburgers and the way they tasted. When I am around snack stands like that, I always wish I could recapture that smell and taste from my childhood, but no such luck. I also remember getting treats that seemed to be uniquely German, such things like Nutella, Capri Sonne juice pouches. When we got back to the states, I was a bit sad that those products had not made it to the states. To this day, I cannot replicate the taste of Nutella spread on a brotchen; having it on white bread just cannot compare.
The one thing that I was introduced to was the volksfest, a carnival, with the rides, games and food. Bratwurst made in America just can’t compare to those in Germany. The one taste that didn’t stick with me was that of frog’s legs. We went to a volksfest in the French section and some of the stuff was the same, but when it came to the food, well it was all new to me. I remember I was asked if I wanted to try frog’s legs and I did. I think I liked it, but it was a onetime thing, so only the memory of eating them stuck with me, along with my first taste of crepes. I had those a couple times and I remember them being sweet.
The mid to late 70’s was kind of a breakout year for certain things, and the big one was soft bubble gum, I think it was either Hubba Bubba or Bubblicious. I remember going to the little PX store that was located within the main PX complex and buying 4 or 5 packs because it always seemed to be sold out. My parents thought I was old enough to ride the bus to and from the PX, and so I would go every so often. I had a radio that I would carry with me. I had this strap, and one thing I did was to collect key chains and attach them to the strap, I even put the pins I got while in the Webelo’s ( and I still have that sling) and sling it over my shoulder and so when I waited for the bus, I would turn the radio on and listen–no I didn’t have headphones, so everyone got to enjoy the music. I remember sitting at the PX bus stop and these soldiers walked and they made positive comments about me carrying the radio.
So, while Berlin was a walled city in the middle of Soviet controlled lands, life just went on as normal. So normal, that I learned impatient drivers are the same, no matter where in the world you went. Once, I was getting off the school bus, and like we had been told, we had to walk in front of the bus. One day I was just didn’t do it and bam, a German lady who just didn’t want to wait, slipped around the bus. That was the first and only time I was hit by a car while walking. (I have been in a few accidents while in a car though.) Nothing was broken in that long-ago accident, but unlike in America, I don’t think we sued the driver or got any kind of compensation for the injury.
Now one of the sad things that kind of happened, my dad got promoted (that part was not sad), and with that promotion came new living quarters– a two-story house with our own back yard. The downside was that I went back to sharing a room with my brother, but at least I got the top bunk. So, we had to move to another part of the American controlled part of the city. I had to leave my friends behind, and yes, I saw them at school, but other than, that I had to make new friends. I don’t think I really made new friends. This new housing area didn’t have a playground, so I had to do other things, mostly I just rode my 3-speed bike around the area. Now the thing about this area, was that it was largely a regular German neighborhood, and so really, we didn’t interact with the kids there.
One of the things the military tried to keep things normal for American kids was to have American sports, and so I played baseball. My dad coached T-ball. I was not an outstanding player, but I kept trying, even when we got back to the States. I played a couple years of soccer, and that I was pretty good at that. I played fullback. My coach said I was pretty aggressive at that spot, but since it was not that much of a sport in the States, I never played it again once we left Berlin.
The problem I had as a student is that I kept getting into trouble at school, so I spent a lot of time in the vice-principal’s office. The reason this was a problem for me was that my father was the community health nurse and he worked with the school nurses. He knew when I got into trouble, but I never learned my lesson and kept getting into trouble.
As for the toys in my life, only a few stood out. One of my hobbies was collecting Smurf figures. As a kid, I did not know that this was at the time a European thing. I remember going to a toy store just to see what new ones they got in. I know I also collected matchbox cars early on, when we moved to the new house, I really didn’t have anyone to play with, so I stopped collecting those.
I remember going shopping with my mom in stores that sold general merchandise. They would keep their doors open, and when we walked in, there was a strong flow of air, in the summer it was cooled and in winter, it was heated. I don’t remember the grocery stores having that feature. I do know that when we went to a German grocery store, it was a special treat, so we would always bug mom to get things we didn’t get at the commissary.
Now being an army brat was both a blessing and a curse. The curse is I didn’t have a hometown there was no place with roots that I could go back to. I never made lifelong friends, and the friends I did make, would change every couple years as their parents were reassigned. When asked where I am from, I tell them I grew up as a brat living around the world. The person asking would say that had to be cool, and it was, but I’d explain that I never had that hometown and lifelong friends they have.
The blessing is that I counted myself a citizen of the world. I could adjust to new environments easily, but making friends– that’s another story.
The thing about being in Berlin, my dad would take three weeks of leave and we would travel to new and different places, some that have faded from memory and others just because of what they stood for stand out in my memory. Today, a few of those places just wouldn’t be safe for an American to visit. As a kid some of those places were cool to say, hey I got to go there, but I really didn’t appreciate the significance of these places and would love to go back and revisit, and now with the internet, I can research some of these places and just realize how special some of these places were.
One thing I learned, when we were getting close to the time for my dad to be reassigned and when he got his new orders, was that new people just didn’t make the effort to get to know you, because you would be leaving shortly. In Berlin, 7thgrade was at Berlin American High school, and that was about the time we were getting ready to leave, so no one outside of a few teachers and the friends I already had, really tried to get to know me, so I kind of went through those few months in school like a ghost.
Leaving one place just as the school year started was a bit hard, but the hardest thing was arriving at school a few months into the school year. Being the new kid was tough, and if your family decided to live off post, it was even harder because friendships had already been formed, so not only were you the new kid, you were an outsider as well. Such is the life of an army brat.