military bases

I Was an Army Gypsy and Proud of It

I’ve been reminded that my adventures as an Army brat applies to other service brats, like Air Force brats—I knew many of them at Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya. Of course, the Air Force started out as the Army Air Force and didn’t become its own service until 1947.

Our Army or Air Force or Navy or Marines fathers all wore uniforms, which had to be starched, ironed, and kept in excellent shape. My mother was expected to keep my dad’s things in perfect order, and she advised me, ruefully, never to let a man take me for granted. In other words, don’t volunteer to iron or you’ll be stuck behind an ironing board forever. Thank God Permanent Press was available when I got married, and my husband had elected to stay only in the Reserve Army (two weeks of uniforms in the summer).

Way before the cheap giant stores we have now, the Army provided the PX (post exchange) a version of department store with mostly quality things at lower prices and the Commissary (nicknamed the Co-misery by some) for reasonably priced food. Prices needed to be low since joining the service, whichever one was chosen, was not designed to make your parents rich.  I still have some record albums (remember those?) from the PX in the early ‘60s that only cost $2.35! And a china cabinet full of nice silver and crystal from the PX I got for wedding presents. I could entertain like my parents, but who uses silver trays and bowls, fancy silverware and crystal except for very special occasions? Or perhaps if you’re part of the British Royal Family!

Entertainment was always a priority in the service; officers and their wives had calling cards and went through all the proper protocol. Officers and enlisted men did not socialize: they each had their own clubs. The clubs weren’t always very special, like the photo below shows. The Class VI store, on the other hand, was available to those, no matter what rank, who were old enough to imbibe alcohol in its various forms. Cocktail parties, dinner parties, special dinners/parties given by a certain command or military group were typical to celebrate holidays, promotions, farewells, etc. Each weeknight, if they didn’t have other social plans, my mother would put on a nice dress and heels and greet my dad with Martinis or Manhattans and sliced raw vegetables (pioneers for eating if not drinking healthy) for cocktail hour, from 5-7 p.m., wherever they were stationed. I can’t remember if he got comfortable first and took off the uniform.

Army Officers Club - Mannheim, Germany - 1960s

 

Army posts offered tennis courts, bowling alleys, shooting ranges, gyms: you name it. There were always movie theaters and movies were very cheap. Because of my thrifty dad, however, I remember my mother making us kids popcorn and putting it into small paper bags to take to the 35-cent or cheaper films. In the summer, there were usually several huge pools to choose from, an easy bike ride away. And when you became a teenager, there was a teenage club with lots of activities.

Rules and regulations were to be obeyed without protest; everything had certain hours, and in military time. My dad wrote me letters military style while I was away at college: paragraphs were numbered and if he was scheduling a pickup or a visit, it would be written as 0800 hours or perhaps 1600 hours, for instance.

If your dad got orders, it was time to leave, no matter how well you liked your home/school/ post. Moving wasn’t ever that easy, but there were Army personnel to pack up your household goods: until the Army got smart eventually and started providing furniture, dishes, bedding and the like at the new military destination, especially in Europe. Personal household items seldom arrived at the new quarters on time or in good shape, but that was to be expected or accepted, even if it ended up on the bottom of the ocean, which did happen, although not to us.  If you were in Army quarters, you were expected to leave them spic and span and they were subject to inspection, and that meant bedsprings, tops of doors, ovens, etc.  Remember the old TV ad for the “White glove test?” Wanting to save money, my dad insisted Mom do the cleaning instead of hiring a cleaning crew.

Army fathers (as I imagine all service fathers) were used to a regimented schedule. When we went on a vacation in the States, we got up at 4 a.m. (0400 hours) and hit the road. I got a laugh from the scene in the movie The Great Santini when the family got in their car to leave in the wee hours. In the 50s we traveled to Tripoli in what some joked was a putt-putt airplane, propeller-driven and loud. It involved several refueling stops and seats were not all facing the front, which made it easy for my sister to throw up on my brother. Military airplanes in the 50s and 60s made stops in places like the Azores, Morocco, England, Scotland, Newfoundland and Labrador (depending upon which direction you were traveling). Once off an airplane, you didn’t get your land legs back for at least a day. Until then your ears buzzed and everything seemed to move, even if you were sitting down.

Traveling by ship was more common in the 40s and 50s. I got my “sea legs” when I was four years old: from New York to Hamburg, Germany, and then by train to Munich.

When an Army father retired, he usually picked someplace near a post or base since he could still use the PX, Commissary, medical facilities and space-available air travel. Many times the retirement choice would be the area of his last post or base. When he’d had enough, my dad and mom chose Texas for the warm climate and the close proximity of Ft. Sam Houston, where, ironically, my mother and I had been briefly during WWII when she’d been married to my natural father. My mother left this world and “retired” for good from Brooke Army Hospital at Ft. Sam Houston.

Military life as a dependent involved a great deal more than I could fit into this story, but it gives a general idea.

Being an Army brat was a great adventure, despite the challenges. Living in exotic places was exciting but best of all were the friends you made and kept, if you chose to. My parents kept up with Army couples all over the world until they died, and I always looked forward to reading all the Christmas cards from everywhere. It’s a tradition I chose to cherish and carry on.

 

 

Costumes & Cameras – Wheelus AFB TV

My starring role as Louise

Halloween brings to mind my few moments of fleeting fame on TV long ago. Perhaps a few hundred people actually saw the program broadcast from the Wheelus Air Force Base TV station, just outside Tripoli, Libya.

Since Hollywood didn’t come knocking on my door with a contract, I chose a writing career instead.  No big script or book deals or a big budget movie, yet…alas.

My starring role was to portray the fictional Louise while Joe, a talented pianist and airman played the song of that name. Maurice Chevalier, French actor and singer is known for singing the song at least 50 years ago. Two of the lines are:

Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise.

Birds in the trees seem to twitter Louise.

Joe (I can no longer remember his last name) had a half-hour TV program, which featured him playing piano.  It was broadcast in the evening to every home with a TV set at Wheelus Air Base. I don’t remember if I even knew when or how often, but I did save the photos taken for the special occasion. My family had not brought the TV to Libya so Mom and Dad did not catch my debut.

Keeping his program unique was probably a challenge for Joe. One day he came up with the bright idea to play famous songs named for women: “Marie,” “Charmaine” and “Louise,” for instance, and have a girl in the background who represented the particular song.

He would play five songs. He already knew two Italian girls to feature, but he needed three more females to represent all the songs he had in mind. Apparently reasoning that the high school physical education program would provide him with the best choices, he came out to the Wheelus tennis courts one morning. The male mind is always intriguing! Maybe it was our grace hitting a tennis ball or perhaps what our legs looked like in shorts that influenced his choices?

I had never considered myself a talented tennis player, although I did improve over the years. I was still in the hitting-the-ball-too-high stage, lucky to make it over the net. My legs, however, were shapely.

Joe picked me, Judy Jones, and Vicki Scola and we all agreed to face the cameras. I was supposed to be a French Louise and had to find a beret and a scarf since my portrayal was a variation of the famous French Apache dance (based on Parisian gang culture and named for the US Indian tribe). I’ve still got the now tattered beret and the orange scarf.

I don’t recall that we did much if any rehearsing since we simply had to sit or stand, as the case may be, and look sexy. When Joe played each song, the camera panned from his playing to the appropriate girl and the painted background scene behind each of us.

No lingering fears of cameras linger; I don’t think I was nervous. One of the young Italian girls apparently did get the jitters; her underarm perspiration shows on her pretty dress.

Was that my “15 minutes of fame?” Fame is so ephemeral.

Between the two Italian girls, I'm in beret and scarf. Judy and Vickie are on the right. Joe's at the piano, the star of the show.

TRIPOLI – POLITICS AND INNOCENT INTERNATIONAL ROMANCES

In March 1957, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon visited Tripoli on his tour of the Middle East. He and wife Pat had been feted by various Air Force and Army bigwigs at various venues at Wheelus Air Force Base and in Tripoli. My parents, among many military personnel, went to a party and met him. My mom laughed about  her embarrassment when her garter belt broke and one of her stockings crept down her leg. She managed to recover, although I don’t remember the details, probably by taking off one stocking.

Though I was not politically minded, I thought it would be great fun to see Nixon in person and made the effort to get myself up at 6 a.m. to see him off.  It involved some extra effort since my friend and I had to catch the base bus in Tripoli that would take us to the airfield at Wheelus Air Force Base. We were standing with a small crowd on the tarmac close to his plane when Nixon decided to shake some hands before he embarked. He was already on the other side of a short chain-link fence. I happened to be close enough so he reached for and grasped my hand and then smiled broadly at me. Better yet, he hadn’t reached for my girlfriend’s hand! She and I had breakfast afterward and I remember not wanting to wash my right hand! I was thrilled, feeling it a special privilege to shake the hand of a Vice President. Little could I guess then what an unfortunate destiny was in store for the man.

***

Living on the economy, as the term went, had exciting advantages over living among only Americans. During my second summer in Tripoli, I expanded my social horizons by meeting some British teenagers. The British Army also had a post in Tripoli. A few of my girlfriends and I were invited to a private party given by a young English boy. We were the hit of the party in our Bermuda shorts, a fashion that had yet to hit England. These young Brits listened to American rock and roll but many of them hadn’t quite mastered the steps for fast dancing, which at that time was something we called jitterbugging.

A young man named Chris, an American wannabee who sported a crew cut, talked to me at the party and asked me to dance. Dancing to slow songs was an invitation to bodily contact. I think we were both about 14 at the time. I didn’t know what his experience in romance had been; mine had been limited to a few kisses with a boy at my dad’s last post in Kentucky. What a wonderful awakening to the highly enjoyable sport of making out. Better yet, he had mastered the art of kissing, in my humble and inexperienced opinion.   As I remember, we had great fun testing out new feelings through several slow songs. I did quite well at reciprocating, and it was thrilling.

That summer I spent many hours in his company comparing notes on the differences in American and English lifestyles. Like most English students in Tripoli, he would visit his parents on his several vacations during the year and would return to England where he went to a private boys’ school. He invited my mother and I (my father must have been on one of his business trips to Saudi Arabia or Ethiopia) to join him and his parents on a sailing excursion in Tripoli harbor. They were members of a Dolphin Club, which meant sailing an impossibly tiny sailboat with room for three at the most. My mother joined his father. I was onboard with Chris and his mother, and she relaxed while I helped with one of the important ropes. The trick was to move from side to side with the wind, making sure the boom didn’t hit you in the head. I got calluses for my efforts; my mother narrowly missed the boom, but enjoyed relating her adventure afterward.

Stefano and Enzo with my baby brother Darby

An enthusiastic tennis player, my father joined the Tripoli Beach Club, a European private club of Italian, English, Russian and American families that featured tennis courts, a private beach on a small cove and a clubhouse. The club was outside town, a short drive away. Being a member didn’t help my tennis game, but it added to my boy-watching skills and provided a way for me to meet more international teenagers. One of them was Stefano, or Steve, as he liked to be called, a young man who had gone to school in the U.S. and whose father worked for the Italian Embassy. He introduced me to his young Italian friends.

It wasn’t long before I had developed a crush on the handsome young Vicenzo, or Enzo for short. I later recalled that I had been sitting two seats away and admiring Enzo at a concert at the Piccolo Scala the year before. His father was a wealthy Italian businessman, his mother was English, and they lived on an estate about a mile away from our villa. He was entranced enough with me to begin waiting for me at the school bus stop in the afternoons and walking me the half block home. What made him especially dashing was the motorbike he rode. To this day when I hear the soft whir of a motorbike engine, I think of that old excitement. No leather jacket for this dapper Italian; on school days he was always in proper trousers and the sport coat he wore to school.

Enzo invited me and a couple of my girlfriends to his sixteenth birthday party scheduled from 4 to 10 p.m. on a Sunday, which I remember thinking was an odd time for a party. The lush estate was impressive. His parents had converted a stable into a party house, adding furniture in the latest style, a corner fireplace, huge picture windows and a wall mural depicting a hunting scene.

The guests consisted of Italian teenagers with a sprinkling of Americans.  Charades in English and Italian provided a challenge and much hilarity. After a tasty Italian pastry cake, we all danced. The Diaconos were quite modern: they had a small collection of Elvis Presley records! I received a kiss from my Romeo when one of the Italian girls suggested that the birthday boy had to kiss all the girls. He blushed but kissed us all politely on the cheek. It seemed that in the romance department my friend Chris definitely had the kissing advantage. Never underestimate the British!

School bus stop - my sister Joan on the left, Enzo on the right. Two students I don't remember. My school girl writing above, as if I would forget.

SCHOOL LIFE AT WHEELUS Air Force Base By Victoria Giraud

Wheelus Field Dependents School

While in Tripoli, Libya, Air Force personnel and their dependents  lived in Wheelus Air Force Base housing for the most part, but the families of men who worked for the State Department and some of its agencies, or for oil companies searching for black gold, lived in many different areas of Tripoli from Garden City to Georgimpopoli, a coastal area on the western edges of the city. Our school bus, one of many that picked up American children all over the city, traveled down Sciarra Ben Asciur on its eight-mile journey to the base. I still have a very tattered mimeographed copy of my school bus route. It did help me identify my old home on Google Earth.

During the rainy season, from November to March, all busses faced the possible flooding in the tiny town of Suk el Guima, (Friday market in Arabic), which was near the base gate on the only route to Wheelus. Although the town’s street was paved, there were no gutters or drainage systems. When it rained, it generally flooded, and the street could be as deep as three feet in some spots. The Libyans took it in stride, but the Air Force didn’t. Servicemen would be up to their knees in water and armed with water pumps whenever they were needed. Others have since told me the little town had quite an odor because of a tannery, but I never noticed.

Enrolled in eighth grade when my family arrived, I joined a class of forty students. Wheelus High had an enrollment of only 170 students, from seventh to twelfth grade. The entire class of 1956 consisted of a mere four seniors. There were twelve in the junior class, fifteen sophomores and thirty-two freshmen! We underlings were by far the most populous, and I was considered practically a high school student. One alumnus remarked that because it was such a small school there was more intermingling among students;  younger students weren’t treated as much like outsiders. The following year, we new freshmen had to suffer the indignities of freshman initiation. As I recall, wearing clothes backward was one ritual.

A class on the Arabic language was a requirement for all students, but few took the class seriously, especially the friendly, eager-to-please teacher, Haj Ali (pronounced Hi Jolly). I can still count to ten in Arabic and learned a few phrases, hopefully accurate, such as molish (who cares), bahi (good),  ana nagra (I am reading) and baksheesh (free). I was told that zup meant the same as fuck. What inquisitive American teen didn’t learn that word and its equivalent in other languages! The boys probably knew a few more.

I had an opportunity to see the difference between American and European educational systems. Our freshman high school class visited Lecio, Tripoli’s Italian high school. In contrast to our casual attire, the boys dressed mostly in suits, the girls wore black smocks. Italian students acted as our guides and took small groups of us into various classrooms.

Practicing international relations with two Lecio students at my school bus stop

In drawing class students were copying Roman columns, an appropriate theme because of the nearby Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. Since most of their students studied French, I tried out my decidedly novice abilities with a young man. His French was impeccable; I wish I could have said the same for mine. In an entirely male physics class I was asked to put an algebra problem on the board. A volunteer student worked it immediately and returned the favor. Algebra, or should I say math in general, was not my strong suit. I called for Karen, one of my classmates to help, but we were both stumped. The class laughed good-naturedly at us, delighted to prove their male superiority while gawking at American girls.

Miss Gobi teaches French at Wheelus High–Fantastique! C’est si bon!

The Italians were even better at basketball. From my young viewpoint, I had always assumed it was an American game played more adeptly by Americans. Our high school team played Lecio every year and were continually trounced. Of course Wheelus High didn’t exactly have a huge talent pool from which to draw.

 

This story has been published in a new Libyan magazine Kalam, the December edition.

The Army’s in My Blood

My brother Darby was born in Ft. Knox and later did his basic officer training there.

I’ve been reminded that my adventures as an Army brat applies to other service brats, like Air Force brats—I knew many of them in Tripoli. Of course, the Air Force started out as the Army Air Force and didn’t become its own service until 1947. Sometimes there was some envy of this “new” service with its blue uniforms and fancier officers’ clubs!

Our Army (or Air Force or Navy or Marines) fathers (not many women in the service years ago) all wore uniforms and these had to be starched, ironed, and kept in excellent shape. My mother was expected to keep my dad’s things in perfect order, and she advised me ruefully never to let a man take me for granted. In other words, don’t volunteer to iron or you’ll be stuck behind an ironing board forever. Thank God Permanent Press was available when I got married, and my husband had elected to stay only in the Reserve Army (two weeks of uniforms in the summer).

Way before the cheap giant stores we have now, the Army provided the PX (post exchange) a version of department store with mostly quality things at lower prices and the Commissary (nicknamed the Co-misery by some) for reasonably priced food. Prices needed to be low since joining the service, whichever one was chosen, was not designed to make your parents rich.  I still have some record albums (remember those?) from the PX in the early ‘60s that only cost $2.35! And a china cabinet full of nice silver and crystal from the PX I got for wedding presents. I could entertain like my parents, but who uses silver trays and bowls, fancy silverware and crystal except for very special occasions?

Entertainment was always a priority in the service; officers and their wives had calling cards and went through all the proper protocol. Officers and enlisted men did not socialize: they each had their own clubs. The Class VI store, on the other hand, was available to those, no matter what rank, who were old enough to imbibe alcohol in its various forms. Cocktail parties, dinner parties, special dinners/parties given by a certain command or military groups were typical to celebrate holidays, promotions, farewells, etc. Each weeknight, if they didn’t have other social plans, my mother would put on a nice dress and heels and greet my dad with Martinis or Manhattans and sliced raw vegetables (pioneers for eating if not drinking healthy) for cocktail hour, from 5-7 p.m., wherever they were stationed. I can’t remember if he got comfortable first and took off the uniform.

Army posts offered tennis courts, bowling alleys, shooting ranges, gyms: you name it. There were always movie theaters and movies were very cheap. Because of my thrifty dad, however, I remember my mother making us kids popcorn and putting it into small paper bags to take to the 35-cent or cheaper films. In the summer, there were usually several huge pools to choose from, an easy bike ride away. And when you became a teenager, there was a teenage club with lots of activities.

Rules and regulations were to be obeyed without protest; everything had certain hours, and in military time. My dad wrote me letters military style while I was away at college: paragraphs were numbered and if he was scheduling a pickup or a visit, it would be written as 0800 hours or perhaps 1600 hours, for instance.

My brother Darby is sworn into Army service by my dad, right after college graduation.

If your dad got orders, it was time to leave, no matter how well you liked the present abode. Moving wasn’t ever that easy, but there were Army personnel to pack up your household goods: until the Army got smart eventually and starting providing furniture, dishes, bedding and the like at the new military destination, especially including Europe. Personal household items didn’t always arrive at the new quarters, arrive on time or in good shape, but that was to be accepted, even if it ended up on the bottom of the ocean, which did happen, although not to us.

Army fathers (as I imagine all service fathers) were used to a regimented schedule. When we went on a vacation in the States, we got up at 4 a.m. (0400 hours) and hit the road. I got a laugh from the scene in the movie The Great Santini when the family got in their car to leave in the wee hours. In the 50s we traveled to Tripoli in what some joked was a putt-putt airplane, propeller-driven and loud. It involved several refueling stops and seats were not all facing the front, which made it easy for my sister to throw up on my brother. Military airplanes in the 50s and 60s made stops in places like the Azores, Morocco, England, Scotland, Newfoundland and Labrador (and that was when you were traveling east). Once off an airplane, you didn’t get your land legs back for at least a day. Until then your ears buzzed and everything seemed to move, even if you were sitting down.

Traveling by ship was more common in the 40s and 50s. I got my “sea legs” when I was four years old: from New York to Hamburg, Germany, and then by train to Munich.

When an Army father retired, he usually picked someplace near a post or base since he could still use the PX, Commissary, medical facilities and space-available air travel. Many times the retirement choice would be the area of his last post or base. When he’d had enough, my mom and dad chose Texas for the warm climate and the close proximity of Ft. Sam Houston, where, ironically, my mother and I had been briefly during WWII when she’d been married to my natural father. My mother left this world from Ft. Sam Houston.

Military life as a dependent involved a great deal more than I could fit into this story, but it gives a general idea.

Being an Army brat was a great adventure, despite the challenges. Living in exotic places was exciting but best of all were the friends you made and kept, if you chose to. My parents kept up with Army couples all over the world until they died, and I always looked forward to reading all the Christmas cards from everywhere. It’s a tradition I chose to cherish and carry on.

GROWING UP AS AN ARMY BRAT

I was a draftee in the US Army from the time I was born. The old joke tells it best—I didn’t enlist, I was drafted.

My young mother, Garnette, wanted adventure, but I don’t think she bargained for the extra baggage so soon. After high school in Danville, Virginia, she took off for nearby Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and got herself a job as a clerk-typist. She was a beautiful woman and had no problem finding Victor, an eligible Infantry lieutenant and a West Point graduate, no less. It was 1942 and the US was already at war. I’m sure there were a slew of babies “hatching” in the pouch and military fathers doing the honorable thing by marrying the mothers.

Victor & Victoria, the draftee!

Although the marriage only lasted through the war, I think my mother loved Victor. Being a Southern lady, she didn’t tell me I was the result of a romantic dalliance until I was 19. She’d already found herself another Army lieutenant as the war ended. After a Reno divorce (she had to live there six weeks: see the old movie The Women), they married and then honeymooned in San Francisco.

Mom, new dad and me - Munich train station

My stepdad, Darby, was my new commander-in-chief and he and Mom added two new draftees, Joan Tupper and Darby III, as the years went by. Being Army brats, there were always travel adventures for all of us: Murnau, Mannheim and Frankfurt, Germany; Tripoli, Libya, the Bronx, Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri; Ft. Knox, Kentucky; Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and Alexandria, Virginia, essentially. They traveled back to Germany while I was in college, and I joined them when I graduated. Who wanted to miss the opportunity?

Luckily, I loved moving and making new friends, even though I was a little bit shy in my younger years. One learns to be resourceful and comfortable wherever you end up. Orders are orders. Housing can be spacious or cramped. Before we got officer’s housing in Ft. Knox, we were in a cantonment area, (temporary quarters)—a one-story converted old wooden hospital with closed-off corridors near the famous Gold Vault.

Regular officers’ quarters were usually more than adequate. You’d never mistake them since they look almost identical in any US fort: solid and respectable-looking two story brick with basements and garages and a decent-sized yard. Some of these leftovers remain in the Army’s famous Presidio on the best real estate in San Francisco, now privately owned.

In Germany, right after WWII, as the occupying forces, we lived like rich folks in a two-story 18-room mansion in bucolic Murnau (undamaged by the war) with a separate garage, spacious grounds, a maid and a houseboy. Murnau is now a spa town and quite lovely. The skiing area in winter was about a 10-minute walk. If that wasn’t good enough, a longer excursion would have taken us to Germany’s tallest mountain, the Zugspitze in Garmisch. Quarters never got that good again, although our Tripoli villa was top notch. The photo below shows the home with the staked tomato plants in front. And my dad was only a captain!

I don’t think “socialism” has particularly bothered me politically, or universal health care. Those were Army services. Housing and health care was provided, and you took what they gave you. I’ve never hankered after a specific family doctor. If any of us had a health problem, we’d accompany my mom to the dispensary, have our temperature taken and then wait. If it wasn’t serious, it might be many hours. Getting shots was not a choice; my mother hauled us into the dispensary every year as needed for what we needed, depending on where we were going next. As I often heard it said, however, “The Army takes care of its own.”

To be continued

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