Growing up an army brat: The friends.

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

This is the third installment in a series on growing up in the army by writer Catherine Madison, whose father spent three years as a prisoner of war in North Korea in the 1950s.
Part One: The rules.
Part Two: The moves.



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.

Part Four: The silence.

Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter’s Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

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