I clearly remember the faces and names: Melody and Mark Thomas, George, Greg and Gary Jones, Stephan Hubbel, Ronald Kirby and Kim Sessions. We were, except for Kim, military kids living in the enlisted housing on Redstone Arsenal in the summer of 1971. Melody and I played secretly with our Barbie’s and paper dolls while the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s Treat Her Like A Lady had Kim and I practising swing dance steps in front of the mirror. George, Gary and Greg were the brothers who occupied the other half of the duplex where my dad, mom, sister, Rosie, and I lived. George was the oldest, about 16 or 17. I think Gary was 14 and Greg was like the rest of us, 11 or 12 years old. Stephan lived across the street. His parents were German, very strict, and I remember he had piano lessons. I also remember the delicious smell of cooking that wafted from the house when the front door was opened. Melody and Mark occupied the house at end of a street butting the mountain and Ronald Kirby lived down the street and around the corner, a bike ride away. Kim, the only civilian, lived in the city. These are the names and faces that have stayed in my heart through the years.
I can’t recall how we all started talking but I think George would be the one responsible for it. George was the best teenaged boy I’d ever met outside of my little hometown of Webb, Alabama. He was nice to everyone, spoke to everyone, included everyone, was fair to everyone and took on the responsibility of keeping all of us younger kids both safe and occupied during the long summer days. I think his dad was in Vietnam because only his mom was there. When my dad left for a school in Maryland, it was just us kids and the two moms in our duplex. George assumed an unofficial role of protector and helper for our mothers, his brothers, my sister and I. When my mom’s car broke down ferrying us to an outing at the post pool, George drove each of us, one at a time, slowly and carefully, on his motorcycle until the entire group was safely deposited in my mother’s care, and then brought us all back in the same way. I truly thought of him as an older brother, something I never had but always wanted.
Most military kids during that time moved quite a bit. In my case, I attended 13 different schools by the 6th grade. Though others may have been stationed someplace for a year or so, there was always the feeling of being transient. Unlike kids such as Kim who had lived in the same house all of her life and had never moved, we military kids knew that orders could come at any time, or perhaps family changes would cause us to have to move. I’ve always wondered about people who knew someone their whole lives and how history of shared memories cemented their friendship. For us, however, friendship held no guarantees and when the opportunity to feel connected to a group of friends came along, you took it. That’s what happened that summer and I was affected by the intensity of friendships like I’d never before known.
During the days we would all gather on the lawn out front, usually in front of our house, to talk, ride bikes, go for walks, or play ball. We talked about everything and anything. We understood one another better than we had ever been understood before. We patiently explained military slang and culture to Kim who wasn’t familiar with military ID card, MP, PX, orders, overseas, MIA, POW, post, base, RHIP, enlisted, officer, rank, and AWOL. We explained our understanding of the Vietnam war and why our fathers were there or why they were other places. We talked about the Beatles, the hippies, the Space and Rocket Center, places our dads had been stationed, rank, school, our fears, and our dreams. We were good kids, each of us wanting to belong, each of us wanting to feel we were a part of something more important, and each us craving the lasting friendship of years of shared memories.
The most trouble we got into was for yelling when an MP passed. We’d hide and holler “What’s a penny made of?” and then answer loudly “Copper!” We thought that was so very dangerous and bad! We had been raised to obey authority, to stand when the National Anthem played, to give honor to God, country, and flag, and that military service sometimes meant the ultimate sacrifice.
As dusk approached, we would gather in Stephan’s front yard, the biggest grassy area, and form two lines, each facing the other. Someone would be the bulldog in the middle and yell “British Bulldog!” Those of us in line would run from our side to the other side as quick as we could to avoid getting caught by the bulldog. George would make sure no one was hurt and would warn that everyone had to be careful with the girls. We, the girls, loved this game! It was thrilling to get “caught”, especially by Stephan since each of us thought he was cutest boy we’d ever seen. After we had worn ourselves out and just before the streetlights came on, the universal signal to go inside for dinner, we’d lay in a heap and bask in the familiarity of friendship, knowing that each of us accepted the other, knowing that each of us truly cared for the other, and knowing that no matter what happened in the future, this moment in time was the best ever.
When I was told we were moving I thought my world had ended. I cried for days and as the time to leave drew near I became hurt and suspicious. My friends seemed to be avoiding me. I felt ostracized. I was jealous that they were staying together and I had to move. I had never had friends like this and felt I never would again. I wanted to die, but instead, I cried and snapped at everyone.
The day before we left my mom took me with her to the store and when we came back I walked inside to see George, Gary, Greg, Kim, Melody, Stephan, Mark, and Rosie. Ronald wasn’t there, they said, but I can’t recall the reason. They had thrown me a surprise goodbye party! Kim had brought records so we could dance, Melody and George and others had decorated with crepe paper and balloons, and they had an autograph book signed by everyone with their names and addresses. George gave me a wallet photo of himself in his ROTC uniform. We all promised to write. I was overwhelmed, making the parting even worse.
The morning of our departure greeted us with rain, Alabama rain that darkens the sky and falls in heavy sheets with thunder and lightning. As we were backing out of the driveway I saw him, a small figure on a bike with a banana seat, pedaling hard and fast and furiously toward us. My dad stopped the car as he approached, hands waving, wetness dripping from him unheeded. I can’t remember if I got out of the car or not but I do remember looking into his eyes and seeing that he, too, was sad, possibly crying. He explained he couldn’t get here yesterday, that he had just finished it this morning and extended his closed hand. I put out mine and accepted his gift, amazed to see a chain with trinkets, like a charm bracelet. Because we needed to go, I think I hugged him and thanked him and told him I would never forget him.
I’m not sure anymore if any of us ever wrote to one another. Like I said, military kids understand the transience of friendship and don’t expect anything more than the gift of that time, that place, those people. I have never forgotten those special people who shared that moment in my life. I never played British Bulldog again; no one knew what it was.
I’ve never lost Ronald’s gift of love and friendship. That bracelet is one of my treasures. It is a thick, masculine chain link bracelet with trinket charms that look hand drilled and connected by loops of the same chain. There is a stainless steel ID tag engraved with Ronald on the front and “From Ronald Kirby” scratched into the back, a small plastic dice, an emerald cut green plastic gem, and a 1934 World’s Fair commemorative coin. I often wonder where and how he accumulated those charms, and when he decided to part with his ID bracelet to create this special gift. It and George’s photo are the only mementos I have from the deep but fleeting friendships of 1971. Those and the sweet memories of my British Bulldog summer.