Previous Life

It has often been said that you can never go home again. And for military brats, that can be doubly true. Even if you have a chance to go back to a previous duty station, usually all of the friends who helped to make it ‘home’ have moved on with their families to new assignments. So nothing is the same. A few years ago, however, I did go ‘home’ again. And it was wonderful, and a little sad.

My husband, Tim (who grew up civilian), and I were in San Antonio, Texas for our youngest daughter’s drill team competition. After the competition ended, we were on the highway heading back to Fort Worth, when I saw a road sign for El Paso. I mentioned to our daughter that I had lived there at Biggs AFB, from 1958 to 1962, and would love to see it again. Just for a lark, Tim suggested that we head for El Paso.

We arrived in El Paso late at night, so nothing looked even remotely familiar. We checked into a hotel, and exhausted after the 500 mile trip, went straight to bed. The next morning dawned bright and clear. When I looked out the window, there were the Franklin Mountains, looking exactly the same as I remembered. Even the morning light was the same. After a quick breakfast, I insisted that we head out to Biggs, now a part of Fort Bliss. Our daughter just couldn’t understand why I was so anxious to see ‘an old Air Force base’.

On the way out to the base, everything looked different, but once we were through the main gate, I began to see familiar sights. We drove around the base for a while, then stopped at the Base Chapel, where I had attended Bible School, and youth group, for several years. I stood on the front steps, facing the Franklin Mountains, and had such a sense of deja vu; it brought tears to my eyes.

Next, we drove through the base housing area. The street names had changed, and the house numbers weren’t the same, but I had no trouble finding ‘our’ house. I just sat in the car, in front of the house, for a few minutes and memories came flooding back. Memories of happy times, and friends, and sad times, and of my parents and siblings flooded back. But none of this could compare with the experience of going back to the base school, just a block from the house.

School was in session at Benjamin R. Milam Elementary School when I strolled up the front walk. Before going through the doors, I turned to look out over the front lawn. Nothing had changed! The flagpole was right there, the cable clanging softly against the pole, in the slight breeze. The lawn sprinklers were on, making the same tick, tick, tick noise that I remembered. Past the fence across from the school, the desert was unchanged, stretching off into the distance.

As I walked into the main hall, everything looked exactly the same! The fragrance of baking bread from the cafeteria wafted over me; unchanged from my childhood. The sounds were the same. The ‘cafetorium’ with the pull-down tables and benches was unchanged except for the fading of the velvet curtains on the stage. I walked through the cafeteria line, and expected to see the same faces behind the counter. I walked into the office, and was half-way surprised that Mrs. Olfers was no longer the secretary, smiling at everyone who invaded her domain.

After speaking to the principal, I walked the halls, and visited all of the classrooms I had attended. Even the tables in the lower grade rooms were the same as those where I’d sat, some twenty-five years earlier. I visited Miss Graff’s third grade classroom, Miss Maxwell’s fourth grade, Mrs. Leonard’s fifth grade, Mrs. Roberts sixth grade, Mrs. Wright’s seventh grade… of course they weren’t there, but it didn’t really matter. The memories and ambiance were.

I felt as though I’d stepped through a door into the past. I felt the years slip away. I had the most curious sensation that, if I walked out the front doors of the school and down the block to the old house, my parents and sisters and brother would be there; at just the same ages they had been when we lived there, and that I’d be able to step back into that life. I was, just for little while, a child again. Neither my husband nor my daughter could quite understand how I felt, or why I cried, but it didn’t really matter. I’d been ‘home’.

It has often been said that you can never go home again. And for military brats, that can be doubly true. Even if you have a chance to go back to a previous duty station, usually all of the friends who helped to make it ‘home’ have moved on with their families to new assignments. So nothing is the same. A few years ago, however, I did go ‘home’ again. And it was wonderful, if a little sad.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Military Brats Online, 1997.

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  1. Sometimes, returning “home” to a post or base will feel completely alien (as did my return to Karlsruhe a few years back).  Buildings are all still there, as are the street signs…even the mascot was still painted on the side of the school, even though the base had been handed back to the Germans years ago.  It was sad to realize that Americans would never again live in this community.  On the flipside, my work gets me back to Tobyhanna Army Depot fairly regularly, and we lived there for a year back in 1977.  On my first return to Tobyhanna, I spent the day driving to the housing area.  Not a thing had changed!  I found “my” house immediately, and began taking several pictures to send back to my sister.  We had moved to the post housing just after they had been completed, and we thought we had died and gone to heaven.  Two stories AND a garage??  And while the town of Mt. Pocono has grown up some, I was still able to easily find the little beauty parlor we rented an upstairs apartment from while we waited for quarters to be completed…and for a split second, I was 7 years old again, staring out of the attic window, looking down the main street at our quiet little town.

    For a Brat, going back will never mean the same thing to us as it might for those that didn’t grow up in the military…and it’s something I’d never wish to have the ability to change.

  2. Two of my main bases, Castle AFB in Atwater, CA, and KI Sawyer AFB in Gwinn, MI, got closed by the BRACs in the 1990s.  I’ve ben back through both bases now as they exist as ghost towns of another era. 

    At Castle, I spent my 7-9th grade summers at the OClub pool.  Somewhere in my mind I can remember the Easter Egg Hunt there in 1969, on our first visit.  Because it was a training base for B-52s, we were stationed there four times. 

    In 2008 I went back through there.  The OClub is gone.  Most of the buildings on the base are gone.  The pool has been either backfilled or completely dug out.  It was quite hard to see.

    At KI, it’s now so vastly changed from my life there between 2nd-the end of 6th grade.  It’s closed, too.  The Alert Shack where dad would spend weeks at a time being 13 minutes away from heading to targets he still can’t talk about, is still behind the double-gated fencing, but last summer when I was up there, local law enforcement cars were practicing J-Turns out on the Christmas Tree where the B-52s used to sit ready to go. 

    Base housing looks the same, but the paths I wandered as a kid on my bike have grown back over and appeared to never have even been there.

    Yesterday, Obama was at KI.  None of the media even mentioned it was a former SAC base, or even a base at all.  They just said Air Force One was going to land there and he’d be motorcaded into Marquette for an event at NMU. 

    That was sickening to me.  There were so many vital activities affecting the security of America that took place at what some referred to as “KI Siberia.”   And to think, years later the president flies in and leaves most likely without a real clue or concern for what went on there for decades. 

    I can still recall one time when lightning hit the Alert Shack when we were sitting near the doubled gate visiting him.  He would spend seven days out there ready to fly off, and we, if WW III ever had started, were left behind to most certainly be obliterated in a millisecond burst of bright light.  So lighting hit, and the next thing we saw were the blue Dodge trucks flying out of the Alert Facility toward their respectively assigned B-52s.  Dad saw this and immediately jumped out of mom’s car and began running to the gate, and then ran across the field toward his plane. 

    This was an area where guards stood on guard with M-16s and orders to shoot and not worry about the questions later. 

    And now, it’s just a law enforcement driver training course. 

    Very sad.  And yet, such a good thing that the things that happened there have kept us free to this very day. 

  3. This essay hit home!  I have had the pleasure of returning to 2 of the AFB’s that I lived on while I was young.

    The first was in Myrtle Beach, South Caroline and had been closed for many years when I visited.  Even though, I had lived here when I was very young and really had limited memories,  I still encountered that Deja Vu.  Something about it just felt like home.

    The second was Dover, AFB.  A many years ago, shortly after I got married, my husband and I were traveling through Delaware and I got a desire to go see the base.  As I drove up, as sense of home came over me.  Even though the housing looked different, the trees were bigger and shadier and some of the housing had been replaced, it still was home.  I was like a child in a candy shop as I pointed out where I used to play, and where I stood as a crossing gaurd. 

    My husband was confused about how excited I was.  He just couldn’t understand having lived in the house in the same neighborhood with the same friends all his life.  Unless you have lived the brat life you can not understand.

    Thank you for sharing!


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