The current is swift where the Mississippi flows between Missouri and Illinois and opposing shores are often a mile apart. Coal barges compete daily with festive paddle wheelers ferrying pleasure seekers southward toward New Orleans. An observation point south of St. Louis boasts of a Spanish-American War cannon guarding the river traffic like an ageless sentinel.
A visiting stranger might sense the ambience of a host of uniformed marching spirits parading with rifles reflecting the bright rays of an afternoon sun. I first stood here as a seven-year-old to scratch my initials like thousands before me on that cannon. The year was 1937 and from this vantage point I watched the muddy river lap at the railroad tracks below the green carpeted incline that rose steadily higher until it reached the confines of the Post Headquarters building.
The river, both hypnotic and musical, brought life to the old stories of the frontier. This was Jefferson Barracks, now quietly reflecting upon an illustrious past; an army post carved from the American wilderness to furnish a military entourage for wagon trains carrying settlers to the westward prairies.
As a boy, I recognized the names of soldiers who once paraded on these grounds ‹ Zachary Taylor, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, Joseph Johnson, Braxton Bragg. Peerless soldiers, one and all.
My youthful imagination often permitted the intrusive sounds of creaking leather saddles, the rumbling of caissons and horses snorting on cold winter mornings, their harnesses jangling in impatience to get on with the day¹s work. I could hear them yet. Troopers from this frontier post participated in the Indian campaigns against the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Seminole, Ute and Sauk-Fox. The first regular army unit assigned to this garrison was the 1st Infantry Regiment in 1826. However, by the time of the Civil War nearly every regiment in the Army of the West had camped here.
The name itself was chosen to honor former President Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Louisiana Purchase who died appropriately on July 4, 1826. My father, a soldier of the 6th Infantry, was stationed at this post before the second world war. Army routines and traditions soon became our special way of life because soldiers and their families were equal participants in the daily customs and professional disciplines of the regiment. We too awoke to the bugle call of reveille to begin our day and paused at the roar of the sunset cannon at the evening ceremony of lowering the flag.
The sound of taps at day’s end brought comfort each night and a promise to all within hearing that we would be safe until morning. Time in its passing has a natural effect on the lives of children raised on the parade grounds and drill fields of military reservations. We army brats grew up to pursue our individual dreams but still retained memories of other times when we saw our fathers parade their colors as they passed in review.
Some of us followed in their footsteps and many made the final sacrifice to defend and preserve our nation. Although we had our movie heroes in those younger days, it was only reasonable that our childhood idols were the blue-clad troopers of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn or Sgt. York in the first world war. The years that followed produced other national heroes such as Colin P. Kelly, Eddie Rickenbacker and Audie Murphy. But we would most remember those comrades who stood alongside us when future battles were hot and heavy. They are our heroes today.
It all began right here on the banks of the muddy Mississippi and my heart now thrilled to be standing at the same place where as a youngster I played among the fallen persimmons and oak leaves. Our family quarters were duplex units shared with other NCO families and we were all members then as now of the same fraternity. Army brats . . . forever.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Military Brats Online in 1997.