1957-1959 Montclair California
My first memory is in the back seat of a sky blue Ford station wagon, I’m very excited. My father is driving and my brother and sister are in the car with me. There is baseball equipment in the car, maybe a bat and glove, and it’s important that it’s with us. I’m standing up on the back seat looking out the window at our new house. The front yard is brown dirt.
I’m in the middle of the residential street writing numbers with white chalk on the black asphalt road. I’m so happy, I’ve figured out how to count from 1 to 100 and the evidence is right there on the road. I’m so proud, the accomplishment is huge and I bask in the glory alone.
My father takes me on a day trip up to Mount Baldy with his friend Eddie Weissmuller. It must be in our car because I’m comfortable. The winding road up the mountain has a rough gravel surface and it’s scary because it’s narrow and there is no barrier at the ledge. Every so often the car stops and my father and his friend Eddie Weissmuller get out and push a large bolder blocking the way off to the side of the road. When we get to our destination my father and his friend pan for gold in the creek. I slip on a rock and fall into the creek with all my clothes on. My father and his friend Eddie think it’s funny and laugh. I’m humiliated and have to make the ride back down the mountain without my clothes and wrapped in a blanket.
The family is in the living room gathered around a microscope looking at a tiny gold nugget my father panned up on Baldy. My brother Beau sneezes and blows the nugget onto the floor. No one can find it and my father is laughing. Later we all sit in front of the fireplace staring at the fire and imagine glowing cities in the burning embers.
Early in the morning before anyone is awake, I slip out of the house in my cowboy boots to play in the big pile of dirt in the front yard. My mother comes out after some time has passed and pulls me off the dirt pile. I have to take off my boots and clothes before I can go in the house because I was playing in a manure pile.
“I want to hear the German record.” My mother turns on the hi fi and I watch the tubes start to magically glow orange and yellow through the black metal grate like cover. She pulls the record out of the glossy cover and puts it on the record player. When the needle hits the record there is a second of static, and then a sad sweet accordion before “Wie einst Lili Marlene, wie einst Lili Marlene.” I’m happy.
My kindergarten teacher is named Mrs. Chavez, she warns us about kidnappers and how dangerous it is when we wait for our parents to pick us up. That day in school we have to hide under the desks and cover our eyes when the siren goes off. We are practicing in case there is a nuclear attack. I hate standing outside waiting for my mother; doesn’t she know how dangerous it is?
There’s an election going on, my parents and their friends are for Kennedy.
My father trades in the blue Ford station wagon for a brand new white four door Chevrolet Corvair. The whole family is excited because we’re moving to Germany. My parents explain where that is to us, my older brother already knows. We’re going to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a Boeing 707.
1960-1963 Living in Oberaichen, Germany
I hate going to school. Sometimes I hide in the closet hoping my mother won’t notice that I didn’t walk out the door. I have to walk up a steep unpaved road to the main road and wait for the chocolate colored Army bus to pick me up. The bus driver is German, but he’s really Greek. His name is Apollo. Apollo is a big man who wears blue jeans and has curly dark hair. It’s a long complicated trip to get to school. Apollo has to pick up kids who live all over the place. Sometimes we get stuck behind farmers on horse drawn wagons. My older brother Beau calls them “honey wagons” and laughs.
American kids at the DoD school form into gangs, linking themselves, arms around shoulders, and stomp around the playground knocking down any new kids as they chant, “Hey, hey, get out of my way, I just got back from the USA.”
My brother Beau is much smarter than I am. He likes school, reads books like the Swiss Family Robinson, and Mark Twain, and is learning to play the Block Flute. When we’re off from school we like to go into the Schwarzwald for adventure. He wants me to climb up a narrow ladder to a tree house. It looks too dangerous to my little sister and me and we refuse to go. He laughs and makes fun of us. Two huge dogs come running up. They’re so frightening that my sister and I run up the ladder and scramble into the tree house. The dog’s owner comes by and leashes her dogs. My brother is laughing harder than ever. My sister and I are too scared to move. We’re stuck in the tree house and we can’t figure out how to get down. My brother has to go get my mother because we’re stuck and crying. By the time my mother arrives, my sister and I have made our way down.
My brother has a pack of Salem cigarettes and a book of matches. I find this very scary. He lights a cigarette and I can’t believe he’s smoking. He wants me to try and hands me the lit cigarette. I don’t know what to do and try blowing into it. He laughs at me. “You have to inhale,” he tells me. I don’t know what he means by that.
It’s Christmas time and it’s been snowing heavily for some time. The snow banks are so deep we can’t see the short fence that surrounds the yard. It gets dark early and the whole family is together in the living room. We hear some bells ringing and father asks, “What was that?” We all go to the front door to investigate. In the snow there are two pairs of red skis, two pairs of leather ski boots and a German sled. The shoes we put outside the door are all filled with candy except my fathers Army boots, which are filled with coal and a black switch. My brother, sister, and I are trying to figure out who did this, but we can’t. My father and mother are laughing; it’s their secret.
My sister is insulted, my brother and I were given skis and she gets a sled. She wants skis too. My father takes her to the ski store and gets her a pair of tiny skis. She always gets what she wants.
One night my father comes down to the skiing hill at the edge of the Schwarzwald near the autobahn to bring us home for dinner. He is in a great mood, smoking his pipe and carrying all of our skis on his shoulder. Something happens and he falls. He thinks he broke his pipe but he really breaks his tibia. He tells us he can’t move and that we need to go tell my mother what has happened. My mother comes down with a sleeping bag and all of the German neighbors come out with schnapps and lights. They sit with my father until an Army ambulance arrives some hours later. There is only one Army medic with the ambulance and he can’t drive the ambulance down the steep unpaved road to where my father is. The German neighbors all help get my father in the gurney and up the hill into the ambulance. My father spends a couple of weeks in the hospital.
The next-door neighbor is named Eddie Gerlach. Eddie Gerlach is a big fat man from New York. My father tells me he’s a retired Army Sargent. Eddie and his German wife are nice. Eddie Gerlach takes me to the NCO club and teaches me how to play with the slot machines. I win a huge bag of quarters, it’s so much fun. Now I want to go to toy land. When I get home and tell my father, he gets very angry and takes my bag of money away. Gambling is bad he tells me, but I can’t understand because it’s so much fun. We go to the PX and buy clothes with my bag of quarters. I hate them.
It’s summer and my brother Beau and I wake up early and go into the woods to pick and eat blueberries. As we walk down the hill we’re singing, “Winners warm up with Malt-O-Meal, winners warm up with Malt-O-Meal.” It’s fun. I wish I had a Davey Crockett hat with a tail.
In the car my father is driving us to Patch Barracks. He turns the radio on to Armed Forces radio. “This land is your land and this land is my land. From California to the New York Island.” I’m sitting with my family riding in the Chevy Corvair feeling like an American.
JFK was assassinated back in the States. In Oberaichen, my German friend Stefan was sitting alone on the side of the road crying and chanting, “JFK, JFK.”
We move to Munich and move into Military Housing. Fitting in with American kids is difficult after living in Oberaichen. They ask me if I like the Beatles and I don’t know what they’re talking about. We all go the base theater and watch A Hard Day’s Night. The admission is 25 cents for kids.
My father is the XO of a Cavalry Squadron. They convoy to the Czechoslovakian border for the Cold War. It’s like a war movie, but it’s not a movie.
One of the kids in the neighborhood thinks the Beach Boys are better than the Beatles. Who are the Beach Boys?
We go to Oberammergau and learn about the passion play. My brother teaches me about the bubonic plague. Everything smells old.
We go to school in a building that is surrounded by bombed out buildings from World War II. I think World War II happened a long time ago. My father was in World War II. How come the buildings haven’t been fixed or torn down?
My brother and some other kids from the neighborhood find a World War II bunker full of gas masks with swastikas stamped on the rubber. I cut my foot on some razor wire.
One of my friends steals a practice grenade from the infantry soldiers practicing in the woods. We unscrew the fuse, cut open the plastic containing the flash powder and pour it into a line on the sidewalk. One of the kids lights it with a match. Instantly flames shoot up into his face. All the hair on his eyebrows and the front of his head is singed and curled. The smell of burnt hair and its new curly appearance is funny. We all laugh knowing that we got away with something.
My family is stuck in Frankfurt waiting for our plane to the States. My mother takes us to the Frankfurt Zoo. Andrew, my baby brother bites a little German girl for no reason. The whole family is embarrassed.
1964-1967 Fort Sill Oklahoma
My Father sold the Corvair in Germany and we pick up a brand new Dodge Dart in New York. He packs all of the bags on a roof rack and covers them with tarpaulin. We drive to Oklahoma stopping at Howard Johnson roadside restaurants along the way.
My brother, Beau, is great at building plastic models made by Ravell, Monogram, and Airfix. He paints them perfectly and never leaves any glue spots. We hang them from the ceiling at realistic angles as if they’re in a dogfight. There’s an American B-17 Bomber, a German Messerschmitt fighter, another German Focke-Wulf fighter, a British Spitfire, and an American P-38 Lightning. All of them hang at different angles and heights from the ceiling off to the side of our bunk beds. Hanging by itself, off to one side, is his favorite model, the World War I Fokker triplane. All of the controls work and the camouflage paint job is super realistic. I’m not allowed to touch it. My brother sleeps on the top bunk next to his models.
Fourth of July, my brother and I blow up all of his models with Black Cat firecrackers. He tells me it’s ok because he wants to build new ones. I’m the one that misses them the most.
My brother Beau leans down over the rail of his upper bunk and tells me about The Longest Day in the dark after we’ve gone to bed. He just saw the movie at the Base Theater and we know all about World War Two. I can see the dog fighting models above his head as he asks me, “Do you know what dot, dot, dot dah is?”
“It’s Morse code for V, V for Victory. But in the movie it’s more than that. It’s part of Beethoven’s 5th. They used Beethoven’s 5th to show victory. Dah, dah, dah, daaaah, dah, dah, dah daaaah,” he sings over and over again. I try to make the connection as I go to sleep dreaming of steel helmets and landing craft.
The Beatles movie Help is playing at the Main Theater and the admission was raised to 50 cents. We are all going to see it.
My brother Beau and I hike to Geronimo bluff. When we get there and look down. I can’t believe the story of Geronimo any more. No one could jump from that bluff and survive. I can’t remember if my brother said anything, or if we just looked down at the V waves caused by the water moccasins swimming across the creek below.
Everyone in the neighborhood has a colored television in their house and we don’t even have a television. My father orders a brand new square screen television from Heath Kit. It’s delivered in three boxes. That night when my father comes home from work he opens the boxes and we help him sort out the pieces, component by component from the packages. We organize all of the parts on a large table into smaller boxes. Printed circuit boards in one box, tubes in another, and all of the resistors and capacitors have to be arranged by type and resistance. It takes a month for my father to build it with our help. It works perfectly in the end and we mount it in the teak cabinet from Germany. We are proud; we’re the only ones on the block who built our own colored TV.
Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color is the only show my father really approves of. He hates the Three Stooges and forbids us from watching them. We salvage a black and white portable that a friend’s family is throwing out so we can watch the Stooges secretly.
My brother joins the Boy Scouts and I’m jealous. I want to be a Boy Scout too. He tells me that the Scout leader, Sargent Metz had joined the Army as a Mule Skinner. Sargent Metz goes hunting with his dogs all night long and sleeps in his tent during the day.
My brother gets a merit badge for bookbinding. He rebinds the cover of my father’s favorite copy of the Family Mark Twain. My brother had ruined the original book cover when he read the book by flashlight in his bed after lights out. He must have slept on it too.
One summer night at Fort Sill, we are all sitting around the front lawn drinking Ice Tea when a car drives up. It’s Sargent Metz the Scout Master and he looks concerned and serious. My brother got fragged when one of the other Scouts threw an M14 blank in the fire and it exploded. My brother is in the back seat of Sargent Metz’s car with his head bandaged up like a turban. My father takes Beau to the Emergency room where they pull the piece of brass out of his head.
“He’s lucky,” the doctor says. “His skull bone stopped it, if it had been a few inches lower it would have gone through the eye.”
My brother Beau is a hero!
I hate school and I’m always in trouble because of that. I’m a daydreamer; I love to just look out the window and think of anything but school. I haven’t done any schoolwork for a week and my teacher takes all of the worksheets and staples them into my Weekly Reader with a note to my parents. I ditch them under the seat on the bus home from school. My brother Beau sees me ditch it and picks it up.
“What’s this?” he asks me, as he looks it over. He’s in the sixth grade and a straight A student.
“Nothing,” I tell him. “It’s not even mine.”
“I’m going to give this to Dad,” he tells me. I hate him and I run away from home until about nine o clock that night. Everyone thinks my running away is funny, but my father is not laughing. He doesn’t think any of it’s funny and I’m in trouble. My brother Beau is really having a good time. I hate him.
Beau graduated from the sixth grade and is going to Junior High in Lawton. One afternoon after school when my mother isn’t home he chases me around the house with Tabasco sauce. He pins me down he smears it on my lips. Why did he do that to me?
I want a Johnny Eagle gun for my birthday. They looks so cool, they’re so realistic. I see them on TV all the time. I want the M14.
“There will be no toy guns in this house,” my father says. He hates guns.
One day he talks to my brother and I in our room. He looks mad. “Do you know what war is?” he asks us, and doesn’t wait for an answer. “War is the complete breakdown of civilization. Innocent people get killed, and bad people get away with murder. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” Standing under our models of warplanes my brother and I nod. My father is in the Army and he hates war. What happened to him?
My father learns to fly and gets his private pilots license. Every weekend he rotates which kid gets to go up in the two-seat Piper cub with him. The Piper cub is made of fabric stretched over an aluminum frame. My fear of flying is always overcome by my excitement and the adventure. Maybe we’ll practice stalling again.
Late night radio in Oklahoma is all rock and roll. “Love that dirty water, Charleston that’s my home, dun, dun, dun, da dun.” All my friends can play that on the guitar.
I bought the Rolling Stones 45 of 19th Nervous Breakdown. I like it better than the Beatles’ Ticket to Ride.
My brother joins the marching band and plays the flute. How can he remember all of those notes? He brought home a Bassoon yesterday and says he’s going to learn that too. Now he’s going on a hayride with the Teen Club. We don’t hang out anymore.
My father’s got orders to go to Vietnam; the war is on the news every night. There’s a chance that he won’t come back. We’re going to move to Los Angeles to live near my Aunt Jerry. I hope we live near the beach.
Los Angeles 1967
Everything is changing. We live off base now, in L.A., my cousin went to the Griffith Park “Love In,” I don’t have any friends here, some of the kids in this neighborhood are sniffing glue to get high. What’s high? Everything is changing. I lay in my bed in the converted double garage that is the bedroom I share with my brother Beau. Everything is changing. I listen to the Byrds on KRLA, my transistor radio volume turned up loud. I lay on my bed alone as my eyes fill with tears that run out of the far corners of eyes down my temples and on to the bedspread.
“To every thing turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal…”
Written for Andrew Burgess’s ENG 200: Composition II