Ever since I finished writing my book (To be released next month) I’ve tried to emphasize that you don’t have to be an aviation enthusiast to enjoy it. There are a number of topics that don’t directly relate to the Air Force mission, but are nevertheless critical. One of these is the Military (read ‘Air Force’ in my case) family and a big part of any family, of course is their offspring.
U.S. Military dependents, as they are officially known, include spouses and children. Air Force wives deserve a book of their own, but in this Blog, I want to focus on ‘The Brats’ as we are known. I’m qualified to write about ‘em because I’m one of ‘em. Brats are like no other children on the planet. Sure, there are other kids that move around often because of their parents’ professions or other factors, but Brats are different because there are so many of us and we feel a bond between us unlike any other.
Being a Brat can be a treasure or a curse: My little brother Kim and I were outgoing and gregarious. We both made friends easily and so were readily adaptable to an environment that changed entirely every two or three years. My sister, Kathy, on the other hand was kind and gentle, but also shy and introverted. She was a loyal friend to have, but often, by the time she had developed a relationship or two, it was time for her or the ‘new’ friends to move on to the parents’ next assignment. This constant uprooting must have been devastating for her, but she overcame the disappointments, later married an Air Force NCO and raised two fine sons.
Educational continuity, for most Brats, is wishful thinking. I can only lean on my own experience as a yardstick, but here goes: I cannot even attempt to recall all the elementary schools (Primary Schools for you Brits) I attended—I would estimate there were at least 8 of them, including a one-room country school. I then moved on to high school—and there were five of them between 1959 and 1962. This sequence is a challenge to understand, so I’ll elaborate.
I entered high school in my parents’ home town of Charlotte, Michigan while my dad was trying to find us a place to live in Germany. He succeeded halfway through my Freshman year and we headed to Europe. This was a far cry from the smooth and rapid trans-Atlantic journey available today. After hours of delay at the terminal, Mom, Kim, Kathy and I boarded a Military Air Transport Service C-118 (four propellers—not much airspeed) at Dover, Delaware and we lifted off for Goose Bay Labrador, the first refueling stop. Kim was only two, Kathy was seven and I was a ‘hyperactive twelve year old pain in the ass’ (Mom’s description, years later). She tried to control me enroute to Goose Bay but, failed miserably while I allegedly prowled the aisles at will annoying all and sundry. In desperation, she administered a healthy dose of her own Phenobarbital which had a similar effect to Rocky Marciano’s right hook and she worried for the rest of the flight whether she had killed me off. At least she fretted in peace. After three hours on the tarmac, refueling was finally completed at Goose Bay, we headed east to Prestwick, Scotland for pit stop #2 and another four hour delay while an engine was repaired. Then on into Rhein-Main, Germany where my dad welcomed a thoroughly exhausted family after a 22 hour ordeal. I was, by this time, showing signs of life, much to Mom’s relief.
I finished my interrupted freshman year at Bitburg American High School in Germany, but then, during the summer, our good friend and former ally, General de Gaulle decided he’d had enough of the Americans who saved his bacon in 1945 and ordered all American forces out of France. Why should that make a difference to us in Germany you may ask? Well, the planners decided that units based in France should relocate to Germany and replace units which, in turn, ,would reposition to the UK. After flying combat tours in WWII and Korea, my dad was now an accounting & finance officer assigned to a Reconnaissance Wing destined for RAF Alconbury near Huntingdon in the UK. After packing our worldly goods, we loaded up the car and my brother Kim deftly fell off the roof, cracked his head and concussed. We diverted to the base hospital, got the all clear from the Doc and headed for the cross channel ferry to the UK.
Enter High School number three: Central High School, Bushy Park, London, a boarding school for Americans. The day after we arrived at Alconbury, dad loaded me and a steamer trunk in the car, dropped me off at Bushy Park (two weeks after the term had started) and I began fending for myself (a valuable skill set for Brats). As the students were primarily Brats or offspring of US Diplomatic Corps personnel, we came from all corners of the UK. The routine was as follows:
- Board a bus at Alconbury (or any of the other numerous American bases in the UK) on Sunday for the trip to Bushy Park
- Spend the week in an open bay barrack with bunk beds, finding all sorts of trouble to cause and reluctantly going to class during the day. Although London was very close, we were ‘confined to quarters’ and rarely had the opportunity to explore.
- Get back on the bus on Friday after class for the three hour trip home.
I met my lifelong friend, Tom Hanton at Bushy, and that becomes a bit more interesting later.
During my year at Bushy Park, construction was completed on a new American High School at RAF Lakenheath, near Cambridge: High School number four. The busing and accommodation routine was much the same as above, but Lakenheath was much closer and the dorms were a vast improvement. We continued to border on delinquency as dorm students: Tom Hanton and I along with co-conspirators Dave Hickman and Art Fitzpatrick were ‘invited’ to sit out final exams and the Prom at home after incinerating an outhouse (which technically belonged to the Queen) next door to the new gym. Despite the magnificent spectacle produced by the conflagration, flying at the base was cancelled because fire trucks were dispatched from the flight line and someone shortly thereafter– ratted on us. End of story—except for my Dad’s wrath, which lasted for some considerable time (Allegedly, after a few drinks with friends, Dad and Mom were both able to shelve their seething anger and discuss the issue with great hilarity.)
Despite this blot on my otherwise spotless record (the moral here: don’t get caught), I passed my courses just in time to join the family on dad’s next assignment to The Pentagon in Washington D.C. and my senior year and graduation from High School number five: Annandale Virginia.
My High School hopping chronicle may not be a world’s record, but I’ll bet it’s among the top few. Attending a Department of Defense Dependent School (DODDS) was absolutely unique. All the activities you would expect to find in a US school of similar size—sports, extracurricular clubs, social life—in a foreign country managed by contracted US teachers and staff. All in all, I found it to be an extremely positive experience.
Today, sadly, we seem to be surrounded by skirmishes in a growing culture war. I don’t know if the situation has deteriorated since I was a kid, but as Brats, I can clearly remember being blissfully unaware of the poisons that swirl around us today. Being raised in a military family means you are a very small part of a highly disciplined team and this affects the values you embrace. From my earliest memories I played with Black, White, Asian, and Latino children of officers and enlisted personnel alike. We had a special name for these companions: we called them all ‘The Kids.’ No elaboration; no exclusions; no discrimination. This mutual respect (and natural color blindness) was a result of the values our parents bestowed on us and those values grew from the professional relationships our folks had with their Black, White, Asian, and Latino colleagues.
I won’t be so bold as to proclaim there’s no racism, misogyny, or bias in the military, but I will state that a military unit simply cannot function in a situation where systemic bias of any kind exists.
We Brats were fortunate to grow up in such an atmosphere. Shame it isn’t universal.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was in my youth, there was a lot going on—much of it disturbing. On the 15th of October, 1962 my dad headed off to work in the War Room of the Pentagon just like he did every day of the week. This time, he didn’t come home for supper and we didn’t see him again for two weeks. On that day, a U-2 Reconnaissance jet photographed several Soviet SS4 nuclear missiles in Cuba and almost immediately, we stood on the brink of nuclear war. The world held its collective breath.
I went to Annandale High School as usual that day. A lively Virginia suburb of Washington DC, Annandale was home for thousands of US Government employees, many of them military members. A totally different mood prevailed on that autumn Monday and I remember noting just how many of my schoolmates were Brats–you could tell because they were decidedly more jittery than the others.
The Crisis escalated and the tension at home, at school and everywhere you looked was palpable. I don’t intend to claim that Military Brats had a corner on apprehension. Everyone was seriously anxious. What I will say is that, as a Brat, I think I felt just a bit more directly involved than my contemporaries whose parents were civilians. After all, my dad was spending the week working in the Soviets’ number one target.
I’m not going to give you a history lesson here, if you’re below a certain age, Google it—I think you’ll find it fascinating. The Russians, blinked first; and on Sunday, October 28th, Russian Premier Khrushchev announced the dismantling of Soviet missiles in Cuba and did not insist on his demands concerning the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.
The next day, dad finally returned home from the Pentagon and while the world breathed a sigh of relief, I felt something stronger: Pride in my dad’s contribution, pride in the US military, and pride in my country. I know it’s not fashionable to reflect this way today, but I’m getting on now and not too concerned about my street cred. I’ll bet a lot of Brats felt exactly the same way at the end of October, 1962. Just sayin’
Seeing the world is one of the great pleasures of being in the military. Packing up everything you own every couple years to go see the next part of the world IMHO is one of its most frustrating experiences. A treasure and a curse all wrapped up in the same package.
For many Brats, however, the curse was mitigated. When we moved, for example, my parents recognized that we three were far more trouble than we were worth and after involving us in some very mild sorting of our belongings, we were ‘disappeared’ while the tedium of packing and moving occurred. I’m not sure what they did with Kathy and Kim, but I was ‘encouraged’ to go play baseball, head for the swimming pool, take in a double feature at the movie theatre, or indeed, make myself scarce in any way possible. Sometimes, depending on the size of the move, this could go on for two or three days! I was always welcomed home for dinner, bedded down and breakfasted the following day, but before the packers showed up, I was shuffled off to do something far more enjoyable.
It’s unfortunate I could never find a way to replicate this delightful diversion when I pursued my own career years later. I was never at my happiest when forced to join my wife in orchestrating the packing and moving. Spoiled by my Brat experience.
A SALUTE TO THE BRATS
There’s no doubt things have changed immensely since Mom, Kim, Kathy and I were following my dad all over the planet as children/adolescents. The life I knew as a Brat would be anathema to many, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Lifelong friendships were made, and opportunities to experience other cultures and people are unsurpassed. Who else experienced hitting the bowling alley or playing baseball in the morning followed by a good ol’ American hamburger for lunch; then out the main gate straight into Britain, Germany, Spain, Turkey or dozens of other places we may have called ‘home.’ We were challenged, but we were also blessed.
I believe most Brats would agree we are what we are because of the challenges, triumphs and yes, failures we experienced as a result of the environment we grew up in. Some of us flourished; others struggled mightily, but it’s hard to deny being a Brat means something special. I’m very proud to be one of them.
(Featured photo above: Art Fitzpatrick, the Author and Tom Hanton. 3/4 of the fabled ‘Outhouse Quartet.’ Lakenheath American High School dormitory 1961)