“I’m sorry for raising you in such a dump.” Those were the exact words my father used as we sat on the balcony of my parent’s apartment. It was a beautiful evening in Goeppingen, and I was on vacation after my sophomore year in college. We were enjoying a discussion about life in general, and I joked that my dad had done pretty well “for a farm boy from Indiana.”
He had spent 27 years in the United States Army, risen to the rank of Master Sergeant, then retired. He returned to Germany as a civil servant, doing much the same work, but with the added benefit of better pay (and no morning PT!). Looking out over the long balcony of their admittedly very, very nice apartment, we compared their new digs to how we lived years earlier on various posts.
My formative years were spent from 1978-1986 in Mannheim, Germany. Of all the places we lived, this is place that I tell people I come from. For Brats, being asked “where we come from” can sometimes pose a challenge. Is it the last base we lived on? Was it the base we stayed the longest at
Maybe it was the post we were born on. In that respect, we have choices to define ourselves that those that didn’t grow up as Brats don’t have, and probably wouldn’t understand. But the perspective of how we grew up is certainly different, and it’s something I realize more and more as a parent myself now.
Being an enlisted soldier, we weren’t allotted the fancier housing on post. For seven years, we occupied apartment 56-E, Building 197 on Lincoln Street, Benjamin Franklin Village. Ask me our phone number there…I still remember it. When we arrived, I had just turned eight years old, and was painfully shy and quiet. My first recollection of our new home was longingly looking out my bedroom window to the backyard, where a boy about my age was throwing a football to his much older brother.
I didn’t know it then, but it was a ploy to get me outside and to meet my neighbors. Count this as yet another difference for us Brats. While the people around us always changed (either by their rotation, or ours), within a very short period of time, new friends were made. It was part of our survival, I suppose. When you only had three years to know somebody, friendships generally were made much faster than our civilian counterparts.
Our apartment was near the end of the main street on BFV, but I quickly discovered that everything I ever needed or wanted was within walking distance. Until I reached the 7th grade, I walked to school…every day. We didn’t know what a snow day was. Friday night or Saturday afternoons were great for catching a movie at Schuh Theater, a five minute walk down the street.
The bowling alley was just across the parking lot from the Theater. I can’t count the number of quarters I sank into video games there and at the Laundromat. Once in middle and high school, our lunch periods were over an hour long. I usually rode my 10-speed Peugeot bike back to the apartment and ate lunch with my father. I was shocked when we came back to the States and I found out that my lunch period would only be 20 minutes and we couldn’t leave the school campus!
Just behind our apartment building was a huge sports field, where we played endlessly in the shadow of M1A1 battle tanks just across the wire from where we built a Star Trek-inspired battle bridge out of dried grass. One memorable afternoon even found all of the kids spilling out of their homes as an AH-1 Cobra landed in the ball field. If I wanted to hang out with my best friend, it was a five minute bike ride to his house over on Jefferson Street.
For a child entering his teens, living on post was about as close to perfect as it could be. Everything important to me was no more than 10 minutes away, with the exception being the Schwimmbad that was a good 30 minute walk away (but so worth it).
Given that my father was a senior NCO, our apartment had three rooms, meaning I had my own room. And later, when my sister went to college back in the USA, I took over her larger room. We only had one bathroom in the entire apartment, and I marveled later upon returning to the States that homes could actually have multiple bathrooms.
But it never occurred to me that we were lacking anything, in any way. And that’s why my dad’s words stung me. Here he was talking like we lived in poverty, and I never saw it. What was he talking about? How could he have thought this way? Granted, as we sat outside in the cool air of a setting sun on the balcony of their new penthouse apartment, I’m sure the tiny apartment there on Lincoln Street seemed so rudimentary, so lacking in comparison. Perhaps my father felt that he hadn’t been able to provide his children with “more” or better.
As a parent of a 19 year old son, I can understand how my dad felt. I’ve often expressed to my son that I wish that I could have given him more. His friends all seemed to come from families that had done better financially than I did. But I look at my son, who is entering his second year at the United States Air Force Academy being ranked #9 overall in his class of over 1,300 with astonishment and pride. His perception of his childhood is nothing like mine of being his father in the same period of time. We didn’t have the pool in the backyard, or the big ski boat at the lake, but despite all of that, my son is standing at the starting line of a life I can’t even imagine.
My father died 13 years ago, and we were just starting to develop a real closeness that I’m deeply saddened we were never able to foster and build on. His view of my childhood surroundings was one of lacking and near-poverty, spent in cramped quarters with nothing much to show for it. I wasn’t given the time to express to him just how incredible I perceived my childhood to be.
I was privileged to grow up an Army Brat, and that’s a title I carry with fierce and unwavering pride. Being overseas, I was exposed to a world view that many people here in the States still don’t see. And while our little apartment at 56-E might have only had one bathroom, it never dawned on me that we were anything but fortunate for what we did have.
I knew every family in my building (all 17 besides us), and knew at least one family in each of the buildings directly before and directly after ours. We were safe to play outside late into the summer evenings, chasing June bugs with our tennis rackets, or finishing up a pick up game of basketball next to the Middle School.
In the end, my father’s “dump” was nothing less than the perfect place for me to grow up, to explore in the safety of the post, and to spend time with friends unencumbered by distance or need for anything more than my feet or my bike. For us Brats, it simply didn’t get any better. And for those that didn’t grow up “Brat,” I genuinely feel for them. So dad, if you’re listening, you did good and I couldn’t have asked for better.