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The real education of an Army brat

In Community, Community Contributorsby OC Monitor Staff

**This piece was submitted as part of our Community Contributor pilot project in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

By Cheryl Gilstrap / OC Monitor Community Contributor

When I landed in Butler County, Kentucky, I spent the previous three years living in West Germany during the Cold War. My father was able to shield me from the Cold War, an urban terrorist group called the Baader-Meinhoff gang, and the eroticism of European culture. (We were not allowed to watch television after eight pm. Not everyone in europe keeps their clothes on.)

My dad may have run his family like a troop of soldiers, but he had a rule, no naked bodies in the public areas of our house and certainly, none allowed on the television.

Living in Germany, I had to learn to adapt. I knew how to exchange dollars for marks down at the deli, I knew how to pay the beerman–there was no beer at our house, but we loved the Pepsi in glass bottles he brought to us. I knew how to speak enough German to go to town and buy my first pair of Adidas with our school colors. I could also talk to the German vacuum cleaner salesman.

I could navigate my way around a high school with 1,200 students. I was not necessarily a confident 15-year-old; however, I could take care of myself and I thought I was educated well for my age. I was soon to learn I didn’t know very much. Although I lived in a foreign country for a total of six years, I was not educated. My real education began on a ride to Morgantown with my cousin, John.

When my father retired from the Army, we moved to Butler County. My father was the youngest child of my grandmother, Lillian Jennings. Lillian was living in a little trailer in Morgantown. My dad wanted to be near her, so mom and dad bought a house.

While we were waiting to move in, I stayed with my aunt and uncle and cousin John so I could start high school on time. One crisp, autumn Saturday night, John asked me if I wanted to ride to “town.” I knew town meant a possible stop at Dairy Mart for a chocolate shake and a barbecue sandwich. I was excited and I jumped into the passenger seat; eager to see what the night held.

John had an old 4-door, I think it was a Ford Falcon. Anyway, I happily rode to town with John. He had a great sense of humor and I felt safe with him. When we got to town, John picked up four of his buddies from the Butler County High School Football team. Testosterone was quickly filling up the little Ford. Being the only girl was not my worry, I knew that John would make sure that I was safe. I just sat there in the passenger seat and listened and watched.

The first shock of the night was public urination. You heard me. My dad may have been an Army Sergeant, but he was as prim and proper as a southern belle. There were eight of us in the house, but there was an environment of keeping private things private.

I was quietly riding along when someone said, “Pull over. I need to pee.” I thought to myself, “There is no service station around, where is he going to…’ Oh no, he is just walking toward the woods… I am not kidding ya’ll, I wanted to crawl in a hole and die! I could not imagine this guy, who I didn’t know–was going to turn his back to me and urinate in front of me and everybody else in the car. And that was the beginning of my education…

Next stop, Butler County High School. John drove into the parking lot of the high school–close to the flagpole. As soon as we stopped, John popped the trunk and everyone got out of the car. Before I could figure out what was happening, down comes the flag of the United States of America, and up goes a discarded toilet.

I couldn’t think fast enough to react; I am still back at the scene of the PUBLIC URINATION. Everyone piled back in the car and John drove off squealing tires. I guess urinating in public and putting a toilet up the flagpole was exhausting for the football players; we finally made it to Dairy Mart. I ordered my chocolate shake and my barbecue sandwich.

I noticed my cousin and his buddies were telling everyone about the flagpole. I just kept thinking, “John is going to be in so much trouble.” We stayed at the Dairy Mart for a while, then by some unspoken signal, it was time to get back in the car and “ride around” for awhile.

By the time we left, I was feeling overwhelmed. John pulled into the Houchens’ parking lot and everyone got out of the car to talk to other people. The night air was just right for hanging out. I spotted a new friend and I gladly started up a conversation.

A police officer came by and told everyone to behave. He checked for alcohol. He said we could sit there as long as there was no trouble. I think maybe 30 minutes had gone by when I realized I hadn’t seen my cousin. I turned towards John’s car and it was encircled by teenage boys. I heard loud voices and I thought maybe they were discussing PUBLIC URINATION. Just kidding. I was still in shock.

I turned back to talk to my new friend and the next thing I know, there was a NAKED TEENAGE BOY running around the Houchens’ parking lot. I see a burst of white skin. I am in such shock that I turn my head away from the “streak.” (I am serious about the naive and sheltered stuff. I couldn’t bear to look.)

Suddenly, several cars pull out of the parking lot at once. John is yelling at me, “Cousin Cheryl, time to get back home before mom gets off work.’ (My aunt worked late at night at the nursing home.) I jump in the passenger side and my cousin squeals tires again. John drove so fast the lights of Morgantown quickly faded into the inky black skies of the countryside in 1973 Butler County. Soon, we were back on a gravel road and in the driveway; just in time to look innocent in front of the television set when my aunt walked in from her late night at work.

Did I ever tell you about the time “streaking” was a thing and my cousin John might have been the one who….wait, that’s another story about my education as a country girl. Let’s talk soon. We can get a chocolate shake.

Cheryl Gilstrap

Cheryl Gilstrap is a retired middle school reading teacher and a proud Army Brat. She loves spending time with her grandchildren. Reading fiction and writing poetry are also favorite pastimes. She lives in Cromwell with her husband Cecil, a ten-year old black cat named Jack, and a ginger cat named Butters who is always causing trouble around the house.

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