Before my high school sweetheart entered the Air Force almost fifty years ago, I had never been on a military installation. I didn’t know once I married him when he got to tech school after basic training, we would both have a military identification card. Mine was orange to signify I was a dependent. His card was green. Each card had the photo of the person who was authorized to carry and use it to gain access to installations and their amenities.
Back in 1972, the active-duty person was identified by their social security number, as were their dependents. Any activity the member or someone in the family did was connected to that number including on-base traffic tickets. I can still recite his today even though I haven’t been married to him since 1980. In 2011, with identity theft becoming a problem, the US military ceased using social security numbers and instituted a numerical system specific to each service branch.
A military installation is a microcosm within a fence. A valid ID gets you into it through the guarded gates. Besides all the buildings and roadways that make it a unique place with a specific purpose for the US government’s use, there is a social center for the personnel and their families. That includes the Exchange (large department store); Commissary (grocery store); O Club for officers which consists of a restaurant and bar; NCO Club for enlisted personnel; child-care center; beauty shop; bank; hospital; security police offices; law offices; library; fire stations; movie theater; swimming pool and maybe a bowling alley and/or golf course. I’m sure I forgot some things.
Also within the confines of the fence is base housing which to qualify for a military person has to have enough time in service and a family. Officers’ and enlisted housing are separated, but dependent children of both share the same schools. Sometimes housing is located away from the installation and is more like a subdivision of patio homes or quadruplexes. Individual yards are often fenced, and there are plenty of small children and pets.
In 1974, my ex received orders for a three-year accompanied tour to Lakenheath AFB, England. We only had one child at the time, so that meant he would report there on a specified date, and then he would have to rent a suitable home for us before the Air Force would cut our orders to join him. It wasn’t a quick process, but the government footed the bill.
When I got the news he had rented a brick house with two large bedrooms, an attached garage, and fenced yards on Thetford Road, in Brandon, Suffolk County, I was elated. Then I learned that it had been empty for a time, and wondered why. The crux was that the coal stove in the kitchen heated the hot water radiators in other rooms. The landlord would only rent the house to someone who knew how to feed the stove methodically during the day, bank it at night and not mind the mess of coal and ashes. My ex had no experience doing such, but he knew I did.
I should interject the average low temperature during an English winter is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the summer high averages 70. Heat is necessary, but not like in the Finger Lakes area of New York State where I grew up with a large wood stove in residence.
I loved that coal stove. During the winter I always had a hot kettle of water at the ready. I made soups and stews on it and I got so I used the oven as well, especially for pot roast. Our son had learned to walk while waiting to go live with Daddy, and he experienced “hot” very quickly, so stayed away from that side of the small kitchen.
Our daughter was born at the Lakenheath AFB hospital in December 1974, which meant we became eligible for base housing. Thus, we only lived in Brandon for a year. I didn’t want to leave the house “on the economy” or the friendly town, but it meant an increase in the paycheck so, we moved into “substandard base housing.”
Moving while in the military is expected. It is also quite simple. A date gets set; the movers arrive, pack everything for you, and deposit it at the new address. You do have to do your own unpacking and decorating. I wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when it comes to arranging my kitchen cupboards.
“Substandard” meant we would live in a row house built in the 1930s at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk County. The rooms were small, the neighbors attached by thin walls, and no amenities. We had to drive seven and a half miles to Lakenheath AFB for those.
The following year we moved to “standard” housing in Thetford, Norfolk County. This home was much newer, had in-floor hot water heat, three bedrooms, a garage, and a fully fenced back yard. I enjoyed walking into town with our children in a large wheeled English pram (baby carriage.) The Little River Ouse runs through a park we frequented and my son loved to watch the fisherman. Still, all major shopping and other appointments happened on base, 12 miles away. My ex had coworkers living in the same subdivision, so they would share rides, and I often had a car at my disposal to do errands at Lakenheath. I didn’t find driving on the left side of the road a problem.
We returned to the states in 1977 but my memories of our time in the UK seem like it was much more recently. I would like to revisit the area with my grandson so he can see where his Mom was born and spent her first two years. I would point out the 700-year old buildings that are still in use and make sure there is time to visit the coast which I didn’t do when I lived there.
Have you traveled or lived someplace you would like to visit again? Have you had the opportunity to use an experience from your childhood, like a wood stove, to enhance a happening in your adult life? Please share your comments below.
Sue Spitulnik was an Air Force wife from 1972 until 1979. She stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of some of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly, you can do so on her Facebook page; Sue Carmichael Spitulnik
Thanks for sharing your experiences in such unique households and communities, your descriptions are vivid and enjoyable. I’ve only a brief insight into the Australian military and it’s families, so to gain a look into the US system is fascinating. Despite the similarities, at times I feel like the US is an entirely different world from us.
I’m glad you enjoyed what I shared.
I know little of the Australian military except for the concept the members are fearless and usually come out victorious.
The US is so big that different corners of the country feel like different worlds but with the same government. It’s fascinating to travel in my own country.
Wow! What a country. I’ve barely travelled unfortunately but books carry me to different worlds often, and I like the feeling of being transported while still in familiar territory. I’m looking forward to exploring our own infinite array of worlds on earth in the future.
However I’m not sure how to feel about the world’s view on Australian soldiers, I know it’s a necessity right now but I’m not a fan of warfare so the idea that our soldiers could be viewed as “victorious no matter what” is chilling.
I believe our families move around much the same, being placed in homes that suit the soldier’s training, but I don’t think we have whole functioning neighbourhoods dedicated to military families. That reminds me of Tiny Villages, where all crucial community infrastructure is within walking distance to those in that village. I love the concept and am using it in part of my novel.
What a tiny globe we frequent. We live just outside of Bury St Edmunds Suffolk. We have a sister and brother from another Mother, who I met when I was 26 yrs old and all that time they lived in Thetford and we in Newmarket; so close if only we knew. So if your visit comes to fruition we have a place right here with us. Two empty bedrooms for you to stay in while you explore your memories with your grandson. We are good hosts, love company, and will gladly open our home to you both. X Thank you for a great read.
Ellen, Thank you for such a kind offer. I will be sure to let you know if the trip should happen.
When we lived there our friends lived in Bury St. Edmonds. We would visit them on Saturday to go to the larger market.
Traveling Rt. 66 in the US two summers ago, we met some folks from Bury and had a grand chat about his first impression of the states and my memories of England.
The offer is genuine we love to host and are missing being around people because of Covid-19. So just keep it in mind if you do want to come. X
Tiny globe, indeed, Ellen. I went to school in Stowmarket (two buses for five years, since we lived in a village 20 miles away, so of course, got my driving license first chance I could) and had friends in Bury :_)
See, you just never know. X
This was a really interest read, Sue. The installations seem to have everything one would need. You would have to be fairly (or very) resilient to accept moving around so frequently into such different standards of accommodation.
I haven’t lived anywhere similar to what you have described but I did live in a fairly remote mining town with my husband and young son for 18 months in the 70s. I think there were 100 houses in the town – some owned by the mine and some by the railway. The mine, and the town, closed some years ago. I think it would be interesting to go back some time to see what is still there. Hub was a maintenance carpenter for the mine. One of his (volunteer) projects was building a log cabin for the Scouts and Girl Guides to use. A brass plaque recognising his work was added for its opening after we left. We didn’t get to see it. I’m sure it would no longer be. It would be interesting to know what happened to it. The town was called Koolyanobbing and was halfway between Perth and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.
Norah, I agree, it would be interesting to return for a look-see.
My husband’s father helped design and build cabins for the Boy Scouts years ago. We happen to know they are still in use and his plaque remains. We do have many similarities in our lives.
I love the Australian names though am sure I butcher their pronunciation.
It’s great that the cabins your husband’s father built are still in use and fully-plaqued, Sue. Sadly, since the town no longer exists, even if the cabin and plaque remained, it wouldn’t be in use.
I think many of us butcher pronunciations, so don’t feel bad. 🙂
My Dad was a Navy guy, but he was out of the service when I was born. Family and jobs had us moving from Florida, New York and New Jersey.
I’ve lived in row homes, studio apartments, independent houses with yards. Over 20 odd times. Then with my hubby four more times.
I don’t remember the floor plans some of the homes, but most of them I do. I’ve been at my last address the longest, at least half of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for any of the places I was before.
As for visiting other countries… that’s a different story. 🙂
Keep on, keeping on. Cheers, Jules
Hi Jules. I spent my first 18 years in the same house, then moved countless times even after no longer being a military wife. Charli explained my actions are called “self-deploying.” My job was steady, but not my address, and I got turned down for a car loan because of it. It shocked me at the time. I have now had the same address for 16 years and counting. It does feel more secure except I’m collecting a lot of “stuff.”
I know that collecting ‘stuff’ bit 😀
I keep a box for charity handy!
I need to fill it more often. While I’ve decluttered some… perhaps not enough 😉
Ha! My wife comes from Norfolk, her family living around Thetford (most recently my Mother in law was in Wymondham which is about five miles away). I think I can say with some certainty that if you do visit you’ll find things have change little from 1974 – indeed, my wife would probably say little has changed around Thetford since 1956. Lovely to share your memories, Sue.
Thank you. I admit I had to look up the name of The Little River Ouse and while doing so saw ads for new hotels near Thetford. They didn’t look like they fit into the landscape very well. When my Aunt visited in 1977 she marveled at the 700-year-old buildings still in use. We don’t have them in the US.
We had a wood stove when I was growing up. It was hooked up with a water heating system that ran pipes through the house for heat and hot water, but only my dad – who designed it and plumbed it – understood what was going on.
I have a question: by “amenities” with substandard housing, did that include things like heat? Because I feel like that should be included in some sort of “minimum” for housing nowadays, and probably in the 70’s too.
H. The substandard housing definitely had heat and running water included. It was the shopping, banking, hospital, child care, etc. we had to go to Lakenheath for.
Interesting experiences Thanks for sharing. I was a nomad traveling this country for a fewcyears but never made itb outside I miss that
Laugh a while, See what happens
I believe it’s a good thing to travel your own country especially if it’s large like the US is. There are so many beautiful sights and different experiences no matter where one goes.
Oh yes it is beautiful and so easy to get around. You almost fee like a traveler and never leave the US
I so enjoyed reading your military memories.
Like you, Sue, I grew up with a woodstove. However, I missed the military indoctrination with the Hub, meeting him after service. I had no idea until four years ago that veterans often continue to move, feeling a need to go on deployment. I enjoyed your UK memories and hope you do get to share the place with your grandson one day.
Hi Sue and as always, so much enjoyed your post and the memories you evoke for our ongoing chats which I so much look forward to 🙂 Heating in this country has come a long way since the 1970s, I can assure you of that! I moved to Suffolk when I was ten and lived there from 1969 to 1979. We rented the same house for the whole ten years, a 15th century oak beamed old farmhouse. It was freezing in the winter, and back then we got real snow storms and blizzards. We kept coal in a bunker to the side of the house for the AGA. They are sought-after now and cost a bomb, but back then, it was just an old stove that gave the only warmth in the place and far from trendy. The kitchen was the only warm place in the house. I used to wake up with ice on my bedding and the inside of the window. No central heating, electric night storage heaters that didn’t do much good and expensive to run. Bearing in mind, this was during the strikes when we had 3-day working weeks in the mid 70s and frequent power outages. So that AGA was wonderful for heating and cooking and drying clothes, everything. As you say, those ovens are the best! When I finally moved into a house with gas central heating and radiators, I thought I was in heaven! I’m so glad you have good memories of your time in the UK, Sue. I have friends in Suffolk and hope to visit again soon. My ties there are still strong from my growing up years, and as you know, my memoir takes place there for the first part. I remember when I first met my American GI, the first time he came to my house in that village. It was in the middle of nowhere, pitch black at night, a rambling old place. He was from LA. He had never seen a place so ancient! We had one or two pretty wild parties in that old farmhouse…no neighbours to worry about at all. Ah…they were the days 😉 And as for revisiting, you know for me the pull of California has never left and never will. Home from home 🙂 Thanks, Sue, loved this, as always.
Thanks Sherri. After chat’s with you and Colleen I said to my husband, “I have to write about the coal stove.” I wanted to share what I knew would be familiar to you.
My ex spent quite a bit of time in the pubs and each move brought a different “close to home” pub. I wish I could remember the names of the ones we went to. We did go to Norwich to a dance club a few times. Arrived when the sun was out and left when the sun was back out. Oh to be young again and have that kind of energy.