Saturday, November 26, 2016

ARMY BRAT




Fort Bragg
 
THE UNITED STATES ARMY put the Captain in North Carolina. They sent his wife, an Army nurse, along with him. All I remember is what I've been told, and I'm told we didn't stick around long after they had me. After eighteen months in the Tar Heel state, the Captain, the Army nurse, and the rest of us, we got shipped overseas.
 

Kitzingen Army Airfield

THE TEACHER–stronger than she looked with her wispy white hair and sagging skin–she caught me from behind. Hooked me at the elbows. Trapped me in some kind of wrestler’s double chicken-wing. I strained for the door handle, brushed it with my fingertips, lost ground. I fought harder, a five-year-old's version of all-out, but the wicked witch jerked me back into the classroom.

Two dozen kids I didn't know sat frozen in their tiny desks, eyes wide like dolls, watching the new kid flail and shriek, tears and snot flying. All those kids watching me finally limp an arm free, spin, and unleash a high-top Chuck Taylor All-Star. Forty-eight focused eyeballs watching my black sneaker connect with the teacher’s hard shin. Watching the teacher’s turn to shriek, and I don’t remember much from those days, but the morning they expelled me from kindergarten, I do recall.

These days, naughty little boys remain in school. Disrupt education. Suck up all the attention. But fifty-some years ago on an overseas American army base, they weren’t issuing second chances. Not even for a little kid. You got what you earned, and when you got home, you got some more.

Maybe a year later in the same country, that's when I first went to jail. Somehow, I latched on to a pack of older kids, geniuses who decided to yank a farmer’s crops from his fertile ground. Decided it was smart to wind-up and launch crop missles–guided by heavy root clods–high in the air, arcing gracefully like mortar shells. Little Einstein, I went right along, launching junior mortars, adding whistling and explosions.

Good times, for everyone but the old farmer, who discovered the artillery battle in his field, and came running. I guess you had to call it running because it was the old man's best effort, but he looked like a cartoon jalopy rambling toward us on kitty-corner flat tires.

All the geniuses, we could have outrun the old man, except for his fleet-footed companion–a grim German Shepherd at the man's heel–more deputy than pet. The farmer barked something in German, spat one sharp word, and the beast corralled us POWs like sheep.

Our captors, the cartoon jalopy and the mouth full of fangs, they marched our little brainy platoon along the edge of the field, toward town. I lagged ten big-kid strides behind, bawling like a six-year-old. Stumbling along, earnestly trying to catch up, yet falling further and further back. Neither captor seemed to notice the bleating runt in the rear.

My big sister, Cat, she crept up on the scene, stalking, darting behind trees and bushes, matching my pace. She saw me trailing behind, caught-on that the farmer and the dog didn't care, and frantically waved me over. I shook my head in that dramatic, pouty way little kids do when a request is not negotiable. On a mission, I marched on, eyes forward, tears washing my cheeks. Cat tried again, hissing, “Come on, run over here, you idiot!” I shook my head again, harder, and the littlest idiot trailed the parade of geniuses all the way to the clink.

When the Army Captain came to claim me, I got some more of what I’d earned. The Captain was the kindest, gentlest man I ever knew, but he also understood discipline.

Looking back, of all the wondrous sights–tilting my head to match the angle of the Tower of Pisa, or gazing at the castings of dead kids in Pompeii–after four years in Europe, expulsion and jail and discipline are what I remember best. Some things, a kid doesn’t forget.

After Germany, the Captain made Major. He and the Army nurse got transferred again, so we all became Texans.

Fort Hood

IN TEXAS WE HAD A GRAINY BLACK AND WHITE TV with three channels and rabbit ears. Complete with tinfoil. I spent my days outside doing boy things–things boys used to do: fishing with a bamboo pole, hunting sparrows with my Daisy BB gun, fighting, playing ball, and generally running wild until the streetlights came on.  Sometimes, even later.

Naturally, my base friends and me, we played Army. We used gear handed down from our dads–helmets, canteens, olive green cartridge belts, and boots that didn't fit. We put together random pieces of oversized fatigues to create our own Mad Max-style uniforms. For sure, not regulation 670-1.

On weekends, we'd fill our canteens and pack sandwiches of Wonder Bread and peanut butter. Simple, sticky rations, but so delicious at the end of a long march.

We'd gear up and set out early for the water tower or Castle Mountain, whichever we picked. The gray-painted water tower was just a goal you had to conquer, several miles away. We'd conquer the tower, flop down in its shadow, and unpack our rations.

Castle Mountain looked like a flat-topped mesa, covered with sagebrush, cactus and horned toads, and abundant artifacts of war from Army maneuvers there. For nine-year-old-boys, brass shells, empty ammo boxes, and C-rations are priceless finds. Boy-Heaven.

Getting beat by a girl is something else I remember, but don't mention much. Cat and me, we went through that ugly phase of siblings tormenting each other. Of hating each other. Of constant bickering, and eventually the Major got fed up. He marched us outside, squared us off, and forced us to fight.

Eager to inflict damage, we clashed like mountain rams and wrestled each other to the ground. She was bigger and stronger, and maybe tougher. After a scramble, she locked body scissors across my lower ribs, and squeezed like hell. Squeezed as hard as she could for as long as she could, and I screamed loud enough to draw neighbors. Still, the Major let it play out. I'd hoped someone would step in to save me, but the spectators seemed to understand the deal, even if I didn't.
 
The torture went on and on. Cat squeezing, me bellowing and crying and blowing snot. Her getting tired and letting up. Both of us gasping, and recovering. Repeat-repeat-repeat, the suffering continued for half-an-hour, and I'm not sure exactly what the Major had in mind, but it taught me that I never wanted to be controlled like that again. I never lost another fight.

But I wasn't the toughest member of our family. One Christmas morning, us four kids gathered at the tree, poised to rip open presents. A tiny Toy Poodle puppy scampered into the room, bouncing from kid to kid, squirting willy-nilly in excitement. At the time, he weighed maybe four pounds, so naturally we named him Tiger.

I'm not making this next part up, the toughest member of the family part, Tiger's medical history. On the Army nurse's grave, I swear it's true. I hate to even write it down because it might make you question the rest of my story, but I owe it to history. I owe it to the dog.

Etched in my memory, in no particular order: I hit Tiger in the head with the tail-end of a full swing of a wooden baseball bat. Knocked him cold. A snake bit him above an eye and left a scar. A car ran over him, and I remember Tiger squealing and scrambling out from between two rolling tires. A cow kicked him and knocked out a tooth. A motorcycle hit him, leaving him bloodied. A horse trampled him and broke his leg. An eagle snatched him up and carried him to a nest full of . . . OK, the eagle is fiction, but at Tiger's rate, it could have happened next.

Years later, under her bed, the retired Army nurse found the best dog I ever had. Found Tiger. Dead, of natural causes.

California

MY SIMPLE CHILDHOOD ENDED when the Major retired as a Lieutenant-Colonel and moved us to California's Bay Area. The innocence of youth and the strong lessons of military life had passed. The plain journey of an Army Brat, the things you recall, they gave way to civilian memories. Junior high dances, and high school sports. Drinking, and socializing, and solving the opposite sex. College, and the explosion of technology. The onset of responsibility. Starting a family, and raising little civilians in a complicated world. Growing older. And, of course, another good dog or two.