Know Thy Neighbor

Living in assigned quarters on any military post means living where you are told to live, unlike civilians who get to choose where they want to live and what schools their children can go to. James offers some insights into life on post.

As a military brat, we rarely had our “own” house.  Like most everybody else, we lived in quarters on post.  Given that my father was enlisted, that meant living in an apartment alongside 17 other families. 

In Karlsruhe and Mannheim, our buildings had three stairwells, with six families per stairwell.  And for almost 17 years, I didn’t think there was really any other way to live.  Oh, sure…the senior officers had two-story duplex units, along with a little yard in back, but they were officers, and that’s just how it was.  Besides, MY backyard stretched the whole length of an apartment building, and everybody shared in keeping it cut and maintained.

Despite the fact that Mannheim’s BFV was a relatively large installation, I’m amazed at how many people we all knew.  Classroom sizes were small (my high school’s entire student body at Mannheim was less than half of what the high school I graduated from in America had for their senior class alone!) and it seemed that we just all “knew” each other.  Yes, as with all schools, certain cliques formed between athletes, scholars and such, but even those were easier to break into as a military brat.  I guess when you only have three years, friends form quickly.  On any given day, walking along the well-worn paths we had created resulted in coming across numerous people that you could call by name.

In our court alone, there were 36 families.  And I knew at least one person in every single one of those apartments.  There was (and still is) a huge sense of family and of belonging together that those in the civilian world just don’t get.  To put that into perspective, when we moved to Tennessee, we moved into a house that my parents had bought long before my father retired. 

It was a simple ranch-style house in an otherwise normal subdivision.  After being in that house for almost 10 years, I couldn’t tell you the names of five families, much less 36.  The sense of community just didn’t exist like I had grown unaccustomed to.

Summers were magical in Germany, because night wouldn’t fall until long into the evening.  Being in ‘after dark” took on a whole new meaning.  As kids, we’d stay out until after 10pm, milking the very last drops of daylight to the very end.  Parents sat outside on benches in front of the stairwell, swapping stories, or sharing a cold beverage and just hanging out.  It would have been stranger for me not to see several families sitting outside on the benches.  We were a close-knit fellowship, and we all enjoyed spending time outside with one another.  Never mind that a parent could leave a child outside until after 9pm without fear of them disappearing. 

The sense of family that we enjoyed just seemed to come naturally.  A neighbor and his wife (one of the wisest CSM’s I ever had the privilege of meeting) would get into their old Mercedes for an ice cream run, and it was nothing to ask to tag along.  The trust was implied, and there was a genuine joy in riding along in that old grey box, heading into town for some incredible Italian ice cream. 

Years later, when I returned to Germany as a college student visiting my parents, that same couple had moved off post, the old CSM long retired, but still working in Mannheim.  They openly and without reservation invited me to stay at their house for a night, and I was glad for the chance to catch up to dear, old friends as I visited my old stomping grounds.  It was the same for weekend barbeques, or a holiday celebration.  We just all piled in together and made memories that still resound as special to this day. 

Halloween meant combining six families worth of candy to be given at the foot of the stairwell, while my father piped down the “Ghostbuster’s” theme song on speakers throughout the stairwell (for several hours, no less).  And one year, Mama Deane (a rather boisterous and vocal German wife of another SMg) spent the evening of halloween just below the stairwell in the basement, soulfully wailing and moaning as kids wandered up to the stairwell. 

That was a good year…her wailing resulted in a massive amount of leftover candy for us kids!  For New Year’s Mama Deane would walk down the street of Lincoln St. looking for young soldiers that needed a place to celebrate the holiday, far from home and without family.  Many was a young couple that got invited up to 56-E for a rousing version of the Chocolate Game!

I suppose that’s why we all cling to each other as Military Brats.  We’re used to being closed—used to knowing all of those around us.  It’s a phenomenom that is not shared outside of our world, and that’s a shame.  The sense of belonging and cohesion that came from living on post was at once so comforting and familiar, that it was a true culture shock once we were removed from it.  And now at 40 years old, I’m not sure I could point out my neighbor from across the street if I saw him somewhere in town. 

My prayer for my son is that he moves into his life as an Air Force officer, and when he does begin his family, that he decides to spend some of their formative years living in quarters at whatever base he’s stationed at.  My grandchildren (no rush for that—just one day down the road—years from now, preferably) deserve a little bit of childhood spent roaming the streets of their bases with their best buddies, just as we did—free of worry, and with everybody they know within walking distance of where they call home. 

There was no greater richness in the world that my father could have provided me.

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  1. Hi James, my family lived in Mannheim from 1962-1966 and I could picture the building we lived in and the shared playground area between the building as I read your description.

    As a child our favorite game was playing Army and every few Saturdays the older kids would assume the role of officers, and the younger kids would be the NCOs. Helmet liners, plastic guns and rifles would come out and we would fight against our enemies who were a couple of buildings away.

    One year, there was some construction being done and there were trenches left unattended over the weekend and we took advantage of them for our defense and it added to our pretend battle.

    Occasionally some kids from several streets over would challenge our “turf” and coal was readily available for tossing back and forth, but this was very rare and usually any pent up aggression we had was released in snowball fights during the winter months.

    Thank you for your post on MBL and for taking me down “memory lane”.

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