It has been 40 years since I was last immersed in the culture and community of the United States Marine Corps. At the time, I was a Navy photojournalist stationed on the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), an amphibious command and control ship that was the command post for a number of their Western Pacific exercises. Curiosity of what changes time had wrought was an undercurrent of my recent visit with my son Braden, a Navy critical care nurse working in the emergency room at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
As I approached the main gate, I expected a dramatic difference between the Marine communities at Camp Hansen and Camp Foster in Okinawa (where I learned that the Quonset huts are long gone and the gravel streets are now paved). Established in 1941, Camp Lejeune is the Marine’s largest East Coast facility, covering 246 square miles with a 14-mile oceanfront view, perfect for amphibious operations, a Marine Corps specialty. Little did I know that the paperwork I filled out for a temporary vehicle pass was a ticket to the past, to a community and culture that Americans who live outside the gate haven’t enjoyed since the days of President Eisenhower.
My son and his wife, Carrie, also a Navy nurse, and their three kids live in a trim two-story white house that was built in the 1950s. He wasn’t there when my wife and I arrived. He was still in intensive care. An overachiever, he was recovering from almost every post-surgical complication possible following an appendectomy. Without this unhappy situation, I would have never learned about the time shift. With his wife leading the way, when we arrived at their base housing home, stacked on the back porch were plastic containers and pans covered with aluminum foil. It was dinner, for all of us, provided by one of the neighbors, in the family’s time of need.
It was, said Carrie, standard operating procedure, an effort coordinated by the street’s Facebook page. The neighbors provide similar support for those being deployed, packing a household for transfer, unpacking upon arrival at their new duty station, bringing home a new baby, and celebrations from birthday to promotions. The hospital set Braden free the next morning, but dinner was on the back stoop every night during our four-day visit. And it would continue until their lives resumed their normal daily routine. “It’s just what we do,” said Carrie.
But that wasn’t all. At the workday’s end, when all the husbands returned home from their duty day, with their wives they congregated in one of the driveways while the kids ran freely through the unfenced yards in boisterous clusters. Each in turn, kids flew across the grass on tire swings dangling from tall and sturdy front yard trees. The slow, pendulum flights modulated their laugher and screams of joy with the Doppler Effect. “Again!” punctuated the glee of those whistling to and fro.
Watching quietly from a comfy chair near the head of my son’s driveway, the carefree panorama across the street recalled my free-range childhood youth in Chicago’s northwest suburbs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Unrestricted by fences or over-protective parents we played ball and army and built tree houses and underground forts in the woods that was our refuge at the end a long narrow park, the leafy dot on a lowercase i. During the summer, our only unbreakable responsibility was to be home before dark.
Several years ago, I returned to the neighborhood of my youth for a summertime stroll. Rare was a yard not defined by a chain-link perimeter. The grass grew long in the park and the base lanes that defined the ball field were smooth and footprint free. Our beloved woods was a shadow of its former expanse, halved by a car wash and 7/11 that faced Irving Park Road. Our youthful adventures there challenged the undergrowth and cut paths that were the shortest distances between our forts and tree houses. During my visit, I circumnavigated this leafy island in a sea of sprawl and found its undergrowth impenetrable. Most noticeable by their absence was the current generation of youngsters. I knew they existed because many of the empty yards I passed fenced off accumulations of playtime detritus dropped wherever boredom dictated.
The situation is similar where I now live, though small town kids do seem to range more freely than those in metropolitan suburbs. But I was sure that the era of a free-range youth was something lost to time, at least until I visited base housing at Camp Lejeune. Discussing this later with my son and his wife, after the kids went to bed, my observation seemed to surprise them. This has always been part of their military family life. Maybe it was because most of the wives don’t work, with my daughter-in-law being the rare exception. Or maybe it was their isolation from the surrounding community and the naturally limited access to a military installation. Perhaps. It certainly has an unusual sound track with the distant thud-whumpf of artillery and the constant thrumming buzz of CH-53 helicopters and sonic rush of the V-22 Osprey.
There has to be something more. What these families enjoy is community, an interdependence nurtured by shared experiences and social needs that have atrophied among those Americans living beyond the main gate who have surrendered neighborly interactions to the narrow, hypnotic view of the world on technology’s LED display. Of no doubt, however, is the benefit of their free-range childhoods to my grandkids and their compatriots. Instead of clicking their way into the deep recesses of technology’s echo chamber of shared perceptions and prejudices, they learn to deal with and peacefully accommodate the variety of life and the challenges posed by others face to face. If this sense of community is, indeed, the rule at most military housing communities rather than the exception, as the experience of my son and his wife portends as true, then those who serve are defending more than the nation’s freedom, they are sustaining an essential element that once defined our nation’s culture.