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.