Excerpt:A Look Back In Time: Memoir of a Military Kid in the FiftiesPosted: December 27, 2015
Bernard N. Lee, Jr. is the oldest son of a career veteran of the US Army. Together with his sisters, Bernadine and Almaneta, and his brother, Mercer, he traveled throughout the United States and Europe during his childhood. The places he traveled, the people he met, and the stories he remembers are shared in this memoir.
Bernard Lee, Jr. grew up on military bases in the United States and Europe. He spent 34 years as an Engineer with AT&T/ Alcatel-Lucent; and then four more enjoyable years teaching high school. This is the first volume in the series of his published memoir.
Editor’s Note: The book excerpt below is printed with permission from the author.
Meeting the New Neighbors
Monday morning was a special day for all of us. We rose early and piled into the family car for the trip to our new home. It was a forty-five minute drive and the chatter in the car was lively.
“When will I get to see Freddie and Walter again?” I asked. “I’m going to miss them a lot.”
This wasn’t the first time we had moved, but this was the first time I had made two good friends.The thought of leaving them hurt. Mymother tried to play her conciliatory role by reminding me that we would see them at church. That didn’t help much. My sister looked unsympathetic; she was tired of all my whining. After all, she hadn’t made many friends since we moved the last time and she sure wasn’t going to miss mine.
“Are there any girls where we are going?” my sister asked.
She was beginning to warm up to the idea of meeting someone new. My dad leaned backwards and smiled at her. Then, my mother assured my sister that there would be some girls she could play with when we got to our new home. My sister began humming a little tune softly at the thought of having girls her own age to play with. For the first time in quite a while, she looked contented. I guess that’s what happens when you find there’s going to be someone who will understand you for a change.
We finally arrived at the entrance to the army post. A modern day sentry in full military armor, complete with hat, gun, boots, and all, guarded the entrance to the gate. The guard motioned for us to stop and Dad reached under the sun visor to retrieve his military credentials. He handed them to the Military Policeman (MP) and waited to be cleared for entry. The MP checked a list of names on his clipboard before poking his head into the car to check us out and get a head count.
The MP was clean-shaven and dressed as neatly as any soldier I had ever seen. His khakis uniform was starched and the brass on his lapels was shiny and bright. His hair was cut short and edged so finely that his
hairline faded into his scalp. He wore dark sunshades and a trooper’s hat with a spit-shined hat brim that narrowly hid his eyebrows. When he handed my dad’s credentials back to him, I imagined his fingernails were cut to the quick and clean as a whistle, but I couldn’t tell because he wore white gloves. Dad thanked him and, without saying a word, the MP waived us through.
The long, winding road to our destination was coming to a close. The trees lined the entry way and neatly cut branches waved at us as we passed by. It was a perfect day and the windows to the car were down. We could smell the honeysuckle spilling over the bushes that lined the road. We passed the transportation depot or motor pool, where all the jeeps, trucks and heavy hauling equipment were kept. We crossed over the underpass, and got a marvelous glimpse of the neatly arranged rows of whitewashed barracks that lined the roadway beyond.
We could see the parade field where my dad would assemble for early morning inspections. Far beyond the horizon were similar fields of neatly dressed young men, who were up before dawn, ready and waiting to be evaluated, drilled, and trained. As I grew older, I would hear the burgle sound in the morning and jump out of bed myself to begin my day, just like my dad. It was a tradition that would follow me, years later, all the way to military camp in Pennsylvania. The rigor of army life was ingrained in me early. I would carry those lessons with me for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t long after we began winding our way along that spacious, tree-lined highway, that we saw the entryway for a section of stately looking residences. These grand palaces, as we would come to call them, were reserved for the Post Commander and members of his elite staff. These were residences for the Army Officers who gave the orders and planned the strategies for battle. My dad took a long look at the main entrance to the officer’s quarters and a momentary sadness came over his face. It lingered just a short while. He raised his head and looked upward and sighed. My mom reached across the front seat and touched his hand gently. It was all she could do to console him. The entire episode lasted less than a few seconds, but I knew it was a significant flashback to a chapter in their lives. It would be years before I would learn the secret of my dad’s sorrow.
“I want you to promise me something, Buddy,” my dad blurted out. “Are you listening to me?”
I sat up straight and prepared to answer him as truthfully as I could.
“I want you to promise me that you will become an officer in the U. S. Army when you grow up to be a man. I don’t want you to settle. I want you to be the very best. Can you promise me that?”
I had no comeback except to take the challenge. I knew it was a special request because my dad had asked me in front of the entire family. I assured him that I would do my best to honor his request. I promised to make him proud of me and I promised to be the best officer ever. Upon hearing my response, my dad’s entire body seemed to rest easier in the car seat, as if a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He had passed “the Torch” to me. His eyes fastened on the road ahead.
We approached the Post Exchange (PX) where all the newest comic books could be purchased. It was in a large complex of parking spaces situated right next to the commissary, where Mom and Dad would shop on Saturdays for the groceries we needed for Sunday dinner. As we continued down the divided roadway, I remember seeing a school crossing sign. It read, Fort Gordon Elementary School. The sight caused me to perk up and get excited about the prospects of meeting new friends. The crossing led into a set of red brick buildings adorned on each side by large athletic fields where I imagined kids would be running around and playing games when school started. This would be the first school we attended on the post. I would learn later that my imagination was a little ahead of its time.
My dad slowed down and read another entrance sign for the enlisted men’s housing section. The entryway broadened and then split onto a roadway that became a one-way street. We saw a row of neatly stacked two-story, whitewashed, barracks style houses. Each housing unit was numbered above the door and each building was identified by a green and white painted sign out front. Dad pulled next to building 2401, slowed, and stopped abruptly.
“We’re here,” he said proudly.
We all cheered and spilled out of the car to see our new home. Dad motioned for us to go around to the side door to unit 2401 B. It was a huge door with an inlaid frame painted green. I would learn that the Army loved the color green even more than it loved mashed potatoes.
Dad reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet with the door key. He opened the packet slowly, gave the key a twist, and tried the door. Nothing happened. He tried it again, and then paused to think things over. Before we could ask what was wrong, Dad bounded up the steps and knocked on the door upstairs. No one answered. He knocked again, still no answer. He inserted the key and, of course, the door opened. So much for the Army’s effectiveness and efficiency, even the military can make mistakes.
This left us with somewhat of a dilemma. We had a key to a housing unit that opened a different unit than we had been assigned. In the Army it is more important to follow orders than to be smart and solve mysteries, so Dad knew what he had to do. He left us sitting at the bottom of the steps while he went to see the Quartermaster Team about the mix-up in his housing unit assignment. This was before the days of cell phones so we were stuck without any way to know when he might return. Mom approached the whole episode with relative calmness. She asked me to get our basket of food out of the car trunk and to bring a cushion for her to sit on. Soon, we were settled under one of the shade trees enjoying our lunch.Bernadine seemed anxious because she hadn’t seen any girls in the complex. In fact we hadn’t seen anyone at all. It was early in the day and rather pleasant outside. We wondered where all the kids might be. It didn’t take long to find the answer to that question.
I saw him first as he peered out the window on the bottom floor. Then, abruptly the curtains at the window closed and I could hear someone talking inside. It sounded like a young girl, but I couldn’t tell from the distance. My sister heard it too. She recognized a girl’s voice and shouted to our mother that there was a girl in there.
Just as abruptly as the curtain had opened, it closed, and a young boy slid through a slightly cracked kitchen door and stood in front of the downstairs unit near the sidewalk. He seemed to beam with delight when he saw me. I guess he had expected some new neighbors and we were finally here. I spotted him standing there and did what any kid would do. I waved. To my surprise, he waved back and showed one tooth missing when he smiled. My mother nodded her head in my direction and I didn’t need any more encouragement. I was off in a sprint to meet our new neighbor. I reached him in record time, slowed to a brisk walk, and stopped just at the curb to the sidewalk. The boy bounded over it and gave me a big hug. I didn’t realize how large a kid he was but that hug completely took the wind right out of me.
“I’m Anthony,” he blurted out smiling broadly. “Who are you?” ”My name is Bernard, but you can call me Buddy.”
“O.K. Buddy,” he beamed, “you can call me Tony.”
Just then, a young girl exited the kitchen doorway. She was short and stocky with a long ponytail hanging down her back. She looked a little older than her brother, but I couldn’t tell for sure. My sister saw her before I did and she began to point towards the building. I turned slowly and the girl stopped, eying me cautiously. My sister, who had followed close behind me, saw the girl’s hesitation. She spoke up quickly to assure her new friend that I wasn’t going to bother her. I thanked her sarcastically for knowing how to make a guy feel welcome. With that exchange of words, Tony laughed and so did his sister, Julia. The ice had been broken. We had met the neighbors. The new kids were no longer strangers.
Tony and Julia’s mom, whose last name was Camarillo, emerged in the doorway and invited us all into the house to meet the family. Tony’s grandmother, who was visiting with them before school started, greeted us in the dining room. She seemed to be very old and very nice. Mrs. Camarillo offered our mother a glass of ice tea. Our mother hesitated, and then seeing the hurt look in Mrs. Camarillo’s eyes accepted her offer graciously. Then, turning towards my sister and me, Mom asked whether we could all have a glass of cold water.
Mrs. Camarillo looked pleased as she hurried to serve her new guests. Tony wanted to take me to his room to show me his comic book collection. I asked Mom if it was alright for me to go with him and she said it was. My sister disappeared, as well, with her newfound friend. Julia was anxious to show my sister her latest crochet patterns. My sister told me later how thrilled Julia was to share the stories behind the patterns.
The time went quickly and we hardly noticed when Dad returned with the correct unit information. It didn’t take him long to find us. He could hear Mom’s laughter from outside on the sidewalk. Mom thanked Mrs. Camarillo and her family for their gracious hospitality and we headed upstairs to our new home. When Dad opened the door this time, he seemed relieved.
We walked into the spacious kitchen and dinette area, just off the back porch. The unit had a huge living room and small study, which I could see Mom eying as we entered the area. There was one large, and two small bedrooms at the other end of the house. Bernadine would have her own room. When she saw the bedrooms, she shrieked with joy. We all celebrated with her. It was a new beginning for our family. If you have ever been welcomed to a new neighborhood and felt lucky to be accepted so soon, then you know how we felt after a long moving day, on a bright summer afternoon in Georgia in 1955.