Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wild Blue Yonder

I've endured embraced evoked experienced a lot of changes in the past few years. One of those changes was the amputation of my role as an Air Force officer's wife. I'll admit, I wasn't always terribly involved, even after I climbed a steep, confusing learning curve that started when I was 21, and we moved all the way from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to our first assignment at Mather AFB in exotic Sacramento, California. I was only active in the Officers' Wive's Club the years we lived on base. Often the expectations and rules and structure chafed me to the core of my hippie being, but I became, in spite of my reluctance, an experienced officer's wife. After my husband (Lt. Col. Ex) left ops (stopped flying), the wing and squadron responsibilities ceased, as did the camaraderie of that special class of wives within the Air Force. But there were still the TDY's, the PCS's, the dining outs (or is it dinings out?)....and if this means nothing to you, don't worry about it.

I'm about to make a point, and the point is that the military, and each branch of the military, has its own unique culture and language. Bet you knew that; so do cops and firefighters and teachers. It's true of every group of people.

The subset of military wives have their own unique set of survival skills within that culture. I can buy (the easy part) and then sell (the hard part) a house in the most depressed market in the country often with only a few weeks' notice. I can pack up that house oversee movers who come to pack up the house, arrive in a new city that I didn't choose, and start a new life....sometimes more than once in a year. I can dance with a general and I've enjoyed a drink or two at the bar at the NCO club (although I got in trouble for that; wives have rank too, I learned). I can replace the insides of a toilet, clean up vomit from a kid's bed while I've got a 104 temperature from my own flu, and I can celebrate major holidays by myself. I've been alone for every one of them at least once. I can live so far from my family that I can't afford to go home for my grandmother's funeral. I can earn a college degree even if I have to attend four colleges in three different states to do it. I can lie in a hospital bed hooked up to IV's and monitors, trying desperately not to give birth at 28 weeks, and listen to the wing commander tell me he won't bring my husband home because sometimes the mission is the most important thing. (And I can stare unblinking at that wing commander until he leaves my room.) If the Air Force sends him on an assignment without his family, I can hold a military officer's place in his family open on my narrow shoulders for a year and half, so that when he gets back to the States, he can step back in almost as if he hadn't been gone. Almost. At 25 I could walk with another wife, a neighbor, whose husband's plane had disintegrated into the side of a mountain, and give her some small comfort. And I could will the blue cars that carry the people who give wives the bad news to pass by my driveway as they drove down the street..... I could go on. I can live a life in a system that proves this saying: If the Air Force wanted him to have a family, it would have issued him one.

I have skills that could have come only from immersion in the Air Force for almost 30 years. It's not a mantle anybody can put on unless she's paid her dues,* and I am proud to have survived those 30 years because I know how many military marriages don't, whether because of divorce or an airplane flying into a mountain in Utah (another story). I have seen airmen snap to attention and salute my car (not me) at a razor-wired gate thousands of times, and every single time I felt a surge of pride for the sacrifice those boys made by giving their lives over to their service.

But the past few years, since my divorce, I haven't been involved in the Air Force except for cashing my retirement check and trips to the commissary and base medical center. I don't wash a load of blue uniforms every week or listen to that particular language made up mostly of acronyms. After almost 30 years,  one of my major life roles simply dissolved.

This summer though, I've been reminded of that life again. I've experienced a couple of reprisals that made me both nostalgic and, at the same time, filled me with wonder that I made it through some of the  experiences the Air Force forced on me ... and made me miss that life more than I ever would have expected. They also reminded me of the pride and patriotism I felt for both the job Lt. Col. Ex performed in service to this country, and for the pride I felt in the strength and fortitude of my family as we supported his career no matter where it took him and for how long.

Earlier this summer I went to the tattoo at the nearby Air Force base. (Click the link. The tattoo has nothing to do with ink.) As a family, we used to go every year, even when it was much smaller and was just the base 4th of July fireworks, but somewhere along the timeline of my marriage falling apart, so did this tradition. This year, in addition to the most excellent Air Force Band of Flight, Lone Star was scheduled to play. The tattoo is one of the few times one of the secure parts of the base is open to the public. When we started going years ago, maybe 10,000 people showed up. This year, there were 100,000. It was huge.

I'm not going to tell the entire story of the night, because....well, because. But I do want to write about spending an evening back in that culture because it felt like coming home for just a few hours. I probably wouldn't have gone if I hadn't had the opportunity to go with someone whose military career mirrored, in many ways, that of Lt. Col. Ex, at least in longevity and that culture I'm talking about. It's difficult to do something like that with a civilian** who doesn't speak the language, doesn't automatically live the culture. I have to either change my language or explain the acronyms and the whys; sometimes it's just not worth it to do that.

Let me give a couple of examples. One thing that happens at a tattoo is that various military airplanes do low fly-overs as the music is playing and people are eating and walking around, awards and medals are given out and dignitaries honored. Most non-Air Force people wouldn't know a B-52 from an F-15. (And I have an embarrassing B-52 story from that night that I won't tell here.) But we sat and watched the planes fly over, identified most of them (OK, he was better at it than I was because he's still involved in the Air Force and I'm years out of the flying part of it), and shared stories from the past about experiences they brought up.....and didn't have to define the language and culture and geography we both already knew. Comfortable. Familiar.

And, although many people would enjoy the amazing and talented Air Force Band of Flight (unfortunately, more seemed to be there for Lone Star), if I'd gone with a civilian, he wouldn't have felt the same rush of pride and excitement after the MC asked people to stand when the song for their branch of the service played.....and we waited patiently through the official hymns for the Marines, the Navy, the Army, the Coast Guard.... and then stood and cheered as the opening notes to "Wild Blue Yonder" blasted from the speakers and the familiar words came automatically to our lips: "Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sun...." I wouldn't have looked over at a civilian and seen tears running down his cheeks that matched mine. It's a special bond military people share that goes beyond language and culture.

And then this week, something special happened that really brought back all those years of being a military family: my daughter gave birth to her daughter, to my first grandchild, at the military hospital at the base here. It's the same hospital, the same family birthing center, where she was born twenty years ago while her dad was still active duty. It was so familiar to be there with her, coaching her through the labor and the delivery***....and yet different too. She's lucky she has family here, because we didn't. Lt. Col. Ex and I did it by ourselves with just the medical personnel, like we had 6 years before at a base in Georgia where her brother was born.

My relationship with Lt. Col. Ex is.....strained and distant. But that day, in that place, brought back memories that only he and I share. And now our daughter gave birth to our granddaughter in the same place where she drew her first breath of life.

But that's not all. My daughter's boyfriend grew up in a military family too. His dad flew fighters in Viet Nam, ten years before Lt. Col. Ex began his Air Force service, and his dad also retired here and works at the base. My granddaughter's daddy was also born in the same hospital, on the same ward. And his parents still have the little t-shirt they were given that matches the one that was given to our new little family this week.

It seemed so strange to all of the grandparents that these two kids, who were born in the same hospital a year apart, brought their daughter into the world in the same place. Military life is transient. Military kids are born on bases all over the world. I don't know how often two military "brats" who were born at the same hospital have birthed their own child at the same hospital, but I doubt it happens often. I felt an immense sense of serendipity and synchronicity that it happened to us in a such a vagabond culture as the military.

I hadn't met my daughter's boyfriend's dad until today, and didn't know his mom well. But we sat in the hospital room and talked as if we'd known each other for years. That common language. That common culture. That place where we'd experienced a life-changing event....then and experienced it again with the next generation. We sat and talked for almost two hours while our granddaughter slept
on my daughter's belly.

I guess after 30 years, most of my adult life, as a part of the military family, I should expect it would still be a part of me. But I had forgotten for a while, as I went through all those many changes--some losses, some new gains, some just different. And I didn't know it, but I missed it. It has felt good this summer to revisit that part of me, to recall who I was in that role, that familiar role. I realized that those changes don't erase the past; they just make the present different. Those years will always be a part of me....hell, they formed much of who I am today... but I can step back into that role to the degree that the situation requires, and then I guess I can step back out again when I have to. It's all part of that mysterious story that's still unfolding, scene by scene and chapter by chapter.

* Military kids are special too, but this blog is all me, all the time. And don't fucking call my kids brats. They're survivors.
** Technically we're both civilians too, but there are civilians and there are civilians.
*** Hellz yeah, I've got a lot to say about that. Soon to come.


  1. I needed a box of tissues, so touching...

  2. Thank you, Andrea. I consider tears high praise.

  3. cried too. i get so much of what you're talking about here. shared experiences, i guess, even if i didn't do the kids thing and mine wasn't a line officer. but you know.

    congrats on s and a's new little one! and congrats to the grandparents!

  4. Thank you, Lindsay. Gets in your blood doesn't it? Even for us hippies and Smith women. ;-)

  5. Tonight I was at a wedding. The groom is a Marine, and there were several of his Marine friends there in their dress uniforms. The band played "The Marine Hymn," as you might expect. I was sitting outside with a group of friends, but we could hear through the open windows. What I didn't expect was when they segued into "Wild Blue Yonder." Before the band finished the first three chords I was on my feet, without even thinking about it. My friends--none of them military--stared at me in confusion. Finally one of them said, "You're not in the Air Force, you know." I said, "I know. I still have to stand." Another one said, "She blogged about it today. You'd understand if you read her blog."

    They didn't get it. But someone else, an AF brat who did her own stint as active duty, came out later and SHE understood. She had stood up inside too. She wouldn't have expected me to do anything else. It's not just history.

  6. In many ways--except there was no danger--your story reminded me of what my mother went through as The Minister's Wife: the constant relocations, the holidays spent alone, the kow towing to, and wooing of, the Upper Echelons of the Church Brass, the being told by the Bishop to "suck it up and be a Good Church Wife"...blah blah blah. All felt familiar. Such a life had my my mother taking R & R in various mental health facilities, over the years, however. She wasn't made of such stern stuff...
    Hubby's father was a Lt. Col. in the Air Force, too. But after WWII, he joined the Reserves, and his family somehow managed to live a life that didn't include the Military Life...until he died, and Arlington claimed him.

  7. I'm not going to say it was always easy. Sometimes it was brutal, and the best I could do was get through it. The feeling of having tested and weathered my iron came only in retrospect.

  8. You didn't. I'm saying, instead, that you are strong. :-)

  9. Thanks, Becky. I've heard stubborn or crazy more often! ;-)

  10. Your post brought back memories for me too. I'm an Air Force brat, and I remember my mom going through many of the things you described. Sometimes, even though we moved from place to place, I would be amazed at how some of us would meet again. We *think* the priest who baptized me in an Air Force chapel in Michigan is the same priest who married Mike and me in an Air Force chapel in Washington.

  11. So many people passed through our lives when we were active military. I'm not surprised you can't be sure about the minister. I've forgotten way more people than I remember.

    That's a cool coincidence if the priest who baptized you is the same one who married you though. What are the odds?