Monthly Archives: November 2016

Heroes Come in All Sizes

 

glove

Who remembers the ones who stay behind?

My brother called today to remind me of our terrible beautiful mother’s death exactly one year ago today. Fitting it should be on Veteran’s Day actually, given how much of our lives was devoted to waiting for my father. He was an Air Force career man and he was always going away on TDY or coming home soon from some other country or the DEW Line.  He got sent into the cold for six week week stints constantly when I was a kid.

Jean Groves,  hamming it up about 1950

Jean Groves, hamming it up about 1950

During the Cold War, the DEW Line, Distant Early Warning System, was a line of sites that were monitored for enemy activity. Dad was a cryptographer and into computers very early on so he was always getting sent to some ice bound hell hole or other for temporary duty. We talked to him weekly on the MARS radio, the kind where you say something and then you say, “over”, because its not true two way communication, but kids love it because its so spacey.

My father was not a big presence in our growing up years, my mother shouldered the yoke and dragged us along the path in my father’s wake. Wait until your father gets home didn’t work with us, everyone would have forgotten the issue by the time he showed up.

Here’s the thing, no one ever talks about the families of military men, the career men whose wives and kids give up what we would call a normal life. Those wives are heroes too. The military is notoriously underpaid when it comes to families. The saying,”If they wanted you to have a family they would have issued you one”, still rings true. It was then and is now a struggle to make ends meet for families of career enlisted especially.

It goes a ways towards explaining my mother’s constant fury and  my father’s passivity. He had someone telling him exactly what to do and she was forced to comply with the stupidest regulations ever written on a daily basis. Things like a white glove inspection before we could clear quarters when we lived on a military base, never mind that the first time she flipped the lights on in the place 10 million roaches ran for the hills. Things like getting decent dental care for her kids on a military base which didn’t ever happen. I broke my front teeth when I was 8, they got fixed when I was 21 and could pay for them on my own. Things like just getting a doctor’s appointment for a kid sick with a high fever were an exercise in the power of anger.  I salute my mom for never giving up and never giving in. My ability to fight like a tiger for what is right and mine came directly from her example during those years.

My brother had Teddy and I had Rabbit, gifts our father brought to us. We had so few gifts from him, we still have them.

My brother had Teddy and I had Rabbit, gifts our father brought to us. We had so few gifts from him, we still have them.

Military kids are overlooked unsung heroes that no one ever thinks about thanking for their sacrifice, but they give up so very much. The average military brat changes schools 6 times in 12 years. They never have time to make lasting friendships or build relationships or put down roots. When they get to new schools they are treated like they are stupid and automatically put in the slow classes. They are never in sync with learning. I still don’t know my times tables because one school hadn’t started and the next one was finished with them.

bloom

We bloom where ever we get transplanted.

They are packed up and taken without being consulted to all corners of the world and they make it work. My husband is the kid of a career Army man and I grew up in the Air Force. To thrive,  I developed a Pollyanna outlook early and I still have it, It was an adventure and I was having it. I learned to pass in any society I was pitched in and I’m a lucky one. My husband grew up terribly shy and without close friends because he never had any opportunity to make or keep those friends. He had a successful career in the fire service but he still struggles with social situations and innate shyness because he never had the opportunity to be ‘normal’.

So, here’s to those other heroes the wives, and now husbands,  who do the parenting work of both mother and father for as long as they need to fill that role, when their partner is serving their country somewhere else. Here’s to the smallest heroes, the kids who didn’t ask for this,but cope and survive and live their own kind of normal. Don’t just thank the vet, thank the family who stands with him everyday.

Backwards at a High Rate of Speed

germany-home

Number 3, Prieger Promenade, Ooshie and our dog in the window

When I was a kid, aged eight actually, my family moved to Bad Kreuznach, Germany in 1956. This was during the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Nuclear war wasn’t on the threat horizon yet but the phrase “Ugly American” was in play. After  World War II, Americans had a sense of belligerent entitlement– because America had saved the world all by itself.

mom-and-ooshie

Mother and Ooshie going out in our 1957 yellow Dodge station wagon. Mom is mugging for the camera and it’s obviously before my mother ripped the door handle off the car on a narrow German street.

My mother was a terrible mother in many ways with a violent temper and unpredictable mood swings. She was a narcissist, a word I didn’t know then, but I lived in constant fear of her anger and her ability to manipulate us all. One thing she did and did well, was to understand that America was filled with racist, misogynistic bullies, and a lot of them were in the armed services with us. My father was a cryptographer with the Air Force and we were ostensibly attached to an army post, not part of it but for the convenience of the base.

Mother refused to live on post. She wanted as little as possible to do with the Americans represented by the army in 1956. Most of them hated being in Germany and hated the Germans, calling them names like ‘dirty kraut’ and exploiting them at every turn because “they lost the war and they deserved it”.

market-bk

The weekly market where we did our shopping with big wicker baskets. It was about 1/2 mile down the river and over the bridge from our house.

We lived on the economy, as the saying went,  on the first floor of an amazing three story palazzo for lack of a better word. We got the house at Number 3 Prieger Promenade because of the importance of my father’s job. I didn’t know that until years later, I just knew I loved living there. We were across the river from a bird sanctuary, next to the Orion Gardens and in front of us was a 3 kilometer long pedestrian pink cement promenade facing the Nahe River. It was heaven on earth for two little kids.

wayne-roxy-annie-on-kuburg-hill

Our housekeeper Annie and her daughter Gretel, my brother and me on a picnic on Kuburg Hill

We had a series of wonderful housekeepers and maids we loved dearly. Ursula, aka Ooshie was my favorite. She was tiny, about 5 feet tall and we all adored her. She gave me a pair of green satin high heels to play dress up in and I clopped everywhere in those things. One night the police came and took Ooshie away. We couldn’t understand it and as 7 and 9 year olds, my brother Sonny and I were terribly confused. I found out much later she was an East German plant placed with us to try to glean information from my father. Her sister was arrested in a different household the same night. These 20 somethings did not want to be spies, they just wanted a life again but their family was in East Germany. This meant they had no choice, spy for the Russians/East Germans or your family members will be punished severely.

These things happened and we accepted them. My culture vulture mother made sure we spoke German, dressed as German kids and had German friends. This meant among other things, that I was toasty warm in reindeer hide boots and long wool stockings while the American kids froze their asses off in anklets and inadequate shoes through the snowy winters. We looked German and we assimilated and we inhaled the culture of Europe like miniature vacuum cleaners sucking up  everything in sight and loving it.

It was shocking to go on post to visit other American families that I recall as rude  and pretty repulsive for the most part. I remember one kid well, Ronnie Pilcher. His bedroom was piled halfway to the ceiling with comic books. My brother Sonny and I weren’t allowed to have comics so we would go in Ronnie’s room, flop down and devour his comics ignoring him completely.1germ

Once in awhile my parents would go out to dinner with friends and sometimes the Pilchers got included. They appalled me at the tender age of 9. Ronnie would whine about how he hated the food and he wanted a hamburger and French fries. Why this left such a mark on my budding gourmet soul, I don’t know, but I tried to stay as far from him and his embarrassing ugly American behavior as possible. His parents spoke no German so they would speak English really loudly, the classic behavior of the foreign idiot. I could see my mom gritting her teeth and ordering another glass of wine just to get through the evening.

Black Americans were ignored or actively discriminated against by the ignorant white Americans in the army back then. My dad and his buddies were musicians who had jam sessions on a regular basis, usually in our giant house. A lot of the musicians were black and in and out of our house on a regular basis. I noticed immediately the Germans were pretty color blind even in the 1950s,  treating the African Americans as equals. One night Bing Crosby’s son came to our house to jam although I had no idea for years who that guy was. It was all pretty wonderful and there were a lot of nights I fell asleep under the piano.

camping

Every single weekend we were exploring and camping somewhere from the spring to the first snow. A lot of weekends were spend on the Neckar River in Heidelberg with friends. We could run wild all over the castle, swim in the river and generally be ignored by the partying grownups. Paradise. We had a striped French tent, very avant garde, and our black and yellow Dodge Station wagon. We stopped traffic at every campground.

Germany was my first lesson in what not to be. It blew my small farm town  California upbringing away and it never came back.  When we went home again, I cried on the plane for the entire trip, on some level my heart is still broken. I never fit in to my old hometown quite the same. I had seen too much and knew too much. I spoke a foreign language and had traveled all over Europe. I had sipped beer out of my dad’s stein in Munich and  met gypsies in the Black Forest. I saw the Mona Lisa and was unimpressed but I loved the Egyptian wing at the Louvre. I had onion soup at 5 a.m. in Les Halles at a long table with working farmers and camped at the Brussels World’s Fair with people from all over the world.

What those years taught me is that Americans are not as great as they think they are and they never were. We can be appalling bigots in so many ways. I don’t want to see America great again if it’s like those years.  Women were held down and back, and they were complicit, which is the worst part. Bigotry and institutionalized racism were the order of the day. Name calling was accepted and intended to insult and hurt , Jews, kikes, wops, krauts, Japs, slant eyes, chinks, spics, beaners, and  n_____s; only white males mattered, and sadly the people that were kids then are in power now with their parents tiny values locked in their heads.

I am so grateful to my crazy mother for having a bigger horizon in her head, I hope I have been able to pass on that positive piece of my past to my children. It’s the horizon that’s important not the fence you put around yourself. Greatness may be in our future but its certainly not in our past if you understand the history  beneath the shiny feel good imagination of a bunch of old white men.