Though I have never served in the military, I sometimes have a vague memory of enlisting in the Army, struggling through boot camp. I can almost remember the pain of the forced marches, my fear of the drill sergeant and the petty humiliations of life in the barracks.
The military service that I almost remember is my childhood. I grew up on and around the Air Force bases where my father worked, and he raised my three brothers and me as if we were recruits. We addressed him "Yes sir" and "No sir." If we ever forgot and simply said "Yes," he jammed his face close to ours like a drill sergeant.
"Yes WHAT?" he yelled, his breath exploding on our cheeks. Sometimes his spittle too.
"Remember that next time."
At West Point my father had been taught that there are only three possible answers to a superior's question: "Yes sir," "No sir" and "No excuse, sir." Once, I offered a long and convoluted explanation for why I had failed a spelling test at school. He turned to me with contempt on his face and loathing in his voice.
"You have an excuse for everything, don't you?"
I was hurt by his harshness, but I understood immediately that he was acting inappropriately with a child. I also understood that he was correct. Like a plebe at West Point, I was learning that excuses are no substitute for getting things right, and they were therefore contemptible.
And, like new recruits in those days, we had the need for secrecy drilled into us. You never knew who might be a Communist agent or the employee of a firm bidding on a military contract. Most soldiers simply didn't talk about their work to anyone, including their families, so I, like most military brats, had only a vague idea what my dad actually did for a living. Such knowledge was dispensed on a need-to-know basis, and I didn't need to know.
When I was 10, living in North Carolina, I asked my father, "What do you do at work, Dad?"
"I'm the commander of the 4th Armament and Electronics Squadron."
"I know that. What does it mean?"
"It means I work on the aircraft."
"What do you do?"
"Fix their armaments and electrical systems."
"Yeah, but what does that mean?"
"It means I service them and maintain their flight status. Why don't you go outside and play?"
This guardedness extended to his private life as well. When we were in the car, he would sometimes refuse to tell us where we were going, even if we were simply driving out into the country to buy two dozen of the fresh brown eggs that my mother loved. When we asked, he had several stock replies:
"You'll find out when we get there."
"To see a man about a horse."
"Why do you need to know? Are you paying for it?"
It drove me crazy not to get answers to simple questions, questions that seemed completely reasonable to me, but his not answering eventually had the desired result: I stopped asking.
Because my father told me little about what he did, I tried to figure out his life by reading about military life. And because I was a curious and uncritical reader I entered these books so utterly that the things I read about come back to me now more as memories than as words on a page. In elementary school I read the entire series of Dusty Stover books, following Dusty through all four years at West Point and into his initial assignment as a first lieutenant. I also read books about boys going to Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. I even, if I am not mistaken, read at least one book about a boy going through the Merchant Marine Academy.
Still in elementary school, I read little blue biographies of Grant, Lee, Pershing, Patton, MacArthur, Ike, West Pointers all. In junior high I was powerfully swept up in Chesty Puller's autobiography and Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back. And I'd be lying if I didn't mention my devotion to the comic book series Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos as well as the TV show "Combat."
Reading these books, I seldom imagined myself as a hero, leaping on grenades to save the men in my foxhole or taking out a pillbox single-handedly. Heroism was too vast for me to aspire to, and early on, it had become plain that I was never going to have the athletic prowess necessary to be a great battlefield soldier. I invariably imagined myself as the hero's best friend, the one who is killed in the first skirmish. Death was always on my mind.
Though I was brought up to appreciate -- no, revere -- the sacrifices made, the deaths suffered by America's soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, I was not supposed to make the obvious connection that my father, too, might be killed. No, my mother assured us, we shouldn't worry about Dad. He was fine and he'd always be fine. Even if a war did come, he was one of the men who'd be on the back lines, working on the planes, far from harm's way. I did not believe her, probably because her own nervousness undermined what she was saying.
Even when I still believed in Santa Claus, I knew that ICBM meant intercontinental ballistic missile, and I knew the path Soviet ICBMs would take across the North Pole if they were launched against the United States. I knew that the missiles would be picked up by the Distant Early Warning line of radar stations in Canada that were manned around the clock by Air Force personnel. I knew that even if the DEW line picked up the incoming nuclear missiles, the U.S. government would have only 18 to 20 minutes to respond. After that, our B-52s would be blown up on the ground and our own ICBMs would be destroyed in their silos in North Dakota. How did I know this? I'm not sure. From my Weekly Reader? From the local paper, which I scoured for news about the Air Force? But I knew it in my bones. At school we boys joked about it. We assumed that Air Force bases would be the first to go. Vaporized.
So when the phone rang in the middle of the night at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., on January 24, 1961, and my father threw on his uniform and ran out of the house still buttoning his shirt, I lay awake in fear, wondering if the Russian ICBMs were in flight over the tundra. My fear turned to terror when, within 10 minutes of the phone call, all the base sirens, including the one right outside my window, began to wail and pulsate, and the dark walls of the bedroom flashed with the headlights of men racing to work. I lay awake, convinced I was going to die within 20 minutes, and if by some miracle I survived I'd live out my brief life in some sort of post-nuclear wasteland, scrabbling for rancid food and vomiting from radiation poisoning.
"Everything's fine. Go back to sleep. It's just a drill of some sort," my mother said, when she came into the room I shared with one of my brothers. I didn't believe her. I understood that one of the signs of the nuclear holocaust was that your mother would lie to you and tell you that everything was fine. For an hour, I "meditated terror," as poet Robert Lowell says. Staring at my Timex, I allowed 20 minutes for the bombs to start exploding, then another 20 minutes in case the DEW line had worked better than I had been told, and another 20 minutes in case Seymour Johnson AFB had not been one of the U.S.S.R.'s primary targets. Then, exhausted from fear and sobbing, I fell asleep.
My father returned home about 4 in the afternoon, unshaven, tired and preoccupied. While he ate a bowl of Cheerios, I asked him what had happened.
"Nothing," he said. "A plane went down. It's nothing for you to worry about."
The Raleigh News & Observer told a more complex story. Nuclear warheads were involved, but they were ours, not theirs. The right wing had fallen off a B-52 at 2,000 to 10,000 feet. The bomber crashed near Goldsboro, and three members of the eight-man crew died. Two nuclear weapons had broken free with the wing. One bomb parachute had deployed properly and the warhead was recovered more or less undamaged. The other bomb had slammed into a waterlogged tobacco field outside town and broken apart. Of the six safety switches on the bomb, five had broken. Only one remained intact.
This last fact received a lot of attention in the press. But when I asked my father about it, he said that the six switches were merely part of a larger safety system and that there was never any chance the bomb would have exploded. I have since read up on this incident and I now believe that he was telling me the truth, but for years I doubted him, wondering if this was just another well-intentioned lie designed to soothe a worried boy.
Along with fear for our fathers' safety, military kids live with the constant knowledge that the next move is just around the corner. The most complicated question you can ask a military brat is the one that comes up the most often when you meet somebody new: "Where you from?" The self-possessed military brat, ready for the question, may try to finesse it: "I graduated from high school in Montgomery, Alabama." The more conflicted may well say something like, "That's a complicated question. Do you mean most recently? Or where I lived for the longest time? Or where I went to high school? Or where my parents are from and where they still vote by absentee ballot?" Now I simply say, "Montgomery," and spare people the confusion.
But the longer and truer answer is that I was born at Fort Hood outside Killeen, Tex., and lived there for less than a year before my father was transferred to Albuquerque. From there we moved to England, Ohio, North Carolina, California, France and Montgomery. My mother, my brothers and I stayed in Montgomery when my father was shipped to Vietnam for a year. Because he didn't want us to be uprooted once we entered high school, he requested to be transferred back to Montgomery, and retired there in 1974. We moved less than most military families.
According to Mary Wertsch's Military Brats, the bone-deep restlessness of military children is one of our defining traits as adults. This is not primarily a desire to travel, though it can be that. It is a desire to pick up, leave an old place behind completely and move to a new town for a new start. Transfers in the military usually come in three-year cycles, and now every three years the need to move still seizes me so strongly that I have to resist doing something stupid -- taking a bad job or simply quitting the one I have -- just so I can go somewhere else and look at different people and, perhaps, be someone else.
The military determined where we lived and how we lived there, something that my parents had mixed emotions about. In no small part, it determined our identities. My mother took no pleasure in being an outsider, and as a military wife she was an outsider to the military as well as to the people in town. Time after time, I heard her rage because the civil engineers in charge of base housing would not respond to her calls; she had no official standing. She had to have my dad call and pull rank on the sergeant in charge of the heating systems or the airman who assigned plumbers, just to get problems around the house taken care of. These snubs and dismissals were something she had been dealing with even before she married my father. When he was at West Point, she had twice taken off from her job at the Dundee Mills textile factory in Griffin, Ga., to visit my dad and go to end-of-the-year formal dances with him. Telling this story, she always made a point of saying that she did not work on the mill floor. Unlike practically everyone else in her family, she worked in the office, away from the looms, and she was proud of the distinction.
Her job as bookkeeper at Dundee Mills did not, however, cut much ice with the other women she met at the dances. These women, mostly Vassar girls, ferried across the river for the big dances, welcomed her with all the elaborate disdain they could muster for a 27-year-old bookkeeper from the rural South, especially one who was poaching on their preserve. When I asked what they said, my mother refused to tell me. Even 20 years later, she was still too humiliated.
When she and my father were first married, classified ads in newspapers near military bases would frequently specify, "No military." In a more settled country than we have today, soldiers were regarded as unreliable transients, people who wouldn't maintain the property and who might well skip out in the middle of the night without notice if they were suddenly transferred. Once, as she and my father were walking up the driveway to look at an apartment, my father wearing his uniform, the landlady yelled through the screen door at them, "Don't bother coming any closer! I don't rent to military."
My mother nursed these humiliations, and to the end of her life she could still work up a credible anger against the insults of people whom, as she saw it, my father and his friends were risking their lives to protect. But she also took the criticism to heart, and vowed to show by her behavior that military families were good people. If I left my bicycle in the driveway, she'd snap, "Put that thing up! It looks like a bunch of Okies live here." And when the house grew cluttered with tossed-off shoes, scattered schoolbooks and abandoned toys, she'd say wearily, "We're living like a band of gypsies," or, "People will think we're just a bunch of hillbillies who don't know any better."
She vowed to leave every apartment and house cleaner than it was when we moved in. Before we moved out, I would spend days scrubbing bathtubs and floors and even walls with a stiff-bristled brush, scrubbing till the bristles splayed and began to fall off into the foul gray water in the bucket. Baseboards were my specialty.
Despite the constant moving, life on base was safe, orderly and familiar. The base is an enclave, and a base in California is more like a base in France or Alabama than it is like the world on the other side of the fence. Before every movie at the base theater, everybody in the audience stood for the playing of the national anthem. Those of us in civilian dress held our right hand over our heart; those in uniform saluted. And every afternoon at 5, as the flag was lowered for the day, all the people on the base stood, faced in the direction of the main flagpole, and saluted or held their hand over their heart while the base speaker system blared "The Star-Spangled Banner" so loudly that the scratches on the much-used record consumed the music in static. Cars pulled over. Ballgames stopped. And if I was riding my bicycle, I stopped, laid it on the ground and faced the flag.
Only a very few times did I see anyone ignore the national anthem. Once, when my entire family was in the car visiting a new base, we pulled to the side of the road at a stop sign while the song played. A car pulled around us and started to drive through the intersection. My father yelled into the open passenger window of the other car, "Hey! Stop for the national anthem!" The car slammed to a halt and sat, nose out in the intersection, while the shamefaced driver, eyes locked straight ahead, refused to make eye contact. I studied the stars on his epaulets. When the song finished, the angry and embarrassed general peeled out as the last note lingered in the air. In the distance, a man yelled -- someone always did -- "Play ball!"
The life inside the fence was a protected life; there was a 10-foot-tall chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire and guarded by armed Air Police. In addition to living in the ultimate gated community, we got to use the base pools and base gym, advantages that my civilian cousins in Georgia did not have, as my mother often pointed out.
There was little juvenile crime on base, only in part because the fence kept strangers out. Time and again, my father sat my brothers and me down and explained that we had to obey all the rules on base. If we were ever picked up by the APs, it would go into his permanent file. He could get passed over for promotion for something we did.
When I was 10, this outraged my emerging sense of selfhood. "Why? Why should you be punished for something I do? That doesn't make any sense."
"At promotion meetings, they'll say, `If he can't even control his own family, how in the world is he going to lead men into combat?' That makes a lot of sense to me."
It did to me, too, as I thought about it, and I moved through my childhood with a fearsome sense that my actions were not just mine, that they affected my father and, through him, my entire family. Though I was already a timid child, this sense of caution and responsibility made me even more cautious.
And yet I loved the security of base life and the rituals of it. To get to our house, we had to pass through a checkpoint, where the AP on duty saluted my father and my father saluted back crisply. I understood it to be a measure of respect that he did not offer an enlisted man the casual salute, half wave, that some of the other officers used. When I was old enough to drive out to the base by myself, the APs, not knowing I was a kid, or unwilling to take a chance that I wasn't an extremely young-looking lieutenant, saluted me, and after I got over my embarrassment I'd gravely nod back. Some of my friends would salute the AP with elaborate, mocking salutes. But what were they mocking? The man? The act? The institution? Or simply a situation that embarrassed them?
For me, the orderliness of military life was symbolized by shoes. My father polished his shoes every day. When I was 6 or 7, I remember my mother saying, "You can tell what kind of person a man is by his shoes. Look at your father's shoes. He always keeps them polished." I longed for the day when I, like my father, would have shoes to polish. Instead, my brothers and I all wore gray Hush Puppies, which could be purchased dirt-cheap at the post exchange and which doubled as both church and school shoes. So I was thrilled when I was in the eighth grade in Paris, and my father decided that I was ready for some "hard" shoes. He took me to the military store, and for $4 bought me a pair of regulation black military brogans. I was elated to have a pair of adult shoes, shoes that I could polish, and I spent that evening bringing the shoes to a high gloss. At school the next day, the other boys taunted me mercilessly for wearing the common ugly shoes -- the clodhoppers -- that all our fathers wore.
Mortified, I wheedled my mother into buying me a pair of Bass Weejuns, which the PX sold for practically nothing when it had them, dumping them out in piles that the moms swooped down on to give their kids some connection to the styles current in the States. I loved the shoes and took meticulous care of them. My father, my brothers and I did not put a brush on our shoes. Brushes were for civilians and for people who didn't really care how their shoes looked. We applied the polish with cotton balls, and with that same spit-moistened cotton we just kept rubbing until the haze of polish gave way to a shine that you could see yourself in. When the polish grew too heavy on the shoe, it was sometimes necessary to strip it off with rubbing alcohol and begin building it up again from scratch.
Later, my symbol of tidiness was thrown in my face. When I was in high school, all the boys I knew who were getting good summer jobs were working for their dads' companies, or companies owned by their friends' dads, an option not open to those of us whose roots in town didn't go back to childhood. One Saturday afternoon, tired of working at fast-food joints, I said to my dad while he was watching baseball, "All my friends have work in their daddies' companies."
"Put on your shoes," he said.
Immediately I was suspicious. "Why?"
"I think you'll want to have your good shoes on for this. I'm going to help you get started in the family business."
I looked at him for a long moment before I got the point.
"Thanks. I can drive to the recruiting office by myself if I want to."
My mother, in a wretched moment, once told me that she blamed herself for my father's failure to make colonel. After he was promoted to captain, she was expected to hold formal teas for the Officers Wives Club. I sometimes helped her prepare for them, standing hour after hour at the sink, working a toothbrush laden with Brasso into the filigreed handles of the silver coffeepot and teapot, then shining them again and again till they sparkled. After the pots, we polished the punch bowl and every single knife, fork and spoon with the same meticulous intensity. As we worked, I absorbed her apprehension about serving the women she knew would be judging her -- and, through her, my father. Yes, it was important for a wife to be socially adroit because the higher an officer progressed the more ceremonial and social obligations fell on him. But it went deeper than that. If my mother passed muster, my father's judgment in marrying her was affirmed, but if she failed, then my father's judgment in all things, military as well as personal, was suspect.
After my father was promoted from captain to major, my mother refused to give any more teas, and she may have been right that her dread of formal socializing hindered my father's career. If you can't persuade your wife to conduct a tea party, how are you going to lead men into combat?
But in fact, my father's career was harmed most by his stubborn sense of rectitude. There was the incident with the general not stopping for "The Star-Spangled Banner." Another time, while we were living in a small apartment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, he set out a small garden along the sidewalk for my mother. He sectioned it off with some split boards that he had pounded into the ground and then connected with towline that the Air Force used to pull target drones behind planes. One night a superior officer, walking home on the narrow sidewalk, perhaps after spending several hours in the bar of the officers club, tripped on one of the roughly chopped boards and tore his pants.
It was late and we were all in bed when the man banged on the door and began to berate my dad. I was 5, wakened from a deep sleep by harsh angry voices, one of them my father's. I was terrified. The man, an officer who outranked my father, was cursing.
My father, who can't abide profanity, especially when children are within earshot, bluntly told the man that the stakes were perfectly safe and that he wouldn't have torn his pants if he weren't drunk, and to shut up and go home and sleep it off. After another round of screaming, my father slammed the door in the man's face and went back to bed. The next morning, he got up early and tied little white strips of torn bedsheet on the towline to make the fence visible in the dark. I have always wondered how his almost complete lack of tact played at work.
But in the proper situation, my father's mulish rectitude could also be inspiring. A few years before my father retired, the story of the My Lai massacre broke big nationally, and it received even more attention in Montgomery because the reporter who broke the story was Wayne Greenhaw of the Montgomery Advertiser. Alabama and the South rallied to Lt. William Calley's side. "These were sorts of things you just have to expect to happen in a war. Sure, it's sad, but collateral casualties just happen. We have to support our soldiers no matter what," was the gist of the more moderate letters to the paper.
My father also wrote a letter to the local paper. He said that he had served in the military for three decades, including a tour in Vietnam, and that as far as he was concerned there was never any reason for machine-gunning unarmed women and children in a ditch. William Calley, he said, deserved to be court-martialed.
None of us knew that he had written the letter until we read it in the paper.
Mom was appalled. She knew that there would be a big stink in our small, conservative military town, and she was right. The paper was flooded with letters calling my father every kind of traitor and coward. For about a week, the phone rang with hate calls at all hours of the day and night.
My mother said bitterly, "That stupid letter'll kill whatever chances he had for promotion."
As a West Point graduate, he was, she said, guaranteed promotion up to lieutenant colonel. To make colonel, though, he had to get past a vengeful general he'd crossed swords with early in his career. If he wasn't promoted within a certain number of years, he would be forced to retire. Up or out, it's called. Year after year, the promotion lists were published without my father's name on them. Finally, when the next-to-last possible time for him to be promoted came and went, he put in for retirement. He wasn't going to let them retire him; he'd do it himself. At the time, I was dubious about my mother's version of the story. I thought I was hearing a self-exculpating family myth.
My father, of course, never breathed a word to me about the difficulties in his life in the military. Several years ago, I finally got up the nerve to ask him.
In North Carolina, my father said, he'd had a sergeant with a beautiful wife who was dating a lieutenant from another company. The sergeant beat up the lieutenant, and was reprimanded by the base commander for striking a superior.
My father sympathized with the sergeant. The lieutenant was clearly taking advantage of his rank, and he was also messing around in someone else's marriage, which is something that so appalls my father's conservative Christianity that he cannot even say the word "adultery" in front of his grown children. He raked his sergeant over the coals, then took the base commander's reprimand letter and put it in his desk drawer, instead of in the sergeant's file, and told the man that if he kept his nose clean he'd contrive to lose the letter.
But the lieutenant kept seeing the sergeant's wife, and the sergeant, in a rage, got drunk and tried to run the lieutenant down with his car. The military police called it attempted murder.
When the files were called up to the base commander's office again, the letter of reprimand was not in the sergeant's file.
Talking to me, my father shrugged, paused.
"The base commander," he said, "went on to become the Air Force chief of staff." He chuckled, not sourly but with odd pleasure. My father knew he was in the wrong, of course, but he thought then that the commander was more wrong to let an officer abuse his power, and he still did.
Now that he has been retired for 25 years, I have finally grown used to seeing my father in a suit, not a uniform. As a child, I always thought that when he dressed in a suit for church on Sunday he looked strangely diminished. Even in his summer khakis, he radiated authority, presence, a forceful place in the world. His uniform was rich with history and military tradition, marked by the symbols of rank, and as a child I laboriously memorized all the medals he'd won and the places he'd served. A suit, on the other hand, can be worn by anyone with the money to purchase it.
Though my father wanted one of his sons to follow his footsteps to West Point or the Air Force Academy and wear an officer's uniform, he never pushed the point. I think he realized fairly early on that we wouldn't flourish in the military, least of all me. But during my twenties when I was in graduate school and often poor, working on degrees that seemed to promise no real hope of a good job, I kept the idea of joining the military in the back of my head as a possible escape to another life. I knew I would never do it, but when I turned 29, too old to enlist, I felt a sense of loss -- the loss of my connection to a way of life I understood and valued.
I have little desire to go back to the bases I grew up on, but checking out Internet sites set up by military brats, I've been struck by the sadness of men and women who have lost their childhood friends. They've cut pictures out of elementary school yearbooks and posted them with notes like: "This is Jimmy Lonsdale. He and I were best friends in the fourth grade on Nellis AFB in 1962-63. I believe his dad was a sergeant. If you know where he is, please contact -- ." If I were to look for, say, Louis Rubenstein, the boy I played touch football with when I was in the fourth and fifth grades on Seymour Johnson AFB, where would I start? Virtually everybody on that base moved within five years of the time I moved. Even if I just wanted to drive to North Carolina and look at the base house my family lived in for four years, I couldn't. It's behind a chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire.
The fence that once kept me in and defined me as a military kid now keeps me out -- defines me as "other," a point that was driven home when I was 30. Again the episode involved shoes. After many years of bumming around between graduate school and part-time work, I got a job teaching creative writing at Baylor University in Texas. The week before I left Montgomery for Waco, I'd driven out to Maxwell Field with my father and sat in the car, reading, while he bought groceries and then shopped at the base exchange. After a few minutes in the BX, he walked back to the car, rapped on the window and said, "They've got some good-looking loafers on sale. I'll buy you a pair for your new job. Come on."
Because I was no longer allowed in the BX, I sat in the entryway while Dad brought me shoes one pair at a time. Sitting there, trying on the shoes while the woman checking ID cards at the door eyed us indulgently, I realized that the bases I'd been barred from ever since I turned 21 were not my home. I'd thought they were because I had lived there, swum there, learned to drive, earned a brown belt in judo, eaten at the mess hall, sat in the cockpit of an F-105, spent whole days in the Air War College library. Isn't that what a home town is, the place where you do those things? But those years on base and that childhood belonged in some fundamental way to my father and the U.S. Air Force, not me. You can't go home again, of course -- no one can, as Thomas Wolfe famously reminded us -- but for military kids the fence between the past and the present is not only figurative, it's also literal, and that makes it even more potent in memory.
Several years ago I was invited to read my poems to the entire freshman class at West Point. Fifty years earlier my father, in his stiff gray uniform, would have been sitting in that room with those cadets. As I walked to the lectern, I glanced down at the shoes he had given me. They are terrific shoes -- Nettleton loafers -- and though they've been resoled once and reheeled twice in the 15 years since my father bought them for me, they're still my best pair of dress shoes. I keep a good shine on them. A good shine for a civilian, I realized, as I studied the shoes of the men and women in the front row. I paused for a moment, setting out my books on the lectern, checking to see where the glass of water was. Then I said, "I've never stood on a stage where I have the worst-looking shoes in the room." I was just thinking out loud. It brought the house down.
Andrew Hudgins's most recent book of poems is Babylon in a Jar. He'll be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.