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My guest today relates to what life was like for teenagers living on Army bases while their father’s served in Vietnam. They were all raised to believe that country came first, and all had an obligation to serve if called. Many followed in their father’s footsteps and ended up in Vietnam themselves.

By Bob Baker

As an Army brat, we lived in many places. Patrick AFB FL, Huntsville, AL, Kaiserslautern FRG (the Berlin Wall went up on my birthday and we were sent home on the SS.General Patch), Albuquerque, NM, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD, and Aurora, CO.

My last two years of high school were spent dodging tornadoes in Salina, Kansas.  The old Strategic Air Command base had a long main airstrip that B-47s used. Shilling Air Force Base had become a city airport, with most of the surrounding buildings and housing area transferred to the Army.  This became a sub-post of Fort Riley with the post housing called Shilling Manor, which became a “Home of the Waiting Wives.”  Servicemen of all the U.S. Armed Services (officer and enlisted) bound for Vietnam could drop off their families at this post until their tour was completed.

Somewhat remote from the small city, there were only two roads into the post. There was a movie theater, small commissary, and small dispensary that served the community. Buses took high school students to a single high school. Kansas Wesleyan University is located in the city.

It was a challenge to keep teenagers occupied and out of trouble, but it seemed to work – everyone in the same boat, as it were. Parents, being parents, moms would also look after all the kids – remember, it was a different time when kids were brought up to respect their parents and all adults (and they enforced it as necessary).

I remember Barney Fife, named after the television show character. A likable deputy sheriff who patrolled the housing area, he was easy to outfox because he was predictable in his patrolling.

Though families were safe, not everyone could escape “The Visit” that brought an officer and a chaplain to the door – it could be a very sad place. A nearby Army family and the family of a U.S. Navy pilot come immediately to mind when I think of this, especially every Memorial Day. All of Schilling would know within an hour when this happened and all would do what they could for the family.

There was no choice but to learn to drive a car before my father left for Vietnam. I took on volunteering to coach football, baseball, and basketball for the younger kids of the post. The Army must have seen some merit in employing teenagers, as they paid us after the first year. During summer, there was grass to be cut, floors to be washed, waxed, and buffed and taking shifts to manage the pool room – virtually every teenager learned to shoot pool. Jukebox dances every other week also helped the time to pass. All of these things helped keep the teenagers busy and $1.60 an hour helped greatly.

As I neared high school graduation, I remember former students of some of the teachers returning from Vietnam speaking to the class. This usually included displaying and talking about their wounds, if they had any. For teenagers from the post, the impact was deeper than they would publicly admit. The realization that their fathers might return with such a wound or worse had an almost unspoken effect on us all.

Most of us expected to be in one of the armed services. Almost all of us knew that college would have to wait. We were all raised to believe that country came first and we had an obligation to serve, if called – the Jane Fonda and rich college kids burning their draft cards were not really America. Unfortunately, the TV branded everyone of a certain age as being a hippie and anti-war, but it wasn’t so. 

My youngest sister was born in a civilian hospital in Salina.  Her twin sister didn’t survive but an hour.  As the oldest of seven, I had to inform my mother (and my siblings) about the twin and make arrangements to have my father return from Vietnam.  My father was able to stay at Schilling afterward for a couple of years until he again returned to Vietnam in 1970.

A notice to get a physical from my draft board hastened my Army enlistment. My dad and I missed being there at the same time in 1971 by one month. Unlike most, my father and I could talk about Vietnam and the things we saw and felt and made our relationship stronger.

Thank you, brother – a great remembrance. 

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