Tumbleweed Forts: Adventures of an Army Brat was the subject of a public forum June 15, 2022, at the Henry Hauser Museum in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Elizabeth Wrozek, museum curator, examined the book with me and then brought the public into the discussion. -- Frank Warner
Elizabeth Wrozek (left) invites Sierra Vista residents, Army brats and others to ask questions of Frank Warner (right) at the Henry Hauser Museum book forum.
Here are my opening comments for the event, which turned out to be a lot of fun:
Hello, Sierra Vista! And thanks to the Henry Hauser Museum, museum curator Elizabeth Wrozek, and the Ethel Berger Center for inviting me here to see Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca again, for the first time in decades.
This part of America holds a special place in my heart. I lived here 60 years ago when my father, Master Sergeant Thomas Warner, was stationed here to develop the Army’s early drones and fly them around that black tower in Fort Huachuca’s West Range.
My whole family, Dad, Mom, -- that’s Georgiana Warner -- and my three brothers, Carl, Mark and George, enjoyed our time here. In fact, those two and a half years were the sweetest slice of my childhood. It’s all described in my book, “Tumbleweed Forts: Adventures of an Army Brat.”
I now live in Pennsylvania, where my father settled down in 1966, after serving 24 years in the Army. I’m retired after 37 years as a newspaper reporter and editor.
My family left Fort Huachuca in 1963, when my father was ordered to Vietnam. Dad shipped out despite the letter I secretly wrote at age 10, asking President Kennedy to keep my father and the rest of us right here in Arizona. Answering for the president, a Pentagon colonel wrote me back to say he understood my concern, but every soldier has a duty to be away from his family from time to time.
In 2020, as I wrote the last chapters of “Tumbleweed Forts,” I searched hard for the words to explain how abrupt and shocking it was to leave Fort Huachuca after becoming so attached to the place.
Late one night, the words came in a dream. I jumped up from my sleep and wrote this on a notepad: “It seemed I had left behind something big and important, a picture half-drawn, the story of my life that would go on without me.”
There I was a boy, and I really felt then that my whole life’s story would go on here, and I wouldn’t even be part of it.
Elizabeth Wrozek asked me to explain today why I liked this area of Arizona enough to write a book about it. The explanation is easy: It was the friends I made, the freedom I felt, the beautiful sights I saw, and the history here with its own special magic.
I made most of my friends at Colonel Johnston School. There were Flavio, Emily, Terry, Skeeter and others who made my life so much fun. Now they’re all characters in my book. And today one of my old friends, Flavio Garcia, - stand up, Flavio -- is here. I came in from Pennsylvania. Flavio drove in from California to take a look at Sierra Vista and Fort Huachuca again with me. In fact, we’ve been wandering around a lot the last day and a half. I even got a cowboy hat from Spur Western Wear.
Flavio was my best friend in those Fort Huachuca days. His father also was a master sergeant. In May of 1961, Flavio saved my life at the Golden Bell picnic area north of here, in Saint David. I think it’s an RV park now. On that day 61 years ago, I jumped in the deep end of a lake there, and I didn’t know how to swim. Flavio saw me splashing for my life and got me out.
Flavio and I also were involved then in many of the usual youngsters’ activities: baseball, the school band, biking everywhere, and looking for gold in Huachuca Canyon. We also were confirmed in St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Sierra Vista.
My friend Emily was a captain’s daughter. She was good at art, spelling and chasing dust devils. At school, I learned to square dance with her in Mrs. Smith’s music class. Some of you remember Mrs. Smith. Another friend, Terry, was good at tetherball. Skeeter put together a class play. Every friend had something to add.
In Arizona, my family enjoyed Helldorado Days in Tombstone, and my brothers and I got to be in the Tucson studio audience for a Marshal K-GUN TV show. We made fools of ourselves on that show. More locally, we made regular visits to Sue ‘n’ Herb’s Drive-In Restaurant, the Geronimo Drive-In Theater, the A.J. Bayless’s store, and the El Rancho Roller Rink.
While we lived in Fort Huachuca, we saw some of the filming of the Gregory Peck movie “Captain Newman M.D.,” and we saw the Mahan Brothers in Huachuca Canyon digging through rocks and mud for Private Jones’ lost gold, which has yet to be found.
On post, we also went to Chaffee Field and Demonstration Hill when our father’s crew showed off the flying drones to the public. And after that same drone crew spent two months at the Nevada Atomic Test Site, Dad brought back four silver dollars that he’d taped to a drone before it flew through a radioactive mushroom cloud. Each one of his sons got one of those coins.
Those days here were a time of exploration and imagination, all of it in vast open spaces, the mountains and desert of Fort Huachuca and Sierra Vista. We were so free we couldn’t imagine limits, so secure we couldn’t imagine any real danger.
I wrote “Tumbleweed Forts” to remember those precious years. I wrote it for my family, I wrote it for all Army brats, I wrote it for anyone who’s made good friends and then lost them all at once.
In the first thirteen years of my life, my family moved thirteen times with the Army. Fort Monmouth; Fort Knox; Verdun, France; two posts in West Germany; Fort Ritchie, Maryland; and Camp Roberts, California, were some of the other stops we made.
So, like most Army brats, I tell people I’m from everywhere. Each stop was home for a while. But of all those places, only one place was my dream home. You know where it is. If you hear the evening bugle in the shadow of the Huachucas, you’re in the neighborhood.
My family’s old house in Fort Huachuca, Warners’ quarters at 159 Hughes Street, was demolished around 2001, as the Army made room to build new houses on post. I’m happy to say the house that replaced my old house is beautiful. It’s a nice style for an Arizona fort. It has a nice Western feel. Meanwhile, Sierra Vista has really blossomed and grown.
So the area has changed. But the special spirit of the place remains. Sunrises and sunsets still show up here in colors you don’t see anywhere else. And last night, a strawberry moon cast a stunning glow from Fry Boulevard to the black tower.
Fort Huachuca and Sierra Vista are alive and well. The people are busy. The tradition of curiosity, experimentation and innovation carries on. The people are friendly. They care about their neighbors.
My life went on without me here, and all of you are lucky to be living it, so thanks for having me with you today.
In June 2022, Frank Warner (left) and Flavio Garcia visit the mountain pass just south of Fort Huachuca, Arizona.