Army Brat

My father was in the Army when I was born—repaying Uncle Sam for the scholarship he received to get through graduate school. When I was two, he got out and set up a private dental practice in his home state of New Mexico.  So I say that I “came to consciousness” in Alamogordo, NM because that’s the location of my first memories.

For whatever reasons, my parents’ stay there didn’t last long. Just four years into that life, we were off to a new home. As my father had decided to rejoin the service, our new digs were on an Army post: Fort Irwin, California. It was smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave desert,  just a couple dozen miles from the famed Death Valley.

That move established a rhythm that would become well practiced by the time I reached high school. For by the time I entered ninth grade, I was attending my eighth school. Only two of those schools were populated entirely by kids from military families. In two other cases my brother and I attended nearby public schools even when the family lived on post. And in the other four cases we lived in civilian housing and, of course, attended regular public schools.

I don’t remember hating, or even dreading the moves. I was sometimes sad about the loss of friends, but I came to understand that each new place brought new opportunities and new friends. Plus, we often took some vacation and visited family while driving from one location to the next and this was pleasant.

The worst parts of all our moves were times when we arrived but had to wait weeks or even months to move into our new home. At these times we were stuck in a motel or perhaps a furnished short-term apartment where we knew no one. Worse, we were without virtually all of our stuff: toys, games and hobbies. So we read. We played card games like solitaire and Chinese Rummy. And we waited.

Perhaps the worst of these occasions came when we arrived at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had just turned 10 and my brother was probably 7. We wound up in a small motel out on a state highway basically in the country. We had one small room with two double beds for the four of us plus our old beagle, Sheba. The motel had no pool. No restaurant. No entertainment or amenities of any kind that I recall. It didn’t even have hallways. You walked out your door, across three feet of concrete sidewalk and you were in the parking lot. In short, we had nothing to do onsite or within walking distance. Of course the family owned a car, but my dad had had to start work so he was driving it to get to the office each day. That left us well and truly stranded with nothing to do.

These days you’d address a situation like that by binge watching shows and movies. But this was 1968. We didn’t even have VCRs yet! TV consisted of three or maybe four channels. And the stuff that ran during the day was designed for stay-at-home wives and retirees, not antsy kids. Plus my mom was not a big believer in us watching TV during the day anyway. Honestly at this point, I’m really not sure what we did to pass the hours.

I don’t recall how many weeks we spent in that little motel, but the tedium made it seem like months.

New Schools

Most of our moves occurred during the summer, so I usually had the benefit of starting the new school year at the same time as everyone else. This meant everyone was meeting people, learning classrooms and figuring out teachers. But while everyone else generally had some familiar faces and places in the mix, I was coping with an environment that was totally new. But at least everyone didn’t immediately know that I was an outsider.

The real terror of starting at a new school came not so much from figuring out the “where” and “who” of the school day but the “how” of local slang, traditions and customs. It was here that you could easily get marked as a weirdo, a dummy. Or worse, wind up red-faced or bloody nosed.

For instance, I have a memory of getting on my school bus for the first time at a new school. I walked toward the back of the bus and sat in the first empty seat I encountered. Soon after I sat down it was clear I’d done something wrong. First there was a gasp, a laugh. I could catch snippets of conversation:

“… wrong side …”
“He doesn’t know …”
Hidden laughs.

Soon the chatter works its way to the front of the bus. Heads pop up to look at me. Finally the bus loudmouth pops up near the front of the bus.

“Hey kid. Yeah, you. Are you a boy or a girl?”

Me, terrified: “Boy.”

“Well you are looking like a girl today.” Laughter through the bus.

I have nothing. Eventually things quiet down for the next salvo.

“You know why?”


“Because you are sitting on the girls side of the bus.”

This comment is followed by laughter throughout the bus. I turn crimson.

I’m sure plenty of first graders have made this mistake on the first day of school without garnering much attention. But at the time, I was a fifth grader—and a big kid too—so the assumption was that I should know better, like all the other fifth graders. So, I looked like a dummy. Or a weirdo. Either way. Not a good start to the first week of school.

As a perennial new kid, that’s the type of thing you worried about. Using a word that wasn’t cool. Asking about a new thing you’ve heard people mention only to have them treat you like you just said you’d never heard of Santa Claus. Or seeing someone doing something you considered wrong and finding out that everyone is cool with that here.

Not all of this was unique to life as an Army brat, of course. Other kids did awkward things and got made fun of too. But when you moved every year, instances of this kind happened a little more often. You learned to tread lightly and keep your mouth shut while you tried to figure things out from context. (Which had its own pitfalls!)

Bailing on Private Practice

Sometime in my teen years, I asked my father why he abandoned his private dental practice in New Mexico to return to military duty. As I recall the short answer was “I was working too hard.” At the time, I was too young to fully understand what that meant, but over the years, I’ve come to appreciate its full import. His longer answer included something about “more opportunities.” Over the years, I’ve put meat on the slim bones of those words—in part by examining and understanding his career.

As a part of this thinking, I have pieced together my view of the life of a small-town solo practitioner dentist in 1960s New Mexico. He was, of course, running a small business: managing employees and expenses, drumming up new clients, dealing with maintenance and having to worry about collections as well. (I’m guessing that dental insurance was virtually unknown in those days.) On top of that, his presence was required any time patients were being seen. He couldn’t take a mental health day, skip out on a lark to go hunting or even leave for a professional education meeting without shutting down the whole office—and reducing his revenue stream.

As young as I was during the period, I remember that he had clinic hours on Saturdays. I have no memory of him being home some other day of the week to make up for that. Of course if there was some emergency with one of his patients, he was the only dentist in the practice, so those calls all came to him. Clearly the practice demanded a lot of his time.

Despite these demands and the fact that he had a young family, he also pursued his hobbies: fishing, hunting, trap shooting and wood working. He was trying to cram a lot of stuff into his life. He was bound to be frustrated.

By contrast with that existence the Army offered a lot of benefits. As a dentist, he would practice in a clinic with other dentists which was managed by a dedicated team (e.g. commanding and executive officers). He started at 8 am and walked out the door at 5 pm every day. There were no weekend hours. Emergency call rotated among all the dentists in the clinic so that he was only on the hook a few weekends a year. Best of all, he got 30 days a year of leave (military talk for vacation). Finally, most Army posts either offered, or were located near, facilities where he could pursue his hobbies. Plus there was a steady salary and a well-defined and government-guaranteed retirement program. On top of all this, there were opportunities for more education.

My Dad’s Ambitions

Steady hours and ample free time weren’t all the Army offered to a small town dentist in the 1960s. My father didn’t just want to be a dentist, it appears. As an Army officer, he could advance in rank and eventually command other dentists. I believe this appealed to him. In addition, there were opportunities for additional training and even degrees.

My father reentered the Army in 1964 as a general dentist holding only a DDS degree and the rank of Captain (O-3). By the time he retired, he had added a Masters degree in Hospital Administration, earned a board certification in removable prosthodontics, and advanced to the rank of full Colonel (O-6). Along the way, he’d also held executive positions including commander of a large dental activity (DENTAC) with multiple clinics and more than 100 dentists.

By understanding his career, I came to a better understanding of why we moved so much during those years. Ultimately the moves allowed him to attend courses and get tickets punched to move his military career forward. While some in the military actually serve large portions of their career at a single post or base, many progress through different jobs on a three-year rotation schedule. My father didn’t serve in one role for a full three years until I was in high school. Here’s my basic understanding of all the moves:

My School:                           Dad Was Doing:
#1 – 1st Grade (3 mos)   Dad still in Private practice in New Mexico.
#2 – 1st & 2nd Grades    First assignment back in the Army. Ft Irwin, CA
#3 – 3rd Grade                   Advanced course*, Ft. Sam Houston, TX
#4 – 3rd & 4th Grades   His tour in Vietnam (We lived in Oklahoma.)
#5-5th & 6th Grades      Normal assignment, I think he was “XO” or second in command at this small clinic. Ft. Ben Harrison, IN.
#6 – 7th Grade                   Masters in Hospital Admin classes, Ft Sam Houston, TX
#7 – 8th Grade                   Masters in Hospital Administration internship, Ft. Bliss, TX
#8 – Grades 9-12              Full 3-year assignment in a management role at the US Army Institute of Dental Research (USAIDR) Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington DC

My father’s initial boss in the USAIDR job went on to become the commanding general of the Dental Corps in his next assignment. One of his early decisions was that all dentists should be doing dentistry rather than serving in non-command management roles as my father had been doing when they worked together. Thus my father was ousted from the management “specialty” he had developed within the Dental Corp and sent back to practicing dentistry. Since an officer of his seniority was expected to have a specialty, his next assignment sent him back to training, this time in prosthodontics. Fortunately for my brother (who hadn’t finished school), that assignment led to another three years in Washington DC. As a result, my brother got six straight years in the same school system.

* The Advanced Course was a 9 month course required for all military officers at his level of seniority.

20th Century Memories and Musings

One reason I wanted to set up this website was to provide a home for some personal memories of my upbringing and early adult experiences. While I don’t imagine they will have a wide audience, some may find the stories interesting, especially among my family.

So that’s what to expect in this section: memories from the past and, hopefully, a bit of a look at what it was like to grow up in the 20th Century.