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It’s Memorial Day, which has me remembering….

May 27, 2013

Governor’s Island with Manhattan skyline (Photo donated by a participant in the Oral History Program, January 1954. U.S. Army Signal Corps) Click image to visit oral history website.

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.

smiths

Yup, that’s me looking on as my mom pins something on my dad.

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….

US Naval Academy Graduation June 4 1950_with roommate

My dad, graduating from the U.S.Naval Academy.

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.

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