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Brat Chat

Brat Chat

BRAT CHAT

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.

EDUCATION

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.

 

CULTURE

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.

PRIDE

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’

MOVING

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)

32 Responses to Brat Chat

  1. Well written, Steve. I’m not a brat but my wife Joanne was the daughter of a Shell oil exec, born in Vienna after the war, educated in Iran, Bermuda and Tucson. We worried what effect our moves back and forth to Europe from Myrtle Beach would have on our sons Matt and Tom. No worries now – both joined the Air Force at the first opportunity. Tom rose to SSGT in 4 years as an air guard medevac tech. Got two combat tours in the first gulf war and spent several weeks in the NOLA airport during Katrina. Finally got it together long enough to graduate from A&M and get a job as a fluids engineer in Houston. Matt too finished A&M, did the OTS route, entered the intell career field and is now an 0-6 Deputy J2 at JSOC. I’d say both have done very well! Looking forward to your book.

    • Thanks, Derf
      Great to hear from you. It’s been awhile. Yes resiliance is one of the common Brat traits. I do wonder if the current crop could (or would) be able to rise above the challenges and frustrations.

      Thanks again for your comment. I’m confident you’ll enjoy the book. Keep in touch.

      Cheers

      Steve

  2. Well-stated my friend! We did indeed live a great “brat” life…followed by the Air Force career….pretty good for a couple of reprobates.

    • Yep, wouldn’t trade it for anything. How did you like that picture? Shame Dave Hickman wasn’t aboard for that one. If you’ve got a better photo, send it along. I’ll swap it on the site!

  3. Great article! My twin sisters and I were also in England at Central High, Busy Park, in the early ‘50s. We also returned to Northern Virginia, Pentagon assignment again, but we went to Wakefield High School! Loved being a brat!

    • Hi Roberta

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, may of us travelled in the same direction at one time or another.

      Bratdom was a great way to grow up!

  4. Really like your history which is similar to mine. We had some incredible times, but not all was positive. It was not an innocent time. Things appear much rosier looking backwards, but there were issues. Alcoholism was widespread in the military which condoned and encouraged excessive drinking. Spouse and child abuse was also tolerated. There was a definite hierarchy between officers and NCO/enlisted folks. The housing areas were divided, sometimes by a wall or fence. Dating between the two groups was discouraged. On the other hand, I didn’t see much prejudice between the kids I grew up with, White, Black, Asian or Hispanic.

    • Thanks for your comments,Andrew

      I never meant to imply that military life was without flaw. We’re all human and exhibit the characteristics, good and bad, inherent in humanity. Perhaps I was just lucky, but growing up, I was blissfully unaware of alcohol, spouse and child abuse around me. Naive, maybe, but those activities never surfaced on my radar until I was much older.

      Yes there’s a hierarchy between officer and NCO/enlisted. Without it, there would be no discipline; no structure. What I find remarkable, looking back on my time as a Brat and my 28 years serving, is the mutual respect and cooperation throughout the force.

      Just curious–were you an Air Force, Army or Navy Brat?

      Thanks again for commenting.

  5. Well done, Steve. Very well done. I couldn’t have painted the life of a Brat much better than you have done. If this is a good example of your writing, I certainly do want an ‘autographed’ copy of your book.

    • Thanks Denny

      The more I wrote the more I remembered. Growing up as a Brat was genuinely a unique experience. Wouldn’t have had it any other way.

      Btw, if you go back to the website ‘news’ I’ve mentioned how my Publisher’s going to make autographed copies happen. Pretty painless and free.

      Best

      Steve

  6. Thank you for this Brat Chat, Steve. I’m often looking for ways to support these children. I myself was born while Skip was at the beginning of his 1st tour of Vietnam. I met him when I was almost a year old. Then he left for a second tour! There were many wonderful bonuses of this upbringing: frequently getting to fly across the country and the world, albeit not in a Phantom; growing up in a foreign country; interesting conversations with almost any random person about how I also once lived here or there; and top of the list is reuniting with Dad. Another top of the list is hearing a fighter rip over our house and knowing that could be my Dad. In fact, I remember running out into the yard when I thought I could hear one coming. I can’t wait to read your book!

    • Thanks very much, Amy

      It was a totally unique life and both challenging and rewarding throughout.

      BTW, at 74, I still run into the yard when I hear one coming!

      I think you’ll enjoy the book. Thanks for your support.

      Best regards

      Steve

  7. Although I went to the same elementary school and high school with the same kids for 12 years (not a brat), it broke my heart to watch my kids say goodby to close friends. Even though I knew they would make new ones. I remember thinking my kids are either going to be nervous wrecks or they’ll be independent and make new friends easily. It does me good to know the latter won out. They both show a lot of poise when meeting new folks. Good comments, Steve.

    • Thanks, John

      IMHO, the results you describe have a lot to do with how Jenny & Kelly were raised.

      It’s also good to remember the environment: Every time we transferred, we left; and then were welcomed by, kids who experienced exactly the same situation and consequently were pretty quick to accept a newcomer.

      • A well written piece Steve.
        I am not a military brat although my father was in the British Army prior to marriage and his civilian job in the Sudan meant I spent the first 8 years of my life in Khartoum.
        During my 8 years at Lakenheath I was involved with many children of friends stationed there. A unique experience and I enjoyed reading the article.
        Keep writing Steve, Jane

        • Hi Jane

          Thanks so much for your thoughts. Yes, the Brats are ‘unique’ indeed and as one who’s spent a significant time away from home, you’ll recognise the challenges.

          Best

          Steve

  8. Thanks Steve, really enjoyed the read. I agree with your comments about ‘colour’, it was never an issue as a kid growing up, nor is it an issue for me now!
    A programme on the BBC recently claimed that Kennedy did remove the missiles from Turkey as part of the deal; are you saying that that was not the case?
    Cherrs

    • Hi Roger

      Good to hear from you. Yes I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that ignored race, colour, creed and sex although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my impartial perspective has been stretched to the breaking point recently. I’m trying mightily to maintain a totally open-minded stance, but, man, it’s a lot harder than it once was.

      Kennedy did pull the missiles from Turkey, but very quietly and quite a bit later. He never publicly admitted that action resulted from the negotiations over Cuba.

  9. Thanks, Steve. It was nostalgic reading about your lifestyle as a dependent. My father was a civilian with the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, as a BX & PX Manager. I also had a very nomadic lifestyle, including numerous bases in France, Germany, Japan, and Guam, and more schools than I can count. Fortunately, it resulted in my love of flying, and an AF career. I only did 9 1/2 years active duty, in the A-1, T-38, and A-10, then finished in the Reserves as an AF Academy Liaison Officer, retiring as an 05. I’m a Member of the Billy Sparks Pack, in KY, although I’m retired in Sparta, TN. Check 6!

    • Hi Hobo

      Well, no doubt that you qualify for Brat membership!

      Like most of us, it sounds like you’ve been around. Anybody that’s got Spad and Hog time’s all right in my book.

      Thanks for writing in.

      Hang in there!

  10. Great story and all true, Mom and Dad were both AF, most of my Uncles on both sides were military, Dad retied as a Loadmaster, from McGuire AFB in 1973. We moved to Ohio and in 75, I headed to Lackland to start my almost 20 in the AF! When I met my current wife, she thought at first that I was telling stories because so many times we would meet someone and I would say, hey, I lived there! I finally explained to her about being a BRAT and then going AD myself that I never lived anywhere in my entire life over 3 years until I moved in with her in Ohio at 53 years old! The BRAT life was great in my mind!

    • Hi Morris

      I’m hearing the same sentiments from lots of Brats. I know what you mean about the moves. I retired to Bristol 20 years ago and have now realized I’ve lived here almost seven times as long as I ever lived anywhere else!

      Mind boggling, but what a great way to growup!

      Thanks for writing.

      Best

      Steve

  11. So many memories Steve.
    You did not mention that during the summer of 1960, we proudly stood on a baseball field at Ramstein AFB after winning the Babe Ruth European Championship. I was stationed in Europe from 1999-2004 and I spent a lot of time TDY to Ramstein. Stood on that same pitchers mound. . .until they made it the parking lot for the new golf course club house.
    Also, a lot of misspent youth on the pool tables of the AYA at Alconbury back in the day.
    Great read Steve.

    • Hi Buster

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, great memories. I remember that last out–Penny Ruble on the mound, if I remember correctly. I was at third base and the guy on my territory made a break for the plate. Vince Rocha put the tag on him and that, as they say, was ‘all she wrote.’ I’ve still got my glove–a Rawlings Stan Musial model(now with an enormous safety pin through the wristband). Seems to me all the dads banded together to get a job lot of gloves for us.

      Are you still in touch with any of the other guys on the team?

      Keep in touch and stay safe

      Best

      Steve

  12. As a Brat I can relate to everything you write about. We moved 11 times, I went to 7 schools, 4 of which were high schools. Certainly not any kind of record compared to others I know. The lifelong friendships and memorable experiences are priceless, enjoyed reading about yours.

  13. Just found out about your book on FB and read the ‘Brat’ Blog. As an AF Brat myself and then a 26 year Air Force career as a maintainer on F-4s, C-130s, F-106s, C-5s, SR-71s, U-2s and finally A-10s, I can relate to all I’ve read, so far. Will be ordering your book, for sure. Always get a kick out answering the question ‘How long have you been in the AF?’ with the answer ‘All my life!’. Finished out my career at RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge with the 81st CRS in 1992. From Phantom Phixer to Hog Wrestler….Cheers

    • Hi Bob (or would you prefer ‘Bongo?’) Your call.

      Yeah, the lifelong AF career is reserved for only a few of us. Thanks for taking good care of the Phantoms and Hogs I flew.As you’ll see in the book, I was 81 TFW/DO at Bentwaters from ’89-’91. I’m pretty sure our paths must have crossed during that time. Thanks for your support and I hope you enjoy the read!

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