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Life as an Air Force Brat
I was born in Tripoli. Libya. The Mediterranean port city in North Africa. You know the song, “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.”
This is what I tell people when they ask where I was born. It feels odd to tell them I came from such an exotic place. Odder yet to say I’ve never been back. Under the circumstances of Ghaddafi, that’s understandable. But how many people have never returned to the place they were born?
My birthplace, I think, is the strangest thing about me.
People ask what I remember about Tripoli, circa 1959. Nothing. I was 3 weeks old when my family flew out of Wheelus Air Force Base and on to dad’s new post in Germany. We had to fly commercial because the Air Force would not fly such a small baby. When he learned how old I was, the KLM flight attendant became overly attendant to my mom, as if a 3 week baby was a sick person.
My sister Julie is a year older than me and was also born in Tripoli. She remembers nothing either. Unlike me, she has no desire to return there, especially after learning about the post-overthrow mass beheading on a beach a few blocks from our old house. But I would like to return, under some guise, and take my Arabic-speaking daughter with me, just to reconnect with the land of my birth.
Back in 1959, one of my father’s jobs was to fly the Queen of Libya to Italy to do her shopping. In return, Fatimah el-Sharif gifted my parents with a christening gown for Julie.
Nowadays, the USAF flight command at the former Wheelus is now the civilian airport, Mitiga International Airport.
We lived in Germany for two years, the standard tour of duty in the Air Force. I look at pictures of Rammstein AFB, but I remember little, just vague foregrounds of red brick Brutalist structures and grey backgrounds of fog and low hanging clouds.
I’m told I was an escape artist. At night I’d wait for my parents to go to bed and once the coast was clear I’d unlatch my crib side, crawl out, exit the front door, and take walks up and down the apartment corridors. Neighbors who found me wandering brought me home to a surprised Bob and Ginny.
I got my nickname, “Shatzi” in Germany, but that didn’t stop my mother from calling me, “Shotz” from across store aisles well into my teens. How embarrassing! I got the nickname from Helga the maid who called me Shatzi, or sweetheart, because I was so sweet. I don’t remember Helga from that time, but she has re-entered my consciousness since she moved to Texas and began calling my 90+ year old mom, trying to rekindle their friendship.
My memories begin in Michigan, around 1962 or 63. We lived at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, near Lake Huron on the state’s forefinger, up the coast from Bay City. What I remember most is pine forests and lakes. I might have bumped into a young Madonna on the shore of Saginaw Bay.
We lived in a house on the outside of a housing circle with a scary, fenced off lake behind us and a big scary forest across the street. I can see our house on Google Satellite maps. We had a dachshund named Heidi, and were constantly panicked that she’d wiggle under the chain-linked fence and dive into that little lake and be drowned or eaten by alligators. The woods in front were a source of fascination for me although the height of the trees scared me. I think it was here that I came to appreciate forests with pine needle floors and high canopies.
It was in this house that I refused to eat my peas. I didn’t like them and didn’t want to eat them. One (silent) night, my mom went to brush my teeth and found I had a mouth full of peas! I refused to swallow them and just kept them on my tongue. I also remember a small closet off the where we kept our waste can. I remember stuffing my mouth full the last dregs on my plate and going to that closet to scrape my plate, but I’d also eject the food from my mouth when no one was looking. Early on, I was sneaky.
I left my first two-wheeled bicycle too close to the road and the handle bars got run over so badly that only one handle bar remained. I became good at steering with one hand.
I was also good at hosing down the inside of our giant Ford station wagon, to my parents horror, and my Uncle Norb’s amusement!
It was while we lived in Michigan that JFK was assassinated. I don’t remember much about my parents reactions but I do remember watching the funeral procession. All I saw were the horsies!
In 1963, my brother John was born and our family was complete. In order of age we were Cynthia, Anne, Julie, me, and John. Dad finally got a son, so they quit trying (or so I assume.)
In 1964 we moved to Nebraska, to Offutt AFB outside of Omaha. There are lots of mounds on base, but I didn’t realize untilllater that they covered nuclear bombs. Dad arrived as a major and was promoted to Lt. Colonel at Offutt. Dad’s job was as a weather “guesser” in the Military Airlift Command (MAC) but apparently he was “on loan” to Offutt, which is a Strategic Airlift Command (SAC) HQ. My sister Anne recalls that he was at the meeting of Generals when the word came down to commence bombing in Vietnam, suggesting he was on the advising team for the weather related to Southeast Asia.
The name of our street, Fairchild Circle, is emblazoned in my mind. Our house sat on the edge of a hill on which the whole neighborhood sledded in the winter. We had a wooden toboggan and made good use of it.
I started kindergarten at a little school nearby, Belaire Elementary, which abutted the base on the civilian side of a fence that I passed through every day on my way to school. This was when it was safe for kids to walk on alone, on base and off. I got there when kids were playing on the playground, but I found it hard to nab a swing on the swing set. So I waited until the bell rang and all the kids went inside, and I stayed on the playground alone and swung to my hearts content, the whole place to myself. At some point, Mom got a call from the school asking why I was always late for school. She explained to them that I alway left the house in good time, there was no hold up to speak of. That’s when I got busted and had to start following the rules. Ugh.
Mom said that after a few days of school, I came home and declared that I didn’t need school anymore. I learned my alphabet, I could do some math, what more did I need?
When I think of all the instructions I didn’t read in my life, I think of this moment when I decided I was ready to do things, but couldn’t be bother to actually learn about them first. Early on, I was a doer, not so much a learner. I was never what you’d call a “good student.” I got C’s and D’s in math for my whole educational career. The only thing I was good at was Art. I loved Art class and could always think of something cool to do. I was good at geography for some reason. And English had its high points for me, but math? Blechhhh. You can have it.
In first grade, I went to the new Catholic school, Cardinal Spellman – now St. Matthews – far off the base and set amid hobby farm country. I got to ride a school bus to get there. It was a super modern school, recently built with the support of the Catholic military families. It had that mid-century style of cinder block construction and cement floors, and the buildings had an interesting hexagonal shape. I felt so grown up. My biggest memory was of going to the basement supply shop to buy myself a new red folder, and how the girl said, “Mmm, pretty red,” when I made my choice, giving me a boost of consumer confidence.
One day, mom took Cynthia to Omaha to go shopping. I wanted to go too. Perhaps I’d been watching too much Lost in Space, but I got the idea to stow away in the way back of our cavernous station wagon. I laid there quietly as they drove past the stinky stock yards and we were deep in the city by the time I sniffled and they discovered me. But they were stuck with me the whole day as I totally bombed their mother-daughter shopping trip. It was great!
One summer, we drove that Ford station wagon on a vacation all around the plains states, dragging a small trailer behind us. From the Badlands of South Dakota to Yellowstone in Wyoming, we stopped at all the ghost towns, camping out or staying at air bases along the way. It was a trip that gave me vivid memories that I still flash back on.
Eventually, dad came home one day and told us we were moving to Guam, a tropical island in the Pacific ocean. We would have to give up our dog Heidi since Guam had exotic creatures and insects and jungles and she could get hurt. We’d leave Heidi with mom’s Aunt Estelle and Uncle Burness, who lived in Marine City, MI, where she’ll be safe and happy. That news made us all cry.
Late one afternoon, dad came home early but kept his uniform jacket on because we were all going to drive down to the hospital to get these things called shots. He assured us it wouldn’t hurt a bit, just a little sharp poke. Yeah, sure. Most of us left in tears after getting shot up and I would never again believe someone who says needles don’t hurt.
Our trip to Guam started with a road trip to San Francisco, where we rode cable cars and ate Chinese food. I left my heart there and would find it again in another fifteen years.
My mother can’t remember if we flew to Guam on a commercial flight or on space available out of Travis AFB, but I think that was the flight when I dumped my tv dinner off my fold-down tray, trying to reach from something I’d dropped. Nobody was happy with me, but I remember the faux-jolly demeaner of the stewardess who said, “whee!” as she knelt to wipe up my stewed chicken, peas and corn off the carpet.
At Anderson AFB on Guam, dad commanded the weather wing that did reconnaissance for Southeast Asia. My ex-husband Keith, being ex-Army, had many military conversations with my dad, and he told me that they were engaged in cloud seeding at the time.
For us kids, Guam was a revelation! What an exotically lush place, so dense with life of all the creepy crawly sort I’d seen on TV. It was a real-life Gilligan’s Island, but in color! Our first day out, we were walking across a “lawn” with some other girls, daughters of our folks friends, and I reached down and picked up a shell. I said, “look a seashell!” And this other girl yelled, “Mari Catherine, that’s a snail shell!” And I dropped it, terrified. What’s a snail?
We soon learned all about snails, and the pace they traveled. And about lizards, like the chameleons that changed colors depending on its surroundings. And geckos, that got into our lanai and squeaked annoyingly. Some we cut their tails off when we learned they would just grow back. We knew about ants, but red fire ants were new to us. We found out one day when a 3 year-old screaming John found himself covered in them, and mom took him into the bath tub and doused him with, what, alcohol?
At Tarague Beach, we learned about rock fish that look like rocks, but will bite you if you step on them. So, we were forced to wear tennis shoes in the water. We learned to spot Man-O-Wars – which are like jellyfish only smaller – and how to avoid their stings. We swam out to the reef and crouched on it because we could without cutting our feet since we had our tennis shoes on. All of this was new to us, but it formed a basis of appreciation of the wide world we lived in.
Another thing that was new to me was poverty. Of course, I didn’t know what that was and since everything’s relative, I’m not sure the people who lived that way saw themselves as impoverished. We took a school bus to the Santa Barbara Catholic School in tiny Dededo – a few miles off base, now the largest village on Guam – and along the way we saw ramshackle huts made of corrugated steel slumped under palm trees. Some had barnyards with chickens and pigs running around. There were no lawns, only dirt ground. This was the landscape that surrounded our school. Kids came out of these shacks looking as clean in their uniforms as we did, which was a bit of a revelation for me. They had less stuff than us base kids, and yet here they were in a Catholic school, looking just like us, only tanner.
My 2nd grade class was housed in one of the main concrete buildings, but my 3rd grade class met in a quonset hut.
On Guam, summer lasted all year, so we Air Force brats practically lived at the pool. The nearest one was only a block away. I can see on Google Maps, our house on the corner, and block of houses, and then a wide open space that is a golf course spread out from the Officer’s Club. Now, the Officer’s Club is called the Palm Tree Golf Course and appears very commercialized on the website. I can’t see a swimming pool and it seems the whole place is devoted to golf. But when I was seven, the pool was our home. Inside, there were many dining rooms and bars, and my folks spent a lot of time there, partying. They could just drink and walk home. There were family night events in which the kids had their own party room, with a TV set up and our own waiter standing by. It was a glamorous life in my memory. We drank Shirley Temples by the gallon.
Another Guam thing was outdoor movies. The place is so warm, why bother with air conditioning when you can sit in the cooler evening air. The theater was a fenced-in lot backed by a giant screen, so from the outside you could see most of the image, but you couldn’t hear the soundtrack. We sat on long wood benches and spilled our popcorn like crazy, and when a rain storm rolled through we’d cover ourselves with the sheets of clear plastic until it stopped raining.
When It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World came to Guam, it wasn’t playing at our local theater, so we had to pile into our car and drive some distance away, maybe it was to the submarine base. The screening space wasn’t in what you’d call a theater, but more like a multi-purpose room. That didn’t dampen our spirits though as we laughed through the entire farce and later cracked the film’s jokes at the dinner table. Another comedy, The Russians are Coming, became a family favorite. Every time it came to television, my family would watch.
Our experiences on Guam gave me a warm, sandy feeling for the tropics. I feel special to have lived there. Sometimes Guam comes up on the news, like when North Korean threatens to send missles there. When I meet other people who lived on Guam, I feel like we share a special experience.
32 years later, in Sonoma County, I went on a date with a guy who also lived on Guam in the same years we were there. Not only that, he worked for my dad! The dad told Sven good things about working for my dad. My dad, unfortunately, had no memory of Sven’s father, so that was a bummer. But, what are the chances of meeting another ex-Guam military brat?
When we got word that we were moving again, it came as a bit of a shock. We loved Guam and heck, our household goods had only arrived the year before. And where were we destined after living in paradise? Illinois. Southern Illinois, not even close to Chicago. But close to St Louis, where there was a giant arch! Worse, we were moving in the winter, which on Guam is like summer, but in Illinois, it’s really winter. We all knew what that was about.
Our departure seemed interminable. For at least a week we were camping out in our house, then in VOQs, (Visiting Officers Quarters), waiting uncertainly about when we’d be “shipped out.” Every night, my parents went to going-away parties. Pictures were taken. Souveniers were signed. Finally, in the middle of the night, after sleep walking through darkened waiting lounges, we took off for the states. I cried, wondering if I’d ever see any of my friends again.
I don’t know if I knew we’d be stopping in Hawaii for a bit of a vacation, but next thing I knew we were in Honolulu. So excited to stay a night in a modern glassy hi-rise hotel, Juli and I jumped from one big bed to another. It was a dream to stay in a civilian hotel! We cold see the beach from our sliding glass door.
To our dismay, the next day found us at Fort De Russy, right on the beach in Honolulu in bungalows that were eventually torn down when the property became a city park back in the 70’s. My suspicion was that there was no vacancy when we first arrived in Hawaii, so Dad had to spring for rooms at the Hilton (or similar).
I know we toured Pearl Harbor and drove up to Diamond Head. We were vacationing in Hawaii at the same time as the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and I wondered why my dad got the time off.
One of my most vivid memories of this time was seeing Star Trek for the first time. We were, as was often the case, visiting Air Force friends in a modern rancher somewhere either in Hawaii or Illinois. I don’t know where Cynthia, Anne, and Juli were, but I was left alone in a family room with my dinner on a TB table and before me sat the most marvellous invention I could imagine: a color TV! And on that color TV played the most mind-boggling science fiction show ever. Star Trek! So visual, so colorful, and the writing was quite understandable to a 9 year old. I was mesmorized. I raved about it to my sisters and felt pretty damned special to be the only one to have experienced Star Trek, in color, and already in its second season.
When we arrived at Scott AFB in Southern Illinois, we moved into what even I could tell was low-rent housing. Long blocks of townhouse-style houses at the edge of the base in a neighborhood called Pegelo. Dad enrolled me, Juli, and Anne at St. John’s Catholic School in nearby Shiloh. Meanwhile, Mom had taken Cynthia to the University of Missouri in Kansas City, having said goodbye to the rest of us at the airport.
Illinois in February is not the best time to start a new school, but there we were, at Scott AFB, 17 miles from St. Louis. We were beamed in from a bright, colorful paradise to a frigid, grey farm country, with our tan skin and our bleached blond hair looking for all the school like an exotic bunch of coconuts just washed up on shore. I was still in grade 3.
Our new school, St John’s, was modern and recently-built, and had one classroom per grade. All grades besides the grades 7 and 8 classrooms opened onto the gym which doubled as cafeteria and auditorium. The kitchen served hot lunches thanks to grants from the Air Force. The student body was made up of Air Force brats, farm kids, town kids, as well as kids who had been dumped into the school’s orphanage, just up the hill.
At first I thought those kids were really orphans, with no family to take them in, but I later learned they came from dysfunctional families or broken marriages and were sitting there in holding patterns, awaiting family outcomes. I became friends with a few of the orphans, including my first “boyfriend,” who gave me a ring.
The two priests at the school were Rev. Albert Jerome 1966-1972, Rev. Ted Baumann 1972-1973. In 1983 the parish closed down my old school and now it’s a HQ for the diocese. Nothing stays the same.
There were two dynamics at play during this time. My dad was deeply frustrated with the Air Force. He had steadily moved up the ranks as an officer and saw himself as a General one day. Back on Guam, when he announced that he’d been promoted to Lt Colonel, I remember Anne jumping up and down, “Are we moving to General’s Hill?” That was a more toney neighborhood on base where the residents were of a higher class. But after many years, commanding the weather wing, his career had stalled. It was thought he was being treated unfairly, and that was why he came home angry and abusive. He drank heavily. At the dinner table I was always sat next to dad and his glass of Scotch, and as dinner wore on he got more loaded and hyper sensitive to anything that came out of our mouths. I was pretty squirrely at the time, trying to be a comedian, and I often cracked jokes that were not appreciated. Sometimes I got “zapped” on the head when I annoyed him.
By then, I was packing to move. We had been at Scott for 3 years already, and lived in three different houses. Wasn’t it time to move again? I went through my trinkets and souvenirs and packed them carefully in boxes. Changing my mind, I rearranged the boxes.
I realize now how, 50 years later, the Air Force lifestyle programmed me to be on the move, to always looking for the next place to live, like a vagabond. From Illinois to Southern California, San Francisco, Sonoma, and Vancouver, and now, at 60, I’m mentally prepared to pull up and move to the BC interior for half the year, and back to Sonoma County the other half. My whole adult life I’ve felt an impermanence of place and a desire for transience, like no one else in my family. There was always this allure of a fresh start, a reinvention of self, and a do-over of like that attracted me. I can’t seem to stop.
I was all packed and ready to go, but we didn’t go anywhere, not even to another house on base. We stayed another year and then another. I knew Dad wanted to become a General, but couldn’t he do that somewhere else? When were the movers coming? Instead, Dad was hanging on at SAC (Strategic Airlift Command) still trying to get promoted, which he wasn’t. Other men were promoted because the Air Force changed some kind of protocol about time served vs rank, and those guys had kinda gamed the system by dropping out after Korea and rejoining during Vietnam. Dad had stuck with the Air Force since 1950 and was being left behind. And drinking more out of frustration.
Then, furtive things started happening. Mom and Dad would close the door to talk on the phone. Mom practiced a sales pitch on the phone, calling herself a Bestway Agent. Boxes of soap started arriving. Dad built a loft in the laneway garage we were allotted, and he stuffed it full of soap boxes. Were we going into the soap business? At some point the momentum stalled and it was clear that selling soap was not in my parent’s future.
What was clear was that they were thinking of life after the Air Force and how to make a living in the civilian world. We knew they had bought a plot of land in Coco Beach, Florida, and sometimes we talked about living there. It would be like Guam, but in the states. Then we caught wind of San Antonio, Texas, and their desire to purchase something there.
Until then, Mom said that Dad had no interest in buying a house. He just didn’t want to be bothered with one. Some military families lived off base in the houses they bought, but not us. All those years Dad didn’t mind base housing at all. Not until he saw the end of base living. The word retirement surfaced and we knew the end was coming.
At last our fate was sealed when Dad returned from a trip to – of all places – California! Dad had gone off to interview for a job teaching ROTC at Anaheim High School, and he’d accepted it. And, while he was there, he bought a house! Just, plain bought it. We were blown away! With Mom’s acquiescence, he made the decision on 1410 Pembroke Lane.
Pack up kids, we’re moving to sunny California, where everything happens! I thought, I could more easily become a movie star in California. I was such a movie buff at the time, I went to the base theatre and saw everything current and G rated, and then bought magazines to read about them. The nuns at St. John, between reprimanding me for acting out, told me I was so dramatic, I should be an actress, and I believed them. I could be a star! I was thrilled at the idea of California. I also wanted to have an orange tree.
A block down from our B Street house, there was a vast, manicured field known as the “parade ground.” It was where the airmen would parade around, marching in lockstep, presenting arms, and generally creating pomp in honour of someone for some occasion. Let’s say an officer was retiring, they’d be giving him a big send-off, thank you for your service, Colonel. We saw these events happen all the time, but mostly the parade ground was our place to run around with our dog, Heidi II, the brown dauchsund, or to fly kites, play softball or volley ball. I don’t know that I ever attended one of those parades as being related to the honouree.
So, it wasn’t until we had settled into our new, civilian life in California that I realized that one of those parades could have honoured my Dad for his service of 29 years. That even though the limit for an officer to serve if he doesn’t become a General is 30 years, Dad could not stick it out one more year. He had to get the hell out of the Air Force, now. He didn’t want to wait for a parade, possibly he could not have stomached a parade thrown by the people who were forcing him out. He just wanted away from it all.
That’s why he packed us into our blue Buick to cross the country without him. He made mom drive we four kids, and a friend of Anne’s going as far as Santa Fe, across the burning desert alone, target sof automotive con men at every gas stop. For us it was quite exciting, but poor mom. It must have been frightening for her.
We stopped along the way, to see retired friends including a big family, the Kastersons, who we’d been tight with on Guam. When we stopped in Las Vegas, we got the idea to go to a dinner show at a big hotel to see Goldie Hawn and Gladys Knight and the Pips. But after we all sat down in one of those big cushy booths and had a look at the menu, Mom decided we were leaving. Apparently, spending $18 per kid in 1973 was over the top. We snuck out and went through a side door and went down to Ceasers Palace and had a perfectly lovely spaghetti dinner at Ceaser’s Palace for, I don’t know, $4 per kid.
As an adult, I often think, with much consternation, that I could have been able to say, “I saw Goldie Hawn and Gladis Knight and the Pips in Las Vegas in 1973”, but for an $18 dinner.
Where did the Air Force life leave me?
Looking back on how this Air Force life affected me, I realize the biggest affect was how I manage relationships with friends. Every few years until age 14 I’d be forced to say goodbye to my friends, knowing I would probably never see them again. I’d move on to a new place and new friends and then say goodbye to them, forever. I think it made me view friendships – and business relationships – as temporary, disposable things, not something to nurture and encourage. I cannot say I have “childhood friends” because there is no one I’m still in touch with from those early years. Living in the Air Force made me always look ahead forward, not backward. Just like I have no birthplace to even go near, I have no friends to tell me how goofy I was as a kid. Sure, I have an expansive worldview, and a wandering heart, but it would have been nice to stay in one place for a while.
Santa Flies Space Available
One thing I learned as a child was that Santa also travels on airplanes. I found this out when I was seven, after my family spent an hour waiting on a tarmac for the big guy to fly in. It seemed so amazingly modern to her that Santa would ditch the sleigh and catch a plane, but this was during the Cold War and one could never be too careful.
We shivered in the cold, and jumped up and down to get warm while screaming, “Santa, Santa,” along with the mass of kids crushed against the chain-linked fence. We searched the sky for any expanding point of light to focus on, and there were many false alarms. At last, a star became a beam and the 707 came into view, landed safely and taxied toward the jittery throng.
Santa emerged through the cargo ramp, the one you can drive tank into, looking like General McArthur in red velvet as he trotted down the ramp. His elves dragged camouflage duffel bags as they followed him over to their side of the fence. Out of the duffels came fairly large, brightly wrapped boxes that were handed to Santa, who dispensed the gifts based on whether the kids were girls or boys.
My brother got a Batmobile, like in the TV show. Me and my sisters all got Japanese Geisha dolls, with tiny feet locked into place on lacquer pedestals. Mine was a lady in red with dangly things in her hair. Julie got the orange kimono lady, holding a black scarf over her head. Anne got the yellow kimono doll. Her oldest sister Cynthia, who towered over the others, received the tallest doll, wearing a blue and white kimono. Together on a shelf in her aging parents house, those dolls formed a Japanese-styled tableau of the four sisters as grown, kimonoed women. After Cynthia died, I laid down the tall doll and arranged the other dolls in a circle of mourning, the way their lives actually worked out.
I don’t remember if Santa got back on that plane or not.
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