Columns

Base Life: Military BRATS reflect

He walked in the door after work and dropped his Air Force cap on my head.

I don’t remember the moment, but my Mom snapped a photo. Toddler me gazes up at the camera, sassy-like, because how can you not feel sassy when you’re wearing Daddy’s cap and shoes with bells on them?

CIndy at two.

It was 1967, and we were living at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. My memories of island life are few.

A spill off a swing that resulted in impacted sand in my eye and a trip to the E.R.

My oldest brother holding me over his head so I could put my feet on the ceiling and “walk like a gecko.”

The smashing, crashing sounds of tropical storms that battered our lanai and tossed our metal garbage cans into the street.

Our next duty station was Vandenberg AFB (now Vandenberg Space Force Base) in Santa Barbara County, California.

Again, my memories are fleeting.

Our first family dog – a mutt we named Riley.

Getting mad at my mom and hopping on my red tricycle. “I’m going back to Guam!” I yelled. Then I got to the end of the block and had to turn around. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street without a grown-up.

My first visit to Disneyland. The Tea Cup ride made me barf. It also made Dad queasy.

My early childhood was steeped in military life and ritual and in my last column about time spent at Fairchild AFB; I invited readers to share their memories of life on a military base.

Steven Stuart (retired Army) had an interesting experience in Berlin. He was stationed there from 1979-81.

“At the time we could go over to East Berlin through Check Point Charlie and the Soviets could come over to West Berlin,” he recalled. “They would come to our PX plaza, park and just sit in their cars. There were usually four of them in small cars, smoking foul-smelling cigarettes, and watching. I always wanted to go talk to one but was informed it was a no-no. It seemed odd that the folks we were sent to protect Berlin from were in our commissary parking lot.”

Frank Schoonover grew up on military bases as an Army BRAT. He explained where we got that term.

“ ‘BRAT’ is a common reference to the children of military members. It’s a term of endearment referring to a group who often endure hardships, frequent moves, school changes, long deployments of a parent and often inadequate government housing,” he wrote.

Like many of our military traditions, the term had its genesis with the British Army.

“It’s an abbreviation for British Regiment Attached Traveler and denotes those family members who could travel with their military sponsor,” he said. “Those of us who are military brats revere the epithet as a prized acronym.”

His memories include living in Fort Meade, Maryland, where his family shared a former garage with another family – the two dwellings separated by blankets strung on a clothesline. They also shared a single bathroom.

At Fort Bliss, Texas, they lived in what once had been a stable and still had raised blocks in the bedrooms that had been used for shoeing horses. But better digs were in store.

“Our ultimate castle was also at Fort Bliss,” he recalled. “We moved into a former WAAC barracks. The bathroom had 15 sinks, showers and commodes. My mother immediately limited use to three. Woe to anyone who used a fourth!”

Paddy Inman has fond memories of Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, California. He spent his eighth-grade year there in 1959-60.

“It was the most idyllic year of my life,” he said. “Hamilton was the Air Force Command Headquarters on the West Coast, and it was demonstrated by the amenities afforded to all the base residents.”

Every building on the base from schools to the gym to clubs was built in the Spanish style – white stucco, red tile roofs, large wood doors with brass knockers, black wrought-iron railings, expansive lawns, smooth asphalt roads with curbing and lined with palm trees.

“It exuded the aura of a posh resort more than a military installation,” Inman wrote.

One of his first jobs was pin setting in the base bowling alley.

“We sat on a raised platform in the ball pit at the end of the alley and frequently had to dodge flying pins,” he recalled. “We were paid 10 cents per line and often worked as many as six hours in the pit. If we were fast and accurate, the bowlers would sometimes leave a tip for us at the front desk.”

One of his best friends and frequent companion was the son of the base commander, who had a powerful go-kart he rode on the base roads until the MPs picked him up and delivered him home.

“His most famous escapade was roaring down a long hill toward the base headquarters in his go-kart with another of our friends standing on the back saluting during the Retreat ceremony at 5:00 and being pursued by the military police,” recalled Inman. “His dad finally decided the go-kart had to go.”

Deborah Winter’s dad was a pilot in the USAF from 1954 to 1978.

She remembers living on base at Lincoln AFB, Nebraska, in the early ‘60s, where she’d lie awake at night comforted by the sound of jet engines.

“Mom would take me and my two brothers to the flight line to welcome my dad home from several weeks of ‘alert,’ ” she recalled. “As they taxied the B-47s, they would pop the cockpit canopy and wave at us.”

She learned to drive on an unused runway at Lajes Field, Azores.

Winter said the bases all had things in common: a close-knit community, other kids ready and willing to make friends quickly, meals at the Officer’s Club, and support for the wives and families when husbands were away.

That lifestyle made a lasting impression.

“Later on I would earn my own wings as a Naval Flight Officer and serve as a navigator in my squadron,” she said.

As Father’s Day approaches, my 27th without my dad, I scroll through black-and-white photos of him in uniform. My memories of his time of service may be fleeting, but the feelings the photos evoke linger–pride, gratitude and so much love.