Friday, December 11, 2009

Why I'm Not Like You....

.....or anyone, for that matter.

For any of you that may have come to this blog hoping to see what new feats of athletic endurance I may have accomplished recently, you won't find it in this post. This post will have nothing to do with athleticism, and will probably be very long (I really don't know yet, I just started writing).

Any of you that know me personally know I don't quite fit into any sort of mold (eeww). Many times in my life, people have asked me "what the fuck is wrong with you?".

Where do I begin........

I decided to write this post after I found BRATS: Our Journey Home, a documentary about military brats - the children of active duty military. Please keep in mind, I'm not using my upbringing as an excuse for past rash behaviour, or for any sort of sympathy. I think I had it pretty good, and I thoroughly appreciated the lifestyle experiences, it was just very different from anyone you've ever met. This documentary goes so far as to refer to us as 'third culture kids'. I'm not so sure I agree with much of the sentiment of the film, but I'll go into that later.

It's funny how a persons world view is so specific. Up until the time I was 15, I had never spent more than three years in any one place. People have asked me, "how could you stand moving all the time?".

I would always reply "how could you stand staying in one place your whole life?" Indeed, when I was 15, and we had been at Fort Devens for three years, I asked my father "can we move?" I had been there, done that, and had more than just a fucking t-shirt.

Sadly, no. I was doomed to _another_ three years on this tiny military base, where I would graduate from the local public high school, and my father would eventually retire from the army after 21 years of service. My hope of living in europe - preferably germany - dashed with the revelation that my father had full intentions of finishing out his 20 years in the army in two years at this installation, and we would most likely 'retire' locally, in Ayer or Shirley....from the frying pan, to the fire.

But, The US military being what they are, had other plans. He filed for his retirement six months before his 20th anniversary in the army, which would have been at the beginning of my senior year in high school. His requested was rejected, and he was instead given orders to prepare for a one-year hardship tour to a remote military outpost at Sinop, Turkey. A small base with a few hundred soldiers overlooking the black sea with large radio arrays for the purpose of listening to soviet russian communications. Families not allowed. He would be forced to delay his retirement for at least 18 months past his intended date.

This wasn't the first time he left for long periods. My father was gone alot. This would be his second year-long hardship tour. The first was in 1972 to another small outpost in shemya, alaska. A rock at the end of the aluetian chain, about 500 miles from the Kamchatka pinnensula. He couldn't quite see russia from his house, but he got a much better look at it than sarah palin ever did, that is, when he could actually venture outside. At least Turkey would be warm.

He also did three tours of vietnam between 1969 and 1972, about three months each. But then he was rewarded with two three-month tours of Kwadjeline in the '70s. It was defined as a hardship tour, but it was quite like tahiti. There were some remote installations where the military went out of their way to create amenities for the soldiers and their families. They _did_ have dependent housing (family housing), but his tours were only three months long, so he went alone. Dad got 2 three month trips to almost-tahiti, and my mother, sister and I were left to contend with new england winters. (oh, I didn't mention I have an older sister yet? yeah, by two years, She was born in clinton Massachusetts, when my parents were at fort devens for their first tour after my father graduated basic training in 1959. She's a christian fundamentalist redneck living in Georgia now). But then, we never had to deal with aleution storms, or getting shot at by the viet cong. Let's just say it was a well-earned perk.

I wrote those three paragraphs as a precurser to _my_ experiences. After all, this blog is about me.

I was born in Ethiopia. Really. There used to be a US military installation called Kagnew Station at the city of Asmara high in the mountains of Eritrea, then a province of Ethiopia. Kagnew was another 'hardship' post, and the military went out of their way here as well to make life more comfortable for the few thousand soldiers and their dependents. From here:

"On the positive side, a tour at Kagnew Station offered houseboys and housegirls, a chance to save a few dollars in the low cost of living, and the opportunity to capitalize on the Command's endorsement of higher education and take some University of Maryland or University of Oklahoma courses. For some, the cultural setting was a matchless experience in itself. For others, it may have been Red Sea lunkers, the challenge of the Prince Makonnen Golf Course, Italian food or Ethiopian gold jewelry that kept the personnel office flooded with extension requests. Perhaps it was the 12 months of sunshine that made an assignment to Ethiopia a memorable one. But probably above all, and especially for the first-termer anxiously awaiting ETS, Kagnew's relaxed military routine made it an optimum assignment"

To this day, my mother waxes romantically about the weather. We were fortunate enough to be there during the 'golden period' of Kagnew station, with the army granting excesses in the forms of entertainment venues, vacations on the red sea, and relaxed dress/discipline codes. It was short lived though. We left in late 1963, I was only a year old and don't remember a thing about it. In the late '60s political strife overtook the country, and in the early 70's the centrist emperor and US ally Haile Selassie (whom Rastafarians consider a demigod) was overthrown in a soviet communist backed coup. The Army bugged out before it got too hairy, and there's a darkly humourous story about the one time they actually had to scramble to arms, the key line being: "My God, they're giving us real bullets!".

From there, we moved to Vint Hill Farms, Virginia where my father attended a cryptology school. We left there after about one year, when my father was transferred to Hokkaido, the northern-most island of japan, Chitose Army-Air field, now a commercial airport. I'm told we flew across country to san francisco and boarded a marine troop ship for passage across the pacific. The ship had been retrofitted to carry non-military dependent families, so it had larger rooms and better food and mattresses but it was still a marine troop ship, with 200 marines on board. I don't remember that either.

I have a few memories from chitose, the very first ones, in fact. One involves watching my father use his lighter (he used to smoke a pipe) to burn a big fucking black spider off its web that it had built overnight outside our front doorway. I asked him recently if it was as big as I remember it. He closed his eyes, nodded his head, and said "oooo yah. It was big". My mother nodded in agreement.

They used to get multiple snowfalls of several feet deep in the winter, and the famous Sapporo Snow Festival is a few miles away. Now, there are no blonde japanese children, and both my sister and I were almost nordic in appearance. The japanese tourists took as many pictures of me and my sister as they did the 20 foot tall ice sculptures. A number of them asked my parents for permission to touch our hair. We have 8mm video of my sister and I being surrounded by a small group of japanese school children. It was as if they had never seen a blonde child. Wanna know something? They hadn't.

Incidents like this are what shape the attitude and sensibilities of people, and why it's so critically important to understand and embrace the diversity in cultures of the world around us. I learned at a very young age that people aren't just a little different from us, they're _alot_ different from us. People are murdered and wars are started because of people abject willful ignorance about others that are different. It isn't to be feared, but embraced.

I started kindergarten here, in a quonset hut. My teacher was mean, though I don't remember it, but my mother said so.

Halfway through kindergarten my father pulled his second tour of Fort Devens. We left Chitose in the late fall of '67. We flew back this time instead of a US marine-hosted cruise, and I have vague recollections of of a four-engined commercial passenger airliner with turbo-props. Yes, a propeller driven trans-pacific flight. We stopped over at my grandparents house in Binghampton, NY for a few days. This was the first time I ever remember meeting my grand parents.

Here's where I began to become cognizant that my life wasn't the norm. Most of you probably can't ever remember your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins _not_ being there. For all intents and purposes, I didn't even understand the concept of extended family - beyond my mother, father, and older sister.

For all I knew, my grandparents were just some other people we were going to meet, get to know for a while, then move and never see again. Sure, I got cards and presents from them, these people I had never met...they may as well have been Mr and Mrs Clause. I actually had a stronger bond with the japanese house-keeper we had in chitose. My sister of course had the same feelings, or lack thereof. She _did_ remember them from when we visited before we left for japan. Though here member was simply a fleeting visual image, emotionally insignificant.

I had no idea anyone actually lived in one place their entire lives. I banal. In the military, you could tell people anything about your extended family. They could be doctors, statesmen, eminent religious or political figures... They would never know, or have reason to doubt you. (this was something my ex-wife never quite out-grew - more on that later). Hell, I was in school with ambassadors kids more than once, took gym class with kids whose fathers were two and three star generals, and most of us had no clue of "family" beyond our parents and siblings.

Now, here these two old people were, enthusiastically hugging and kissing a completely bewildered 5 year old. We may have spent a couple weeks there until our housing was ready, but then we would leave there too.

That's enough for now. I'm thinking this will end up being in three parts....if you, or I, make it that far.


Amanda said...

this explains SO MUCH.

zencycle said...

and I haven't even gotten to the good parts yet

Raineman said...

Now you get to make a life the way you want it to be...
or enroll in uncle's sam's club. I hear they're recruiting mountain bikers for assignments near Peshawar. Great singletrack. And Paki chicks love scars.