By the time I was in the fourth grade, in 1959, I understood that my father was not like the rest of us. Of course he went off to work long days like most fathers, while we kids went to school and my mom took care of the house, but he was different in other ways. We wore clothes washed in a washer and hung on the clothesline to steam in the Texas heat, but he wore uniforms starched stiff and brought home in plastic bags. Every morning, he donned a fresh shirt never touched by my mother’s iron. He wore shoes spit-shined into black luster daily, while we wore dirty Keds until our baby toes fell out the holes on the sides. He wore a hat. We never did.

My father was in the army. The rest of us were, I thought then, civilians. We lived in a one-story house on a quiet San Antonio street with no sidewalks. We played games in the driveway and kickball on the lawn, where stiff spears of hardy grass sliced our feet if we went without shoes. We walked several blocks to the elementary school with friends whose fathers were not military.

Halfway through the fifth grade, everything changed. My father got orders to move to Germany, and apparently they were our orders, too. One page from a large stack of identical papers had to be handed to nearly everyone we encountered, from hotel desk clerks and ship stewards to cab drivers and military police.

“Don’t walk on the grass!” my father barked on our first day on the army post at Landstuhl. “Don’t walk on the grass!” I shouted to my brothers, then ages 5 and 3, often in the next weeks. This was a place of rules as circumscribed as the rows of apartment buildings we lived in, identical except for color, furnished with government-issue standards. Our families shared washing machines lining the basement and columns of clotheslines fronting the playground. We followed the rules posted in the stairwells. We were all in the army now.

What seemed strange at first quickly became routine: the MP saluting us through the gate, the segregation of officer and enlisted families, the expectations of cleanliness and order, the curfews. No one questioned these restrictions and rituals, at this or other posts where we later lived. Before the movie began at the theater, we stood with our hands over our hearts to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Of course we all knew the words, and even the tone-deaf sang. At 5 p.m. everywhere on the post, traffic came to a halt. Everyone shut off their engines, got out of their cars, and saluted or covered their hearts while taps played. As the last bugle note drifted away, we climbed back in and went on.

Although I never heard it discussed, I suspect most of us, no matter what age, saw this regimentation as a good thing, a balm to counter the chaos that surrounded us. We lived in Germany during the days of the Cold War, when families more careful than ours made practice runs to the west coast of France to map an escape route if war broke out. We wore our dog tags, just in case. We lacked many things that Americans back in the States took for granted: real pasteurized milk in cartons, two-stick Popsicles, Levis available in all sizes, TV choices in English beyond “Bonanza” on Sunday evenings. Most of us didn’t have TVs at all, but we were army brats. We had transistor radios, scooters, each other, and the comfort of rules.

For my 50th birthday, my mate and I visited what is now Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma, Washington, where I was born. I had not been there since I was nine months old. After checking credentials, the MP saluted us through the gate. Just beyond, we spotted several men in uniform, on their knees, using screwdrivers to clear the cracks in the sidewalk. The sidewalks were clean, and no one was walking on the grass. I was home.

Our extended family in front of our quarters in Landstuhl, Germany, 1960. My father is wearing his hat. I'm on the left, dressed up in saddle shoes.

Our extended family in front of our quarters in Landstuhl, Germany, 1960. My father is wearing his hat. I'm on the left, dressed up in saddle shoes.


“Where are you from?”

It’s such an innocent, ageless question, one of the first things a new acquaintance asks. By the time I left for college in 1967, I had grown accustomed to watching the inquirer’s expression morph from polite interest to perplexity while I considered my answers.

What does this person really want to know, I would ask myself. Where I was born? That would be Tacoma, Washington, which didn’t count because I hadn’t visited since I was nine months old and wasn’t absolutely sure I could find it on a map. Where I lived the longest? That would be San Antonio, where I lived three times, but three such disparate times that I hardly knew I was in the same city, so maybe that didn’t count either. What place I liked the best? A stumper, that. Germany was the most unusual, but Washington, DC, had its fascinations. Where did I feel most at home? Here, now, as long as the last move was at least a year ago. It takes that long to settle in.

Wait. Maybe this person just wants to know where I came from the last time we moved. Nah, probably not.

“My dad was in the army. We moved a lot,” I would answer. By this time, through hesitation and diversion, I had already set myself apart from this new person, when all I wanted to do was connect. The patient and persistent ones asked a follow-up question: “So where did you go to high school?”

Ack. Three high schools, in Maryland, Texas, and Georgia. I spent my junior and senior years in Atlanta, where boys were not allowed to ask me out because we hadn’t known each other since kindergarten. I was an itinerant, suspect for my lack of roots. But my new friend probably didn’t want to know that, either.

Only on military posts did no one ask, because moving was routine. One day a stack of orders would show up on the dining room table, and soon came the command to “pare down,” rummage through drawers and closets to extract non-essentials and dump them in a large wastebasket that had mysteriously appeared. Moving cost money, and boxes were limited. Once my mother decided I had accumulated too many trophies. She drove me to the Goodwill bin and watched as I removed the brass plates as keepsakes and tossed the rest.

When the packing boxes arrived, I learned what fit where, like pieces of a 3D puzzle. Precious objects such as the miniature Bavarian clock my seventh-grade boyfriend had given me went on top, tucked into socks and underwear so it wouldn’t get jostled. I learned to think ahead about how the move could take weeks, and how sometimes, while unpacking later, I would realize that my affection for an object had waned. Somehow it had lost its spirit during the interim, faded and grown shoddy. Discarding it in its new home made me sad.

We saved boxes for next time. Eventually their corners got crushed and different-colored tags speckled their sides. Each move had its victims. A salt shaker made it, as did its salt (wrapped neatly in an entire sheet of wrapping paper), but the silver top went missing. Glass vases shattered. A new television disappeared after a sudden storm sent movers rushing furniture into the van, and I failed to note its tag on the inventory list. Sometimes boxes were moved only to be stored in closets or basements until it was time to move again.

I didn’t love moving, but I didn’t hate it, either. Each time got easier. On move-in day, my father insisted that curtains and pictures be hung and the stereo hooked up before we went to bed. Music, art, and privacy made a home, not the stuff that filled it. We assembled one room at a time, kitchen first, and pushed remaining boxes into ever-smaller areas. In two or three days we were done, launched into a new life in a new city filled with new opportunities I grew to cherish.

I still pack with precision and can travel for weeks with what fits in a carry-on bag. I still save boxes, and I still have the Bavarian clock. I finally unpacked my childhood doll collection after moving it from place to place for 40 years, but I’m still flummoxed when Facebook prompts me to add my hometown. I don’t have one. We moved a lot.

Part of Catherine Madison's childhood doll collection, which managed to survive so many moves. These old friends were finally unpacked and displayed after spending 40 years in boxes.

Part of Catherine Madison's childhood doll collection, which managed to survive so many moves. These old friends were finally unpacked and displayed after spending 40 years in boxes.


The bus stopped up the street from our duplex on Fort McPherson on the first day of school in 1965 in Atlanta, Georgia. I ran half a block, climbed on, and took the first empty seat, next to a girl with a brunette pageboy who looked about my age.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Cathy.”

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Cindy.”

By the time we arrived at Therrell High School about 20 minutes later, we had made plans to sit together at lunch and help each other navigate the hallways of a building we were seeing for the first time. I had just moved to town from Texas; she had just moved from a different state. As army brats who were now juniors, we knew the drill. We knew how not to sit quietly next to strangers, glancing everywhere but at them, pretending to be deep in thought. We knew how to invite a conversation without forcing it, and how to ask pertinent questions, neither nosy nor inane. Within ten minutes we had identified novels we both loved, the chemistry class we would share, past posts we liked better than this one, and the most annoying traits of our siblings. We became friends. Fast.

Both of us were shy, studious types, introverts even, who knew how to stay out of trouble and turn in homework on time. But shy doesn’t cut it in the military. If you wanted friends and acceptance, you had to boldly go where you had never gone before. Over and over again. And because you might move again next year, you had to be quick.

My father had spent five years in surgical training in San Antonio, so our family got to live off post until I finished the fourth grade. I grew up with neighborhood friends who never moved. I started fifth grade with them—then in November had to say goodbye in tears, my heart wrenched with the conviction that they were gone from my live forever.

We moved temporarily to my mother’s hometown in Maryland, where she enrolled me in school for three weeks. That first day, I stood, petrified, beside the principal as she knocked on a classroom door, then opened it and nudged me inside. The teacher stopped mid-sentence. All the kids turned around to look.

“We have a new student today,” the principal said. My face got hot and my feet heavy as I took the long walk to an empty desk in the front row. The silent stares hurt. I never wanted to be the new student again. Sympathetic, the teacher assigned me to a special project for my brief tenure, one that forced interaction. The same thing happened months later in Germany, when I was again the awkward new student in my third fifth grade class.

By high school, I knew to volunteer for any opening. Need cheerleaders? I couldn’t do flips but tried out anyway. Drill team? Why not. Yearbook? Sure. Difficult though it was for someone who’d rather read alone at home, I could not rely on past associations for company. If I wanted a friend, I had to make one. Whenever I met someone new, I heard myself mimicking them in conversation: their accent, their cadence, their poor grammar. In retrospect, I realize that it was an unconscious, organic way of creating common ground before I’d had time to discover it. I wonder now if they thought I was mocking them, when all I wanted was connection.

Cindy became one of my best friends, one of many I treasure. They show up on new posts and in odd places. Years later in the Honolulu airport, I ran into another military friend as he was bidding his girlfriend farewell; coincidentally, she was my seatmate on the last leg of my trans-Pacific flight. Neither of us was surprised, of course. We were army brats, and we had long ago learned that friends come and go, not through will or effort, but through mysterious quirks of the universe. We knew to simply say hello again, and never to say goodbye.

The 1963 cheerleading squad of Broome Junior High in Rockville, Maryland. The author is in the back row, second from left.

The 1963 cheerleading squad of Broome Junior High in Rockville, Maryland. The author is in the back row, second from left.


“Children should be seen and not heard,” my mother said sternly from one end of the dining room table while my father nodded solemn approval from the other. As the eldest of three children, I was used to these frequent admonitions and knew it was my job to set a good example. I sat up straight, shut my mouth, and made sure my lap held both my napkin and my left hand, but my brothers had a hard time keeping still. Just one foot jiggling would make my mother scowl and wag her manicured finger at the offender.

The ’50s and ’60s were an etiquette-sensitive time, when most officers’ families had a thick volume of Amy Vanderbilt or Emily Post guidelines gathering dust somewhere on a top shelf. My mother, an attractive perfectionist who dressed stylishly and preferred well-behaved children, read those books. She was a rural small-town girl thrust into military society after my father returned from captivity in the Korean War, and it was her job to be a good army wife.

In those days, and perhaps still, spouses were a career asset. Or not. My mother and her contemporaries studied their military wife handbook, which contained detailed instructions on everything from how to serve tea to where to place ashtrays, napkins, and salad forks. They wrote thank-you notes, volunteered on committees, and shushed their children. They wore hats and heels and white gloves at public functions, sat with legs crossed at the ankles, and spoke only when spoken to. I felt awful when I learned that my aunt, beloved by us for her humor and spunk, cost her military husband a promotion because she “talked too much.”

“The First Amendment gives me the right to free speech,” I tried announcing at the dinner table. I was taking civics at school, thank you very much, and I knew what I was talking about. Except that I did not. Only civilians could speak freely. My father was subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which limits free speech and conduct. He could say nothing that would undermine discipline or bring discredit upon the armed forces. He could not demonstrate for peace or criticize Congress or the President, his commander-in-chief. And because my father was our family’s commander-in-chief, we couldn’t, either.

Silence became my best friend. I relied on it to avoid domestic turmoil. My father suffered from PTSD, and I never knew when speaking my truth, however quietly, might unleash a verbal tirade or errant fist. As a young teenager, I had been walking the dog when I was accosted in the dark basement of our apartment building by an older boy who had dated one of my friends. He slammed me into the concrete block wall, thrust his arm across my mouth so I couldn’t scream, and started to rip my shorts off. Fortunately, I maintained my grip on the leash, and the dog’s frantic jumping and snarling convinced the boy to abandon his plan.

By the time I reached our apartment four flights up, saliva had crusted on my lips and my legs were shaking. I couldn’t catch my breath, and my heart pounded as I went inside. My father was reading the Sunday paper, and my mother was frying bacon. I let the dog off the leash and strode to my room without saying a word. So many people have far worse stories; I dared not tell mine.

“To be a daughter inside the Fortress is to be a kind of hovering spook: a weightless creature without power, without presence, without context, whose color is camouflage and whose voice is unheard,” Mary Edwards Wertsch wrote in Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. Devouring that book years ago, curled in my patio chair over a Fourth of July holiday, I began to understand how growing up an army brat had shaped my life in ways I had yet to explore. Perhaps the pervasive silence steered me toward traditional journalism, where my job was to document both sides of events, to be fair and impartial, to withhold bias, to tell everyone’s story but my own. Keeping my opinions to myself was easy; I had suppressed them for so long I hardly knew what they were.

Writing one’s own story is hard. For an army brat, it’s even harder. It means breaking the rules, fighting guilt, skulking by the family picture wall where the man in uniform gazes down. But how very important it is to penetrate that silence, to speak the truth that heals and sets us free.

The author’s mother, wearing glasses and proper attire, at a public event.

The author’s mother, wearing glasses and proper attire, at a public event.