No Room for Clutter in the Military

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Another reader, Andrew Dashiell, brings a new angle to our discussion over Arielle Bernstein’s piece on the Marie Kondo approach to clutter:

I grew up as a military brat, moving every 18-36 months. Every move was preceded by something of a paring down. Even though I’ve now lived for 35 years in one state, I still maintain a tidy, minimalist accumulation of possessions that I can pack up and move quickly if needed.

Interestingly, as my own personal economic fortunes have drastically declined, I find that the ability to live comfortably with little serves me well and makes me happy. It also frees up resources for the experiences that leave no physical trace but please me the most.

Another reader can relate:

I was an Army brat too, and we also moved every 36 months. My parents mantra for me while I was packing or cleaning my room? “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Or make three piles—things you absolutely need, things you should get rid of, and things you’re not sure about—and purge the last two piles.

I was also a military brat, but I moved even more than every 36 months because my parents—both Army officers—were divorced and had shared custody of my brother and me. My mom was pretty normal as far as possessions, but my dad was an compulsive collector—of antiques, of furniture, of heirlooms, of used cars, of tractors … the heavier the stuff, the better. He had a penchant for potbelly stoves—cast iron, man-sized relics that had to transported in several pieces—and his preferred ride was a ‘70s-era Lincoln Continental, a boat of a car.

One of my dad’s proudest moments in life is setting the weight record for a move at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the Army base he retired from: 49,000 pounds. (For comparison, the weight limit the military would cover was 17,500 pounds.)

That 25-ton record didn’t even include his cars, which peaked at more than 40 (many were used for parts—he was a mechanic—and all of them were bargains). Two-thousand of those pounds comprised a single item: a used Brunswick pool table. The potbelly stoves were probably another ton. Little surprise that his retirement homestead had two large barns to store all his stuff. Even after both of them were torn down by a tornado—this is Kansas, remember—he simply built a bigger barn and packed his basement.

My dad finally getting rid of a bunch of stuff two years ago, at his own car auction. (All the vehicles couldn’t fit in this photo.)

So my dad was an extreme outlier as far as servicemembers and the things they carried from assignment to assignment. But I wouldn’t quite call him a hoarder, since there was never tons of clutter around the house; like any good soldier, he kept his quarters tidy. So he’s more of a pack rat than a hoarder. I think AARP’s distinction is apt:

Hoarding is a mental disorder marked by a psychological drive to acquire and save objects. What’s the difference between a clinical case and an unreconstructed pack rat? When possessions interfere with normal daily activities, says Randy Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College in Massachusetts and coauthor of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. “If you can’t cook on your stove, if you can’t use your bathtub because it’s full of stuff, then you have tipped over into a clinical hoarding pattern,” he says. Other clues include money problems and family friction sparked by out-of-control clutter. Hoarders also tend to overreact when asked to declutter or when others throw away their possessions.

None of that really applied to my dad. Even so, as I grew up, I fled his pack-rat tendencies and now embody the other extreme: I can fit all my possessions in a cab. The only items I’ve ever compulsively kept are movie ticket stubs. Like Andrew, the aforementioned military brat, I feel a sense of freedom and lightness by not owning many things. One of the best feelings in the world is having a laptop bag on one shoulder and a small duffel on the other, heading out of town for the weekend or much longer.

This reader’s relative, on the other hand, sounds more like a hoarder:

Your essay from Arielle Bernstein made me: 1) think about my now-deceased grandmother, whom I loved and miss deeply; and 2) helped me understand her hoarding ways a bit better. She grew up in rural Georgia, where everyone was poorer than dirt—so poor, in fact, that she was surprised to learn that there was a “Great Depression” during her childhood because it always seemed as though things were about as bad as they could possibly get.

Later, once she married my grandfather, moved west, and joined the ranks of the upwardly mobile, she kept EVERYTHING. And all of it was junk! Who would keep every copy of Reader’s Digest over the course of 58 years?!? Grandma, that’s who.

My dad’s preferred periodical, which he kept in a pile, was Consumer Reports—which, of course, he used to accumulate more stuff.