By Lauren B. Stevens
Somewhere among my boxes of childhood mementos is an old, paper pencil box. Affixed to the inside of the pencil box is my classroom schedule from fourth grade, and neatly stacked within that box are all of the letters from my pen pals; in the 1980s, P.O. Boxes were exchanged, rather than Twitter handles or email addresses, so that we brats could stay in touch.
The first year after moving, letters would fly back and forth; friends remaining behind at a station sharing details of how life was carrying on after you’d left, while you described your new home by comparing it to your old. I remember receiving photos from friends in middle school, feeling a pang of jealousy, a heaviness in my gut, seeing my former friends dressed for a dance, while I was miserable and hiding out in my bedroom back in the States.
I missed the freedom of living on a base, and I especially missed having all of my friends within walking distance. Not only was I experiencing culture shock, having spent the previous eight years in Europe, I was having a difficult time dealing with the transition from enclosed base-living to off-base civilian life.
Moving after the start of the school year is always challenging, but I’m unsure how much easier the transition would have been, having been placed in a civilian school with kids who had known each other since their diaper days. I struggled to make friends, and was teased relentlessly for being different — at ten years old, I was a tomboy who loved to play for hours outdoors, while my new classmates were more interested in hair and makeup. I missed the slow, tranquil life of the English countryside, where we were allowed to remain kids for much longer than our Stateside counterparts.
I still hadn’t made a place for myself, or a solid group of friends, before we moved two years later. I again faced the challenges of moving and starting school after the beginning of the school year. My father was transitioning out of military life, so we were all challenged with this particular move. Seeing those pictures of my friends from England was definitely bittersweet, and my letter box became more worn as I read through my friends’ letters for comfort.
In high school, I’d finally made a place for myself, having shaken-off the awkwardness of those middle school years. By my senior year, I was only in contact with one of my elementary school friends, and I remember us sharing our phone numbers in a letter exchange. I no longer remember who initiated the phone call, or why it had taken so many years to talk on the phone, but we we were likely driven to chat because we knew that our lives would be taking many turns once we left high school.
Almost ten years after playing together in England, I got to speak with my old friend, and I remember being struck by her southern accent, something that never stood out to me as a child. Perhaps the accent didn’t exist at that time, or maybe it went unnoticed, as so many seemingly insignificant details did, in our lives stationed abroad.
There was talk about our high school days, and plenty of discussion about our plans for the future, with a few awkward pauses sprinkled throughout. I remember having a warm feeling in my belly, a contented feeling of having connected with a friend from a past I revered.
The Internet began to pick up momentum while I was in college, and it seemed almost everyone was a member of some type of chat group of message board; this was about the time I discovered online Brat registries, linking long-lost friends across time and continents. When I found the registry for my base in England, I was excited to see some of my old friends registered, eagerly reading every post to get a feel for the place I still consider home.
The old message boards were clunky, and not especially conducive to lengthy conversations and connectedness. However, names I’d not thought of in years were now on my radar, which came in handy once Facebook began opening up to the masses, years later.
For many, Facebook is a lifeline for connection, and for a Brat, it has helped many stay connected, despite our transient lives. As someone who freelances for a living, I spend a great deal of time in Facebook groups, networking with other writers and editors, and landing jobs along the way — it’s integral to my career.
Years ago I stumbled upon a Facebook group dedicated to the small base where I lived in England. In this group, I was able to reconnect with so many friends from my past, and I am extremely grateful that social media has allowed us to connect. I know what’s going on in my old friend’s lives, watching their careers and families grow; it’s interesting to see where we are spread across both the States and in Europe, as well as to watch how and where many of us move (and move often).
The handful of brats who still live in the area often post pictures, as the old RAF base continues its new life as a small village. Year after year, hangars and buildings come down, making way for more development or areas of green. We even have some locals in our Facebook group, more than happy to answer questions, snap photos of our old homes, and even avail themselves as guides when we make it over to visit. The base holds such a rich history, and it’s uplifting to see the locals understand just how much their village means to so many, and how accommodating they are when we visit — some have even allowed us to come into their homes!
Seeing other brats share their experiences revisiting their childhood home has made it much easier for me to plan a trip back over. Knowing that the locals are welcoming eases my mind, as I plan to take a literal trip down memory lane with my family next year. All of this…connection…is possible because of social media, and I’m incredibly grateful for it!