In August 2016 I found myself standing in front of Portsmouth Junior High School (now Portsmouth Middle School) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I attended the school from February 1966 through the end of April 1967 when my father Technical Sergeant Jimmie Kepler retired from the United States Air Force.
While the school added a couple of additions since I had left, if I stood in front of the school it looked exactly the same. Standing there it was as if time had stood still.
Earlier that same day, I had taken a nostalgic tour of the former Pease Air Force Base (now the Pease Air National Guard Base, Pease International Trade Port and Portsmouth International Airport at Pease). As I drove the streets of my adventures as a seventh and eighth grader, I was once again a thirteen years old boy building snow forts, playing baseball, and having his first interest in girls.
You will have as much fun reading as I had remembering and writing about growing up as a military brat. All the events are true. I have changed the names of the boys and girls in my remembrances.
Jimmie Aaron Kepler is a novelist, poet, book reviewer, and award-winning short story writer. His work has appeared in over twenty venues, including Bewildering Stories, Beyond Imagination, The Dead Mule School for Southern Literature, Poetry & Prose Magazine, and vox poetica. When not writing each morning at his favorite coffee house, he supports his literary habit working as an IT application support engineer. He is a former Captain in the US Army. Kepler’s Military History Book Reviews was named a 100 best blogs for history buffs.
The first New Year’s Day that I clearly remember was New Year’s 1963. I was nine years old and a fourth grade at Luke Air Force Base Elementary School on Luke Air Force Base, Glendale, Arizona. I remember the big deal that year about the Rose Bowl Football game. The University of Wisconsin was the Big 10 Conference Champion and ranked #2 in the country. The University of Southern California (USC) was the Athletic Association of Western Universities champion (see note) and ranked #1. This was the first time that the number one and number two teams had ever played each other in a bowl game.
My fourth grade teacher was Mrs. Jensen. I had also had her in the third grade which seemed weird at the time to have her get promoted to the next grade along with me. Mrs. Jensen was a USC graduate. She had been a cheerleader way back in the 1930’s. She showed us pictures of her as a cheerleader, but we all thought that had to be her daughter as she could have never been that young. She had been born the same year as President Kennedy. That was 1917.
She asked how many of us had watched the Rose Bowl game. Almost every hand in the classroom was raised. She asked questions about the game. Who won? USC. What was the score? 42-37.
In spite of the score, in the fourth quarter, USC leading, 42-14. That is when many who had started with the game on the telecast turned off their television or changed channels. Even at the Rose Bowl some began filing out.
Then the comeback began. It is what some have called the greatest Rose Bowl in history. USC desperately fought to hang on for a 42-37 victory.
I like what LA Time sports writer Earl Gustkey wrote. He said, “The (Wisconsin) Badgers simply ran out of time against the Trojans, who had run out of gas. They scored 23 unanswered fourth quarter points, but still lost.”
Mrs. Jensen had been at the game that Tuesday. She hurried back the 375 miles to Glendale, Arizona for school on Wednesday. She asked if we knew what Wisconsin’s mascot was. We all yelled Badger. She asked if we knew USC’s mascot. We all said in unison, Trojans. She asked if we knew what the name of the white horse was that carried the Trojan warrior on its back.
There was silence.
We then learned that The horse’s name is Traveler. We found out that when USC scores a touchdown, Traveler gallops around the field as the USC band plays “Conquest.”
I learned many trivial things as a military brat. The story of Traveler has stayed with me. I was the first person Mrs. Jensen asked when she wanted the name of the horse. I didn’t know and the class laughed at me. The stopped laughing after she asked each boy and girl and no one knew the answer.
Note: What is now the Pacific-12 Conference or Pac-12 has had several names in its history – Pacific Coast Conference or PCC, 1915–1959, Athletic Association of Western Universities or AAWU, 1959–68, Pacific-8 or Pac-8 1968–78, Pacific-10 or Pac-10, 1978–2011.
In January 1966, I was digging foxholes and building forts in the desert near the military quarters my family lived in on Biggs Air Force Base located in El Paso, Texas. My friends and I would dig big holes in the sand and surround our fort with tumbleweeds and other desert vegetation. Nature camouflaged the fort’s site from prying eyes.
While we were building our prized base, another group of kids would do the same thing building their fortress several hundred yards away in another part the desert. One team would be the American soldiers.
A second team would be the German Soldiers. Pretending it was 1942 and 1943 we would play a dismounted game of “Rat Patrol” where we chased each other around the desert. The goal was to surprise and defeat the bad guys and their leader, General Erwin Rommel.
It would be hot, sandy and lots of fun as we played Army. Many times we took home huge amounts of sand home with us in the cuffs of our turned up blue jeans and in the blue jean pockets. Sometimes we added intrigue using water balloons as hand grenades.
Just a few weeks later in February 1966 my family relocated to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Pease Air Force Base. There my role-playing and mischief continued with a new group of friends. Instead of sand, tumbleweeds, and water balloons we graduated to snow forts and an endless supply of snowballs. We would sneak up and destroy the enemy’s creation.
It would be cold, damp and lots of fun as we again played Army. This time we played pretending we were German troops on the Russian front facing the Red Army. It was sometimes confusing as we had trouble understanding how the Russians could be the good guys in this scenario. After all, this was in the middle of the Cold War, and the Russians were the Evil Soviet Empire.
Nevertheless, the fun was endless as we would dash in running and throwing snowballs. Sometimes we would ride our sleds and swoosh into action. Growing up a military brat was endless fun. The never-ending supply of kids your age made the fun that much greater.
Jimmie Aaron Kepler is an award-winning short story writer, poet, and indie author. He is the creator of the science fiction with faith series, The Liberator’s Helper.
Jimmie is an alumnus of The University of Texas at Arlington with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history with minors in English and military science where he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army upon graduation. He served as a commissioned officer on active duty for three years and then five years in the US Army Reserves. He earned Master of Religious Education and Master of Arts degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also holds a Doctor of Education degree in Educational Administration. He sold his first magazine article over 35 years ago and has been writing professionally since then. He lives in a north Dallas Texas suburb with his wife and very demanding cat.
I lived in two desert communities when growing up. The locations were Phoenix, Arizona and El Paso, Texas.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both areas had little snow and lots of tumbleweeds. The residents tired of the same old snowless Christmas. There was almost no hope of snowfall. Without the snow, there would be no snowman.
Some creative person came up with the idea of building a snowman from tumbleweeds. It was simple. You obtained three. They were abundant in the desert. You placed the largest on the bottom. The middle-sized one went in the middle. The small one made the head. Some people spray painted them white.
Adding a hat, eyes, and mouth to the creation gave it personality. Sometimes we even added an old scarf as well.
A tumbleweed snowman can become a fun holiday tradition for your family. It is easy to create one of these eye-catching figures on your lawn.
My family did this when we lived on Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso, Texas.
Growing up as a military brat allowed me unusual experiences like a tumbleweed snowman.
What holiday traditions did you have as a military brat?
Jimmie Aaron Kepler is a novelist, poet, book reviewer, and award-winning short story writer. His work has appeared in over twenty venues, including Bewildering Stories and Beyond Imagination. When not writing each morning at his favorite coffee house, he supports his writing, reading, and reviewing habit working as an IT application support analyst. He is a former Captain in the US Army. His blog Kepler’s Book Reviews was named a 100 best blogs for history buffs in 2010. You can visit him at http://jimmiekepler.com.
The first Christmas I can clearly remember was 1959. I was six years old. My family lived in Glendale, Arizona.
Did I ever go to my paternal grandmother’s for Christmas? No. I never did that I can remember.
Did I ever go to my maternal grandparent’s for Christmas? No. I did not that I can recall. We never exchanged gifts or had Christmas dinner with extended family.
The closest thing I can remember about a visit to relatives was in December 1963. My father was in Vietnam on a one-year tour of duty. Mother, brother, and I went to my mother’s between Christmas and New Years, but not for Christmas.
The first experience I had with an extended family Christmas celebration was when I was dating my wife. In 1972, I went to her parents on Christmas Eve. We had a feast like I had never seen before. Aunts, Uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and nieces were there. There weren’t any nephews yet. It was the most wonderful Norman Rockwell type of setting I had ever seen or could ever imagine. I fell in love with her family’s tradition. That’s another story for another time.
Ten years early, this time living on Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, I had a wonderful Christmas memory. My family always took a walk through the neighborhood on Christmas Eve. When living on military bases we would knock on neighbor’s doors and sing Jingle Bells, The First Noël, and Silent Night. Magically when we returned home, Santa had always visited.
This year he brought my brother and me an electric train set. Somehow between the time we left and returned the train set was delivered to a table, set up with landscaping, and ready to run. You could turn off the room’s light and see the light from the Lionel Electric Train. The train even had steam come out the smoke stack. It was the best present ever!
I played with that train until I married. The last time I saw it I helped store it in my dad’s attic just before I married. The train traveled many a mile with me to three more duty stations and then to the retirement destination. On my father’s meager pay as a Technical Sergeant of $325 a month plus another $105 a month hazardous duty pay somehow we lived well.
I experienced living in military housing from the 1950’s through the late 1970’s. My experience was two-fold. I lived in non-commissioned officers quarters as a military dependent on three United States Air Force Bases. I also lived in officer’s quarters as an adult serving as a company grade officer on active duty.
If you don’t think military housing is important consider a statistic provided by military.com. Their research shows a fifteen percent higher re-enlistment rate on installations with high-quality and newer housing than locations with lower-quality housing.
I loved living on-base as a dependent and on-post when on active duty. Military housing offers a tight–knit community. Housing is assigned by rank. What that generally means is if you’re a military brat you live in a neighborhood with kids your own age. You have an endless supply of playmates. As a service member, you live in a community of people about the same the same age. You have lots of neighbors that are at the same stage of life that you are. It provides great support for spouses during deployments. You’ll have spouses nearby who are ready to help for your as you get settled into your new environment.
Another plus is maintenance. If something breaks it is fixed at minimal or no cost. When I served at Fort Lewis I just had to go pick up what I needed to fix a leaky faucet.
While you may not have as much privacy as you wish, with your commanding officer and company members living next door or right around the corner, the benefits greatly offset the negatives in my experience. Also, the yards were held to high standards. They were mowed and trimmed weekly or you got in trouble.
The best part as a military brat was the neighborhood kids. I could always find someone with whom to play ball. The facilities on base/post were awesome. Libraries, swimming pools, scouts, dances, and a very safe environment made growing up fun.
Military brats grow up in a very patriotic environment.
Respect for God, country, and authority are learned at an early age. I’ve listened to many of my fellow military brats shared their childhood experiences.
Theirs were very similar to mine. One tale that always caught my attention concerned the lowering of the flag. At five P.M. or noon when only a half day’s work was scheduled, Retreat and To the Colors was performed over the post or base public address system. The bugle signaled the lowering, folding and securing of the flag of the United States of America for the night.
When the music started, cars stopped. Children playing outdoors would take an intermission from their afternoon’s fun, standing at attention. It was a serious, respectful time.
I learned about the United States flag from my father and as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout. My real education came from Mrs. Jensen. She told us about the War of 1812, Fort McHenry, and Francis Scott Key. Mrs. Jensen also taught us how to memorize. We first used the memory techniques she taught us to learn the verses of the Star Spangled Banner.
Her method was simple. On the four chalkboards in our classroom at Luke Air Force Base Elementary School were written the words or lyrics to Key’s anthem.
She had us read the entire verse, word for word. Next, she had a boy in the back of the room come to the chalkboard. She handed him an eraser instructing him to select a word, erase the word and place a line where the word had been.
The class read the Star Spangled Banner again replacing the deleted word. This continued over and over until we had a chalk board with only blank lines and the anthem memorized.
Years later I used the same technique to teach fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade children to memorize Bible verses.
Every time I hear Retreat and To the Colors, I still stand at attention. Scouts and my father taught me about the United States flag. Mrs. Jensen told this military brat the story of the Star Spangled Banner and learned me how to memorize.
The earliest memory of this military brat has my Dad stationed at Donaldson Air Force Base. Our family lived in a small, wooden framed house located at 201 Maco Terrace in Greenville, South Carolina.
Our across the street neighbors were Don and Doris Bedford. Don was a propane route salesman. Doris was a homemaker, part-time school crossing guard, and sometime honky-tonk girl guitar player and singer. They have three children. The oldest two were daughters Donna and Cheryl. The youngest was son Dee.
Doris Bedford considerably influenced my family and me. She sang like Kitty Wells and played an electric guitar. She frequently worked at area honky-tonks performing to earn the extra dollars her family needed. She would become my Mother and I’s first guitar teacher. That is a story for another time.
Doris also held an FCC Extra Class FCC Amateur Radio license – K4AOH. She was a HAM. She had learned Morse code and obtained her license as a teenager during World War Two while working for the US government.
Mother became enamored with the possibility of talking around the world via code or voice on a radio. My father already held an Amateur Radio license earned through his primary military job specialty as a radar technician and secondary specialty as a radio technician. When Doris suggested Mother get her license, Dad encouraged her as well.
About this time my Dad reenlisted in the USAF, We moved to Luke Air Force Base in Glendale, Arizona. My parents were buying the house at 201 Maco Terrace in Greenville and decided to keep it. Their thought in 1958 was to move back to South Carolina in 1967 when Dad retired from the USAF.
The transfer to Arizona motivated my mother to study harder and faster. No, she didn’t pass the tests and get her license before we left Greenville.
After we arrived and got settled in our rented house in Glendale, Arizona, Mother continued studying in hot pursuit of her HAM license. Doris Bedford introduced Mother to Ken and Gertrude Pond. They were an older couple who lived in Phoenix and both held their FCC license.
I still remember mother buying 78 RPM records that had the familiar dit dah of Morse code as she studied her radio theory and Morse code. I helped mother study playing the records for her and sometimes sending the code for her to practice using an old military surplus Morse code key. I was proud of how she learned the code. I also learned the code, but at five years old I couldn’t send or receive it as fast as was required to pass the license. I eventually would.
I remember how excited we were when mother passed her Novice Class license. She was given the call sign KN7JYX. The N meant she held a Novice class license. It meant she could only be on the airwaves using code. She would have to pass the General Class exams before she could use voice communication. The General Class license required sending and receiving Morse code at 25 words per minute, as well as additional electronic theory. She passed the exam and her call sign dropped the N, becoming K7JYX.
We built the first HAM radio from military surplus parts. I still remember the first antenna. It was an inverted V. It had a center conductor and wires going down from each it, one on each side. I helped put up the antenna. The first time we tested it under a radio frequency load we took a Florissant light bulb outside and held it near the antenna. With a good foot between the glass tube and the wires, the antenna light up like a spotlight!
With her license, Mother was able to talk to Doris back in South Carolina. Mother would remain active in Amateur Radio until her death. She went on to earn Amateur Advanced and Extra Class license. Her Morse Code speed was over 75 words a minute for the Extra Class license.
She was proud as I went on to earn the HAM radio and Morse Code merit badges as a Boy Scout. I also passed the exams for the Novice Class, Technician Class, and General Class FCC license. My call sign is N5FRJ.
Over the years, I have run a two-meter repeater from the steeple of one church I served and had my HAM rig in my office at three churches I served. For years, actually decades, I was also a National Weather Service Skywarn Certified Weather Spotter – a storm chaser.
One of the fun things of being a military brat was all the interesting people and lifelong friends you meet and make. The Bedford’s were friends until Don and Doris died.
When we moved to Texas in 1963 Mother had her HAM call sign changed for Texas and became W5MWO. HAM radio was so important to my parents that their call signs are on their tombstone. It was wonderful sharing a lifelong interest with my Mother.
Jimmie Aaron Kepler is a writer of speculative fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and reviews books. He’s written for Poetry & Prose Magazine, vox poetica, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Bewildering Stories, Beyond Imagination Literary Magazine, Thinking About Suicide.com, Author Culture, FrontRowLit.com, The Baseball History Podcast, Writing After Fifty, Sunday School Leadership, Church Leadership, Motivators For Sunday School Workers, The Deacon, Preschool Leadership, Sunday School Leader, and The Baptist Program. For sixteen years, he wrote a weekly newspaper column. He has written five fiction and poetry books. All are available on Amazon.com. His blog “Kepler’s Military History Book Reviews” was named a 100 Best Blogs for History Buffs and has had over 750,000 visitors.
The spring of 1964 found this military brat living at 803 Jefferson Avenue in Sequin, Texas. Mother had just celebrated her thirty-first birthday that February. My father was in South Vietnam on a one-year tour of duty with the United States Air Force. At ten, I was the man of the house.
My brother was a third-grader at Jefferson Avenue Elementary School. I was a fifth-grader at the same school. My teacher was Mrs. Englebrock.
One of the neatest things that year was my house ‘s location. It was right across the street from the school. I could see the house and driveway with our 1958 black and white Pontiac Catalina out my class’s window. It allowed me to keep an eye on mother like dad asked me to do.
My school had an open campus. That means I was able to go across the street and eat lunch with my mother. While my younger brother took his peanut and jelly sandwich where he could eat with his third-grade classmates in the cafeteria, I liked to go check on my mother.
As winter turned into spring that year music became a major focus in the USA. The British once again had invaded the America.
Jefferson Avenue Elementary School jumped on the musical bandwagon. The principal decided the school would have a musical talent contest. No lip singing was allowed. The contestants were required to sing, play a musical instrument or both – sing and accompany yourself on an guitar, for example.
I had been trying to learn to play the guitar since I was around five years old. My fingers were finally getting long enough for me to play several chords like G, C, and D.
I decided to sign up for the contest. We did a fundraiser for the March of Dimes and Easter Seals I think. I remember the contest was somewhere around Easter. The entry fee was twenty-five cents. I mowed a neighbor’s yard to raise the money.
Spring of 1964 found my mother’s brother Vernon living with us and attending Seguin High School. One of the items, he brought with him were 33 1/3 RPM long play record albums. A favorite album he played was Ricky Nelson’s Travelin’ Man. I decided I would play and sing Travelin’ Man in the talent contest.
I remember mother wasn’t so sure I should do it. She knew my singing voice wasn’t solo quality. She didn’t know if I had the poise to do it. She feared I would embarrass the family and myself.
My fearlessness confused her. She couldn’t understand how I could be so calm.
Well, the big day arrived. Mother was nervous. My brother just said I better not shame the family or him. He never mentioned me. I promised I wouldn’t. Neither one was so sure.
I had my six-string acoustic 1958 Gibson Hummingbird Guitar. I placed the capo on the second fret and fingered a C chord. I strummed it a time or two in the ready room trying to find the right pitch.
Then it was my turn. I loved hearing my name over the loudspeaker. I walked out on stage. I stood in front of the microphone.
I played the song on my guitar without any problems. I remembered the lyrics and sang flawlessly. I wish I could say that. Oh, my guitar playing was beautiful. My pitchy voice did the best it could. I didn’t win, but the applause warmed my heart.
What surprised me was how my efforts, while flawed, had the girls oohing and awing over me. I became one of the most popular guys in my grade.
The spring of 1964 showed me that the joy wasn’t in a perfect performance, but in the journey and the effort. It didn’t hurt that the girls suddenly wanted to be with me and be seen with me.
Jimmie Aaron Kepler’s work has appeared in six different Lifeway Christian publications as well as The Baptist Program, Thinking About Suicide.com, Poetry & Prose Magazine, vox poetica, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Bewildering Stories, Beyond Imagination Literary Magazine and more. His short stories The Cup, Invasion of the Prairie Dogs, Miracle at the Gibson Farm: A Christmas Story, and The Paintings as well as Gone Electric: A Poetry Collection are available on Amazon.com. He is also the author of The Liberator Series. The Rebuilder – Book 1 is available for pre-order on Amazon. It will be released October 2015. The Mission – Book Two will be available Spring 2016, The Traveller – Book 3 will be available Summer 2016, and The Seer – Book 4 will be available Fall 2016.
One of the scariest experiences I had as a military brat involved the ice cream man, my bicycle, and a nickel.
The seductive serenade of the ice cream man’s music blasted over a public address system mounted on his truck’s roof. One large speaker pointed forward with the music mystically announcing, “Here I come, get your parents to give you some money.” The second positioned to trumpet to the homes and people he had just driven past letting them know, “Hurry, it’s not too late.”
Like the moth drawn to the flame, I started dancing and crying out, “Oh please, mother. It’s the ice cream man. Can I have a nickel?”
Ice cream bars on a stick were only five cents.
“Jim, a nickel’s a lot of money,” mother said.
“He’s passing our house! I’ll take out the trash,” I pleaded and bargained at the same time. “Can I? Please?”
She quickly pulled a quarter from her purse. “Get four of the fudge ones,” mom said as she tossed me a quarter. “Bring me back the nickel he will give you in change.”
I raced out the front door, jumped on my bicycle and pedaled fast to catch up with the white truck carrying the sweet treats.
I quickly made the purchase, clutched my four ice cream bars in one hand and my nickel change in the other. That is when I realized I had a problem. I was two blocks from home with my ice cream in one hand, a coin in the other and a bicycle to ride back home.
I knew I had to get back fast as the temperature was 110 degrees at Luke Air Force Base where I lived. I thought fast and had what I believed was a solution.
I put the nickel in my mouth, climbed on the bicycle, and clutched two ice creams in each hand holding their wooden sticks tightly. Somehow I made it home okay. I tossed down the bike, ran into the house carrying my four prizes.
Then it happened. As I started to speak, I gagged on the nickel. Well, I started choking on it before I swallowed it.
Mother yelled at dad and my little brother. She grabbed me and next thing I knew I was in the emergency room at the Luke Air Force Base Dispensary. As she arrives explaining what had happened, I was taken for x-rays. I still vividly remember the picture where it looked like the nickel was sitting on my rib.
The doctor explained the nickel may pass through my system during routine bowel movements in the next one to three days. He explained how I would need to squat over a newspaper when I had a BM. That way I could use a stick (he handed me a handful of tongue depressors) to check the feces for the nickel.
If I hadn’t passed the nickel in four days, they would do surgery! Yikes.
For the next three days, every time I went to the bathroom my then five-year-old little brother would come with me looking at my bottom as I did my deed. On the third day, he started screaming, “There it is, there it is!” as he could see the nickel.
I was relieved as were my parents that I wouldn’t have to face surgery.
What about the fudge bars? They melted on the kitchen counter. In my parents’ haste to get me to the ER, no one thought of putting them in the freezer.
Whenever I see an ice cream bar, I frequently remember the ice cream man, my bicycle, and a nickel. And I never put coins in my mouth. I know where they have been!
Jimmie Aaron Kepler is a novelist, poet, book reviewer, and award-winning short story writer. His work has appeared in over twenty venues, including Bewildering Stories, Beyond Imagination, The Dead Mule School for Southern Literature, Poetry & Prose Magazine, and vox poetica. When not writing each morning at his favorite coffee house, he supports his literary habit working as an IT application support engineer. He is a former Captain in the US Army. Kepler’s Military History Book Reviews was named a 100 best blogs for history buffs. Amazon.com.