Since I spend so much of my free time researching and writing about dead people, I thought it might be a welcomed change of pace (for me and for you) to let you take a small peek into my childhood.
As some of you may know, I was born at Fort Riley, Kansas into a military family. I spent the first five years of my life overseas in Nurnberg, Germany.
During the early 1960s the war in Vietnam was beginning to brew and by 1965 the United States was embroiled in combat operations. Increased guerrilla insurgency in South Vietnam led to the deployment of the 1st Infantry Division, my father’s division, to Southeast Asia. It was early 1966 – and we were heading back to Fort Riley, Kansas – where my father would participate in one year of combat training – and then he was scheduled to deploy with his unit to Vietnam. I was five years old.
We returned to the United States via a ten-day trip on the USNS Upshur. I had a lot of fun reading sailors and soldiers who were blogging about the USNS Upshur a/k/a the USNS Upchuck !!! Apparently military sea travel was not exactly like cruising on the Rhapsody of the Seas! I have a vivid memory of the muster call (fire drill). Every hand was required on deck with their life jackets on. I remember my mother putting life vests on both my younger sister and me and taking us on deck all the while being accompanied by the sounds of wailing sirens. As little girls, we didn’t understand that it was only a required drill, and we were very frightened.
At the end of the journey, as we neared the shores of the United States, I remember the excitement building. Everyone was heading to the top deck – including us – and I remember quite clearly passing the Statute of Liberty as we sailed into New York Harbor. Even as a very small child I understood that I was seeing something special. Lady Liberty was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States and she is the universal symbol of freedom and democracy. New York City is high up on my list of places to see again, and I hope I make it back there some day.
Once on dry land – my father wasted no time in getting us on the road – and we headed for Kansas. One thing you need to know about my father – he loved a good road trip – and once he got on the highway there was no stopping him. And that included little girls whining and fussing in the back seat. After one particularly long and brutal day on the road my mother finally convinced him to stop at a small motel – where we were I do not know. After settling into the room we walked across the highway to a small diner. I had spaghetti which I promptly threw up on the highway as we walked back to our room. To this day – I get car sick if I have to travel long distances in the back seat. That night my father tucked me and my sister into bed where we fell asleep watching the Red Skelton Show – and for a small moment in time – all was good with the world.
During our year in Fort Riley, we lived in what my family still calls “the Pink House.” It was a small two-level duplex, and it was painted – well, pink! The summer before I started Kindergarten, in preparation for my father’s deployment, he was scheduled to participate in six weeks of specialized training maneuvers at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Most dependents stayed in Kansas – but my father wanted his family to join him there. In light of my father’s impending departure, my grandmother had arrived from Germany. She would be with us while he was gone, and she was with us that summer in Wisconsin. My parents rented some rooms in a home near his training station in the town of Sparta, Wisconsin. Sparta is a small town on the La Cross River in the western part of the state.
On one random day that year – I found my father sitting on the staircase with his head in his hands and tears trickling down his face. When I asked him what was wrong he told me that it was almost time for him to leave on his tour to Vietnam. I was a small child and could not understand what he was saying. I went about my day feeling a great uneasiness settle over me. What was this Vietnam thing looming over us?
Some time shortly before or right at the time of my father’s deployment our family moved to Salina, Kansas. On the great plains of Kansas – where once stood an old air force base known as Smokey Hill – now stood Schilling Manor (a sub-post of Fort Riley) – the only base ever to be set aside for the wives and children of soldiers assigned to Vietnam. It was known as the “Home of the Waiting Wives.” Our little house was located at 150 Hoover Court. During the course of the Vietnam war, Shilling Manor became the home of thousands of wives and children of servicemen, of all ranks and branches, serving tours in Vietnam.
All too soon it was time for my father to leave us. Fortunately my sister and I were too young to fully comprehend the impending heartache. One day in January of 1967 my father left us. I was six years old. I remember bits and pieces of that day quite clearly. My father took us to the home of a friend – who was also deploying. The families said their good-byes together and then he was gone. I remember my mother crying silently into a handkerchief as she watched her husband walk out the door. I was frightened and bewildered – I had never seen my mother cry. Only now that I am an adult do I fully appreciate the burden placed upon my mother – a foreign-born woman in a strange new land having the sole responsibility of two small children and a household all alone for 12 months all the while knowing that her husband’s very life would be on the line each and every day.
Unknown to me at the time, but discovered through some research, my father and his unit traveled by train from Fort Riley, Kansas to Oakland, California where they boarded the troop ship USS General John Pope for the three-week trip to southeast Asia. After a beach landing they were shuttled by trucks to what became known as Bearcat Camp. This would be his home for 12 long months.
Bearcat Camp was located some 20 miles northeast of Saigon. It was located in the Viet-Cong infested Mekong Delta. Legend called the Mekong Delta plain the “Land of Nine Dragons,” named for the nine branches of the mighty Mekong River whose passage to the South China Sea opened into the symbolic mouth of a dragon….and a dangerous dragon it was.
Bearcat Camp - Vietnam
Meanwhile, back in the United States, living at Schilling Manor held many challenges for us as well. Even though I was a young child – and did not really understand the consequences of war – I sensed the unease and stress that surrounded me daily. We not only heard the death tolls on the evenings news – we lived them in a very real way.
Having a father in Vietnam profoundly changed me (he was deployed twice during his military career). Of course we counted the days until his return but we were also very aware that a lot of fathers were not returning home. I have often attempted to explain to my husband and son the trepidation that we felt each time we saw the dark Army car driving up the road with an officer and/or a clergyman inside. Sadly, even at such a young age, we knew what that meant. Back in 1967 there was no such thing as the internet and no phone calls came from our father. We relied solely on the military postal service. Sometimes my father would be able to record a message on a cassette tape and send it to us. We looked forward to hearing his voice on those occasions. Needless to say – checking the mail – was a big deal. It’s hard to explain the camaraderie that is built with other families when living under these conditions. My mother has friends that she met at Schilling Manor that she corresponds with to this day.
Richard Ernest Montoya - One of the Polaroids my dad sent home
Nonetheless, life did go on, and I have many happy memories of our time in Salina, Kansas. My grandmother was with us, and this eased the burden on all of us while we waited.
My mother – always the adventurous type – was not content to sit still and mope about for very long. The four of us took many trips together – the zoo in Manhattan was always a favorite; the old western cattle town of Dodge City where we watched gun-fighting re-enactments on Front Street; the Indian reservations of the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Comanche tribes; the sacred Pawnee Indian burial grounds; Red Rock Canyon; Horse Thief Canyon; and many picnics at Lake Kanapolis in the Smoky Hill River Valley.
My sis and I had our 15 minutes of fame when we made the front page of The Junction City Republic in February of 1967! “A Valentine to Vietnam – Judy Montoya, age 6, shows her sister, Joan, age 4, a valentine that they could send to their father, E-6, Richard Montoya, who is stationed in Vietnam. The girls and their mother, Mrs. Richard Montoya, reside at 150 Hoover Court, Schilling Manor, Salina, Kansas.” The news reporter caught us in a drug store and asked us to pose holding a Valentine’s Day card!
And just like that – my father was back.