Going back, moving forward


There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.  ~Nelson Mandela


I’m always completely in awe of people who grew up in one place.  If you want to shock me, tell me that you’ve had the same best friend since kindergarten.  Or show me where your mom marked your height on the kitchen wall every year. I think that’s an absolutely incredible way to spend your childhood and when I was younger I wished that I could visit my grandparents every weekend, just like my classmates.

 So it’s not surprising that, while driving through every one-stoplight town in the midwest, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it could have been like to grow up next door to my best friend or to pass by the same church on my way to school every morning.  Every tiny town made me think that maybe, despite loving growing up military, I really had missed out on something.  Maybe a little continuity, a little stability, even a hometown, would have been good for me.

And then we got back to Fort Leavenworth.

A historic picture of our newest house.

I say “got back” because this is the second time that we’ve been stationed here.  Fourteen years ago, I was in the first grade and I spent most of my time catching crawfish in our creek and making daisy chains by the park.  I loved living in our tiny home in Kansa Village.  So when we decided to drive by our old house a couple of weeks ago, I was so excited to see how it had all changed.  Being an army brat means that you rarely ever get to see your former homes, but I think Nelson Mandela was onto something… sometimes going back is just as valuable as going forward.

Naturally, our little house looked completely different today than it did fourteen years ago, but something about that tiny quadplex (seriously… I know) made me feel a little nostalgic.  So when my mom told me that our old neighbor was passing through town with one of her daughters (a recent West Point grad), it felt like some kind of crazy sign.

A few nights later, we’d be sitting in my new living room with some old friends, trading laughs and swapping stories about other military families.  And sitting there, laughing about mundane things like where all of the neighborhood kids ended up going to college, I realized something totally new… I did grow up in a small town.  I may not have height markings on my kitchen wall and the scenery may change every year, but we gossip like a small town, take care of each other like a small town, and send out Christmas cards like a small town.  Even if the postage to go across the world costs a little bit more!

Starting the “Big Move”

We started the big move on Monday, so I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  Anyone who tells you that the physical act of actually moving from one place to another is “easy” is making a really bad joke.

Even the Army, an organization famed for its, well, organization gets a C- when it comes to coordinating moves. Yes, the Army provides professional packers and movers (packers pack while movers move… apparently there’s a difference), but a successful move is still unbelievably difficult to coordinate.  I won’t get into the boring details of everything that went wrong this week but I can assure you that even though this is our third move this year, it does not get easier.

But, administrative hoopla aside, moving is also exciting.  And, for me, strangely liberating.  I’m in love with the way that everything in our lives can fit into these little boxes, get loaded onto a truck, and then shoved into a new house.  I’m even more amazed by the fact that my house always has the same feel, the same smell, and the same intangible vibe that makes me feel at home.  Moving all the time forces you to learn how to make yourself feel at home, regardless of where you really are.

Looking back, all this moving was probably pretty good for my adjustment to college life.  I still remember the way that my friends stared at me when, after being at Richmond for two weeks, I called Moore Hall “home.”  I hopped up from one of the round-tables in Dhall and said, “Well, I’m headed home, I’ve got some work to do!”  And jaws actually hit the floor.  At the time, for me home was wherever my pillow was, whereas for my friends, home was still where their parents lived.

It’s weird how a different way of living can give us all a different perception of life itself.  I can imagine that for some people, the idea of loading your whole life on a truck, driving for two days to a place you’ve never been, and then moving into a house you’ve never seen could be strange or even scary.  But for me (and many other Army brats), its just life.  I look forward to being surprised by the layout of my house and fighting with my little sister over the best rooms.

But I didn’t realize until pretty recently that, in addition to the superpower of adjustment, there’s also a big downside to always seeking out a fresh start.  Sometimes we get so used to leaving that we just don’t know how to stay in one place.  I mean, college is four whole years in the same location with the same people.  Doesn’t that freak you out!?

College is definitely teaching me the skills of staying, but I’m not going to lie.  One of my favorite things will always be seeing my life packed up in little boxes and hauled to the next adventure.

“So where are you from?”

“So where are you from?”

They’re five simple words, totally innocuous and ostensibly a show of good manners, but in my world that one simple question becomes a total conversation cease-fire.  I always get this unconsciously sardonic, arched-eyebrow look on my face and then things go one of two ways.  I either stutter the name of my current residence or I reel off:

“I’m from Hawaii, Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Northern Ireland, North Carolina, or (when I’m feeling kind of liberal), California. “

But if I’m feeling honest (and up for a grilling), I’ll tell the truth.”

“I’m not from anywhere.”

Right around there I can see the other person wondering what my parent(s) do.  “Gypsies?  Circus? CIA operatives?”  So I give them a break.  I smile and, with this awkward hand gesture that I use when I’m explaining myself, say:

“My dad’s been in the Army since before I was born.”

And then, without fail, the other party gets interested.  And if I don’t head the conversation off quickly enough (i.e. “So, the stock market…”), I’ll end up spending the next thirty minutes discussing the pros and cons of moving every two years, and what my “favorite” place to live was.  Then, once they’re more comfortable, they ask about deployments, hardships, switching schools, and the accuracy of Army Wives.  Seriously, what is it with civilians and Army Wives?

It wasn’t until I entered the civilian world (i.e. went to college) and began having hundreds of these conversations in miniature that I realized how, well, weird growing up military really is.  Even now, two years into my tenure off-post, I still struggle to view my lifestyle objectively.  Doesn’t everyone live behind barbed wire in a house that looks just like his or her neighbor’s?  No?

When I was told exactly one month ago that my family would be (surprise!) moving to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (again) and I couldn’t write on El Paso/Juarez border politics for this blog, I struggled to find a new topic.  Ultimately, we’re always told, “Write what you know!”  And boy, do I know what it means to be an Army brat.  So here I am, having been an Army “dependent” (i.e. family member financially dependent on a soldier) for almost twenty years, writing this blog about myself, my family, my best friends, and, essentially, our identity as dependents.

Or, as I prefer to label us, (In)Dependents.