My mother had mentioned my father’s teeth grinding and his waking up in sweats as he relived the Korean War for years in the 1950s and 1960s, but this in no way prepared us to deal with the stranger who returned to us in 1969.
We wrote letters to Dad nearly every day and we did get some replies, but we had no idea what he was going through, beyond the nightly news reports on TV and the daily casualty tally. He told us virtually nothing of what it was like, which was good, but it was almost as if he wasn’t really there.
We kept remembering how he was when we lived in Germany . . . in good spirits, ready to go for an outing, joking and laughing, and we wished it could be like it was, but this was not to be.
For Military Brats, war is hell too.
For me my year in hell meant attending “public” school in Columbus, Georgia. It was 1968, the height of the civil rights movement and the Junior High school I was attending was about to be integrated.
It was strange listening to many of the fellow students discussing the issue. Having only gone to schools on post up to this point, which were, of course integrated, I failed to see what the problem was.
Finally the day arrived, and two lone black students were enrolled. While I couldn’t relate to how they felt exactly, I did feel very much along at the school, as I missed my fellow Military Brat friends and there was no one at the school at first I could relate to.
Missing respect for authority
I was very surprised at how so many of the students would talk back to their teachers, and how so many students were taken out into the hall and were talked to by the teacher, or in a few cases forced to lean against the wall for a few minutes until their arm muscles ached.
There did not seem to any fear of a student’s father getting a call from the school, and I soon realized this school, Rothchild Junior High School, was similar to schools I had attended on military posts, but it was not run the same way, and there was virtually no respect for anyone in authority.
For the first time I was riding a bus to school. It was so loud and rowdy sometimes, the bus driver, Old Man Tucker, would pull off the road and wait in silence until it was quiet enough for him to be heard above the roar. Looking back, I’m surprised we never had an accident, and that he had enough self-control not to strike the trouble-makers on the bus.
As much as I loved to read and learn, I dreaded going to school each day. I would wake up with a knot in my stomach, fearing the unknown—would I get beaten up by a student who didn’t like my flat top haircut? Would my mother get word during the day that my father had been killed?
Making new friends
Like other Military Brats, even in the worst of circumstances, I was able to make a few new friends. One new friend liked to draw in the margins of his notebook paper as much as I did, and we spent some time together lunch and during “study hall”.
This was the first time I had experienced study hall, and most students were doing everything but studying.
I was, like many kids growing up in the age of manned rocket flight, in love with all things to do with space travel and rockets. I had a dog-eared Estes Rockets catalog that I read and reread, and I took to designing my own rockets during study hall.
I never had the money to go to the next step and actually order a rocket kit, but I spent countless hours drawing the schematics of the rockets and thinking about men possibly walking on the moon.
A familiar face
One day someone got on the bus who I recognized. My classmate and friend Perry, who also lived at Biggs Airfield in El Paso, Texas, was now living about a mile or so from where I lived.
Finally, I had someone to talk to who understood some of what I was going through.
Perry and I did not have any classes together, but we did have a chance to talk for a while on the morning and afternoon bus ride, and occasionally at lunch, but I never shared with him what I was going through and how difficult it was adapting to a civilian school.
At Biggs Airfield, we shared classes and we would ride our bikes around the post.
But in Columbus, my mother kept us close and we weren’t allowed to stray far from the house. She didn’t have to tell us it was not like living on post. I was reminded of that every day on the school bus which was loud and unruly, and in the classrooms where students talked back to their teachers—both behaviors that were never tolerated on post.
What I missed the most was the post libraries. At Biggs Airfield, we had two, I believe, within easy biking distance from our assigned quarters. But in Columbus, it was miles across town, and required navigating four-lane highways and busy intersections.
Fortunately for me, Rothschild Junior High School, had a fairly well-stocked library, and I took full advantage of our library time at school and I read every book the library had by Robert A. Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Arthur C.Clarke, Andre Norton, Alan E. Norse, and others.
The race to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade was heating up and the Apollo space program progress was both in the newspaper and on the TV, serving to fuel my interest in science fiction even more.
For me, most of the science fiction I read was pure escapism. In the worlds of the future there was no war that everyone hated called Viet Nam.
As 1968 turned into 1969, I adjusted, as I knew I must, and it was good to be living in the same town as two of my father’s brothers and just a few miles from my father’s mother and father.
We had a small house that was our house, bought with a VA loan, and for a while we had the life of many of the civilians around us, except the fact that my father wasn’t going to work every morning locally; he was in Viet Nam, sleeping in a tent.
A stranger returns
My father came home in the summer of 1969, and there were stiff hugs and we were all glad that he had made it back to us to us safely. But there were no smiles on his face and attempted jokes at the dinner table fell flat and the first few weeks it was as if a stranger had returned.
We were thinking things would be the same as before, but we were wrong.
My dad’s brothers came by to visit, and we got to visit some with our cousins, and later on other family members arrived and in some ways it was like old times as we kids played and listened in once in a while to the adult conversation going on.
When my dad’s three brothers got together, talk always turned to stories from two of my uncles who had served in WWII. One of my uncles, Uncle Myers, had served in the Navy and was a landing craft pilot during D-Day, my other uncle, Uncle James, had served in the Army and had been in many major campaigns during WWII including the Battle of the Bulge.
My brother and I weren’t allowed to be part of the discussions and story telling, but we could sometimes listen in from the kitchen or overhear some stories when we got together over at my grandmother and grandfather’s house.
It would be many years later before I would hear my Dad talking about specific incidents in Viet Nam and he never talked to me about any of his war experiences one on one, which probably is just as well.
Repairing a bottomless pit
The house was brand new and the lawn responsibility fell on my brother and myself. While my father was gone we had seeded, fertilized, watered and had finally gotten something to grow in the sandy soil.
But near the back corner of our backyard, a storm drainage grate had been put in by the city, which attracted the runoff from several yards, and over the course of our stay we watched as part of the embankment behind our fence eroded away around the storm drain.
Looking down at the hole around the exposed concrete culvert that went down into the ground, it was like the opening to a creature’s cave. Over the months before, it had only gotten larger and was like a live creature, eating our yard.
Looking back, this was something the city would have been responsible for, but Dad took it upon himself to fix and he made a project out of filling the hole and shoring up the embankment.
Naturally, we wanted to help, even if it mean getting growled at. We had half-expected to be in trouble on what had happened to the back yard around the drain, so to pitch in on some yard work would be getting off easy.
We worked away moving piles of dirt. After the third or fourth load of dirt on the uneven ground, my wheelbarrow tipped over. I was 11 and a half, and the load of dirt probably was twice my weight.
My Dad exploded and kicked me and told me to go inside.
Fighting back tears I obeyed him and went inside.
Eventually my Dad’s leave was over and we were packed by the Mayflower Moving Company and headed to Fort Knox.
My father was a drill instructor at Fort Knox for four years, and threw himself into his work and we only saw him at dinner and for an hour or so afterwards, and occasionally on the weekend.
Little by little, over the years that followed, the stranger turned into more of what I remembered my father to be, but he was never the same.
And as I grew from a boy into a young man I realized I had to cherish the good memories, and try to forget the things that were bad.