Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An Unusual Circumstance?

I know, I don't usually like to blog twice in one day. I'm just overcome with this strange feeling I don't want to get lost.

I never thought my childhood was that unusual. I went to . . . the civillian equivilant of pre-k in Kansas. Spent half a year of kindergarten in New Jersey, then we moved to Karlsruhe, Germany for 6 years. I was young and moving is what we did. I was an army brat and gaining and losing friends on a regular basis was a fact of life. Especially for that time in Germany living on a self-sustaining army base no one expected anyone to hang around for longer than a year or two. This was not strange or sad in any way. It just was. Then we moved here to Killeen which is interdependant with Ft. Hood so the "civillian transition" that a lot of brats go through didn't quite apply. I guess I'm greatful for that. Yet another factor adding to my resolve that my life just isn't that unique. But then I read this:

My father was a career-soldier in the Army. That makes me a military brat, a Brat. I don’t know why military children would be considered Brats; but I acknowledge and accept that title with proud affection.

The active military parent chooses to live within the parameters of military existence. The accompanying spouse elects to accept that standard of living. The children, however, are raised into a unique lifestyle. From my point of view it’s not a bad life. Being a Brat afforded me the opportunity of travel to eleven states and one country. I attended seven schools, and most of the time I lived in a protected environment of a gated community with access to a movie theater, bowling alley, skating rink, swimming pool, and teen club. How privileged is that? But growing up, all I knew was life in transition. Thankfully, my parents had five children, so I have three sisters and a brother, from oldest to youngest, five years apart. They were my playmates, my best friends – they were my constants.

My father put in for a tour of duty overseas so the family could experience life outside the United States. We were sent to Paul Revere Village, a little Army base in the heart of Karlsruhe, Germany. Paul Revere Village was a self-sustaining community with all the services offered stateside, but the American school housed 600 – 700 pupils from first to twelfth grade. Karlsruhe American Elementary School included students from first to sixth grades while Karlsruhe American High School contained students from seventh to twelfth grades. My graduating class of 38 was part of the 317 high school student population. I counted each and every face in my yearbook.

Even though it meant traveling across the ocean, I thought of our move to Germany as just another transfer. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I recognized how unusual I had been reared. How dissimilar my life experiences were from the general population. And as the years passed I realized the impossibility of ever seeing my fellow Brats. Then an innocent Internet query brought information that an East Coast gathering was held every Labor Day weekend right here in the Washington metropolitan area. I made contact! In 2000, I packed my bags and made the 35-mile trip to Ellicott City, Maryland, for my first touch with the past. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I arrived on Saturday to meet and greet, picnicked on Sunday and returned home on Labor Day Monday feeling refreshed and energized.

I guess because we came from a small, overseas school, the emphasis is not on having graduated from Karlsruhe American High School, but on attending the school, period. Everyone counts, even those who left school before graduating, and the tendency is to be recognized by the decade rather than by class groups. For instance, at the gathering there were only three from my class in attendance and, perhaps five or six from my brother and sisters’ classes. Together, we represented the ‘70s group. That’s just the way it is, part of the bond of being a Karlsruhe alumni.

This year I took a five-day visit to the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, to attend my first all-school reunion. My sister, Yvonne (also a graduate of Karlsruhe American High School), decided to attend the reunion with me. For a year we planned. We registered at the hotel and reserved a car from the airport, but we kept flip-flopping about our decision to go. Surely, there would be few people we actually knew from our time there. Was it worth the effort?

I wondered why it was so important to meet these strangers? I had not formed any lifelong friendships in Germany. There were a few people I hoped would show but the chances were slim. Then I arrived and met all these new and wonderful people and I realized the commonality. We all shared the same experience as we grew up and faced the same adjustments when our parents were no longer military. We can discuss with understanding the peculiarities of Brathood, such as enduring inspections of your bedroom; coming home from school to find out your family has moved; looking forward to Thanksgiving chow at the Mess Hall; or standing at attention with hand over heart as the national anthem is played. Sadly, we can also identify with the difficulties of acceptance into the “regular” world of civilians. When Brats find themselves thrust into a regular school setting, they often find themselves on the outside looking in, rejected or ridiculed by civilian peers for things unique to our upbringing: Our sometimes-odd manner of dressing (often a holdover from our last tour of duty), our changing accents (depending upon our geographical location), or our speech may be peppered with foreign phrases or military terms. We, who grew up with playmates of mixed cultures and never noticed the difference, were … different.

We have learned the art of adaptation, but for some it was not always easy. At the reunion, the high school jock’s adoring fans once again worship him; he revels in the midst of attention that he has not received since his playing days. It didn’t matter that the transfer stateside in his junior year meant the end of a dream because cemented friendships at the local high school translated into exclusion for the new wannabe. At the reunion, the homecoming princess is once again lifted to a popularity status she has not enjoyed since her Karlsruhe school days. Reality found her an ostracized loner after a mid-year transfer to a school that mistook her natural reserve for snobbishness.

The Karlsruhe organizers worked with the Berlin Brats association to arrange a joint affair that culminated with a picnic at Chimney Rock Park in Chimney Rock, North Carolina. Sports wise, the Berlin Bears had often been the bane of the K-ruhe Knights, but time has a way of calming down rivalry. The viciousness of competition had mellowed into a playful banter that was enjoyed by all because, with maturity, we all identify with a common past that unites us in our present position – we are still Brats.

Paul Revere Village closed in the mid-nineties. For the nostalgic souls, the realization is bittersweet. For us, there will never be a homecoming. All we have are memories of carefree adolescent days in a foreign land. Maybe that’s why some actually made the connection of deep friendship even though contact was lost over the years. With the advent of the Internet there are many websites postings “in search of” and many of the lost are being found. The discovery is exciting.

I spoke to two women who found each other a dozen years ago and have kept in contact through letters and e-mails. One flew in to Georgia from Washington State; the other drove across the border from Alabama to meet her so they could make the long drive to Asheville together.

I met two brothers who have been separated for many years. One brother married while in Germany and found employment with an American contracting firm. The other moved to the Florida Keys. The German immigrant scheduled a month-long visit with his family so they could attend the Asheville reunion. When the brothers arrived, they were met by their best buddy, who had flown in from Serbia on a 48-hour pass just to say “Surprise!”

So many instances stand out in my mind; unfortunately, I can’t share all of them. I met so many new people whose faces will be remembered long after their names have been forgotten. I was even able to connect with a couple of friends, though many have yet to find us or have no desire to reunite (but that’s another story).

Was it worth the effort? Of course it was. The reunion wasn’t big by anyone’s standards. Although Berlin had almost 300 alumni, our little school had less than 100; but we had a blast! We talked, and reminisced, and commiserated, and played, and laughed, and danced … by the time it was over there were tears and hugs and promises made – until the next one. Wait until the next one.

From Karlsruhe American High School Alumni Association

The truth is, I did get to experience a lot of awesome things that many other people can't imagine. I mean, I was there when the wall came down. I was there during base lockdown mid-Desert Storm. I was there for the holidays and celebrations off base as well. All of this I appreciate and will keep with me. But I still can't quite grasp that it's unusual in anyway. I mean, stuff happens everywhere and for everyone, right? One thing about that above passage that I wish I could convey to the author is that for a lot of army grown children there is a very real reason they are called brats. Those of us with career parents were raised differently, but there are so many who are spoiled beyond belief. Well, our belief, I guess. Maybe it's normal for civillians, but we were raised to be respectful. We weren't expected to behave military, but darn close.

BRATS: Our Journey Home

That is a link to a movie made about military brats. The title itself confuses me because Karlsruhe was home! America was overseas! My parents weren't the type to go on for hours about America andhow much they missed it. We spent every possible second enjoying Germany and the time we had there. They, I guess, knew it was unusual.

Is it unusual to have the town you grew up in completely shut down? I don't know. I know mine was. I know it makes me sad. I wish I could get google earth on my computer so I can at least see what it looks like now. I tried to find it on mapquest and all of the street names were changed. From a mapquest map nothing is recognizable. At this moment, after reading that . . . . essay?, I guess, it makes me sad. Sad and lonely. I'm an army brat. I live to move. I have a new extended family and a new home. But it's still sad to know that I can truly never go home. When the base was first shut down I thought "That's great! The troops are no longer needed in that part of Germany. That's the point." But not only will I never get to relive those days of my childhood, no other brats will be able to experience what I did. Heh. While this should make me feel special, it makes me feel bad for them.

I feel like I've blogged this before, but I had to get it out. Maybe my circumstances were unique growing up, but everybody should have the luxury of such uniqueness.

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