Home again. Sort of.
As we last left you (if you’ve been keeping up with our HiJiunx Adventures) Jessica and I were visiting Mammoth Caves. I mentioned that had been to the Caves before, when I was a child.
As many of you know, I’m a military brat and one of the bases my family was stationed at was Fort Knox, the bullion depository (cue James Bond Theme) and, at that time, the center of Armor training for the US Army. The base wasn’t far from Mammoth, so we decided to drive up.
Almost all of my childhood was transitory, as far as home was concerned. Every three years, we would be reassigned to another military assignment and have to move. To different states, to different countries. Some people ask if that was hard, but I always thought it was an awesome childhood!
If you’ve not lived that kind of life, try to imagine how it feels to never have roots in one location. Imagine what it’s like to get used to a new school and create new friendships with strangers every three years. Imagine the entire environment of your life being changed every three years. I think a lot of my personality stems from having to make those adjustments. Heck, I was always the class clown, my way of getting new people to like me.
The only familiarity you have from station to station is the uniformity of the military structure and the family you were born into. Every Brat knows what I’m talking about. There’s an intuitive sense we have about military bases. The way they are laid out, the architecture, it is the only sense of stability we feel. We can feel lost in a new city, but we can drive onto any military base anywhere and there’s a sense of “home”. We often speak of the Military as our extended family. Brats recognize that in each other, there is a sense of attachment to each other because of it.
But more is your immediate family; your parents and your siblings. It’s the one solid, stable thing in this strange existence. Everything else changes around you, but your family is the rock.
So what was it like living at Fort Knox? Well, some context is in order. It was the height of the Vietnam War and my father had just returned from thirteen months in country. Physically healthy but… well, no soldier returns from war unhurt.
But living on the base, it was pretty much routine. You know, kids playing in the backyard with the sound of Huey and Cobra attack helicopters flying overhead. A platoon of M60 Patton Tanks driving up the main street with no one giving them a second glance. Lying in bed at night, looking out your window at the distant flashes on the horizon and being lulled to sleep by the “thump thump” of mortars being launched on the practice range.
Every morning, you woke to the sound of “Reveille” being played on the base speakers. At eleven at night, you heard the bittersweet tones of “Taps” being played. And at 5pm, the speakers would play “Retreat” when the flags around the base would be lowered and retired for the day. Every person on the base, child and adult, would stop what they were doing, whether it be driving, working or playing, and face toward sound of the music to silently pay respect to the flag.
We lived in assigned housing, one side of a duplex in a housing area on base known as Morand Manor. I was ten years old, entering sixth grade at McDonald Junior High School just a few blocks away. It was the time of my “Wonder Years”. Living there was a major part of my childhood.
We had just planned to drive by the base, but I wondered if it would be possible for us to drive onto the base for a visit.
Even as we pulled up to the off ramp, we could see the Bullion Depository right next to the road. My memories started to stir and I had a smile on my face.
We pulled into the visitors center at the Chaffee gate and entered the main office. I talked to the security officer in charge and told him my family was stationed there years ago and I wanted to show my wife where I lived. Surprisingly he just asked for identification, had us fill out security forms, then gave both of us passes to drive onto the base.
Now you’ll notice there are very few photos of what we saw on the base. It is, after all, a military base. I was told I could take some photos, but not of areas that were obviously security areas. The photos you’ll see here are a combination of the few I took on this trip and some from when I lived there back then.
Without even thinking of directions, I found myself driving toward Morand Manor. And there it was. The row of duplexes lining my street. I could see the old open space where we would play in the summer and the hill we would sled down in the winter. The building with my dad’s old office was still there, on the other side of the main street. Even the old pecan tree was still there, where my mother would send me to gather them up for pie.
Finally, there was my house. And I was hit in the chest with an emotional hammer. So many memories rushed back and it took a moment to process it. I should have expected it, but I didn’t.
Finally, I took a deep breath and we moved on. We drove around the rest of the base and I recognized more places from my youth. We found the open park where I used to play next to the old High School, we found the Wayburn theater where I would go to watch movies. We found the building which used to house the barber shop that I would be sent to. We found the old roundabout where the PX used to be located, where my mother would take me to shop.
And we drove up to McDonald Junior High School. I flashed back to the times I would trudge through the snow toward school, pulling my baritone behind me on a sled. The school was closed in 2018, but the building was still there. As was the old flagpole where I, as a member of the color guard, would raise the flag every morning and take it down at the end of the day.
Eventually, we had to leave.
When I lived there, my father had just returned safely from war and family had been reunited. Everything was as it should be. We were a unit once more. We were, again, all we had and all we needed. We were each other’s world. It was the best memory of what my family was to me. And now, decades later, I was seeing it again as the last surviving member.
The last witness to a perfect time, a perfect place, and a perfect family for one small child.