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Official Article

Military Kids

The 80’s were the era of Rambo, G.I. Joe and Top Gun, a magical decade when the military was riding high on Hollywood’s dramatic storytelling of their heroics. Along with the ever popular ninjas and Dinosaurs, it seemed like every boy my age wanted to save the day dressed in camouflage while firing a bazooka at a Russian soldier. I had the unique experience of growing up right next to a military base and going to school with a group of rough n’ ready youngsters we called “Base Kids”. You might have grown up in a military family or had a local base by your childhood home too, so allow me to share my unique experiences with these kids who seemed to live in a different world.

To give you a frame of reference as to why the children of our country’s heroic soldiers fascinated me so, allow me to set the scene for what my connection to the military was at this point. Growing up in Southern California, just a few miles from the beach, most of my friend’s parents were office workers, doctors or lawyers who seemed more interested in the latest fashions and fancy cars than our national defense strategy. My Dad had been a medic in the air force during the Viet Nam war, but by the 80’s he was the vice-president of a property management company that owned the Anaheim Hilton and Pacific Stock Exchange building, having traded his uniform for a suit many years prior. So yeah, I didn’t really have much exposure to those folks who fought for our freedom.

The first clue that the military was right in my backyard came from the daily flights of double bladed choppers passing over the schoolyard in Kindergarten. Every day while swinging on the monkey bars or digging tunnels under sand castles I would hear that familiar sound cutting through the air, but never really considered why or where they were coming from. It turns out there were 2 giant aircraft hangars just down the street in nearby Tustin, CA. These things were massive concrete structures, that I imagine you could have fit the Titanic inside and yet I didn’t have any personal connection. That is until I met Kelly.

Kelly was a chipmunk cheeked and crew-cutted rascal that moved in down the street when I was 6. His Dad was a grisly and mustachioed retired marine who now worked for Federal Express/FedEx, which meant Kelly was all about the few, the proud…the marines. In fact, the first day Kelly and his older brother came over to my house to introduce themselves, Shawn (the brother) was playfully barking orders at his younger sibling like a drill sergeant. “Get me a hot dog!” “How do want it prepared, sir?” “The way I always eat it, COLD!” Being from a very quiet, artsy home this was all quite a shock, but soon, Kelly was teaching me how to fire plastic Uzis, lob dummy grenades and the finer points of wearing camo gear.

The other thing Kelly used to brag about was attending the “young marines” boot camp. He claimed that they did sit-ups and push-ups non-stop, while preparing for future military service. For some reason I always imagined him getting to fly those helicopters on the weekends and I was pretty jealous. But the military wasn’t for me, heck, even t-ball practice was pretty arduous during those days. What were for me were girls, and as it turns out, the “Base Kids” included those too. In fact, my first time setting foot on a military base was at the invitation of a cute classmate of mine, named Tessa.

Tessa was always way cooler than the other girls in class. She had long, dirty blond hair with a slight curl and basically looked like the older sister from Troll 2. Even more exciting, she would actually talk to me! I don’t remember what our conversations consisted of but they were apparently entertaining enough for her to invite me to her house to “hang out”. I was probably about 8 or 9 at this point so the prospect of spending time alone with a girl was pretty foreign. I couldn’t imagine what we would pass the time doing, but being around a pretty girl was good enough.

I remember passing through the gates and seeing row after row of identical beige houses all lined up with very little landscaping to be seen. When we got into her house, it was quite the culture shock. My mom decorated our house with all sorts of chandeliers, frilly curtains and stuff, but Tessa’s house was pretty stark with an old TV, a worn couch and simple wooden dining room set. When I stopped by her younger brother’s room he had several posters of scantily clad NFL cheerleaders on his walls, which really threw me for a loop. “Your parents let you look at girls like that?” “Yeah, they’re hot!” OK 7 year old, I guess you would know.

Upon entering Tessa’s room she quickly offered to style my hair for me. I never was much for being stylish, so any help I could get, especially from the ladies, was appreciated. I remember the mix of confusion and anticipation as she filled her hand with this white foam that looked like shaving cream, “It’s called mousse” she said, “We’re gonna make you look cool”. Then she started rubbing the stuff into my hair and giving me a scalp massage at the same time. I’m pretty sure this is the first time a girl my age had been that close (y’know, except to pinch me or something) so the tingles of excitement were really hitting hard.

When all was said and done, I looked like the lead singer of The Cure as Tessa proudly admired her work. I hadn’t expected a makeover on my first trip to a military base, but what an unforgettable experience. The sad part is, I never got to go back. As I soon found out, Military families don’t get to stick around for long, even if they wanted to. Soon her Dad was transferred out of state and I never saw Tessa again. I will say that her influence on me was definitely lasting. I almost immediately started begging my mom for hair care products and it became a part of my daily routine. Whenever I reached for the mousse, I thought of my personal hairstylist, Tessa.

After this experience I felt a special connection to the Base Kids. I would see them get bussed in every morning and thought it was so cool. In California everybody has a car, so kids just got dropped off on the curb by their parents. The idea that they got to take a field trip to school every morning was a pretty sweet deal in my mind. I also noticed that they were all a little rough around the edges. You never wanted to hassle a military kid because they would mess you up, son! One girl named Asia would have been a great linebacker for the Raiders. She was the size of Donkey Lips with the athletic prowess of Telly from Salute Your Shorts and if you made a joke at her expense you would “pay the price” through some well place punches to the stomach and/or back.

My connection to these military misfits also heightened my knowledge of world events and patriotism. Operation Desert Storm and the battle against Saddam Hussein became that much more real to me when I realized that my friends had parents who were involved. I recall singing, “I’m proud to be an American” as part of an elementary school choir concert and my cousins being in a cheesy music video for a song called “In A Desert Land” that was in tribute to the troops. You can watch the whole video at this link, it's a perfect mash-up of 80's cheesiness and patriotism. Each of these musical experiences were extra meaningful knowing that the people we were supporting in defending our freedom lived just a few miles away.

During my Junior High years it seemed like all the base kids must have been assigned to a different school because I lost track of them, but once I got to High School they were back! I buddied up with a quiet, bespectacled guy named Dave my freshman and sophomore year who had this reserved nature that you knew was hiding a jokester within. He was what I imagined people from “the country” to be like, easy going, but tough and not focused on material things. The truth is we didn’t have a whole lot in common, but it was nice to have a friendly face to pal around with on campus. However, like always happened, by Junior year Dave’s family had been transferred away from El Toro, but adding insult to injury was the fact that the military base had actually closed!

I should have known something was up when the sound of choppers was no longer ringing in my ears on a daily basis, but I just thought they had changed their route. Just like that a group of my classmates had disappeared along with a little piece of my childhood. I had grown up with a great admiration for the military and now they had moved on without notice. I did eventually trespass on government property by sneaking onto the base housing a few years later with some friends. It was creepy and a little sad to see all the empty shells of the homes overgrown with dried-out weeds and cobwebs. Luckily I had the memories of the good times to put a smile on my face.

So I’m curious to hear your experiences with military kids and local military personal. What kind of adventures did you have with the men and women in uniform?

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Hoju Koolander Posted on Feb 22, 2015 at 06:25 AM

@massreality I really appreciate your perspective in the discussion, such interesting experiences. I always wondered how my friends dealt with those moves, I see how that struggle to connect without any hope of long-term friendships could be rough. On the other hand, life on base sounds pretty amazing. I wish my friends had invited me over to the movie screenings, that's a sweet deal! And those final days in the abandoned base must have been amazing.

Vaporman87 Posted on Feb 22, 2015 at 02:26 AM

That's rough mass. To imagine such an existence coming from my own upbringing of growing up and living in the same area all my life, with the same friends all my life, it seems very difficult. But like you said, you adapt. You're made to grow up a little faster than others. Maybe you can provide a different upbringing for your own children.

massreality Posted on Feb 22, 2015 at 12:36 AM

I'm one of those military kids. My Dad served in the Navy for twenty-two years, and I got to most of my life on Naval bases. We moved at least once every three years, but it was usually at least twice every three years. That meant a lot of different schools, neighbors, and eventually issues.

It gets glossed over a lot when looking at long term military kids (not the ones whose parent does four years and gets out) but we end up a little messed up. We are extremely adaptable to change and feel weird if we aren't moving every few years. But we also tend to keep to ourselves and have trouble connecting with people. After about the fourth time of losing your friends, you just stop trying. It's easier just to sit quietly and be the freak rather than make a bunch of friends you are just going to leave in a few months.

I think my obsession with the past and objects from the past come from this raising. When you move that much, you don’t have much to hold to onto. So you tend to lean onto your physical possessions. That book of baseball cards suddenly becomes the most valuable thing in your life, because it was the only constant for the past four houses and three states that you lived in.

It's comforting to be around other military brats, because they can relate so well to the lifestyle. The parents tend to raise us the same ways (well the enlisted parents do it one way, the officers another) so we understand each other. We have to walk a fine line, but we also tend to be treated a little more maturely. I’m not really sure if that’s a good thing or bad.

My fondest base memories are from my time in Orlando, Florida. In the mid 90's they announced the base was closing and all personnel had to move out of our little duplex type housing and into these apartments or off base. Most everyone was transferred and we were one of the last families to move. That gave myself and the few kids remaining a huge empty military base to play on. We had total access to all the housing, and would climb on roofs, and hide in the outside laundry rooms while playing cops and robbers. What was left of security didn't care, so it a very cool experience. Sadly, that base was turned into some luxury homes and hardly nothing remains of it today.

When living on base you have this entire working city that you live in complete with grocery stores, gas stations, roller rinks, movie theaters, and even fast food restaurants. It's all very safe to go to all hours of the night and everyone treats you with respect. Then you finally leave that atmosphere and come into the real world and it's a shock. It’s hard for us kids, it's so much harder for our parents.

Its fun being a military brat, but it's also very lonely. People spend a lot of time thanking service members for serving, but tend to forget about those who get left at home and still have to life in that sort of lifestyle. I feel bad for military wives, husbands, and kids. It’s not a comforting nor nurturing environment to live in. It also barely resembles what the real world is like.

Vaporman87 Posted on Feb 21, 2015 at 08:22 AM

My experience with "military kids" is next to nothing. Now, I knew lots of kids whose fathers spent many years in the military. In fact, my best friend's dad fought in Viet Nam also, and so did the father of a friend that lived next door to me. Both fathers were gruff, a bit odd, and hard to judge. Especially the father of my neighborhood friend. His dad was actually pretty weird. He was big into computers, and like to dole out lessons to his son and the oddest times. I recall one time while we were downstairs pretending to wrestle (using pillows as opponents) when his dad came down and yelled at us for it. Yet, we had done that many times before and he had never said a word about it.

Another kid in my school whose father was in the military in years past was actually our scout leader in Cub Scouts. He was very military in nature, but not as gruff as the others.

My best friend's dad has mellowed out over the years. He mostly sits in his recliner and watches Nascar, football, and whatever else is on TV. He also fishes in tournaments. But there was a time when he was an alcoholic and made my friend's life miserable. Water under the bridge now.

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