In the Midwest, when I tell people I am a Navy brat, the reply is almost invariably, “That must have been hard, moving all the time.”
It is a strange thing I still haven’t gotten used to, like people saying, “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” when you tell them you like swimming in the ocean.
I adored moving around the country. Plus, as a kid, you think everybody lives like you do: move up a grade, move across the continent and get a new house and new fun friends. If I attended the same school for two years in a row, it was kind of a letdown not being the new girl in class.
My favorite book was a children’s atlas that had illustrations of landmarks and attractions superimposed on all the states: Colonial Williamsburg! A pyramid of water skiers in Cypress Gardens! Old Faithful! I wanted to experience every bit of that huge theme park of a country, not as a tourist but as a resident.
One of the first stories I heard as a small child was from my grandfather, who lived his whole life in Kansas. He loved telling about how the telegram announcing my birth on Guam arrived the day before it happened, because Guam is on the other side of the international date line. That became part of my earliest identity: all my great-grandparents were from Kansas, but I was a time-bending globe-trotter.
During the Vietnam War, my dad was stationed on aircraft carriers. We lived in San Diego, and I can remember the tingly excitement of going to meet his ship when it returned from deployment. Mom would dress me and my brother and sister up in our nicest clothes, and we would stand for hours with hundreds of other wives and kids along the dock and stare at the endless, empty ocean until a tiny blip appeared on the horizon.
It was beyond amazing watching my dad materialize from literally beyond the visible edge of the Earth. The ship slowly grew and came into focus until you could see all the officers and sailors lined up, ringing the flight deck. We could usually spot my dad in the sea of white uniforms — he was tall — and follow him as he marched down the gangway.
The whole spectacle gave me the sense that the world was incredibly vast, and it was normal to sail off to its farthest corners and come back bearing exotic gifts in a footlocker.
We always lived off-base, usually in neighborhoods with a mix of civilian and military families. In Hollywood movies, the military guy down the street is typically a sociopath. My dad, like most military dads and moms I’ve met, is generous and charming and has a zest for life.
He liked convertibles and would take us for top-down drives on Pacific Coast Highway in a powder blue TR-4 and, later, along the Chesapeake Bay in a red Mustang with white seats. He played Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and the Doors on the stereo, and we always had the biggest color console TV in the neighborhood.
The other military families we knew had a similar work-hard-and-have-fun vibe. There is an infectious adventurousness and friendliness in military circles that I am glad to have contracted.
Dan Hesse, the former CEO of Sprint and an Army brat, told me he thought growing up in the military forces you to become extroverted and gives you a leg up in business because you learn to size people up instantly and figure out how to get them to open up to you quickly. It’s a survival skill when you don’t have years to gradually get to know people.
Being open to people and wanderlust go very well together. Travel and relocating are easier when you can immerse yourself in the local culture and inhabitants as easily as slipping into a warm bath.
I’ve heard people pooh-pooh travel and moving around by saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” The implication is that you can’t find happiness by changing your geography.
My life as a Navy brat taught me the opposite is also true. If you are happy and feel at home in the world, you’ll be happy wherever you go.