Little Boxes

Remember the song by Malvina Reynolds with the words: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes just the same.” Military Brats know all about those “little boxes.”

For many brats, that song might describe base quarters, and perhaps even the houses we lived in off base. As military brats, we have all lived in different kinds of houses. I was thinking back to all the houses I lived in as a brat, and there were a variety of kinds and styles.

In Japan, we lived on Shiroi Air Force Base.  I was very young when we lived there, in a two storied house. I fell down the stairs one Sunday and busted my forehead open. it was right at Sunday dinner time, and my parents had company. Dad had to take me to the ER for stitches. Because I was so young, I don’t remember much about the house.

I remember the stairway, two huge bedrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, a living room . . . typical house. The main thing I remember about living in that house is our maid, Tomi. She was very sweet and so good to me.

At Carswell Air Force Base, there was a long wait for base quarters, and my parents did not want to sign a rental lease or buy a house because they knew we would not be there for long, so we lived in a trailer for a short time.

From Carswell we moved to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi. There we lived in Wherry housing. The housing was, like most base quarters, duplexes. The wall heater in the bathroom was back to back with the wall heater in the bathroom next door. The little boy who lived next door and I would sit on the floor next to the heaters and talk through them. Our words came through to each other loud and clear.

There was also a laundry room in the back of the house with an old wringer style washing machine. Many of the brats on this site are too young to remember those.

When dad got orders to India, they packed our household goods 3 or 4 months before time for us to leave because they had to go by ship…..so we lived in a furnished apartment in an old pre-WWII barracks building. if I remember correctly. there were four apartments in the barracks, two upstairs and two downstairs. We lived upstairs. I thought nothing of living in an old barracks. it seemed quite normal to me.

There was no base in India. It was embassy duty in the Air Attache office. so no base quarters, no PX, no commissary, none of the things you usually find on bases/posts. We lived in a walled compound with three other American families. At the back of the compound were servant’s quarters. I was the only American child in the compound, so I had no one to play with.

Maybe that is why I became such an avid reader. My parents had a large library of books. We could not get children’s books in English, so I read my parent’s books. They had a lot of classics. When dad would go TDY he would bring me back a supply of Enid Blyton’s children’s books.

The house we lived in in India was not like any house I had ever seen. It was rather like some houses in the middle east, with an outside stairway leading up to the walled roof. The grown ups would have cocktail parties up on the roof and I played up there quite a bit when it wasn’t too hot. You could see a long distance from up there. One evening while we were up on the roof the sky turned black. It was not clouds . . . it was locusts. A swarm of them, as far as we could see. They ate every plant in their path on the way through,

The houses in the compound had screened verandas the width of the house across the front. The gardener would hang what was called cuss cuss on the screens in the summer. It was some kind of grass woven into sheets. He would hose them down, and when a breeze blew through, it would cool the veranda.

The houses had no window screens, just bars. If you opened a window on a hot evening, all kinds of critters would make their way in . . . geckos, spiders, etc, which freaked me out, of course. I was 6 to 8 years old in that house, and I was afraid a gecko would fall off the ceiling into my bed. They would walk upside down on the ceiling.

After India, dad got orders back to Keesler. We lived off base that time, in a house with a screened in porch not far from the beach. It was not a big house, but was comfortable. Like most of the houses in Biloxi at that time, the house was not air conditioned. Instead, there was an attic fan. It would pull in cool air through the windows, since there was always a breeze coming off the water. It never got uncomfortably hot. the house did not have central heat either. It had a floor furnace in the main hallway in the center of the house.

After Keesleer, dad got orders to England. That was in 1957. We lived in a house on the economy while waiting for quarters on base. It was a typical English house of that era, what we would call a two story duplex, The British called them semi-detached houses. They were mostly all the same, with a dining room, kitchen and living room downstairs, and two bedrooms, a bathroom, and what the British call a box room upstairs. The box room was about the size of a big walk in closet. The houses in England at that time did not have closets. You had to use wardrobes and armoires.

We had no central heat . . . just fireplaces, one in each room except for the box room and bathroom. My parents supplemented the fireplaces with a couple of kerosene heaters downstairs. At that point, we lived in the north of England, in the city of Warrington, which is not far from Liverpool.

After a year, we moved into quarters on RAF Burtonwood, a pre-WWII era quonset hut. The bathroom in the quonset hut was VERY cold. One didn’t stay in the bathroom a moment longer than was necessary. (I will be posting photos later of the quonset hut and wherry housing at Keesler… have to get them from my mom the next time we visit her.)

The other kind of quarters at RAF Burtonwood were what was known as Tobacco housing, because they were paid for with tobacco taxes. They were like a single story ranch style house in the States.

After a year in the quonset hut, dad got orders to London, so we moved again. In London, we lived off base. There was no base housing at Bushy Park . . . just a club, a DODDS school, and several military buildings. We lived on the economy there in a little village called Stanwell Moor. Many British people named their houses. Ours was called Coldstream, because the owner of the house was in the British Army and was a Coldstream Guard.

This was, I think, my favorite house I lived in as a brat. The house was on the very edge of the village, surrounded on two sides by a big wheat field. There were woods across the street, where my English friends and I played all the time. Mostly, though, I rode horses. I knew how to ride western, but while living in England, I learned to ride with an English saddle. Living in that house was a happy year for me. I was in the 8th grade at Bushy Park (London Central).

Dad got orders back to Keesler when we left England. At first we lived off base just a block from the beach. My now husband, Terry, lived across the street. That is how we met when we were 14 years old, 50 years ago this summer.

After a year in that house, we moved into base quarters. They were old even then, and were called The White Houses. They looked like cottages. I loved living in that house. It was in a good location, between the beach and the Back Bay. We ended up in Capehart housing at Keesler until dad retired.

Terry and I went back to Biloxi for our 45th high school reunion last October, and we went on Keesler. I barely recognized it, it had changed so much. All the old barracks had been torn down and replaced with modern structures. The base housing was new, too. A lot of damage was done during Katrina to the entire Gulf Coast.

I lived in all kinds of quarters and houses on the economy as a military wife in England, the Azores, and various US locations, but that is another blog.

Each of the houses I lived in as a brat helped to shape me. Each was a shelter, a safe place. My mother did her best no matter where we lived to make each house as homey as possible, and I did the same thing as a military wife.

Although we brats grow up feeling like nomads, we did not have the degree of continuity that nomad children have. When nomads move, the entire tribe, consisting of immediate family, extended family and friends move all together, so that the collective memories remain intact. They take their homes with them, usually tents, like the Mongols, bedouins in the Arab countries, and the Massai in Africa.

We did not take our extended families and friends with us when we moved, just our immediate family. We did not take our homes, just our household goods. Mary Edwards Wertsch, in her book, Military Brats, does a wonderful job explaining the differences between brat life and the lives of nomads, and the psychological impact that way of life has on us.

I also read a book called Unrooted Childhoods, which explores how having no roots affects us. Many of our parents grew up in one place, and so did not fully understand us, the children of constant moves and perpetually saying “goodbye.”

Our unrooted childhoods, the foreign cultures we lived in, our brat friends, and the houses we lived in, all helped to shape who we are, and why we are the way we are. I am happy to have lived my life as a brat and thankful for life’s lessons learned along the way.

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  1. I really enjoyed your story about your life as a brat.  I was also a brat and also went to school at Bushy Park, 4th grade, in 1955 or 1956.  Feel free to send me an e-mail if your interested.  To this day I still feel a kindred spirit with others that lived the life of an Air Force brat.  I still remember the week long sailings across the North Atlantic.  Thanks for the story, hope to hear from you.  

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