I hated Stuttgart. We lived at Patch Barracks, in White Village, in an apartment building that housed twelve units. Each building had three floors with two stairwells, two units on each floor and a basement with storage cages for each unit. Our apartment for five people had three bedrooms, one bathroom, a galley kitchen, small dining room, and living area. I still remember it as small, and I was only six then, so it must have been miniscule. I remember my mother taking it in and noting that she wasn’t happy. We had just left a two-story duplex with a front yard and back yard in Fort Leavenworth, and although it, too, had only had one bathroom, it had been far more spacious and upscale. This looked like a place that enlisted people lived.
But you live where the Army puts you, and we settled into a routine of taking the bus to school (it was on a different base), getting to know the locals, and learning where the commissary, the PX, and everything else was located. I still recall that the officers – the high-ranking ones, anyway – lived on Florida Strasse. Sometimes, Susan and I would ride our bikes down there and gawp over what appeared to be huge houses, although my mother had explicitly instructed us not to do this – it would have been akin to talking about money or buttering your bread instead of breaking off a piece and then just buttering that piece – something that was just not done.
There was a family that lived on the second floor above us – the Turners – and they had a daughter Susan’s age. They became friendly, although I recall Kathryn being somewhat nasty from time to time to Susan. I also recall Sylvia Rabinowitz, a teenager who lived on the third floor who, my brother told me, had “great tits.” He was in sixth grade at this point, and this statement turned out to be a not uncommon sort of thing during the time we lived in Stuttgart. It became a hyper-sexualized period of time for me, for reasons I do and do not understand. It’s quite troubling.
It quickly became clear that my father’s posting at this time was not working out. It should come as no surprise that the Army expects its ranks, especially where its officers are concerned, to follow orders with a “Yes, Sir!” My dad had a tendency to do a lot of challenging and boat-rocking. If something made no sense to him (and based upon the television series “M*A*S*H” and other conventional wisdom, I am led to believe that the military often makes some questionable calls), my dad pointed it out, over and over and over again, becoming more vocal each time he was shot down. This kind of behavior, I also understand, is not terribly popular in the Army and is not likely to move one up the ranks.
In any case, it was my sense during that time, even at the tender age of 6, that my dad was having a lot of issues at work, in part because he used to come home so mad, and in part because he was drinking so much. My dad’s drinking was nothing new – he’d been drinking a lot in Kansas – but this was drinking at a new level. He had also started binging, and when he was one day 2 or so of a binge, he would get really weird. He would walk around in the black and white checked bathrobe with nothing else underneath (the robe would often fall open – ewww), or he’d lie on the sofa, and you would have to avert your eyes. My mother rarely said anything about this, or she wasn’t around. I often ask myself, “where was she?” It was a small apartment.
One thing that happened during the time we lived in Stuttgart was that the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” came out, and my mom bought the original cast album, and for what felt like the next year, that was all we listened to – mostly the pop songs and such – but when my dad was binging, he’d put the really deep stuff on – the stuff where Jesus is in Gethsemane, or hanging on the cross, all that stuff. Or he’d put on “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and make my sister and I sing the song, solo. His assessment?
“Susan has a better voice, but you remembered all the words.”
During this particular binge, I also recall my father making my sister and I both touch his penis – I don’t know why – but I do remember it. As for my mother’s whereabouts, I do recall that she was in Pennsylvania tending to her father, who was very ill at the time. At some point, my father’s mother and her husband arrived, but they were as helpful as a bag of wet socks, and what happened next made me hate my grandmother for the rest of my life.
My sister had done something to anger my father, which at that point (he was on a binge) could have been as simple as a bad grade at school or sassing – who knows. He made her sit down and, while everyone watched, he cut off her hair, which was the only part of her physical features which she liked. He chopped off hair from here and there and made it look awful. I stood up and said, “you can’t do that!” and was crying, but no one listened, and my stupid grandmother, who could have taken the scissors and said, “Jim, that is not going to happen,” just sat there. I knew at that moment what it meant to hate someone so much you wanted to kill them, and I never forgave her. I still hate her, and she’s been dead for thirty years. To this day, I hope her death was slow, painful, and lonely.
When my mother came home from Pennsylvania, she asked what happened. I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t sassy yet, but I wanted to tell her everything. I don’t know what she was told, but she did take Susan to the hair salon and evened out the cut. I am not sure in my life that I have personally witnessed another act of such abject cruelty.
One night, I was asleep in the room my sister and I shared. I was having a nightmare: I was in a smallish white boat with an ancient fisherman, and a huge spider twice the size of the boat climbed out of the water and climbed into the boat, coming right at me. I woke up shaking and was about to cry out when I saw my father walking out of our room. He was wearing the horrible robe. I remember wondering why he was in our room, in his robe. It was the middle of the night. I froze and pretended I was asleep. Something told me to be quiet and play dead. I knew it would be dangerous if he found out I was awake.
Things got worse. The kids had pretty much free reign when we weren’t in school. I tried to stay out of my apartment whenever my dad was home, and it didn’t matter if I was with my sister or not. I had my bike, I knew how to get from point A to point B (the village wasn’t that big), and I wanted to be wherever my father wasn’t.
My brother had a friend named Frankie Satherswaite; his family was British. The lived across the parking lot in another building, and had become pretty tight. I remember one day Susan and I were over at his building in the attic with Frankie and my brother – I don’t know why. Another girl named Anna was there, and maybe Kathryn, too. I was up in the attic in bare feet (my default whenever possible), and everyone but my brother and I disappeared. I was picking through all the junk that was lying around and was having a great time, but then there is a blank, a void.
The next day, my dad, who was binging, put my sister “on restriction” and confined to our room (we shared) and only allowed bread and water. The ostensible crime was that she had written “hell” in chalk on the sidewalk. She later told me that she, Anna, and Kathryn had gone downstairs to Frankie’s apartment and undressed in front of him, and that my brother had told my father. This punishment lasted three days. From time to time, my father would go into our room for a while, and then come out. During this time, I was sharing a bed with my seventh-grade brother.
The whole time, I knew what has happening in my room. I knew, and I assumed everybody else knew, and it made me very angry that no one was doing anything. It was at this time that I started to take an interest in my father’s Playboy magazines. I knew he had them, and knew what they were, because my mom bought them for him at the newsstand. And so for a time, I would ask to look at the Playboy magazines, and I would look at these women, most of them blonde and busty, and I would think, “I want to look like that!” (Too bad for me, I was a small-busted brunette). I even told my mother I wanted to be a Playboy bunny when I grew up and assumed she did, too – what else would a woman want to be?
All of these memories indicate to me (and, of course, my therapist), that our home was hyper-sexualized and that something was definitely going on that was triggering my odd behavior, but, unsurprisingly, no one tried to untangle that, and we just pretended like nothing was amiss. Not too much longer after all of this, my father was given a transfer to Karlsruhe, and just like that, a lot of things changed. I stopped sharing a room with my sister, my dad stopped letting me look at his Playboys, and his drinking improved markedly – for a while, anyway.
I remember our time in Stuttgart as suffused, bathed in a cloud of ick, as though some pervert had jacked off on every surface he could find. I hate thinking about those years, about how my mother wasn’t there, or simply didn’t protect my sister or me (a theme that would become all too familiar), how my brother’s sexual talk was supposed to seem cool (but was really just gross). I have always wondered about that void in the Satherswaites’ attic, and the feeling I have had since then (and that recurrent dreams of discovering rooms in my house that I never before knew were there) that there is something I know, but don’t know.