My skewed upbringing

A little bit about me.

I grew up as a military brat and spent my formative teen years overseas at a US military base in Japan. English-language American entertainment consisted of a single TV channel of re-runs and a single AM radio station provided by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) over the Far East Network (FEN) in Japan.

This was during the crazy Reagan years, and anybody associated with the military was constantly reminded of the threat of world-ending war. The TV and radio stations were non-commercial, so instead of advertisements, the commercial and station identification breaks were filled with military stuff. Mostly they were operational security (OPSEC) and readiness reminders. “Loose lips sink ships” is the OPSEC message, and I had that drilled into me as a teen every stinking time I watched TV. Here’s a recent example of an OPSEC commercial that was filmed where I grew up so you’ll have an idea of the propaganda.

Because of my dad’s specific job (which I really shouldn’t talk about, but it involved Top Secret stuff, submachine guns, and the military police didn’t mess with me because they wanted no part with anything involving my dad’s office), I grew up maybe a little more paranoid than your typical American military brat. Even as a teen, I deliberately took different routes to school to avoid kidnappings by commie spies. I was personally never in any real physical danger, but there were occasional car bombings and rocket attacks against American military personnel and their families in Japan during my time there. It’s only recently that I even stopped thinking about taking different routes to work and watching for possible bad guys — this stuff gets very ingrained.

Besides the security stuff, you grow up knowing all of the military jargon. Who else knows what an FOD Walk is as a ten year old kid? Our dads didn’t go on business trips, they were “TDY.” My best friend didn’t move, they went “PCS.” The football game starts at 1800 hours. We got our groceries at the commissary and bought our clothes from the BX (Base Exchange). Yes, we really talked that way as teenagers.

There was some segregation based not on race or economic class, but military rank. My dad was an officer, so most of my friends were officers’ kids. It worked out that way because I lived on the part of the base where the officers were housed, and my recreational opportunities were limited (somewhat) to officer facilities — I could go to the O (“Officers”) Club swimming pool, the O Club restaurant, and the O Club pub. I don’t know if we were specifically prohibited from visiting the NCO facilities (probably not), but I remember the distinct impression that we weren’t welcome there.

My friend’s dad wasn’t “Mr Smith” — he was “Colonel Smith.” And we all understood we didn’t talk about our dads’ (and they were all dads then) jobs, because, after all, loose lips sink ships.

Every morning, I knew it was time to get up for school when the big C5 cargo planes started spinning up their jet turbines. Here’s more military jargon painted on every hangar entrance: “Jet noise is the sound of freedom.” I’ve mentioned before about riding my bike as a teen next to an Air National Guard fighter jet on the taxiway, or the time I was bowled over on my bike when a C5 pilot throttled his jet for takeoff when I was right behind him.

I rode the most awesome public transportation ever for my medical appointment with the Ear Nose Throat specialist at the US Navy hospital at Yokosuka: that was a Navy helicopter that shuttled people a couple of times daily between Yokota and Yokosuka. That’s a 3 hour trip over 50 miles by road — I think it took us about 20 minutes by air, and you could see the submarine berths from the air.

We had school competitions like any other American school. To compete against other American military schools in the Tokyo region, we usually took a bus, but regional events might take place in other countries — we’d board a big, windowless military cargo jet for a band festival, football game, or cross country meet in Okinawa, the Philippines, or Korea.

Every work day ended with the US National Anthem and Taps played over the base outdoor loudspeakers. Everybody is expected to stop, just like the call to prayer if you’ve ever been to a Muslim city. If you’re in a car, you stop driving. If you’re out walking or bicycling, you stop and salute (if in uniform) or place your hand on your heart.

On the TV station, every broadcast day ended with the Star Spangled Banner and, in Japan, the Japanese national anthem.

To keep this post on-topic for the theme of this blog (bicycles), here’s a bicycle safety PSA produced at Misawa Air Base in the mid 80s. It’s pretty painful to watch, but it gives you an idea of the production values we were subjected to at the time.


When I came back to the States for college, the things that freaked me out the most:

  • 55 MPH on the freeways was INSANE! Most Japanese ‘highways’ have a speed limit of maybe 30 MPH. The toll highways went all the way up to 48 MPH when I lived there, and speeding laws were strictly enforced.
  • No free healthcare! For active duty military and their dependents, you don’t need to worry about health care and dental — it’s all taken care of.

Are there any other military brats who know this lifestyle?


  1. Army Ranger brat here. Hooah.

    We always called it the PX, Post Exchange.

    Most of the on base living was when I was really young, so I don’t remember that much, but I still knew enough to recognize all of this.

  2. i know what a fod walk is and i’ve known it about that long.
    not because i’m a military brat though i just grew up around planes.

  3. Richard-

    I can relate to the military/Reagan stuff. My parents served in the Navy, but had returned to civilian life by the time I was born. I grew up just outside the Alameda Naval Air Station, in the 80’s. My first Summer job was in ’87, at Alameda NAS. I worked as an “aircraft mechanic helper (WG-05)” and helped disassemble Grumman A-6E Prowlers for scheduled overhauls and upgrades. The sound of jet engines, the smell of jet fuel, the FOD walks, the hands-on education in metallurgy and mechanics, the old sailors who were FULL of stories…

    I rode my bike to work every day. From my house just outside the West Gate to Hangar 11.

  4. The difference in production value of the 1980s “Far Easty Boys” and the modern “My Wife The Terrorist” is so small its indistinguishable.

  5. Hilarious, for a billion reasons. My parallel story differs only in that 1) it was based mostly in the European theatre (tho’ it jumped off in Hawai’i), and 2) my dad worked for a living 😉

  6. I don’t remember any car bombings when we were kids, but I do remember the $1 co-pay for medical visits. Hooray for socialized medicine. The Air Force community taught me that socialism is a good thing. Oddly, they claimed to hate communism, though. I wonder if they even knew the difference. Well, the O-club pool was nice and cold because the foundation was cracked, and they had to keep topping it off with fresh water. There were two great bike shops next to the base (bikes were cheap then), and there were great hills and streams for bike / inner tubing trips. — Hiroshi

  7. @Hiroshi – You don’t remember the guy who rigged gas cans to explode and rammed his car into the Fussa Gate guard shack in the early 80s sometime? It fizzed out, but it was immediately after that the tank traps were installed in front of all the gates.

    I’ve commented before how the US military is probably the most socialist part of American society.

  8. That story sounds vaguely familiar. Security was so tight at YAB that one night, when I missed the base shuttle bus (didn’t have my bike, and didn’t want to wait another hour for the next bus), I hitched a ride across the runway. Brian H picked me up in his black Mazda RX-3 with the rotary (gas guzzling, high torque) engine, shut off his lights and took a shortcut through people’s back yards. To top that, he stopped at the middle of the runway, looked left, looked right, and blasted across, full throttle, making good use of that rotary engine. I stopped hitch hiking after that. Our security was so tight, they didn’t expect anyone to drive across the middle of the runway, huh?

  9. AAFES (Army Air Force Exchange Services) had their own local bakery — next to the mortuary — near our high school (remember that)? They made the best Danish snail pastries, which came in a 6 pack. 3 were plum and 3 were pineapple jam flavored. My diabetic Japanese uncle kept asking me to smuggle him some, then he’d eat the whole pack in one sitting. He’s dead, now. I considered applying for an engineering R&D job at Sagami Depot, just so I could “get some”, but the paperwork was way too long, so I learned to settle for average quality pastries.

    The Base Commissary freezer room was where I got my 2nd summer job as a kid. We loaded boxes of dairy products from trucks. They issued us parkas. We also worked in the stockroom, which had huge steel and plywood shelves, where palates of food were stored. Our seniors taught us how to stack boxes, leaving a hollow spot where we could catch some sleep on the top shelf. We had to watch out for the forklifts, though.

    When I worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground (chemical detection), my boss told me to lock the doors in the lab when I’m sleeping, because a spot check by the MP’s might get us fired. This sleeping thing seem to be a common thread with military related jobs. APG had a nice mini cafeteria, too. I like real ceramic plates and cups on washable trays. I hate the throwaway cups and plates at most fast food places.

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