When I was growing up in the Army, it was customary for mothers to tell their children, "Never introduce yourself to anyone as an Army brat. Our children are not brats." What they meant was that Army children were subjected to an unusual kind of discipline. There were rules: Always address your father as "sir"; always stand at attention if you are outside when "retreat" is sounded; never ask another child what his or her father's rank is; never answer a question with another question or an excuse. (Question: Have you mowed the lawn yet? Incorrect answer: I have a broken arm.)
The life of the military child has been so little documented that it is a pleasure to see it so fully handled in the poet William Jay Smith's memoir, "Army Brat," which tells us that, brats or not, "the children of the garrison were held as fully accountable as their fathers for not behaving in a seemly fashion. When on the school bus one afternoon several tough sons of enlisted men placed a condom in the pocketbook of the plump teen-age daughter of the battalion commander, they were hauled before him at Headquarters, as on another occasion was a group of boys caught swimming in the post watertank."
The setting of this memoir is Jefferson Barracks, Mo., where Smith's father was stationed in the '20s and '30s as an enlisted man assigned to the Army band. Part military history, part sociology, part autobiography, it is told from a sort of upstairs/downstairs point of view that one might expect to carry with it some rage or indignation. But Smith is not out to grind any sabers. Perhaps because he himself later became an officer (a naval officer, a "90-day wonder," during World War II), he recalls with dispassion that "enlisted men's children were never invited to the parties of officers' children" (a custom that happily changed, I might add, after World War II), and that, as enlisted man's son, he would be the exception if he went to West Point (he didn't go to "the Point" -- he went to Washington University, where he met the young Tennessee Williams and began to emerge as the distinguished poet and critic he has since become; of Williams appearing in an undergraduate theatrical production, he says, "He read his French lines with a kind of hound-dog ferocity and deliberation, as if he were chewing on a large section of the Mississippi delta").
Life in the enlisted men's quarters was always spartan -- salaries were small, and the children, for example, had to wear cut-down underwear -- but the nature of Smith's family life made things more difficult than they might have been. His father, an incorrigible drinker and gambler, frequently did not make it home on payday, and was "busted" (reduced in rank) so many times that after 27 years in the service he was only a corporal. On one occasion, he returned to their quarters after an all-night poker game and shot up the front porch with his pistol before passing out on the living-room floor.
During Prohibition, the family rented a house opposite the post gates, and Smith's father became a bootlegger -- apparently with the de facto approval of both military and civilian communities ("Heavy drinking, like gambling, has always been associated with the military," Smith observes). To supplement the family income, his mother sewed dresses for neighbors and officers' wives, and found part-time employment as a servant at officers' entertainments.
Elsewhere around Jefferson Barracks, life was sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but not much touched by the Great Depression except for an influx of hard-up civilians who had recently enlisted in the military. The Army mules "were treated like soldiers: each had his serial number . . . and each one had to be accounted for and provided with a decent retirement." On payday, the prostitutes showed up at the post gates wearing evening gowns and their sensible tennis shoes. The officers' enjoyed "riding breakfasts," and the band was sent to serenade a lieutenant's wife. The commanding officer's daughter was married with great military ceremony and glitter ("the best that the Army could provide") to a West Point man whom she eventually murdered.
In the meantime, the author grew to manhood with a sense that he might become something wonderful. He records that he was nearly always the best at everything he tried -- the best orator in the W.C.T.U. contest, the best popcorn seller at the post boxing matches. He was "president of the modern langauge club, a member of the debating team, and on the staff of the yearbook." Unfortunately for his book, he is a little too eager to give us a portrait of himself as the young, developing artist, and he does so without any of the irony, humor or hearty metaphors that enliven so much of this otherwise engaging book. "I had fallen in love totally, blissfully, and eternally with language," he declaims at one point. At another, he says, while recalling his part in a high school choral competition held on the campus of his future alma mater, "I had the odd, pleasing, and yet somehow terrifying sensation that while my voice was now only one among many, some day it would rise above the others and be heard in the vast realm represented by those stone towers and green lawns."
This is an uneven book, but it slides only occasionally into gush, and is for the most part a balanced and beguiling account of an unusual life lived in a little-known subculture.