I’ve been reading about the evolution and transformation of Governors Island in New York Harbor for some time now — about proposals for giant ferris wheels with views of Manhattan, of the fate of officer’s housing and bachelor’s quarters — I’ve gazed at photos of an empty ghost street through housing where probably, if you stood listening very carefully on a day with no wind, you could hear the echoing sounds of metal rollerskate wheels on concrete, calls of “Red Light! Green Light!” and “Red Rover, Red Rover,” before the back door calls to come in for dinner and the bugled notes of “Taps” as the sun set.
The New York Times wrote about a reunion of the military brats who once lived there. And, as I anticipated, the quotes from these grown children reveal they are haunted by their childhoods and drawn back to a place they once called home, even though they called many places home in the course of their “careers” as children of a military family.
My dear friend grew up the daughter of a British army officer and sometimes we compare notes on life in the service, Though our fathers commanded different war machines for different countries (tanks, submarines), our experiences have more commonalities than differences. We know the feeling of being the perennial outsider. And we served at a time when the word “hero” was never much used in connection with the military. We figured out how to live in a place, but the idea of “home” was generally connected with grandparents who never moved, or the dream of some place where we’d someday settle and put down roots.
We became the children taught not to miss what was, nor to complain about what is. We made the best of it, we muddled through, we waited for the next move to a place we didn’t know. For my friend and me, these words by Pat Conroy always make us misty. They tug at a broken heart we stuffed into a dented moving box a long time ago.
THERE ARE NO CEREMONIES TO mark the end of a career as a military brat. We simply walk out into our destinies, into the dead center of our lives and try to make the most of it. After my own career as a military child ended in 1967, I received not a single medal of good conduct, no silver chevrons or leaves, no letter of commendation or retirement parade. I simply walked out of one life and into another. My father cut up my ID card in front of me and told me he’d kill me if he ever caught me trying to buy liquor on base. I had the rest of my life to think about the coming of age of a military child.
But imagine if all of us–all the military brats–could meet on some impeccably manicured field in a gathering so vast that it would be like the assembling of some vivid and undauntable army. We could come together on this parade ground at dusk, million voiced and articulating our secret anthems of hurt and joy. We could praise each other in voices that understand both the magnificence and pain of our transient lives.
At the end of our assembly, we could pass in review in a parade of unutterable beauty…. I would put all of our fathers in the reviewing stand, and require that they come in full dress uniform and in the prime of life….
In this parade, these men would understand the nature and the value of their children’s sacrifice for the first time. Our fathers would stand at rigid attention. Then they would begin to salute us, one by one, and in that salute, that one sign of recognition, of acknowledgment, they would thank us for the first time. They would be thanking their own children for their fortitude and courage and generosity and long suffering, for enduring a military childhood.
But most of all, the salute would be for something no military man in this country has ever acknowledged. The gathering of fighting men would be thanking their children, their fine and resourceful children, who were strangers in every town they entered, thanking them for their extraordinary service to their country, for the sacrifices they made over and over again to the United States of America, to its ideals of freedom, to its preservation and to its everlasting honor.
This piece is excerpted from the introduction to “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress,” by Mary Edwards Wertsch, introduction copyright 1991 by Pat Conroy, Harmony Books, a division of Crown Publishers, Inc.
I do still imagine someday feeling at home, though I don’t know when or where that will ever be.
Note the little scrap of wallpaper visible in the background? One can often find little bits of history tucked in behind built-ins, moldings, or furniture too heavy to move.
I share with you a postcard with a New Year’s greeting — a greeting for a year that was new over 100 years ago. This colorful card was sent in 1909 to my grandfather from his cousin Violet Belz.
As a comparison, I can’t resist sharing the photograph below, showing the five members of the Thomas White family of Tylersport, Pennsylvania, with Cousin Violet visiting from Camden, New Jersey, taken in 1913. That’s 100 years ago. I wonder what they were thinking about on their 1913 New Year’s Eve Day?
In 100 years, I wonder how people looking back will remember us? And what they will remember us by now that our photos and writings are mostly ephemeral digitized data that may be largely inaccessible in 100 years. (Print out a few photos and write a message from 2013 that you can leave behind!)
Here’s to 2013 — I hope it’s a great year for all of us. Let’s continue to shift the perception of historic preservation from a narrow-minded effort to impede progress toward a more accurate, broader understanding of its benefits for community revitalization, economic development, neighborhood identity and so very much more.
You know those puzzles, where you are challenged to find as many things as you can that don’t fit? See how many you can spot that show the evolution of this house over time. And here’s a freebie — those new windows on first floor are just WRONG. Lots of little faux divided lights instead of just sticking with what’s in the rest of the house. They probably thought it was more “historic” that way. I think there needs to be a mascot for historic preservation, and his/her name should be Secretary Standard. And s/he would do a public service campaign doing actual case studies of when wooden windows are lovely and should be kept, and when wooden windows should be taken out and what they should be replaced with. Any artists out there that want to take a crack at creating “Secretary Standard”?
This brings to a close the “I Love Lucy [the Elephant] Memory Contest” that invited you to share memories of place and time. Thanks to all who entered for sharing your wonderful recollections. This was such fun, we might have to do it again next year.
Jeff Wood entered not once, but twice. If you want to read more, his novella “Groceries” is featured in Isotope Fiction. You can follow his work on Facebook at Clowncar Publishing.
I spent my first Father’s Day as an actual father in the Sand Dunes National Park with my wife and two newly adopted daughters, Shay and KK. Shay was four, KK two, and they had been with us for nearly a year. I am easily besotted by fatherhood, and so memories of the day are as bright as fireflies, as plentiful as dandelions.
Here is one.
KK had learned to smile perhaps a month before the trip. She had smiled before, many times, but always spontaneously; by “learned” I mean that she could control it now, turn it on by choice, return a smile from someone else. And so all weekend that is just what I did, I smiled at her–while building castles in the wet sand, walking in the bright water, eating hot dogs in the motel room that night–just to watch her return it. I was greedy for the dazzle of it, the effortless sunbeam of her face, shattering my fragile glass heart over and over and over again.
And his second entry:
My memory paints the sky as deep blue, sunny, cloudless. It was a summer day.
My friend Kyle and I and some other kid whose name I can’t recall were hunting for a feral cat in the fields outside the city limits of Ottumwa, Iowa. Kyle lived on a farm, and the cat had killed three of his baby chicks. He was going to cut off its tail, in revenge.
We found the cat after a long search. Kyle grabbed it tight, by the tail. The cat was wailing and clawing, but Kyle held fast. He pulled out his penknife and brought it toward the cat’s tail.
I screamed, “No!” Loudly. Kyle dropped his knife, let go of the cat’s tail, the cat ran off into the fields howling.
After a long moment I looked into Kyle’s eyes. I was expecting anger, or disdain, or perhaps no eye contact at all in response. But he met my eyes.
He looked relieved.
We both looked to the other kid, who had been standing behind us. He stepped forward. Kyle picked up his penknife, slipped it in his pocket, and together the three of us walked toward Kyle’s house, where his Mom had lunch waiting for us.
The Mill at Anselma, a National Historic Landmark
Chester County, Pennsylvania