U.S. Army Life

AN ARMY BRAT FROM BIRTH

I was an Army brat from birth. Since Veteran’s Day will be celebrated tomorrow, here’s to the military families who  also “served” although we didn’t get paid for it. Life in the military could be challenging, especially since military fathers were not very easygoing, for the most part. 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.

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 German 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.”

 

VICTORIA’S FATHER IS VICTOR HOBSON

In anticipation of becoming a “Grandmother” for the first time, I’ve been thinking about my own relatives and what I’ll share with my new granddaughter. I have a preview excerpt from one of my Ebook stories offered on Amazon. Discovering the Victor in Victoria is the true tale of my search for my birth father. I was only a toddler when he went off to fight WWII in Italy. My parents divorced a few years later and both remarried. My mother liked Army officers, hence I had two career military men as fathers. They’d both gone to military colleges: my father was a West Point graduate; my stepfather graduated from the Citadel in South Carolina. At the end of their careers, my stepfather was a full Colonel and my natural father was a Brigadier General. Their lives weren’t easy and full of joy, but it was never boring.

Baby Viki when her daddy went off to war.

Baby Viki when her daddy went off to war.

To check out my books on Amazon, go to: http://amazon.com/author/victoriagiraud

I was 21 when I discovered my birth father was stationed at the Pentagon. On a trip to Northern Virginia right before my last semester of college, I decided to look him up. In those days access to the Pentagon was easy; finding your way around, however, was challenging. (see my Book Cover of the Pentagon created by Hans Giraud, my son)

When the secretary ushered me into his office I wondered: Was this white-haired slender man truly my father? Did I even resemble him? Wasn’t he too old? My step-dad was scarcely gray. But this man’s hair was thick and wavy, similar to mine, and his slightly pug nose looked like mine. He looked at me inquisitively as I stood by his desk, my heart racing in my chest.

“Col. Hobson, I’m Viki Williams,” I introduced myself as he stood up with a smile. I noted he was taller than my dad. He maintained his outward composure, though I could detect the astonishment in his eyes. He knew who I was immediately. Calmly and politely, he told his adjutant to leave the office and close the door behind him. He then directed me to sit in the chair in front of his desk.

“Now, what can I do for you?” he asked hesitantly, still smiling at me, the bomb who had dropped into his life.

What thoughts were rushing through his mind? I wondered as I kept my cool, though I was quaking underneath. Tension and unease hung in the air. I quickly told him I was in my senior year of college and looking for careers, and I needed information for my CIA personnel form, such as where exactly was he born. As he gave me the information about his Alabama birth, we both relaxed a bit.

“I guess you think I’m about the worst man alive,” he offered with a hint of regret in his voice after we had finished the required questions.

“No, I don’t,” I replied evenly, too shy and uncertain to explain feelings I wasn’t even sure of. Even though Army officers weren’t known as “Disney” fathers, I had harbored no resentments through the years that I knew of. I was simply curious and reaching out for clues to my origins.

“I’ve thought about you a great deal all these years,” he added softly. “You look very much like your mother, except taller.”

Check out my book for more details on the real story. The book cover shows Victor holding Victoria as a baby.

Discovering the Victor in Victoria#1

WHEELUS HIGH, HERNANDO’S HIDEAWAY

I left Tripoli, Libya, the summer of 1958, the end of my sophomore year in high school. My dad received orders assigning him to duty at the Pentagon in Northern Virginia; he would work in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a prestigious position for him.

The last months at Wheelus High School were packed with activities and I went through the old Barracan newspapers to note a few highlights. Since we didn’t have a cafeteria at the high school, it was decided by the “powers that be” to make us eat at the Airmen’s Club in February. Apparently, one of the main reasons was to keep girls away from meeting airmen during lunchtime. Going out with GIs was a social “no-no” and Joe McDonald wrote an editorial about it in the paper. Too many girls, not enough boys, it seems.

By March the Airmen’s Club was closed for student lunches and we were all ordered to bring sack lunches – enforced nutrition by a school dietician! Apparently we were mostly disorderly at the Airmen’s Club and now had to eat in the school courtyard. To make sure our naughty behavior didn’t spill over to the elementary school, there would be a wall erected!

When students were asked what was the first thing they’d do when they got back to the States, Eddie Goldsworthy declared he’d find a patch of grass and look at it for an hour. Marla Bush was going to eat a hot corned beef sandwich, and Karen Gamel was going to eat a good banana.

A bunch of us were spotted at the Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” movie on base. Steve Gaynor was seen with three girls—Karen, Kathy and Arnell. This according to Quidnunc, the gossip column.

Errol Cochrane’s Platter Chatter listed Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” as the number one record, Danny and the Juniors had the number 10 hit – “At the Hop.” We heard these songs often at the Teen Club on base.

In the spring the sophomores sponsored a dance—Hernando’s Hideaway (inspired by the content and music from the Broadway play and subsequent movie “Pajama Game”) with entertainment. A few of us girls decided we’d do a chorus line dance to “Steam Heat,” a dance routine featured in the movie. My parents had the record and I remember practicing our routine in my Tripoli living room. Our very amateur group included: Betty Hubbard, Sherri Anderson, Karen Gamel, Wilnetta Edwards, and me. We started our dance in front of a fairly large audience at the evening activity. Moments into the dance the record skipped and we had to pull ourselves together and start again. I think the photo below of Wilnetta, me and Betty displays our self-confidence. We were probably too young to worry about it.

The boys did a can-can in drag after our dance and stole the show, but I don’t have the photo.

Dancing to Steam Heat - Wilnetta Edwards, Viki Williams, Betty Hubbard

Dancing to Steam Heat – Wilnetta Edwards, Viki Williams, Betty Hubbard

 

MEMORIAL DAY & ARMY MEMORIES

General Victor W. Hobson

General Victor W. Hobson, my birth father, when he was promoted to general.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a time to honor all our veterans and those serving in the military currently. On the lighter side of life, it doesn’t take much to remind me of my upbringing as an Army gypsy or brat and what military wives had to put up with to keep their husbands pleased and their families together. Army (or Air Force or Navy or Marines) fathers 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, 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 (LPs – 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?

Cadet Darby Williams, Citadel student, before he became my stepfather

Cadet Darby Williams, Citadel student, before he became my stepfather

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 together: 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 don’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 pop corn and put it into small paper bags to take to the 35-cent or cheaper films on whatever post we were living in at the time. 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 present home and school. 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 Europe. Personal household items didn’t always arrive at the new quarters, or 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 very noisy. 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. 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 birth father. My mother left this world from Ft. Sam Houston.

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.

MY TWO MILITARY FATHERS

In honor of Father’s Day, I am celebrating my two military fathers and my mother, who fell in love with both of them during the years of World War II, the event that inspired my birth, right on the cusp of the Baby Boomer generation. The energy surrounding a war is fertile ground for creating and destroying . During that time there was plenty of anger, a thirst for revenge and retribution, along with a strong surge of sexuality that resulted in marriages and births, not necessarily in that order.

The war brought two career military men into my mother’s life; within five years she had married, divorced and remarried. The first, Capt. Victor Hobson, a graduate of West Point, was my father. He was shipped off with the infantry to the war in Italy before I got to know him. The second, Capt. Darby Williams, who graduated from the Citadel in South Carolina, appeared on the scene right after the war. He had spent the war training troops at Ft. Belvoir.

Mama with Baby "Viki"

Mama with Baby “Viki”

When my mother, Garnette Motley, graduated from high school in 1940, she was ready to leave small town life in Danville, Virginia, to head south to Ft. Bragg, near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Even though the US wasn’t involved in the war yet, many people felt it was inevitable, including President Roosevelt. Mom had family in Fayetteville, which made it easier to get a job as a clerk-typist at the Army post, a typical low-paying position for women in those days.

Mom, a true Southerner, was naturally friendly and flirtatious and would have been considered a “dish” (an old compliment). What could be more fun than being among lots of available young attractive men in uniform? I could see from old photos that Victor was a handsome man—he was tall, had dark curly-hair, and was very intelligent. Those were passionate days after war was declared and sex was a natural result. Apparently, they didn’t use protection, so little Victoria was conceived without the benefit of marriage vows. Mom was so embarrassed about that fact she didn’t tell me until I was 19. Being a “modern” girl by that time and in a time of “Free Love,” I thought the circumstances made my creation much more exciting, besides, Victor did the honorable thing and they got married before I made my entrance.

Victor Hobson

Capt. Victor Hobson

Capt. Hobson wasn’t in my life for long; I wasn’t even a toddler when he went to war. I believe my mother was in love with him but I’m not sure it was fully reciprocated. War may bring passion but it also brings separation, and the marriage was essentially over when Victor left. Mom and I went home to Danville and lived with her parents until fate, and Mom’s brother Penn, stepped in a couple of years later with an introduction to another Army officer, Darby Williams. Captain Williams was stationed at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, and met my aunt and uncle at a church they both attended in Northern Virginia.

Love struck again for Mom, and it turned out that my birth father, Victor, who was stationed in Trieste after the war, had met a lovely and vivacious Italian woman he wanted to marry. Mom obliged and took the train to Reno, Nevada, the best way to get a quick 6-week divorce in those days. Capt. Williams joined her when she was free; they got married in Reno right after the divorce was final and celebrated at the Top of the Mark hotel in San Francisco. Dad went on to Bavaria, Germany, as part of the US occupying troops, and my mother and I sailed to Europe to join him. And so began the second chapter of my life as an Army brat.

Lt. A. Darby Williams                                                                                                               Lt. A. Darby Williams
I’ve wondered occasionally what life might have been like if Mom had stayed with Father #1 since Father #2 was more than challenging. I did meet Victor and his family when I was 21 (I’ve written an Amazon Ebook about him and written about both fathers on my blog), and discovered he, too, had  been a difficult father. Victor and I bonded nicely when we reconnected, however, and I got to know him and his wonderful family.

My conclusion: my mother followed her heart, had some good years and some very trying ones, but that’s life. My sister, brother and I wished she had lived longer, of course. Military men, especially of the WWII generation were not easy to live with on the whole. I think they kept their anguish and frustrations bottled up or took it out on their families; thankfully, marriages seem to be more open and communicative these days.

A MILITARY BRAT’S LIFESTYLE

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

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

Because the U.S. has been in so many wars lately, we’re always looking at stories on TV or  reading about the troops. The Los Angeles Times did a story yesterday about life for Marines and their families on Camp Pendleton in Southern California.  It doesn’t take much to remind me of my upbringing as an Army gypsy and what military wives had to put up with to keep their husbands pleased and their families together. Army (or Air Force or Navy or Marines) fathers 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, 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 together: 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 don’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.

If your dad got orders, it was time to leave, no matter how well you liked your present home and school. 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 Europe. Personal household items didn’t always arrive at the new quarters, or 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 very noisy. 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 birth father. My mother left this world from Ft. Sam Houston.

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

My brother Darby is sworn into Army service by my dad right after college graduation from the University of Virginia

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.

POSTWAR GERMANY – US ARMY

Most military brats of my generation probably spent some time living in Germany at one point in their father’s career.

My first vivid memories date back to the time right after WWII. Memory is an odd thing; as you age, you start to wonder if the memory is truly yours or what you were told by a parent or family member. Does it make any difference?

The 1940s were a tumultuous and tragic time during and after World War II. After my Infantry officer father had married Mom and shipped off to Italy to fight, we lived with her parents in southern Virginia. At the end of the war, my family dynamics changed: my father had met an Italian woman he wanted to marry in Trieste, and my mother had met another dashing officer, who had lost his first wife to diabetic shock during the war.

 

Across the Atlantic to Bavaria in 1947

Mom & me cross the Atlantic to Bavaria in 1947. Dad is waiting in Munich. Hand-drawn picture by Dad’s German secretary, Adi.

The shift in couples was accomplished shortly after the war, and my new dad, who was already in Germany, had us literally shipped and then railroaded to southern Germany. I don’t remember the voyage, but I do recall the long train trip from Bremerhaven to Munich because a sliver of coal flew into my eye while I sat at the window. I was only four years old when we got there and six when we left, but I do remember the bombed-out city of Munich. A still-standing single wall from an apartment building might continue to hold a feather bedspread the occupant had hung out the window to air out before the building was destroyed by a bomb.

Since the American Army had been victorious, we took over the best housing in Murnau, which had been and still is a vacation town bordering the Bavarian Alps. Physically undamaged by the war, it was a picturesque village; most homes had window boxes filled with red geraniums in the summer, and there were plenty of places to ski in the winter. We were only 18 miles from Garmisch and the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, once the site for a winter Olympics in the 1930s.

Young and in love, my parents started married life in an idyllic situation. Although my dad was only a captain, we lived in an 18-room house on a large piece of property where my dad planted tomatoes in the spring. We even had a maid and a houseboy, an older couple who were kind and hard working. The American major next door had two children and their “borrowed” home had a swimming pool, which we all used in warm weather! Army people keep in touch and my parents reconnected with them years later when both couples had retired in Texas.

Before my sister was born in the Munich Army hospital, my folks had a terrific time: besides photos as evidence, my dad’s German secretary illustrated a picture book diary for them before they left Germany in 1949. They traveled to postwar Paris and saved a booklet from the somewhat scandalous Folies Bergere. Americans weren’t used to seeing total nudity on stage! Skiing at a local hillside and on the nearby Zugspitze was a regular family activity. There were also plenty of parties–we’d won the war, after all! I remember the Chinese theme party illustrated in the secretary’s book, which I now have. Perhaps it was Chinese New Year.

It seems there wasn’t an Army school for me since my mother taught me first grade from the mail order Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. It was so advanced that I skipped second grade when we got back to the States. Another advantage for me was learning German, an easy accomplishment when young and surrounded by Germans. I had made friends with two German youngsters, Seegi and Uti, whose names I remember but not the proper spelling. When my folks needed a translator, it was me they turned to!

 

THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI – MEMORIES

Lungomare, the boulevard bordering Tripoli Harbor

Lungomare, the boulevard bordering Tripoli Harbor

The more I am on the Internet and especially on Facebook, the more I connect with old and new friends that have some connection with Libya. Many of us fondly remember the friendlier, peaceful days in the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve made friends here in Los Angeles with Mahmud Abudaber, a Tripoli native. Not long ago, he mentioned a street I was familiar with–Sciara Ben Ascuir, or at least that’s what it was named then. Apparently, it still has the same name but I’m not sure of the current spelling. It was only a few blocks from my family’s villa on Via de Gaspari, and it was the route our school bus took to drive us to school at nearby Wheelus Air Force Base.

Tripoli—the name rolls off my tongue conjuring up exotic memories of its smells, sounds, landscape. It’s been several decades now but the city on the shores of the Mediterranean has never lost the magic it held in my heart. I note as I get older that life seems to go in circles; my Southern California domicile has the same weather and blooms with many of the identical plants that I first came to know and love in Tripoli.

As a young American teenager in the 1950s, I was fortunate to spend several of my formative years in a wondrous Middle Eastern world. It was an extraordinary time made more so by my awakening to the world and to the mysteries of blossoming womanhood, a rite of passage from age twelve to age fifteen, though looking backward often adds its own sentimental patina to events. My parents had come through a difficult time in their marriage and were enjoying each other again, and my strict and demanding father left me alone, within reason, to have a splendid time socially.

Teenage me on Via de Gaspari, Tripoli

Teenage me on Via de Gaspari, Tripoli

What changes were wrought in my life during that impressionable time, an ideal time to be living in such a unique world! My long wavy hair, which I wore in a ponytail, was cut there by an Italian hairdresser and fashioned into a short, curly style and I discovered I had naturally curly hair. My flat chest experienced its first budding of breasts and along with it came an active interest in boys – American boys, English boys, Italian boys. I heard my first really dirty joke, learned swear words and explicit gestures in Arabic and Italian, got embarrassed by my own farts, and had my first make-out session with a boy who truly knew how to kiss.

Libya has gotten out from under Gadhafi’s thumb now, but it’s far from peaceful, which is sad.  In the middle 1950s it was a bustling, cosmopolitan city inhabited by Arab (we were taught to call the residents Libyans), Italian, British, American and an assortment of other European and Middle Eastern nationalities. Both the British and the Americans had military bases, and international oil companies were drilling for the oil that would eventually make the country rich, beginning in 1959. Libya, for the first half of the twentieth century under Italian rule, had only gained its independence in 1951, and that auspicious occasion had been marked by the renaming of a main thoroughfare, to become 24 December Street.

Like many major events in the life of an Army brat, I wasn’t sure I wanted to uproot and travel to such a strange land. I was shocked when my father received orders to report to North Africa. We were stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, at the time, and Africa couldn’t have been more distant from civilization as far as my twelve-year-old mind was concerned. Morocco was our first assigned destination, specifically the peculiarly named Nouasseur. Then, for some governmental reason (Morocco was having violent political problems, as it turned out), the orders were changed to Tripoli – Wheelus Air Force Base. My Army Corps of Engineers father would command a military group that had something to do with maintaining that strategic airfield, the closest large American location to Russia, an important fact in those Cold War days. He would also be traveling to mysterious places such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia.

Our little family, which included Darby, my two-year-old brother and Joan Tupper, my six-year-old sister, boarded a military prop plane at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey the week before Thanksgiving 1955. We left a snowy landscape and headed southeast over the Atlantic, our circuitous flight path leading us first to the tiny Azores Islands. Propeller-driven planes, not as efficient as jets, required refueling stops. We landed on the islands about 3 a.m. Azores time, were roused from sleep, and dependents and military personnel were herded off the plane and onto waiting buses for a trip up a windy mountain road for breakfast in a non-commissioned officers club. A couple of hours later we were jammed back aboard, but mechanical difficulties kept us on the ground several more hours. Then it was on to Nouasseur Air Force Base in Morocco for another stop and finally on to Tripoli. Military planes, whether carrying troops or dependents, weren’t on fixed schedules. You landed when you landed.

What seemed like days but was more than likely some thirty hours later, we reached our new home. It was 9 p.m. in Tripoli, but after so much time and so many time zones, who could tell. No snow on the ground here: the weather was temperate and probably no colder than 55 degrees. Only after a good night’s sleep would we regain our land legs and clarity of hearing – the noise and vibration of prop planes had a habit of disorienting the body, which included sight and hearing, for hours.

An officer from my father’s new command met us at Wheelus Air Base and drove us the eight miles into town to our temporary quarters – the Albergo Del Mahari, a hotel that definitely marked our passage into an Arab country.

The flat roof of the white stucco hotel was highlighted in front with a dome that sat upon two pentagon-shaped, windowed bays. Just under the dome was a high bay accented with a multi-paned, oval window on each of its five sides; under it was a flatter and wider bay with opaque, rectangular glass-block windows on each section. Its unusual design, to which I would soon become accustomed, reminded me of a tiered wedding cake.

Tired and disheveled, we were led under a portico and through the hotel’s glass double doors into a spacious marble-tiled lobby. Each side of the five-sided lobby faced a different courtyard; the center of each courtyard contained either a fountain or a small, rectangular pool. Vines covered the courtyard walls; small trees, many of them poinsettias, dotted the space and surrounded several benches.

Our tiny suite of rooms was reached across a courtyard with a fountain, and our suite faced the courtyard garden. It was like an enchanting scene from Arabian Nights — the mosaic designs, the unfamiliar, musky fragrance of the air.

My excitement turned to apprehension as I surveyed the tiny bedroom that my sister and I would share: two narrow single beds covered by dark red- striped bedspreads. The strange surroundings almost overwhelmed me. I felt disoriented and fearful – gone were the familiar touchstones of stateside life. And it all smelled so odd. I couldn’t wait until we had our own place and were surrounded by our own furniture.

Our private bathroom changed my mood. The very deep rectangular tub was unusual, even ludicrous to American eyes. The tub was designed as a seat; when the bather was seated, the tub would hold enough water to reach our armpits. There was no stretching out in this oddity. Prominently hung on the wall was a urinal, with no sign of a regular toilet. Obviously a man’s convenience was more important in this Middle Eastern palace. Giggling at the incongruity, the two of us found we couldn’t even improvise; it was too high to fit our private plumbing. We’d have to find a normal toilet to use.

If you’re curious about more Tripoli stories, check my archives. I’ve also published AN ARMY BRAT IN LIBYA as an Ebook on Amazon. It can be purchased on Amazon by going to the link on the upper right of this blog.

A ROLLING STONE…

The world has grown more mobile since my youth. In the mid 20th century, many folks stayed in their hometowns for their entire lives. Being a military brat, like I was, meant you would be a gypsy. Sensing that fact, I’ve been documenting my addresses since 1950. One of my parents’ military friends, who knew I enjoyed reading, gave me a history book Love Affairs That Have Made History. For some reason I don’t remember, I decided to write down all my addresses on the front flyleaf and when I ran out of space, I added some on the back.

 

Mom's childhood home, the blue color is recent and I think it's been torn down.

Mom’s childhood home, the blue color is recent and I think it’s been torn down.

I was born in Danville, Virginia, during World War II and my first home was a bedroom in my mother’s family home on Berryman Avenue. It was a spacious 2-story wooden home on a corner with a cemetery across the street: my Motley grandparents’ final resting place. When Mom married Darby, her second husband, they began married life with me in Murnau, Germany, in 1947. It was a picturesque Bavarian village undamaged by the war, and even though my dad was only a Captain, the huge 18-room house we were assigned made us feel like he was a General. To the victor go the spoils comes to mind. Although I was quite young, I can still remember the large garage building, full of empty bottles (maybe they recycled during wartime). We even had a maid and a houseboy and a hill nearby to ski down. My sister was born in Munich, where the big military hospital was, and her first home was our “mansion” in Murnau.

 

My dad's tomato garden on the side of our German mansion.

My dad’s tomato garden on the side of our German mansion.

When we sailed back to the U.S. in 1950, we lived in an apartment building in Ft. Lee, New Jersey—401 Park Place, to be exact (I bet Gov. Christie knows!). The only thing memorable for me was my mother getting locked out on the roof when she was hanging clothes, and the fact that one of the famous Ames Brothers singing group lived in the same building. We were soon sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, for the next year and lived at 34F Pulaski Street. I imagine these military quarters were fairly basic, but we were there such a short time I can’t remember anything but being smart enough to skip second grade in elementary school.

Shortly after the Korean War started, my dad, who might have been a Major by then was given orders to participate as a Corps of Engineers officer in Korea. Years later he remembered the horror of war even in the midst of the Alzheimer’s that finally killed him. Mom, my sister and I moved to Dad’s home state of Florida, and we lived in a small stucco home in Jacksonville Beach (530 11th Avenue North). I remember seeing sand everywhere instead of grass, and the very wide beaches where you could actually park your car before going into the ocean to swim. My 4th grade teacher was a pioneer of sorts—she had us participate in a morning snack time of raw fruits and vegetables we were required to bring from home. Music was also a priority: each class member had to learn to play harmonica for our class band. We even had uniforms—colorful little satin capes and envelope caps, like members of the Army!

When Dad came back in one piece in 1952 from Korea, he was bearing Japanese gifts – a pearl necklace for Mom and painted silk parasols for my sister and me (I still have mine). It was time to head north—the Bronx in New York City. Dad was going to study for his Master’s Degree at NYU. City living was very different; at Fordham Hills Apartments, 2451 Webb Avenue, we lived on the 12th floor. I attended PS 33 for 5th grade from 1953-54. The school was located almost under the elevated subway and across the street from a Loew’s movie theater.

Elevators were commonplace in New York and my toddler sister escaped us one day and rode up and down on our elevator until I managed to track her down. The apartment buildings were on a hill and the sidewalks leading to a playground at the bottom of the hill were ideal for roller skating practice.

My dad’s next assignment was Ft. Knox, Kentucky. There weren’t any officers’ quarters available at first, so we had temporary quarters in what was called the cantonment area (T-7600 D Montpelier Street), which was once part of an old hospital with lots of empty, closed down corridors. It was a short distance from the famous Gold Vault (the US Gold Bullion Depository)—no tours, however. We were rewarded at Ft. Know, however. My baby brother was born there in the military hospital, of course.

Within a few months, we had graduated to large brick quarters at 1460B Fifth Avenue where we would live until November 1955. Although quite nice, these quarters were typical of almost any Army base. The street name sounded prestigious, and I remember the old leafy trees and quiet atmosphere. We had a nice basement where my dad could indulge in his photography hobby and I could put on dancing/singing shows with girlfriends from the neighborhood using my folks’ old 78 rpm records. One of my favorites was “Managua, Nicaragua is a wonderful town…” While we were there President Dwight Eisenhower visited and I actually had a peek.

I had started 8th grade when Dad got orders for Nouasseur, Morocco. The orders were changed quickly to Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli, Libya. After a very long flight and stops in the Azores and Morocco, we landed at Wheelus and our first home was the Hotel Del Mahari for a few weeks. It felt like something out of the Arabian Nights with fountains and flowers and exotic smells, but we soon moved into a two-story villa with one apartment on each story in Garden City: 26 Via De Gaspari. We lived on the second floor, had three bedrooms, one bathroom, separate dining and living rooms and a large balcony with a view of the Egyptian Ambassador’s compound across the street. It had a one-car garage and a small side yard. The windows had roll-down wooden shutters, which helped keep sand out during the ghiblis (sandstorms).

Our two and half-year sojourn in Tripoli was the highlight of my youth, but I’ve written far too much in other areas of my blog to cover the same material again.

When the family headed back to the States again in 1958, we were bound for Alexandria, Virginia and Davis Avenue. It was suburban Northern Virginia-Washington, D.C. area. Dad would be stationed at the Pentagon working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We didn’t have a villa this time but a small stone-fronted two-story home with a good-sized back yard dominated by a weeping willow tree. My parents didn’t stay long; when I went off to study at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, they went to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to the US Army War College for a year before heading off to Mannheim, Germany.

I joined them in Germany after college and started a whole new saga in my life that brought me to California, where I’ve been ever since.

 

 

GETTING REACQUAINTED WITH MY FATHER IN THE PENTAGON

For those who haven’t read my past two installments regarding my birth father: when I was 21, I came unannounced and with no prior warning to his office in the Pentagon. I needed family information for job applications, and I was curious about this man I no longer remembered.

After a few minutes of conversation, Col. Victor Hobson asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” After a pause he added, “I know that’s a silly thing to ask.” When I didn’t speak up, he said, “There’s an aunt of mine who’s asked about you. And my father. You’re a pretty girl; I hope you’re cagey with the boys!” He chuckled at his remark.

I laughed. “I don’t know how cagey I am, but I’m not planning to get married soon. I’m going to be in two weddings this summer, but I’d like to get a job that lets me travel.”

From his manner and despite the occasional nervous tremor and the loss of eye contact as he glanced down at his desk, I could see he was enjoying our interview. There was an essential charm and ease of manner about him as well as an obvious intelligence and thoughtfulness in his comments. He was making it easy for me to like him, and I could tell he was impressed with me. To make himself a bit more at ease, he took out a cigar and lit it. I positively hated cigars, but kept my mouth shut and was relieved the odor wasn’t overpowering.

Victor Hobson & family: Migia, Marlena and Susanna

Victor Hobson & family: Migia, Marlena and Susanna

Amazed at my own composure, I sat fairly still as we talked, able to answer sweetly and without much hesitation. The pencil I had brought with me suffered from all my tensions; I mauled its eraser with my fingers.

He asked about my accomplishments in college, and inquired after some of my mother’s relatives he had known and enjoyed years before. Not long ago I discovered he’d sent an older cousin of mine WWII German Army souvenirs from the battles in Italy, where my father had fought. I still have a tiny helmet with a blue clover insignia—he was part of the Blue Devils, the 88th Infantry Division, the first American unit into Rome in June 1944.

He then told me a bit about his Italian wife, Maria Luisa, nicknamed Migia, and how he’d met her in Trieste, Italy, where he had been stationed right after the war. He and Migia had a fifteen-year-old daughter Susanna and a thirteen-year-old daughter Marlena. He related he’d been in the Army twenty-three years but had never run into my stepfather.

“I have to admit something,” he confessed after a while. “The office had a party at Blackie’s in Washington for lunch, and I had a few martinis. It’s a good thing I had them before you walked in!”

I laughed, and he joined in. “I knew this meeting would surprise you,” I said, “and I was sure nervous, but I figured this was the best way to do it.”

“How long are you going to be here?”

“I don’t have to be back at William and Mary until next Wednesday.”

“Would you like to meet my family if I came by to pick you up? I know my wife would love to meet you.”

“I’d like to very much,” I answered sincerely. The meeting was working out better than I expected.

“Are you sure?” he asked again, apparently still uncertain about my walking into his life, and his guilty feelings probably nagging at him.

“Of course,” I replied as I wrote down my friend’s telephone number.

That night at the Reiners, where I was staying in Alexandria, I got a call from Migia. With her charming effusiveness, it was as if we had known each other for years. Although Italian, her low mellow voice and speech bore scarcely a trace of accent. She knew just what to say to put me at ease and make me feel wanted. She couldn’t wait to meet me on Sunday, but in the meantime Vic, as she called him, wanted to take me to lunch on Friday. Could I meet him at the Pentagon? It was all going faster than I had imagined, but I was excited and enthusiastically told her I was looking forward to all of it.

Last installment next week.

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