We moved around like nomads or migrant workers. But our moving was not predicated by crops or season. We moved because of orders that trickled down the chain of command. My father was a career military man, a "lifer" as they are called. He realized that moving was part of his job, as did my mother. It was a little harder on their son. Just as fast as I would make friends, we would move on to other locales. But I adjusted. I had to. I was what they called an "Air Force brat."
We lived in different states and on different continents. We traveled, heard new dialects and studied new cultures. I learned tolerance and to respect diversity. I didn't realize it then. But we always seemed to be stationed in a place where major news was breaking. The current events we experienced shaped the future of our family, our country and our world. And we were there on the front line.
My father left his wife and four-month-old baby boy at the Hopkinsville, Kentucky, base where we were stationed and went to Arkansas in September of 1957. He was part of a group of soldiers ordered by President Eisenhower to help nine Black children integrate Little Rock's Central High School. My father came home repulsed by the insults and objects that were hurled at the children. He was ashamed that people in America, the America he had fought for and that his buddies had died for, acted in such a manner. He talked to my mother about one of those children. "All she wanted to do was go to school."
From Kentucky we traveled to Germany. We were there in 1961 when Russia erected the Berlin Wall between the freedom of West Berlin and the communism of East Berlin. I remember JFK's speech of 25 June 1963. Near the beginning of the speech he said, "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin! " He ended it to a roaring standing ovation and with the words, "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner." I remember this because we memorized parts of his Berlin speech for school. It was his best speech since the 1961 inaugural address, the one with the famous, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." But that was just the opinion of an elementary school critic.
From Germany we went to Florida. We were there in 1962 when the "missiles of October" threatened to push the world off the cliff, where it hovered for a couple of weeks on the brink of nuclear destruction. I didn't know too much about Cuba then. I did know that I liked Cuban Desi Arnaz and wife Lucy a lot better than I did Fidel Castro and Khruschev. My father put my mother, a couple of suitcases and a five-year-old son in a 1960 Opel station wagon. Florida was just too close to Havana and we didn't have a shelter to protect us from the mushroom clouds. Dad had to stay behind at Tampa's MacDill AFB, because the military was on high alert. He sent us north toward West Virginia, north to live with my maternal grandparents, for a while, in Jackson County. Maybe that wasn't out of harm's way either. But to my father, West Virginia was the answer to the equation of impending danger. It wasn't as difficult as algebra, nuclear physics or rocket science. It was a simple deduction. West Virginia was family. West Virginia was home. Therefore, West Virginia meant safety.
From Florida we went to Texas. We were there on 22 November 1963 when they killed President Kennedy in Dallas. I don't know if I ever have or ever will get over that. I've become a lot more skeptical since then. He was our president. He started the Peace Corps and the President's Physical Fitness Award for children. I had the most trouble with the chin-ups. But I persevered and got one of those treasured awards. I wish I knew where it was today. JFK backed the space program and predicted a man would walk on the moon before the decade ended. I loved the space program. I remember checking out a book form the school library about the original seven Mercury astronauts. I can still recite their names--Walter Schirra, Donald Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Virgil "Gus" Grissom and Gordon Cooper. I remember John Glenn riding a rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral and orbiting the earth. To travel so high! The only thing I could compare it to was a fungo hit off my Dad's baseball bat. The ball went up and up and never seemed to come down.
Dyess AFB in Abilene Texas was the last place we were stationed. After my father's death there in 1967, my mother and I moved to Columbus, Ohio. We were close to Lockbourne AFB, where we could get the benefits of the commissary and the PX. We were also close to West Virginia and traveled home almost every weekend.
We lived in Ohio when Neal Armstrong, a native of the state, fulfilled JFK's prophecy and walked on the moon on 20 July 1969. We also lived there in 1970, when students at Ohio's Kent State University died while protesting our country's involvement in the Viet Nam War.
Some things never change.