A World Unto Itself

Living on a military base in Cold War Germany in the late ’60’s and start of the 1970’s was weird for a child raised in civilian ways. For despite having been born an Army brat, we had almost always lived among civilians, in a civilian neighborhood, with civilian friends. I guess that was my parent’s attempt at giving us kids a “sense of normality”. But that was in the U.S.A. In Germany we had no choice – we had to live on a military base. And living on a military base in a foreign land is an experience unto itself – even if you never leave the base. For it is a world unto itself, and it is ruled by an iron hand. And that hand is the base commander (the C.O., or commanding officer). He comes first, the military second, and though it is his responsibility to pass on the military’s rules, he can make exceptions. Usually those exceptions come in the form of more rules (directives, they are called) – ones specific to the base he commands. Next comes “country” (the U.S.A.), then, perhaps if there is room for it, religion.

For us kids you could add even another layer: our parents. Those fit somewhere between “duty to country” and God. They could not supersede the military’s commands, nor could they buck the base commander. They, like you, were expected to follow the rules handed down by the military. You always came second . . . or third . . . or fourth, depending upon your position. And for us kids, the position was very far down on the totem pole. You had this sense of a structure towering over you, the hand of god (which for us was the military, and not the true hand of God) – poised to strike at the least infraction. But, of course, we often broke the rules anyway.

Living on an Army base in Germany . . . especially the smaller ones – how to describe this thing to those who have never lived on one overseas?

Imagine a world built of Army trucks and tanks, marching G.I.’s singing randy slogans. We lived in the buildings the Germans had built for their own military back during WWII – quite literally occupying the homes of our enemies (though they weren’t our enemies anymore – for the most part). You couldn’t just plug in your nifty American appliance – you had to get a bulky transformer, or else you would fry your toy, because the electricity came from the German grid. Therefore, these transformers were considered precious – as precious as a refrigerator or vacuum cleaner, and almost as hard to find. Amenities were few, and often small. The only shopping for American goods was at the PX (Post Exchange) – which in many cases was a small building offering only a limited variety of goods, most of which were for the G.I.’s (such as uniforms, boots, insignia and such). Grocery shopping was done at the commissary, though we often visited the German markets (held in the town’s center squares) for fresh fruit and bread sometimes. Eggs were at a premium. Ditto steak, American bread, milk in those green cartons, and a hundred other things. For big items you had to drive for hours to another base, going to the AFEES center. Often you would be allowed to look at a “display sample” – to actually get the thing you had to order it – and like all mail orders in Germany at the time, it would take at least twelve weeks to get there, sometimes longer. You might not even be at the same base by the time it came in.

Entertainment was extremely limited. There were small libraries (just a few rows of books) – and the base theater. Almost every base had one. And even that was strange – or it would be to a civilian. For these were military theaters, and like everything military, there were procedures to be followed, rules to obey – and you didn’t dare disobey any of them. That would result in immediate ejection from the theater – and perhaps disciplinary action against your father. (This being the early 1970’s, not too many mothers were among the enlisted – though they – and we – had to follow the same rules as the enlisted.)

In a military theater it always started the same way. Everyone would sit down – quietly. Talking and discussion – laughter or fidgeting around – would earn you stern frowns from those around you. You waited for the movie to begin. And then it would start – and always in the same way. (The proper – and best way – in my opinion.) For it would open with the National Anthem, the flag and scenes from America on the screen.

And everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – would have to stand up. If you were in uniform, you saluted that screen. If not: hand over the heart, standing at strict attention. No looking around. No conversation. Just gestures of pure respect towards the images on the screen. And woe unto the person who decided to remain seated. This was a command directive – not just by the C.O., but by the Army. “Everyone will stand – and remain standing – during the playing of the National Anthem.” No exceptions allowed. You WOULD place your hand over your heart. You WOULD stare at the screen. You would NOT shift around uncomfortably. You did NOT chew popcorn while it was playing. I always thought this was a wonderful thing, and still support the notion. After all: I’m proud to be an American, even if we do come up with some f****’d up policies sometimes. And I’m proud that as an American, I can say that. There are some countries where that would get you jailed, maybe even killed.

Such was (and is) the power of a base’s Commanding Officer that I remember one movie – a “premier” (though the movie had been out in the United States for well over a year) – where the CO was expected to show. He was late. Such was the respect (and fear) of the CO that they held off showing the movie for almost a half hour, waiting for him to get there. There were no open complaints made by the members of the audience; we all sat there, frozen in our seats, waiting for him to get in. The harshest thing I heard anyone say was “I hope he gets here soon.” Nothing else.

I’ve said that these military bases were worlds unto themselves. This was true. We dependents (kids and wives) felt free to mix with the G.I.’s – even when they were at work sometimes. I remember wandering into the hangers (my dad worked on aviation electronics – the “spy” stuff) – looking at the Cobras, UH-1’s, and Mohawks (a “spy” plane). Cruising out onto the tarmac to feel the rotor wash of a helicopter taking off – close and personal. G.I.’s would greet you like an old friend – even if you didn’t know them. After all: we were all bound together by a common thing – the military, our country of origin, our sense of “us” versus “them” – those who lived outside the base. There was always an acute awareness of our presence there among ourselves – that somehow we were just there temporarily, to do a job — and yet bound by ties thicker than blood. And the job of us kids was to obey.

That world ended at the fence — the eternal fence. (The military is fond of fences.) Beyond lay “Krautland”, within lay our world – the “American normalcy” – or the closest thing the Army could bring to it. We would gaze through the wire like tourists on a ship – the world ended there, right at the wire. Beyond – beyond lay another world, one strange and wonderful and full of pitfalls and traps. The gates that guarded our world were always eerily similar – you would know one if you drove by. Even if you didn’t know where you were at or if there was an American base there – you just knew. There would be a single guard hut planted in the middle of a road – red and white striped iron drop bars blocking the way in. A soldier – an “MP”, actually – standing at attention on the “in” side of the gate. An American flag set on a short pole on or near the shack. The fence stretching away on either side of the road opening, blocking all other ways in. There were times when touring through Europe when we’d see such a thing, and we knew: there lays “home” – or at least as much “home” as we’d ever be able to find here. A place of refuge if we needed one; a place we could run to if in trouble. The hell with the American consulate – that was way too far off. If there was trouble, we’d be running to the American base – into the open arms of the Army, for the Army had become our home. You might get into trouble when you got there – but at least it would be familiar trouble spoken in words you could understand. You may have committed “infractions” – but those infractions would be dealt with in an orderly military fashion, a military way. Outside the gate was chaos – or at least a system we couldn’t understand. Our unfamiliarity with foreign law, foreign ways made their system seem that way to us, even though we knew on an instinctive basis the Germans had to have a system. They had a system for everything.

This weirdness of living on a military base – separated from the world by a thin narrow fence, inhabiting a world of the Army’s making – was to become a factor in our lives. A familiar factor for many, I know, for some of you have done that – lived on a base overseas in the mid-60’s, the early 70’s – and you know what it is like. The rush to the PX when there is a rumor of a new shipment of a “new” thing arriving; the long lines there to purchase it (if there are any left) when you get there. The preference the military gives to their military men over the dependents (for dependents always come second – or third – in the military’s mind — which in my opinion is the way it should be). The anxious waiting for a new movie to appear in the theater; the sound of choppers thundering overhead. (I still find myself rushing outside when I hear that distinctive “thump-thump” of military choppers going by.) The smell of O.D. (olive drab) canvas – such a familiar smell that whenever I smell it (and I love it) – it smells like going home. The sound of a hundred booted feet striking the pavement as one; the chorus of voices in the morning as the G.I.’s march off to work . . . or somewhere. I love these things (cut me and I bleed OD green like a Navy officer bleeds blue) – and to me they are some of the most precious memories of all.

Military bases. Overseas. Worlds unto themselves. Places of their own. Separating you from the outside world and creating a world within – neither one ‘normal’ but a mixture of both. A bit of home away from home, and yet not home at all . . . a feeling of impermanence, of being in transit all the time – not where you are from nor where you are going, but stuck – for years! – somewhere inbetween . . .