This article is about moving from Germany to the USA and adjusting to a totally different place and the problems Military Brats face with being the “new” kid in school.
Part 1 – By train and by ship
While I would have been content to stay forever in Mannheim, Germany, Dad received his orders in the fall of 1966 that our new home would be Biggs Air Field.
“Where is that?” I asked, and I went to our beloved set of World Book Encyclopedias to find exactly where this place was located.
“It’s in El Paso. Texas,” explained my Dad.
Immediately I had visions of cowboys chasing bands of Indians through the rough western terrain I had seen in dozens of weekly serials over the years and in Roy Rogers movies. At the time I had no idea I was really seeing a back lot in Hollywood, California.
Texas also meant Texas Rangers, and cattle drives, and the Alamo, to my way of thinking.
Later, after the excitement died down, I wondered if my Dad would be jumping out of planes or piloting a jet next, after all, he knew everything there was to know about M-60 tanks. It turns out he was returning to duty as a drill instructor, but we did not know that at the time.
I was nine, and this would be the second time I had to leave my friends and classmates behind because the U.S. Army had ordered my Dad to report for duty on an Army post somewhere.
My brother found a map of Texas in the World Book, but alas, there was no write up describing Biggs Airfield, though we did learn some facts about Texas. And we found El Paso on the map, in the far western corner of the state.
The news of our moving was made easier to bear when Dad mentioned we would be going by ship across the Atlantic, to New York, and then we would go by car down through several states to Georgia and eventually to Texas. That is, after a rather long train ride across Germany to Bremenhaven, where we would leave our car and then board a ship.
I do not have any memories of sad good byes with my friends, but I remember vividly the excitement of the train station and some of the train ride, which was a first for me. We had only travelled by car on our many excursions and vacation trips through Germany and Austria and we had seen trains everywhere, but I had never been on one.
The train trip turned out to be a bust as we departed late in the day from Mannheim and there was not much to see as the daylight turned to dusk, and most of the trip we asleep in our tiny fold away beds in the train compartment.
Life aboard the U.S.S. Patch
The trip across the Atlantic was on the U.S.S. Patch, a ship which had served soldiers and their families since the early 1950s. While it no luxury liner, I did not know the difference, and I did not care. All that mattered was that we had a week away from school, meals were served by waiters on table cloth covered tables—it felt like a vacation, and it was something new.
While we were together as a family during the daytime, Dad had was not allowed to stay with us in our cozy cabin at night. He had to stay below with other soldiers during the night, but during the day we saw him all the time.
The first evening hours aboard the rolling ship were hard for me. While I don’t remember actually getting sick, I just wanted to lay down and grip the edge of the bunk beds as the ship rolled. But after a good night’s sleep and awakening to my new found my sea legs on the second day of the trip, my brother and I explored the entire ship, except for a few areas that were off limits, of course.
We had nothing to do during the day but to check out board games from the well-stocked game room, or we could watch the ocean for whales, or talk to the crew members as they went about their daily routine. My two favorite was to watch movies and to read. There was a tiny movie theater that seemed odd because of it’s size, but once the curtains pulled back and the Star Spangled Banner played, it seemed like the theater back at Mannheim. I must have seen Robin Hood at least half a dozen times during the trip.
The library was also tiny, but well-stocked with a wide range of books. All the activities really worked up an appetite, but fortunately, we had three sit down meals each day in the dining room.
Soon, a week had come and had gone and we were sailing into New York harbor late one night. The sight of the Statue of Liberty illuminated at night and the lights along the Brooklyn Bridge and the tall buildings in the distance was something that seemed out of a dream.
I watched for a while then went back down to the cabin to attempt and play the harmonica I had bought from the ship’s store earlier that day.
Part 2 – Road Trip
On the road again
The next day, we had breakfast, except for my Dad, who had left at the crack of dawn to locate our our white Dodge Dart, which had served us so well in Germany. Later in the morning we dis-embarked. Dad packet our luggage into the car and we left the bustling harbor area.
There would be no sight seeing in New York, just viewing out the car window behind us as we made our way out the city and headed southward. Soon the city of skyscrapers was over the horizon.
So began our road trip. Ultimately, Texas was our destination, of course, but there would be a few stops along the way to visit with my aunts, uncles, cousins and my father’s parents who lived in Columbus, Georgia.
I missed not having a few volumes from the World Book Encyclopedia. During our many road trips in Germany, a couple of volumes of the World Book always accompanied us. They made great reading and had lots of pictures, but alas, they were in transit, probably on a moving truck somewhere behind us I thought.
Somewhere along the way, probably at a Howard Johnson’s gift shop, Mom or Dad bought a couple of multi-purpose travel game kits—small plastic chess and checker boards, which we also used to play “battleship” and other games.
We also watched the road for VW Beetle “Bugs” which were few and far between here on the highwasy, making them easier to spot among the seemingly huge American cars. Mom would get us started on word games and sometimes she would entertain us with stories of growing up on a far with her dozen siblings and some of the pranks they pulled growing up out in the country of north Alabama.
We arrived in Columbus, Georgia, late in the night, and while we could not see much as there were no street lights, when Dad turned the car into the gravel and dirt driveway, I was instantly awake.
A lone outside light was left on for us and Dad got out of the care and rapped on the door. Two figures appeared and ushered us all in. After a round of hugging and greetings, with my bladder about to explode and me promising myself never to drink another Coca-Cola in my life, I managed to find my way to the bathroom.
I had missed the smell of Ivory soap which my grandmother used exclusively, and I was facinated by the old-fashioned bathroom fixtures. The house had been built sometime in the late 1940s. As I washed my hands I saw GrandDad’s shaving brush sticking above the rim of the white cup he used to make the lather.
While my Dad use shaving cream from a can and small razor, GrandDad used a cake of soap to make the lather for his face and used a straight razor when shaving. I could remember watching in amazement how his fluffy white face would be clean shaven in a couple of minutes.
In anticipation of our coming, the living room couch had been folded down and already was made up into a bed for my brother and I. I happily crawled into the bed and snuggled underneath the layers of hand-made quilts my grandmother had made years ago.
I could hear the soft drone of my parents and my grandparents talking in loud whispers in the kitchen was close by, but after a few minutes I was fast asleep.
I awoke to the smell of bacon frying and kitchen sounds. The house was tiny—just two small bedroms, a living room and a small kitchen. Perfect for my grandparents, but very crowded for two families.
I loved the small house. Outside, it had a small porch and was surrounded by a huge yard. I, for one, was glad we were not to be staying long enough for Dad to volunteer us to do odd jobs around the house. I especially liked to visit my grandfather’s wood shop, which was in a separate 18 by 24 foot building, about fifty feet from the house. While my grandfather was retired from career as a carpenter, he was always making something in his shop.
I loved to explore the wood shop. It had a smell that came from fresh cut wood, motor oil and gasoline for a lawn mower, and the pine straw that dropped onto the roof from two enormous pine trees which stretched up over the shop and gave the building some shade all year long.
There were drawers beneath the battered workbench. One was filled with odds and ends left over from projects—bright brass screws, odd nails, springs, old rusty door knobs, hinges, and other discarded items from projects, that just might be needed one day. While the drawer was totally disorganized, it was my favorite one as it represented decades of projects. Other drawers contained boxes of nails, wood screws, nuts and bolts—anything a project required.
There were hand saws hanging on the wall, as well as hand cranked drills, hammers, screw drivers and scraps of lumber beneath the large assembly table that dominated the shop. At the end of the large table was a small table saw that was built into the table surface. We were never allowed to touch the table saw switch, even though there was a master electrical switch to the shop located back in the house and we could never turn it on.
After asking permission my brother and I headed out to the shop to explore and to cobble some scraps together into some sort of toys to play with and eventually break.
My grandparents had the same model car as my parents had before we left for Germany, a Chevrolet Bel Air, only it was purple and white. It looked odd next to Dad’s 64 Dodge Dart, but it’s curvy surface and chrome was exactly the same as the orange and white Bel Air my parents had before we left Germany and I wondered where that car was now.
Our stay in Columbus was only for a couple of days, as my brother and I had already missed over a week of school and homework assignments. My Mom did not want us to get too far behind in our studies. As much as I enjoyed the trip, I missed school and I had no desire to go to summer school to repeat a class.
From Columbus, Georgia, we drove across the Chattahoochee river and into Alabama, stopping in Alexander City, or “Alex” city as it was called locally, to visit with my mother’s sister, Aunt Betty and her husband, my Uncle Boyd. They lived outside of the small town, in a small white house house with a porch swings and a huge detached garage that served as a storage place and workshop.
My aunt and uncle had produced four cousins who all boys, with one or two near my age and that of my brother, we talked about everything and they showed us around the place and we took a trek to go and pick up pecans in a huge pecan orchard about a mile from the house. One of my cousins was interested in anything to do with radios and he had several home made radio projects he was working on.
We stayed the night and left early the next day to head to Decatur, Alabama where several of Mom’s brothers and sisters lived.
We also visited with my Mom’s mother, who lived out in the countryside with one of my Mom’s older brothers, Roman and his wife Tricey.
Visiting our country relatives was always a treat and seeing some of our relatives in their daily lives out in the country gave credibility to what we thought were just made up stories my mother had told us about when she was a child growing up on a farm during the depression.
Our visit became a family reunion as one relative called another to spread the news that we were back from Germany. Soon cars began to show up and people I vaguely recognized would shake my hand or slap me on the back.
With all my aunts and uncles and cousins, and food covering every square inch of counter top and kitchen table space, it was a bit overwhelming. It was hard at first to understand some of what was being said, as everyone’s southern accent was as thick as molassas.
Finally, on the road again . . .
Just as I was getting to know everyone, we were saying our good byes and heading out of Alabama, westward bound now. It seemed we were in the car all day and that we arrived in El Paso in the black of night, with the bright neon lights of the Motel glowing brightly.
We woke up early, anxious to try out the TV in the motel room, but waited until my parents were finally stirring. We found some local news and stared at the black and white screen.
After everyone was showered and dressed we opened the door and stepped outside into the bright sunlight. I was totally unprepared for the wave of heat that hit me.
If you have ever driven across Texas, you must have noticed how the landscape of Texas changes constantly as you drive from East to West. While some green plant life does dot the landscape much of Texas is flat desert landscape with sparse, tiny patches of green where desert plants manage to find water far below the surface. I had grown used to the lush green trees not only in Germany, but also in the eastern United States as well and what I saw was desert, but it was strangely interesting.
In 1966, El Paso was more of a town than a city, spread out on either side of a four-lane highway. A mountain jutted up and a crystal clear blue sky filled in the rest of the landscape. A blue sky that was cloudless, except once in a while it would be broken by white streaks from high flying jets.
Part 3 – Life at Biggs Air Field
Welcome to Biggs Air Field
After breakfast at a nearby diner we drove a mile or two onto Biggs Air Field. The post seemed very tiny when compared to Mannheim, but this was probably because everything was so flat and spread out, whereas in Mannheim we had dozens and dozens of multi-story apartment buildings in all directions.
We drove around the base and my father picked up the keys to our new home. As we drove through the housing area, there were no houses taller than one story. Most of the houses were brightly colored when compared to the pale gray buildings I was used to seeing in Germany.
Finally Dad pulled into the driveway of a bright yellow house. It was a free-standing house, not an apartment, and we had our yard and there was actually grass growing in the front and back yard, along with a tree in the front and one in the back yard.
There was a carport for the car, though it never rained the entire time we lived there, but it did keep the car from getting too hot sitting in the desert sun.
At first it appeared the house had no roof. No where in sight were the deep red roof tiles I had grown accustomed to seeing in Germany. The house had a flat roof style that was typical of southwestern architecture. There was also a big square box sitting in the middle of the roof which I thought was a chimney at first. Later I would learn that this was a “swamp pump”—a whole house fan which blew a mixture of air and a fine mist of water, like an air conditioner, except it added water to the air instead of the other way around.
We roamed through the empty house, our voices echoing about. The rooms had small vertical windows, with hand cranks to open them. There were no white steam radiators and no place around the house I could see for coal to be stored for the boiler. How was the house heated, I wondered, though, with the heat we were experiencing in what should be very cold weather, maybe it never was cold enough for heating. I later learned we had heating elements in the wall for when the temperatures dipped down below the 70s.
While I made some comparisons with our apartment in Mannheim initially, it was definitely different in El Paso, but it was our home.
Without any furniture the house seemed big, but I could see it was not as spacious as the apartment in Germany. I missed our large picture window, but I loved the fact that I no longer had to be worried about the “apartment below”. There was just the slab the house was built on, so if I dropped a marble or a brick for that matter, no would would hear.
We asked about our toys and when our household goods were to arrive, and were told it was supposed to arrive today.
The Mayflower truck arrives
Our household goods arrived in the bright yellow Mayflower truck. The truck had stopped by Columbus to pick some furniture and boxes which had been in storage there while we lived overseas.
The yellow tarps were pulled back to reveal several huge wooden crates. Our household goods from Germany and our stored goods were inside the crates. The truck crew began opening one of the crates and soon we had a stream of boxes and furniture.
Dad gave us explicit orders not to “help” the movers and to keep out the way. It was almost like having Christmas, except we knew what was in the boxes, but we just didn’t know what box. Mom kept tabs on the master list to make sure all boxes were accounted for and my brother and I were in charge of our sister who was not quite five and even more curious than we were about what was happening.
The afternoon wore on and the temperature climbed, but no one was sweating as the dry air made your sweat evaporate almost instantly. Finally all the boxes and furniture were inside the house and most of the furniture in place. The console stereo had made it without a scratch.
There was some semblance of order and Mom unpacked the kitchen so we could at least make some sandwiches and be ready for the days head.
I learned a new word or two that evening as my Dad discovered a hand-made cedar chest now had a broken lock and that someone had gone through its contents.
A shotgun was missing, or I should say, THE shotgun was missing. I don’t think the shotgun was worth a lot of money, but it had a lot of sentimental value. I could not understand how someone could go through our possessions like that, but they did.
While we did go across the post to pick out some quartermaster furniture, there was not quite the variety and quality of furniture we had experienced in Mannheim. Mom later found the local J.C. Penneys or maybe it was Sears and bought some furniture . . . a couch, two end tables, a coffee table.
Catching up on TV programs
A few days later we had a new addition to the household. A television.
I had not seen a TV for about four years. In the 1960s there was little if any U.S. Television being broadcast in Europe, and after World War II, Europe adopted a different broadcasting system. Even if you had a U.S. TV in Germany, you could only pick up German images, but no sound.
I probably would have been happy without the TV as I was an avid reader and perfectly content to listen to weekly radio programs on AFN. But with a four-year-old sister and with the unrest in the world and in the U.S., I am sure Mom felt we needed the TV for news and some cultural enrichment.
I soon discovered “East Side Kids” (a.k.a. The Bowery Boys), the Three Stooges, Saturday morning cartoons, Tarzan movies from the 1930s, the Wonderful World of Disney, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and other programs. I am not sure how much cultural enrichment these programs offered, but they did give me a healthy dose of “Americana.”
It seemed strange to plug the console stereo right into the wall plug without having to first plug into a transformer, but soon the familiar buzzing boxes that we had used to convert the 220 volt electricity into 110 for our American appliances in Germany were forgotten.
While the console stereo could pick up some stations in Germany and other countries broadcasting over shortwave, I could not pick up Armed Forces Radio (AFN) and I dearly missed my regular radio programs. There were a few A.M. stations and some music stations on FM, but it seemed the mountain blocked a lot of stations that must be to the west of us.
Back to school
It was inevitable that school would start for me again, and so it did. I usually looked forward to school, but I dreaded being the kid who comes in after the school year has started. As Military Brats, we all had seen fellow classmates come and go as those cutting orders for our fathers did not follow any normal routine.
I felt self-conscious being introduced to the class by my teacher and I felt the entire class was staring at me. This time that strange kid in the class was me.
I felt completely lost the first few days, not only with a completely different school layout, but overnight I had met so many new people who were not that friendly, and I had totally different books than we were using in school in Germany. I not only felt lost, I felt stupid.
Instead of wearing long sleeves and a coat outside, it was short sleeves and far hotter than it had ever been in Germany. With a constant zero percent humidity, I didn’t sweat. I missed watching cloud formations and I even missed the rain which meant staying inside usually.
Instead of German class as my foreign language class, everyone was studying Spanish, and could carry on brief conversations. In music class, everyone was already playing the recorder, and I didn’t even know what a recorder was.
My music class teacher paired me up with one of the more advanced students, who tutored me a few days outside, away from the classroom. The recorder was a plastic wind instrument with holes you covered or uncovered as you blew into the mouthpiece. I was glad to be outside to spare the rest of class the squeaks and wrong notes and I tried to master the thing.
I was expected to not only learn the instrument but to also play in class performances, and to read music as well.
After only a day or two I had another setback—a flat bicycle tire. In Germany, on the sidewalks and on the roads on post, I had never had a flat tire. My bicycle was utterly reliable. I had taken my bike out for a ride in the neighborhood and it was fine.
Off road, in the play areas where the ground was loose sand, I discovered the dreaded sand thorns—small, spiked seeds of some sort that was as sharp as a tack and hidden just below the surface of the sand. They were everywhere.
I had to take my bike over a large sandy area to reach the bike rack each morning at school, and that’s probably where I had my first encounter. Walking my bike home from school with a flat front tire was not my idea of a fun afternoon.
My only consolation was that my brother had the same flat tire problem, so I was not alone in this predicament. My brother and I tried using tubes of a glue-like goop that we put into the tire tube then we spun the tires to distribute the glue and then pumped the tires. It did work, but within a couple of days we had flat tires again.
Soon all our allowance was spent on tire repair goop, and we were spending more time repair the bikes than actually riding them.
Dad took notice of our plight, and suggested a trip to the to the PX the next Saturday. We loved the PX—PX, or the BX as it was called on Air Force bases. There was a fully stocked bike area that sold both new bikes and a multitude of must have accessories such as squeeze bulb horns, extra loud warning bells, bike locks, replacement chains, add on reflectors and tire tubes.
There was a row of the small tire “banana seat” style bikes, with their “chopper” style high handle bars that were all the rage in the U.S. I still preferred my “European style” bike, which had come all the way from Holland to the PX in Mannheim, and was fully equipped with a built in bike lock, and a generator powered front headlight and back light for the rare occasion we were out when the sun went down, which was almost never.
Dad introduced us to “heavy duty” inner tubes—twice as think as a normal tire tube and he helped me to get the first one installed on my bike. In a few minutes I had mastered getting the old tubes out and the new tubes in. A few minutes with the hand pump and the tires were hard as a rock.
Having a bike meant freedom. Not total freedom, but it meant being able to get from your house to places around the post quickly instead of spending all your precious play time walking.
It also meant having a breeze in your face as you rode through the neighborhood, and it meant having a way to get away quickly from a stray dog who was not that friendly.
During my first few days of school, in utter frustration, I would ride my bike around the winding roads that made their way through the suburban neighborhoods of the post, and try as I might to get lost and to get away from all my troubles I would find myself back on what was becoming familiar streets and after the endorphins kicked in from riding fast and furious for a while, things didn’t look as bleak.
My mother, who was pregnant with my youngest sister at the time, started sending my brother and myself out to the PX and the Commissary on small shopping errands. We both received new wire baskets whic straddled the back tire and were mounted on the bike. At first I disliked having them on the bike, but they providing a handy place for two small grocery sacks, and also provided a great place for school books and the daily sack lunch for school.
I liked riding my bike when having a “mission” to accomplish. With the immense blue sky surrounding me in all directions, it was almost fun to go to the PX or the Commissary for my Mom. One day on the way back from the PX, I took a different route and I found the post library.
My old friend . . .
When I find a library, even to this day, it is as if I have found a long lost friend. Because of the the Dewey Decimal system and the now obsolete card catalogs, and librarians who must all share the same book purchasing lists, every library has a familiarity even while each one has a totally different layout. There is also the familiar scent of aging books and the quiet intensity of students working on research papers.
The library at Biggs Air Field was all on ground level, unlike the library in Mannheim, Germany where the library was in the attic of a two story building, with vertigo producing stairs leading to and from the library’s door.
This new, unexplored library had a few short steps in front of the building and inside it was cool, and once I found the reference section and started following the numbers, I then made my way to the fiction shelves. I felt at home for the first time since arriving in El Paso.
Over the next few weeks, my bike excursions changed from rides of frustration to exploration as I explored the boundaries and the areas that were permitted by those not in uniform.
A stone wall about three feet high and about a foot thick surrounded the housing area and the school, with desert that stretching outward as far as the eye could see. My brother and I speculated about how many rattle snakes and scorpions there must be out there, on the other side of the wall.
I settled into school, but my math class proved to be another major obstacle for me. My classmates were already well into reciting the multiplication table and could multiply numbers in their head, which I could not do. I struggled daily and realized I would have to memorize the entire multiplication table over my precious weekend and after school when I would normally be playing or reading, in order to catch up to catch up with the rest of the class.
On a positive note, I was reading a couple of grades beyond the fourth grade so I was at home in my English class and I loved having reading assignments. Science, World Geography, were actually fun, and I enjoyed being assigned topics to provide a report on.
I loved my art class. In the first or second grade I had begun to draw, and fueled by books and movies, I drew everything from Spanish galleons to castles, and whatever I saw a picture of in books.
My mother always had some sort of domestic project she was working on, whether there was a holiday or not, and we kids were encouraged to join in. Over time I developed a confidence with art and looked forward to the unknown challenges and new art ideas, and it provided a great break in the day from watching the chalk board and referring to books.
Soon I had settled into to school and post life, and in our English class classroom, there was a small selection of books in a bookcase that was perhaps three shelves high so all books were easily accessible to young children.
One Friday I checked out a book that had a bright yellow cover and a red space-suited figure on the front. My reading life would never be the same.
My dreams of outer space
The book I had chosen was Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. To say I devoured the book is an understatement. I had never heard of Heinlein, nor science fiction before, and after the weekend I became hopelessly addicted to science fiction, though I had no idea at the time.
The space race between the U.S. and Russia was in full swing during the 1960s and our space program had already progressed from single astronaut Mercury capsules to Gemini, which had two passenger capsules. I followed all of the various launches, space walks, docking maneuvers and capsule returns on AFN broadcasts, through radio coverage, the newspaper and now on Television.
The Apollo program started in 1967, with the goal of landing a man on the moon before 1970. Reading Heinlein’s book about a space adventure with characters bouncing on the moon’s surface, with our own space program about to land men on the moon made the science fiction I read very possible and real.
While in Germany I clipped articles from the Stars and Strips about the space program, and I read every book I could find about the moon, the other planets and space travel. I continued to clip articles from the paper, but TV coverage of the space program with Walter Cronkite, who seemed to be at the heart of the space program was what I seemed to live for.
After the initial launch of the rocket, the ground cameras in those days could only track the rising cylinder with billowing smoke beneath for a minute or two, then it became a tiny spec and was lost from sight. Walter Cronkite always had models available so he could show how the capsule would separate from the rest of the rocket or how other docking maneuvers would work.
A great number of airbrushed illustrations and sometimes animations were used to show various stages of the flight’s progress, which looked very real indeed, but letters at the bottom of the TV screen always spelled out what was a simulation courtesy of NASA.
New responsibilities—and opportunities
Dad was busy as a drill instructor and was rarely seen, except in the evenings for dinner and maybe to spend some time watching TV with us before he went to bed a 9:00.
My brother and I were given new duties which involved watering the grass and cutting the grass, and we also had Saturday morning chores such as cleaning up our rooms, changing the bed linen and other domestic tasks.
Dad bought a gas powered mower, courtesy of Sears and Roebuck, powered by a U.S. made Briggs and Straton engine. In the 1960s, it seems that almost everything was American made. The manufacturing powerhouse and skilled factory workers of the U.S. that had helped us win World War II turned to producing all manner of products that were scarce during the war.
In the 1950s especially, the U.S. exported a lot of goods abroad, as War torn Europe was having to rebuild its manufacturing capability, and the U.S. was only glad to use their excess capacity to produce goods for the U.S. and foreign markets.
In those days, Sears had a great reputation for Craftsman tools and customer loyalty going back several generations. When we lived in Germany we lived for the catalogs, especially the Christmas “Wish Book” catalog. Now that we were back in the U.S. we could go and pick up just about everything in the catalog from the local Sears store in El Paso, but assembly was extra so we came home from the store with a large box.
Some assembly required
We didn’t see our Dad much so any time spent with him was good, even if it was demonstrating the assembly of a lawn mower.
Like all men I suppose, he began by opening the box which was fastened with giant staples along the top seam. He fetched out the instruction manual and handed it to my brother. I got to go fetch my Dad’s large toolbox from the trunk of the car.
After the wheels were installed, next came the handles and the assembly which attached to the body of the mower. In a few minutes, it was ready for some oil and a test cranking, and my brother and I flipped a coin to see who get to take it out on it’s maiden grass cutting.
“Hold your horses, and pay attention to this,” said Dad as we began to hear Mower Safety and Usage 101. We were given instructions regarding safety and its care and we learned the importance of checking the oil level before starting it and to clean out the foam air filter after each use. We also learned to shut the mover off and to remove the spark plug wire before lifting exposing the deadly blade below.
I was also introduced to the dreaded blister producing hand-powered grass clippers for trimming around the fence between our yard and the neighbors.
My brother and took turns cutting the grass and clipping, and soon the grass height was at the regulation height of 1.2562 inches. After the third cutting we were somewhat expert, or so we thought.
One day at dinner Dad announced that he had a job for us. My heart sank. Dad always had some sort of new job that would usually involve loss of my precious reading time.
“It’s a paying job,” he said. “Sgt Duncan needs someone to cut his grass once a week for a dollar.” Fifty cents each was great, which when added to our weekly allowance of 25 cents meant we were going to be rich.
By today’s standards 50 cents doesn’t sound like much, but in 1966, 50 cents would buy you 10 packs of gum or 10 candy bars or four comic books with a couple of pennies left over for some bubble gum. Based on the price of candy bars, that would mean my brother and I made the equivalent of what today would be about $11 or $12 each for hour’s work—we did not count the time needed to get to the yard and returning, of course.
And so my brother and I started our lawn service. It was advertised by word of mouth and after a few weeks one customer led to a second customer, but as summer wore on and we had extra time on our hands, we really needed more customers.
One day a boy knocked on the door. He was a small African-American boy stood on the other side of the screen. My brother appeared next to me.
“Hi. Do you guys want more lawns to cut?”
“Sure,” we chimed. The PX was full of model airplane kits, comics, candy and other goodies we were always wanting.
“I can get you all the work you want,” which was music to our our ears. “But I want to be a partner.”
Oh—a three way split. Even splitting the money we received three ways it was a great deal. We would also split the labor three ways and since we would have more work, it seemed like a great win-win-win.
While I had experienced an integrated school in Mannheim, Germany and now here at Biggs Air Field, I must confess I had never had a close friend or playmate who was African-American, and while I may have been aware of the growing civil rights movement, on post skin color didn’t mean anything and we were insulated from what was a growing issue in the “civilian” world.
We worked out an arrangement where our new business partner found the jobs for us and told us where to be and on what day and time. My brother and I would ride over to the customer’s house on our bikes, dragging the lawn mover between us, with each of us holding onto the handle of the of the mower with one hand and steering the bike with the other. It took a couple of tries before we mastered the timing of getting going and it was impossible to give any sort of turn signal when riding along, but we never had any problems.
Soon we had plenty of lawns to cut. Our new friend would take turns with my brother and myself with one of us cutting the front, the other cutting the back and the other two clipping away with the hand clippers.
Sometimes we were tipped and other times we were paid the set price. Either way, after the three way split, we still had more than our weekly allowance, and with cutting maybe three or four lawns a week, we had plenty to pay for Saturday matinees, candy and comic books at the PX. Dad did make us pay for our own gas, which at that time was about 33 cents a gallon.
One weekend Dad was inspecting the mower and his gaze fell to the nearly smooth black plastic tires. There was hardly any trace of the criss-cross pattern from a few weeks earlier.
“You boys sure must be cutting a lot of lawns to wear the tire patterns clean off.” We did not say anything about how we transported the mower to and from job sites, and Dad never asked.
Part 4 – Summer Fun
Reading for Fun
Because I had missed so much school with the move from Germany and the struggles I had had with math, I was very happy to learn I had in fact passed with mostly As and Bs, except for a very low grade in math. Somehow they reconciled my two report cards and I was free for the summer.
Before school let out for the the summer, our school teacher announced there was a summer reading program where you could read books and record the names and authors. You had to get a parent to initial each read book and those who rad 30 books over the summer would get a special certificate at the start of the next year.
I was a voracious reader, and though I was growing more fond of TV with every program watched, I had no problem reading the required 30 books in about a month and a half. Back in Germany during the summer I would read a book a day, sometimes more, depending on the subject.
Unlike other kids who seemed to hate to read or would prefer to play or watch TV, I loved to read.
After reading Have Space Suit, Will Travel, I sought out other Heinlein juveniles at the post library as well as Andre Norton, Alan E. Norse and books on scuba diving, World War II and other topics. I breezed through a number of Hardy Boys mysteries, but they never had any encounters with aliens and no space travel was involved, and seemed a bit predictable, so I was less interested in the series and read maybe four or five only.
Unlike Mannheim, Biggs Air Field had a public pool, which was perfect for cooling off during the hot summer months.
Our first pool experience was great, though I did not know how to swim, it was fun to splash around the shallow end of the pool before we knew it two hours or more had passed. Unfortunately, in our haste to get into the pool, my brother and I did not put on any sunscreen, and we were as red as lobsters that evening and I suffered for a few days until finally all the dead out layer skin flaked off and I had a new tan.
Somehow I learned to swim without any formal instruction, and I bought a skindiving mask, flipper fins and a snorkel from the PX. I began practicing to be a Navy “frogman” and pretending to be one of Jacques Cousteau’s crew, as I was was an avid fan of his documentaries.
Burning bushes . . . but no voice of God
I made a few short excursions over the stone fence and out into the desert which surrounded the housing area. Usually my brother and I went out together, or I went with a friend from school. But we never did went far—we did not have snake bite kits, though we each had a canteen with water. My brother had metal Army Issue style canteen, but I bought a cowboy style canteen which had a thin felt covering on the front and back.
I also bought a pair of binoculars to better see what type of jets were flying up above and to spot dangerous animal life in the desert. I also found that binoculars were fun to use around the neighborhood, especially for spying on girls, which I had spent most of life until now trying to avoid direct contact with.
The post library had free packets of matches at the checkout desk for soldiers to help themselves to. In those days, it seems everyone in the Army smoked. One day, when the librarian was away from her station I took a few packages of matches and headed out the door. My heart was racing but I didn’t look back and I took off on my bike.
My brother, myself and a couple of neighbors would walk away from the housing area as far as we Dad and we would fire up the thin scrawny plants that found their way up out of the desert. I have no idea if they were baby tumbleweeds or some kind of grass or weed, but they they were green and burned well.
The burning bushes also made some dark smoke and I was worried that we were being watched by someone’s Mom with binoculars and our every move was being reported to the MPs. My own binoculars came in handy as a form of counter intelligence, but they were not powerful enough to let me see much detail beyond windows on the houses.
After setting a few more plants afire we practiced how to set up a package of matches to create a “hot foot” gag as we had seen in the Three Stooges on TV. Fortunately, no one in the group volunteered to be the sleeping victim of the prank, so we practiced instead on a poor plant. Finally, we were bored and we headed home.
There was never any danger of a fire getting out of control, as all the plants were spaced out, with several feet between each one, and soon the thrill of stealing matches waned.
My mother had found the craft shop where you could create “ceramics”, that is, you could pour liquid clay (slip) into plaster molds to create ash trays, cups, lamps, figurines . . . literally hundreds of different objects.
I thought it was amazing how boxy plaster molds could produce such perfect castings time and time again, and the process took several steps and trips to complete.
My brother would babysit my sister and my mother and I would go and first find several molds to cast. The slip came in plastic jugs, and we poured the slip into a hole in the top of the mold. After a few minutes the dry plaster mold would pull out water from the outer surface of the clay, then the slip, or liquid clay, would be poured out of the mold and added back to your gallon jug.
After letting the mold rest for another half hour or so it was possible to loosen the big rubber bands holding the mold pieces together and we would gently reveal the newly cast piece, and after another thirty minutes to an hour, the thin walled piece was firm enough to be lifted from the mold, then placed in a box filed with what looked like straw, but was actually shredded documents, providing a soft, cushioned space for transport to the shop instructor’s counter and to the area where cast pieces would continue to harden.
We had scribed our initials and date into the bottom of each piece, so we would be able to identify our pieces though out the next steps while the work remained at the craft shop.
After our second trip to the craft shop, we had our previous pieces to work on while the newly poured pieces set up. Using molds produced vertical seams that had to be gently scraped down with a special ceramics tool then smoothed with a sponge.
One the dry pieces had been touched up, it would be “fired” in the kiln to remove all the water from the piece, changing it from a dull gray color to a bright white color.
On our third trip we had a number of white “bisque” pieces as it is called. Bisque can be painted with a dull paint called a glaze, which when fired again will give the surface a hard glossy finish, and produces a wide range of colors.
While there were glaze samples showing what the finished surface would look like with the different glazes, for me it was quite amazing that something painted with a dull, faded paint would be transformed after firing in the kiln to glossy, rich colored pieces.
Over the next few months my mother and I made nativity figurines, wine goblets, lamps, ashtrays, candy dishes, flower pots and more. Some of the pieces survived many moves after Fort Biggs, and I have a few to this day.
I liked the evening hours best in the craft shop, with a fan blowing cool air through the work tables and simple benches, and the smell of clay in the air.
A visit to White Sands, New Mexico
Dad took a few days off and we went on a road trip to White Sands, New Mexico.
I had high hopes of seeing some actual missiles being launched, but instead I had to settle for a museum visit, and a visit of the Missile Park. The park was a blast and we also found that the sand in the area was indeed very white, and we spent some time out on the white sand dunes.
It reminded me of being out in the snow of Germany on a bright day without clouds—almost blinding to look outward.
The museum shop had a stack of free Estes Rockets catalogs, and I picked one up. Estes offered kits and parts for building simple, reusable rockets that used a solid rocket engine to push the rocket from a a tiny launch pad to over 2,000 feet.
I read the catalog from cover to cover on the ride back to El Paso, and folded down the corners of pages of what I thought were the best performing rocket kits.
I am not sure why, but even though I had the interest and sometimes the money from grass cutting or baby sitting, I never ordered a rocket kit. It may have have been because this was much different from model building in that a small rocket engine was used and adult supervision was required, but Dad was rarely seen at home. He was much too busy training Army recruits.
Sometime in the summer months my brother had some friends over to camp out in the back yard. Everyone brought either a complete pup tent, tent poles, stakes, or a poncho liners, some games and sleeping bags.
The tents were snapped together to make a giant mega tent. Pancho liners were used to cover the ground, and someone had Coleman lantern that used liquid fuel that you had to pump before igniting the wick, and we had some standard issue Army flashlights.
Looking back, I am not sure why we actually needed a tent, after all, it never rained in El Paso that I could tell, and the tent roof blocked the my view of the stars. It dis serve to contain all our camping gear however.
We at chips, told ghost stories and ate some C-Rations and my brother and his friends invited me to a game of Risk.
I had never played this game before and I had no idea that it could go on for so long. I was expecting something more like Monopoly and I had no idea the game was about dominating the world. After four hours or so I had enough so I crawled in my sleeping bag and fell asleep, with the sounds of crickets and the gamers arguing into the wee hours of the night.
Summer gave way to fall and a new school year. I met a new friend in the fifth grade, whose name was Perry and we rode bikes and traded comics. Perry had an interest in rock collecting and had quite a few in neatly organized specimen boxes where he had everything from “fools gold” to various quartz crystals and common rocks.
Starting a new school year with the rest of the class makes all the difference in the world. I felt that I finally fit in and I had a chance to establish myself in the classroom heirarchy. I had of, course received my summer reading certificate which gave me a sense of accomplishment from the start. It felt good to attach a list of additional books I had read above and beyond the required 30 books.
About this time I began to notice girls in a new way. I started getting my first growth spurts and I began to grow taller. In the past I had taken great lengths to avoid girls, except when circumstances or fate placed me next to a girl in class or when we were paired off for square dancing as part of PE during the third and fourth grades in Mannheim, Germany.
Almost overnight it seemed, I had a new appreciation for girls, and they were all around me, which I did not mind so much. There was a quiet brunette girl in my class who I stole glances at from time to time as I knew it was impolite to stare. There was something about her. Maybe it was her confidence or just that she was between me and the teacher, and almost always within my field of view.
One fall day, she gave a report on the Egyptian mummification process, describing in intricate detail how the Egyptians removed the organs from the deceased and how the organs and body were wrapped to prepare them for the afterlife. She also described how those preparing the body for the afterlife would remove the brain using a simple metal hook, going through the nostril.
I was amazed. Not only at what was being described, but that this girl could talk about this topic so matter of factly. Most of the other girls in class gasped or covered their mouth when the brain removal fact was revealed, but she carried on, detailing other aspects of Egyptian life that were also very “intriguing” without missing a beat.
Of course, I could never act on my attraction to this girl, and was content to admire her from afar and I now had another interest—archaeology.
I also noticed that our next door neighbor’s family had a girl who also about my age. We did not share any classes and I was much to shy to go beyond a quick wave to signal a “hello.” For a few weeks in the fall she would come over and spend some time talking to my mother. At first I thought that perhaps she and my Mom were trading recipes, but I later figured out that she was coming over to get a closer look at me.
Since I rode my bike to school and she walked, I was spared having to deal with any real social interaction. She was nice and invited me to her birthday party where there was record playing, which I liked, but also dancing. Dancing, as a ten year old, created a lot of social ackwardness, especially for the boys, or at least for me.
A few of the party members had the courage to dance together, but the rest of us stood around and stared at each other, or drank punch and munched on chips and dip. It was fun in a strange way but I was glad when the whole thing was over.
A few months later a moving truck came and packed her family’s house, and we said goodbye.
A pain in the heel
It was also during the fall of 1966 that I first noticed some shooting pains in the heels of my feet, especially during recess. The podiatrist discovered that one of my legs was a small fraction of an inch shorter than the other and that my heel pain was from the bones in my heel fusing. To compensate for the one leg being shorter, I was turning one of my feet outward.
I was prescribed special foot supports and ordered not to run or jump, which meant I could go outside with everyone else during recess breaks and during PE, but I had to stand or sit on the sidelines.
It was difficult to resist at first, but after a while I could play marbles with another boy who was asthmatic, or just watch everyone else playing. I would sometimes bring a book with me to read and while my interest in sports waned, my imagination was fueled by the books I read and while to this day I have some trouble sorting out the rules for many sports I have never had to worry about missing a sports defining game on TV and I have had more time to watch classic movies and to read.
Snowman in the Desert
December came to El Paso, and though I knew it was impossible to have snow when the outside temperature was in the 70s, I hoped there could be some freak weather storm and we would have one day of snow.
It didn’t happen. Though I did see a snowman one day as I was riding my bike to school in mid-December. From a distance it seemed rather fuzzy and when I stopped my bike a few feet away from the snowman I could see it was made from three tumbleweeds that were spray-painted white and tied together with some string.
I laughed to myself but the sight of the snowman made me think about all the snowmen and snow forts I had helped to build in Germany, and the huge snowball fights we would have.
There was a few times I could even justify putting on a lightweight jacket in the morning, but by the afternoon the jacket was unnecessary, and there were no snow clouds in sight.
A new sister
While I can’t remember getting “the talk” about the birds and the bees, sometime during the fall I learned my mother was going to have another child. Mom was in her mid thirties at this time, and I did notice she was tired a lot, and she was showing.
My sister, Nanci, was born on January 8, 1968. Being born in Texas meant she received a “Texas Style” birth certificate which was nothing like the plain black and white form that I have from Alabama. The certificate said she was entitled to wear cowboy boots, ride horses, wear a ten gallon hat and do other things that Texans are known for.
In the coming weeks we would learn my sister had the colic, and was not getting enough nourishment. She would drink her milk quickly then would spit up most of it, so she was constantly hungry, and crying, creating a cycle that never seemed to end.
She was put on special infant formula load with nutriments, but she remained very thin and small. I helped my mother as much as I could, from diaper folding (this was before disposable diapers) to bottle feeding, to rocking duty and baby sitting so mother could get out of the house once in a while.
I became a sort of second Mom to my little sister, and even though I am now in my fifties, Nanci will always be my baby sister and I will remember he as a tiny baby in my arms.
Nanci would eventually outgrow the colic, but the pregnancy and slow recovery afterwards, without too much sleep by my mother would took a toll on her health.
The “bug” war
While we had a couple of trees in yard that had some potential as climbing trees, I never attempted to climb them. Soon after we arrived and moved in I noticed there were whitish spider webs covering many of the branches of the trees. Instead of a delicate web, these were thick, almost resembling multiple layers of webbing. I wondered what kind of spider made such a thing and I took care not to go anywhere near the trees.
It turned out we did not have a spider problem, but instead we had a caterpiller problem. At first I was curious about the little fuzzy creatures, but as time wore on, they increased in number and found their way past the screen door and into the house. It was more than annoying to be watching your favorite TV program and to feel a tickling on your ear and to discover a 3 inch long fuzzy caterpiller was working it’s way along the couch and you were in its way.
If you were not careful where you stepped you might step on one as well, and even through Mom tried some insect sprays, they continued to invade our house.
Outside the house in the fall, they were everywhere. One day after school, I was in the back yard and saw that one side of our house was completely covered with hundreds—no, make that thousands of caterpillers.
Each was intent on getting to the top of the wall, where the roof extended past the wall and where there was a protected area. The caterpillers would then spin a cocoon around themselves, sealing themselves in, away from the world, and emerge as a butterfly in the spring.
There was no way there would be room for all of the caterpillers. I tried hosing the things off the wall but a few hours later the wall was covered again. I thought that birds ate worms and caterpillers, but it seems we had a shortage of birds at Biggs Air Field, so we were left to our own devices.
Eventually the catapiller invasion ceased and a few cocoons remained and in the spring when I thought about looking for the catapillers I found only empty husks and I did see an occasional butterfly.
Orders for Viet Nam
As much as Dad was needed as D.I. to train troops for combat in the U.S. Army, the war in Viet Nam needed more experienced soldiers, especially Sergeants. Given Dad’s combat experience in the Korean War and rank, or his punch card getting sorted by an IBM computer somewhere, he received orders for Viet Nam.
In the summer of 1967 the packers came in the morning and by late afternoon we had an empty house to clean and get past inspection. A few days later I said goodbye to Perry and we were on the road again, headed to eastward Columbus, Georgia, with a few stops on the way.
While I had adapted finally to Biggs Air Field and could now look back on the things that were so hard to overcome at the Moment, I was in no way prepared for what was to come—our living off post while my Dad was in Viet Nam.
That year would prove to be the worst year of my life.