Wednesday, May 13, 2009

True Confessions of an Army Wife

Keith got his orders. We will be reporting to a new duty station by December.

He called to tell me this on a Sunday, when I was behind the receptionist desk, trying to figure out the tangled web of which mother and grandmother were going with family and which were going to church; kind of like resident tug-o-war. The church volunteer, in her zeal, appropriated Mother and took her off to church while I was calling Daughter to be sure this was actually suppose to happen. (It was.)

"I have some news," he said, in this Voice. The voice, along with the fact that he never calls on a Sunday anymore and had just called me for our usual talk just a day before, combined in such a way as to make my stomach queasy. What news; what dread news could this be?

"I drew orders for such and such a state," he said.

And oh, how I did love that state in that moment! That state was a joy, a delight to my heart! That state was my best friend! My delight melted away most of his trepidation; it turns out his Voice was due to his dread that I would flip out over not being able to stay here.

I hung up the phone and the world was transformed. Several things coalesced for me in that moment. One, I realized that I really, truly was an Army wife. The Army had called and I would follow; I must follow. I was being moved. I would learn more lingo; duty station, for example.

I would supervise the packing of the household goods and keep lists of what was in each one and what room they would go in. I would be organized and decisive, I would be like a pioneer woman heading off into the hazy distance with her husband by her side, their few wordly possessions in the wagon behind them, with nothing but their courage and determination.

Or something along those lines. Also, in that moment I went from young adult to adult. For ten years I have been basically rootless, wandering at will. But now I had cast my lot in completely with another; I had grown up.

I realized that even though I had left childhood a long time ago, I had kept the door open and had been standing on the threshold, where I could see down into both worlds. With the news that we would be moving, I felt the door swing gently shut. There was a rightness in this feeling, I felt complete and at peace. I could look down into my childhood and troubled early adulthood with a new and gracious perspective. I was free now to move forward into the future.

The rest of the day passed in a haze as I felt this transformation continue inside of myself. I rarely ever call people on the phone; that day I called five or so people to tell them the news. I felt like I had to, in order to make it even more real to me.

When I returned to the house, it had changed. Something had gone out of it. I was fond of the house, I always would be, but I no longer really lived there. Somebody else would cut the grass, would chat with good neighbor Larry over the fence.

All of this caused me to remember with great vividness my first few impressions of Army life; especially the spouses. I remembered when he was issued some new equipment a few weeks before he deployed. The tailgate of the truck was down, the garage door was open; it was a bright, sunny afternoon. All his new gear was scattered over the tailgate.

There was some sort of new carrying pouch for ammunition; it involved a lot of interwoven nylon straps. I bent my fingers to this task with intense concentration, aware that I was putting together with my own hands something he would wear in the field.

He was trying to figure out this new piece of equipment that was meant to protect the back of his neck, below the helmet. I looked up to see him trying it on in front of the mirror.

"It feels comfortable," he muttered to himself, satisfied.

I felt a surge of primal rage. I literally saw red. I realized that in all the years up until it was just now issued, soldiers had gone into battle without it, and died. What other gaps were still overlooked? Secondly, how was such a tiny piece of equipment suppose to safeguard my husband's life? He seemed oblivious to this; his only concern whether or not it was irritating to wear.

I understood suddenly the stories of Army wives going berserk at FRG meetings, storming into company commander's offices, the result being that their men back in the sand box got called into other offices and chewed out. The wife who had done this had told me this story herself, while her husband helped Keith with the arrangement of his class As before the Promotion Board.

I remember looking at her and realizing that my mouth had dropped open. One, that she would have those kind of cahones. Two, that she appeared proud of having gotten her husband into trouble and three, that her behavior could get him in trouble; this meant of course, that Keith would in turn be held responsible for me. Dear god, I thought. What have I gotten myself into.

I was terrified of this woman; unfortunately, being the first Army wife that I had any real contact with, she then formed the basis of my conception of them. I visualized other Army wives as being tough, strong, abrasive and tenacious; all of them not afraid to voice their opinion, getting involved in company politics and storming about, writing letters to Congressmen and organizing group action.

It didn't help that she was kind to my face and then talked bad about me behind my back. It was my first taste of this sort of thing and I felt deeply betrayed, shocked. I wondered why she didn't like me; what had I said wrong? Had I dressed wrong? What negative consequences would this have for my husband, who reported to her husband?

Except that we weren't married at this time, and neither she nor her husband thought Keith should marry me. They publicly called him out at a barbecue I had not attended, due to work, calling him stupid for moving so fast into a relationship with me. They feared that I was in some way using him. They warned him not to marry me, they warned him above all not to get me pregnant.

Keith had a very good friend that he felt responsible for and we would often stop by their house. The men had been through an earlier deployment together; it has fused this bond that there were no words for. His wife constantly acted toward me as though I were trying to marry Keith for his money and would try to either warn me or brush me off.

Many times I wanted to sit down with her, woman to woman, and say in a very straight forward and common sense kind of way, "Look, I gave up a very lucrative position in management and broke a very expensive lease on my apartment in order to come down here and marry Keith. Money is in no way motivating me. If I had been interested in a man solely based on his financial worth, I would have married the man who had a PhD and owned a three hundred thousand dollar house with tennis rackets and a jacuzzi tub in an upscale suburban neighborhood. But I didn't marry him, I'm going to marry Keith, and I'm going to marry Keith because I love him. It really quite simple."

Obviously, we never did have this conversation.

Looking back, I guess it's no wonder I never felt comfortable on post or in my role as Army wife; I didn't fit the picture that was presented to me. The other Army wives I met were ten years or so younger than I was, already with their first child; the way they spoke and moved brought back images of High School.

Keith had invited them and their men to a barbecue at the house. I felt as though I were simultaneously an Aunt figure and a novice. They were very nice, friendly girls and I liked them, but I had no idea how to talk to them. I couldn't tell if they were being friendly to me because of Keith's rank or because they actually liked me.

They admired my kitchen, the appliances; I hadn't lived there long enough to really feel as if it was mine to begin with, so I was shy about the attention. We all did shots together, secretly stealing the liquor away from the men. When one husband found out, he was really and truly angry; there was a scene and I was very uncomfortable, amazed that they would argue so publicly.

I met other Army wives when I went with Keith to a poker night. I dreaded this and did not want to go; Keith begged me to. He wanted to show me off. We'd been married only a few days; hardly anyone had met me and there was a lot of intense curiosity. We made a deal; I would go only if Keith gave his word that we would leave at twelve on the dot.

"Answer questions directly," he instructed me, as we were driving there. "Don't try to draw attention to yourself and don't get involved in the bullshitting; you're in with the Big Boys now."

"And why am I going?" I asked tersely. "You're not making this easier."

"You'll be fine," he said.

I was so terrified going up the front steps of the house that it was difficult to focus on anything. We were met by a large party of young people who were heading out unexpectedly to pick up a relative at the airport.

The women were young and dressed in tight and bright clothing. Their eyes swept over me, assessing and then away, dismissing. I wore washed out, boot legged jeans and a soft pink tee shirt with cap sleeves and a scooped neck; my long hair was down and I wore thin framed, oval glasses that kept slipping down the bridge of my nose; I was clearly no threat.

I was taken out to the back porch where I was introduced to an entire group of young, lounging men. I was assessed in a completely different way and they attempted to make casual conversation with me. It was difficult to think of how to respond, it took all my concentration not to hide behind Keith's bulky frame. I could tell by their confused expressions that they were trying to figure out if I was stupid or just socially inept.

Keith, on the other hand, was like a fish in water. He wore his black cowboy hat and sagging jeans, steel toed boots and a ripped tee shirt. He casually turned his head and spit over the railing, he bullshitted with great confidence and comfort, with a never ending steam of the worst sort of profanity.

We sat around the table in the dining room; the walls were bare and white, small clots of hyper children surged and retreated like the tide; their mothers scolded loudly or ignored. The light shown down harshly, every one but me had a beer. The chips were counted, the card were dealt.

I was sitting very close to Keith, my hand covering my mouth, watching everything silently. The men were huge and powerful from the inside out, rough around the edges; dangerous. They were all NCOs but one, they were like sharks, powerful and barely controlled; they insulted one another continuously, effortlessly. Keith fit right in; I realized this was his natural habitat.

Many of the women played. I could tell the women in this particular group had fallen into two camps; they had either decided to join the men, bullshitting and insulting like the best of them, or had somehow found a way to be themselves in the midst of it. Only one woman had found out how to do the latter option, she was older and serenely pregnant, good natured and good humored. Her husband was the senior NCO in the room. It was their house.

The other women couldn't play the game as well as the men and kept getting the raw end of the deal. They appeared inured to this. They appeared to me to have incredibly tough skin.

Keith played poker with some kind of casual brilliance; he never seemed to be focused on the cards or even to be watching them. His hand gestures were abrupt, smooth; the brim of the hat shaded his eyes, he never let up on the unending stream of insults and observations that had nothing to do with the cards. And yet he raked in more and more chips, stacking them in tall columns by his elbow.

This pissed off several people around the table; one girl got burned and said to her husband apologetically, "I can't read him," and then to Keith, puzzled, "I can't read you."

"It's ok, hun," Keith said, with unexpected gentleness. "It's just the cards."

The young man beside Keith got burned and started a line of insults that were something quite different from the usual background noise. The men all sharpened their attention; I sensed a certain kind of tenseness in Keith, a readiness. A few more insults later and Keith stood and immediately the other men intervened; the young man stopped the insults but stewed away to himself.

It came closer and closer to twelve; I was continually watching the clock, counting down each minute that I had to stay in this overheated, unstable hell of an environment. I had completely given up caring what anyone thought of me; I knew I had made a terrible impression and I gave it up as a lost cause. I simply didn't fit in and never would.

Keith seemed oblivious to this, he was clearly delighted that I was there. Besides, he wasn't showing off so much how I looked as how I behaved. He had guessed exactly how I would react, he had been counting on it. No one, he knew, had guessed that the broad that had squirmed into his life in so startling and permanent a manner would turn out to be a soft spoken, incredibly shy young woman who sat quietly and didn't drink.

At one point he tilted his head toward me, a wordless invitation to kiss and my body knew his so well that I responded as though this were a conversation I knew by heart.

"Cut it out," said one of the men casually, with a dry amusement. "There are married people here."

When the clock hit twelve, I leaned forward and put my mouth to Keith's ear; he inclined his head receptively.

"It's twelve," I said with unbridled relief.

"Hun," he said gravely, "I can't just leave, not when I've won all this money; it wouldn't look right. I have to give them a chance to get it back. I didn't tell them at the beginning that I had to leave at twelve."

I figured he must be telling the truth, it seemed to make sense, but I was so crushed.

"You gave your word," I whispered back. I couldn't bear at that moment to argue publicly; I wanted no one to know.

"Give me one more hour," he whispered back. "I'll tell the men right now they have an hour."

This is what happened, he announced that he had made a deal with me and had to leave in one hour.

"We all have bosses," said the senior NCO dryly.

The hour went by with excruciating slowness. At one point, the soldier on my other side attempted to flirt with me. I looked at him in stunned amazement. Did he know my husband at all? What could he possibly be thinking? He put his hand on my thigh for a moment and I looked down at it and then back up at him. My face must have been a study.

I knew I was being a poor sport; I should engage in the game, it was considered harmless. I don't know how I knew that, it just seemed to be that way. But I also knew that Keith loved me with as much abandon as he did because, in part, he knew I could not, and indeed did not know how to play this particular sport and his trust was all that mattered to me. Everyone else was a stranger that I might never see again.

I stonily ignored the man for most of the evening. His eyes sometimes fell on me with troubled sadness, a soft rebuke. "Why?" he seemed to be asking. Later on in the evening I took pity on him and we talked, but because I had drawn the lines so clearly, he did not try again to flirt.

The hour passed by and Keith said that he had to play three more hands. I knew that he was pulling my leg now, that he was trying to see what he could get away with. I considered and decided to give him one more hand and to pull the plug at the second one. I did not tell him this. I decided that I would make a public scene if he refused; it was now one am and I would behave like a fish wife in the market place if I had to.

He played that hand and I pulled the plug. He argued, I stood firm. He pleaded, I refused. Everyone watched. I ignored them. He got sulky; I didn't care. We took our leave, the other men were not impressed with me. I said goodbye with impunity; they could think what they liked, I would never go to another poker game with Keith.

And I did not, even though he wanted me to, very much.

"Have you forgotten what it was like the first time?" I asked him, amazed. "Do you remember the huge argument we got into because I made you leave?"

Either he didn't remember or he didn't care, but I didn't go. I gathered my initial impressions of Army wives from these interactions. Eventually though, I had the pleasure of meeting other Army wives that did not fit the mold that these experiences had made in my mind.

"Don't worry," said one, when she invited me out. "We don't do drama."

My eyes widened, her statement was both a confirmation and a relief. When we went out, it was true. The girls were younger than I, but they were gracious and dignified, or quirky and sweet. They had come to terms with the Army life. I never knew what rank their men were and it didn't matter.

We bonded over the common experience of deployment, care packages and R&R plans. We spoke the common language.

Through blogging, I found a whole other world of Army wives and Military wives and breathed in a long, deep sigh of relief. I was not alone. There were lots of other wives just like me, who were proud of their men, proud of their country and yet remained themselves.

And now I am going deeper into the territory; I will be more absorbed into it. But I'm not as afraid anymore. I understand there are as many different kinds of Army wives as there are women and I can make a place for myself within the culture. Hell, I might even buy a sticker for my car.


Via said...

What state are you moving to?

d.a.r. said...

Lord have mercy you are an amazing writer!

And my first "army wife" experience was equally loathsome. My hubby was a brand new platoon leader and we were just engaged. The NCOs in his platoon all got together for a BBQ and invited us; of course, he had to go outside and hang with the guys and I was stuck in a sweltering kitchen when a horde of women whom I had never met. One began complaining about the FRG and saying that she hated the commanders wife and that all officer wives are snotty bitches. One of the ladies quickly pointed out that I was soon to be married to the boss, and she looked me up and down really slowly and spat out, "Well, I am sure you are a nasty bitch just like the rest of them".

It sort of soured me on army get-togethers for a while!

T said...

Wow. What a great read!

I normally breeze through long posts but this one had me hooked.

I wasn't in it enough to have these experiences... just what I've learned through blogging. Soldier always wanted to keep the Army stuff from me. He said it would bore me compared to my non-military, carefree life. Truthfully, I was (and still am) fascinated by it all.

There are some wonderful mil-spouses and girlfriends out here. Truly loving and supportive.

Congrats on turning the corner. And let me know if you'll be in Texas! :)

jlc said...


So where are you guys heading to?!

And oh man do we need to meet. I shall never... ever be what "an Army wife is supposed to be."

Here's to breaking the mold! :)

Crazy Shenanigans said...

Such a good blog! Where are you moving to? I'm guessing your pretty excited...

Thanks for the support over on my blog!