One of the things military families tell me when they visit our museum is that they miss the life they left behind when they left the service. That life, of course, means different things to different people, but sometimes it’s quite clear that they are looking back nostalgically to what author and historian Mary Edwards Wertsch calls “life inside the fortress.”
The “fortress” refers to a military installation where families work, live, shop, and play inside the installation’s perimeter fence. Living and working in such close proximity creates a very tight-knit community. While this community is comprised of very different individuals with very different perspectives, these individuals are bound together by a common purpose: the mission.
On an installation, at 5 o’clock pm, everything comes to a stop as the National Anthem plays over a loudspeaker. Children stop playing, cars come to a halt, and anyone walking outside comes to a stop. At 5 o’clock everyone faces the flag and places their hand over their heart or, if in uniform, salutes. The National Anthem also is played in installation movie theatres, and the audience stands at attention prior to viewing the feature.
There is a sense of pride and duty that comes with being a military family, and living on an installation requires a modicum of discipline: yards must be kept to a certain standard, children mustn’t run amok, rules must be followed.
One Air Force daughter says, “I grew up knowing that I was a child ambassador representing the United States, the Air Force, and my immediate family.While living overseas and learning new customs and meeting new people, I represented the best of the United States.”
I grew up in Germany knowing that what I did reflected on my parents. If I did something wrong, people would tell them, and there would be Dire Consequences. Luckily, I was a pretty good kid, and the only dire consequence which happened was after my father received a letter from the Post Commander reprimanding him for allowing me to have 36 overdue library books. I was banned from the library for six months.
All people who have left this lifestyle, whether they liked it or not, have stories to tell.
Spouses often reminisce about living in base housing. They acknowledge the lack of privacy, but they also point out the great connections they built. Living in stairwells or in the close quarters of a military installation, means that the adults keep an eye on the kids, everybody knows everybody’s business, and one can’t really “escape the busyness” of the military tempo.
Shannon remembers life on Holloman Air Base during the Vietnam War. She describes when a jeep pulled up to her quarters. “I watched from the window as they walked up to the house. They spoke to my mom for a few minutes and then mom came in. I remember holding my breath (we knew what this meant). She said, ‘I need you and your brother to go next door and stay there until I get back.’ We didn’t ask questions, we went…It wasn’t until years later that mom talked about it though. She told me that she was going to the houses of wives that were being told their husbands were not coming back. She hated the task, but she said she would be damned if those women were going to face that time alone.”
Even as times have changed, the conflicts are different, more spouses work, and life doesn’t solely revolve around the installation, military spouses still look out for one another.
Sometimes it’s in social media groups like Facebook, where someone might post “We’re moving to base soon, which pediatric dentist in town do you recommend”? Or, “There are two black-and-white dogs running down my street, does anyone know who they belong to?” Or, “Can anyone look after my toddler while I run to the commissary for an hour?”
As our lives get busier and increasingly more isolated, we don’t have as much face-to-face contact with our neighbors as we used to, and small social media groups can be very helpful in bringing people together, building connections, and sharing information.
Adult brats often say that they can sense another brat, even in a crowd of strangers. Brats are drawn to each other because of their shared experiences. That happened to me just the other day at an East Mountain Regional Chamber of Commerce meeting. As I introduced myself to my tablemates, the man sitting to my left mentioned he was a brat. A little later, a woman came up to me and told me she was a brat as well. Instant community!
As military families, we are used to moving into and out of communities each time we PCS (move) even while yearning for a permanent “home” someday. “Home is where the heart is” is an oft-quoted platitude–people are the heart of our communities, and communities are what draw people to them when they’re deciding where to settle.
Our neighborhood is small, and when my husband and I are out walking our dog, our neighbors wave as they drive by. We recently got together for a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party, and via Facebook and cell phone, we keep each other informed if we notice anything out-of-the ordinary. It’s nice to have human connections.
Small communities are special. That’s one reason we chose to locate our museum in Tijeras—next to Molly’s Bar, because we wanted to be a part of a small, lively town and part of Route 66’s continuing history. We love the mountains, the folks who come and go from Molly’s, the tourists who are cruising the Mother Road, and the East Mountains’ unique vibe. People are neighborly here; they have time to visit a little. They offer to help someone out. They leave little painted rocks on our museum doorstep.
We hope our museum will become an increasingly important part of the business and tourism ecosystem here, and that as we grow and expand, we can meet many more of our East Mountain neighbors. Stop by the museum for a bit, let’s share a story and get to know each other!
(Circe Olson Woessner is the executive director of the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center. The museum collects and preserves the stories of military families of all branches and generations. The museum is located at 546B Highway 333, Tijeras.)