Saturday, September 26, 2009

Where I Live: Fort Huachuca, Arizona

On two occasions in my life, I called the state of Arizona home.

The first happened when I was fresh off the plane from Germany. My father had been reassigned to Fort Huachuca (which means "Thunder Mountains"), 15 miles north of the border with Mexico. It was here that I recall my first memories. The choo-choo train cake from my 2nd birthday party. Family gathered around as I was given a large plastic knife to cut a piece of it with. My older brother being yelled at by my Grandmother for staying out past dark. The very first thing I remember seeing on television (Fraggle Rock). Arizona is where my life really began.

It's a hot state, hotter than I think anyone who lives in the east or north realizes. Temperatures can climb over 110 degrees in the summer. There's no oppressive humidity, but all that means is that you dry out that much faster. Also, the climbing mercury provides the ideal heat for monsoons - squalls which can cause flash floods in seconds with downpours so tumultuous you legimiately fear for your life. They can put everything around you underwater and then vanish to reveal clear skies in the space of five minutes. When monsoon season rolls around, it is not uncommon to see this event four or five times a day.

Beyond the weather though, there is nothing quite like the sight of the western states. There are deserts teeming with life; plants, mammals, and lizards adapted in ways completely unlike anything back east. There were roadrunners native to the area, and it was a common occurrence to hear coyotes howling at night (yes - we had roadrunners and coyotes). Other native wildlife included scorpions, deadly spiders, gila monsters, mountain lions, deer, javalenas (wild pigs), fire ants, turkey buzzards, and condors. Natural sites of wonder can be found in Arizona's extensive bat caves, a fascinating place to visit and learn about these amazing creatures, the petrified forest, the painted desert, and, of course, the Grand Canyon.

But to narrow it down so much takes away from Arizona's natural beauty. There is little about the state that is not a wonder to behold. If you're unused to the kind of marvel a desert climate can produce, you don't know what you're missing.

My memories of my first tenure in Arizona are dim. My parents divorced when I was 2, and my mother took us to live for a time in a trailer on the outskirts of Sierra Vista, the town adjacent to the Fort. I visited my father occasionally, one such visit giving rise to a classic story wherein my mom - for some ungodly reason - had decided to grow my hair out in a rat-tail. My father took one look at it, flipped out his knife, and chopped it off. If mom objected, she never says so when she tells the story - perhaps she saw me without it and realized her mistake.

At this time, she began dating a young officer named Brad, whose towering height (he was 6'7''!) made a definite impression, but for some reason his roommate was the one who really caught her eye. Thus is was not long before my mother and then-2nd Lieutenant Dennis Schlitt began seeing one another.

We moved into a house, adding my Grandmother AND Grandfather - they'd been divorced for nearly 2 decades - to the mix. There we stayed until orders came that Dennis was to be made a 1st Lieutenant and thus reassigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. There we remained - until Dennis was again promoted to Captain, and back to Arizona we went.

This is where my memories of Arizona firmly take root. Having my 7th birthday party at the Pot O' Luck, where they had the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game. Moving first to the interim housing, then to an apartment, then finally our house at 107A Lawton Ave. Visiting Lake Havasu and enduring temperatures of 120 degrees to see the actual London Bridge - yes, it's in Arizona. Seeing Tombstone and witnessing gunfight reenactments. Driving 90 minutes to Tucson to visit Toys 'R Us, or 3 hours to Phoenix or Scottsdale for the enormous malls. Meeting my best friends ever, Willy and Hannah, the brother and sister who lived next door to me. Then when we moved to a larger house (105A Arizona St.) to accommodate our growing family - now consisting of Dennis and my mom, my older brother, and the newest addition, my younger sister Samantha - my new best friends ever, Mikey and Mallory, the brother and sister who lived up the road. While I had fun after school every day with them, it wasn't until Mikey and Mallory moved away that Jason Chapman moved in, and I had my real first best friend.

Jason, supposedly an actual descendant of American legend Johnny Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed as he is more widely known, was my first best friend. We played at the playground by my house. We played at the playground next to the bus stop. We drew together (he was much better than me). We made up whole stories and worlds and acted them out in my backyard. We fought and hated each other and then apologized and forgot and played some more. I still have some of the stories we made up to this day. I keep telling myself that one day I'll do something with them. Ultimately, he moved to Germany, and it wasn't long before we lost touch.

There were so many others, though. Jesse and Ted, David Muldanado and Jonathan and Justin. Brandi, Sam, Christian, Chris Sontag and Matt Oldham, even my first girlfriend (we never actually went on a single date) Jennifer Achaval. From age 7 to 13, Fort Huachuca was my home. It was where we had our Irish Setter, a purebred named Princess Shanel (but referred to as Shanny), and where I had my first two iguanas, Godzilla and Gigantis. It was where Mrs. Gross, the teacher of the Academically Gifted class, educated me and my friends in literature and logic for 5 years running. It's where I met Ms. Bird, the nastiest and yet somehow most caring teacher I've ever encountered. Arizona is where I first became old enough to walk by myself to the PX and the Commissary, where I saved up all my allowance and birthday money to buy my own Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. And where the youngest member of our family, Evan, my little brother, came to be.

Now, Fort Huachuca itself is an army base. There's not a lot that will ever change there. My brother visited recently and tells me the only difference is that the yards, formerly lush green grass, have all been replaced by smooth desert rock, likely in a water-conservation effort. Other than that, the houses all remain the same. There's the enlisted housing, officer housing, Colonel's Row, the Officer's Club, so on and so forth. What sets Fort Huachuca apart is the mountains. I am not exaggerating at all when I say there was a mountain range in my backyard. Literally - there was the fenced-off portion of my backyard, about fifty yards or so of open grass, a steep decline that led to the one road out of town below, and then mountains. Waking up to a red sunrise spreading out over those majestic green peaks was always something to look forward to. And on occasions when it snowed, it was even more breathtaking. Snow, of course, was a rare sight to be treasured. It was much more common to be told to put on a sweater if it dipped below 60.

The outlying town, Sierra Vista, is, I'm given to understand, now heavily developed. When I was there, it was more or less a single road with stores on either side, leading to some apartment buildings where my Grandfather lived. There were run-down saloons and Native American gift shops, tiny shopping centers and a single comic shop, Stasis, that became a treat to visit. The most monumental occasion of the time I lived there was when they opened up a Blockbuster. I'm told that these days the town is unrecognizable from what it once was. Maybe one day I'll go see it again, but I prefer to keep my memory of that quiet little town where every new happening was monumental.

As often happens, I eventually found myself further along in time than I had been before. Dennis was not going to make Major, and at that time in the army the policy was up or out. So, for the first time, I was about to leave my life in the military. This time, the destination was Ohio.

Oh, but I completely left out North Carolina. Well, both my time in Fayetteville and Dayton were transitional times for me. Maybe it's best I cover them elsewhere - perhaps in my next installment of Where I Live.

No comments: