When my father was given the assignment of Chief of Staff of the School of the Americas (now WHINSEC), we were a bit apprehensive but mostly excited to be moving back to a Spanish-speaking country, to Panama, after having lived in Lima, Peru while he served as an instructor at the Peruvian Artillery School. The whole family had developed operational fluency in Spanish during that time, and so we gathered our Army family courage for the move. With all Permanent Changes of Station, or PCS as it is known in Army family short-hand, much remains uncertain until you have actually left one and arrived at the other. Soldiers and their families are often redirected at the last minute, subject to the needs of the Army, and what had been excited anticipation can become colossal disappointment. This happened to us after a glorious family trip across the country in a 70s vintage Suburban. We visited family and friends, and cheered on Carl Lewis at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Then we received the news that due to President Manuel Noriega’s shenanigans, attempting to take over operation of American-owned efforts in the Canal Zone which was reverting to Panamanian control thanks to President Carter, the School of the Americas moved into the old infantry school building at Fort Benning. Instead of Panama, we were moving to…. south Georgia.
We weren’t quite as devastated as we should have been at first. We simply did not know how bad that bad could be. We were transitioning from a Childhood Camelot location for mostly Officer’s kids at West Point, where Dr. Zenyu, a Naval Academy grad, ran a tight ship as the principal of West Point Elementary School. We lived at 235-A Barnard Loop, West Point, NY 10996. 446-3596. I still remember the address by heart. The neighborhood teemed with kids, many of whom I have stayed in touch with to this day, and some of whom I later saw as a cadet at West Point. In fact, the neighborhood bully, a very angry kid, later met Jesus, had his life transformed, and walked into my room as the Battalion Cadet Command Sergeant Major, and without letting on to anyone that he knew me, he put my Saturday morning inspection room in PM inspection status–a gift–with the words “outstanding work! Best room I’ve seen all morning,” at which I was shocked as it wasn’t true, but I kept a straight face as he left the room and our squad leader congratulated us (and himself). My West Point stories are for another day, however.
In the Lee Area neighborhoods of West Point, excepting the fateful “Skateboard Gang” bogeyman fables, the kids were mostly already college bound with many future legacy Air Force and Army Officers among them. We knew this at the time. It is the cultural and natural expectation of those Army brats who grow up there. And it is borne out, as I know many of them to this day. I just did the invocation at the retirement ceremony of a full bird Colonel in the Air Force with whom I grew up in Lee Area. His brother is also a retired Air Force Officer now.
West Point Elementary School, where I attended, lay just beyond a wood through our backyard. The teachers there, whose names I remember off the top of my head like it were yesterday, were wonderful, dedicated, and amazing people. I am grateful to God that I am in touch with a few of them to this day, thanks to social media. I can still picture everything as it was, and I am also grateful that on a recent visit, the LTC who lived at 235-A Barnard Loop let my own children visit the quarters I grew up in, and we walked through the woods to take a last look at West Point Elementary’s building before they tear it down and start afresh. Also behind our house lay an Olympic-sized set of soccer fields, beyond which lay a creek full of tadpoles, beyond which lay Storm King Mountain just past a highway we were not supposed to cross, and Painted Rock, which was not just a clever name. We played in the woods, we played on the fields, we played in the neighborhoods, we played in each other’s houses, we traipsed through the creek, and went beyond the boundaries feeling a tad guilty but mostly feeling wonderfully mischievous at having gotten away with something. We were free range children, and we had great pals. We returned home in the summertime or on weekends when we were hungry or when it started getting dark.
Mr. Robinson was the teacher everybody wanted to get in the 6th Grade, and I had just started in his classes when we moved to Fort Benning. By comparison–there is such a distance between the two–Don C. Faith Middle School was a complete zoo. The pace of schoolwork did not challenge, there didn’t seem to be any priority of discipline, and Dr. Zenyu’s head would have exploded to see and feel the difference and dissonance between his regime and that at Faith. The school building looked like a cheap motel, with classrooms that opened out onto unkempt concrete. My walk to school ended up again being very short, as the entrance to the school lay just out our back door from one of the historic officer’s quarters on Lumpkin Avenue. However, for the first six months we had to live in an apartment off post while waiting for availability of housing.
I cried every day after school for those first six months. I had never in my life seen overt racism until then. All was chaos and pandemonium in comparison. It must have been breaking my mother’s heart to see us so despondent during a rough PCS. Such an experience gets seared into one’s formative upbringing.
So my mother turned to the family life Chaplain whose name I still remember from the time. Just to be with someone calm, at peace, reassuring, a person of strong faith who was neither a parent nor a mentor nor a pastor, but just someone steeped in the Scriptures offering spiritual direction and counsel. That was my first encounter outside of church with a Chaplain, just me and him, talking it out. Fast forward to the present, and the Holy Spirit inspired me to look him up, and I found CH (LTC Ret.) Jim Masteller online. I reached out to him and left him a message: “Sir, this is Chaplain (CPT promotable) Chris Cairns, and we haven’t spoken since 1984/5, but I just wanted to say that I often tell people that ‘as an Army brat, Chaplains were my pastors growing up, and I was well-served, and that’s one of the reasons I became a Chaplain, to serve those who serve,’ and you’re one of the people I have in mind each time I say that.”
It took a minute (Army parlance for a week or longer, just to be ironic) for us to connect over the phone, but it was fun and life-giving to share with this man of God what I had gotten up to since 1985 when we last spoke. It seems he had been up to similar things with similar interests and similar gifts. We poured the Holy Spirit back and forth in the conversation.
As General James Mattis has said, there may be Post-Traumatic Stress, but there is also post-traumatic growth, and I would add post-traumatic healing. Our God is a God of redemption, not just of the pain and loss of each of our stories, but of all things. West Point to Fort Benning, New York to south Georgia, the shock of cultural differences, all are a part of my formative childhood as an Army brat.