You can writhe and scream all you want, but it’s too late now. You’re in the club the Army Wives Club. Four months ago, I was that beaming summer bride, with stars in my eyes and a welt on my butt. I was intoxicated by the promise of adventure before us, of living in places I’ve never seen, meeting people I might have never met And finally the day arrived for us to set out toward the first stop on our journey: Lawton, Oklahoma. Think ‘military town’ and visions of tattoo parlors and topless bars will dance in your head. Lawton has its share, but more accurately you should think ‘retail mediocrity.’ Need a haircut? Choose between the renovated church with the airbrushed sign or the Supercuts at the mall. Want some kind of exotic foodstuff like leeks or whole peppercorns? Not in these parts, little lady. Celebrating with a special dinner? Check on this week’s special at Red Lobster.
During my engagement bliss I was impervious to the realities of actually building a life in this netherworld. I would still have my Pottery Barn living room and my fresh herb garden, damn it. But then we moved in. Our first married apartment lacked the picket fence and eat-in kitchen I had imagined, and instead boasted a faulty air-conditioner, a massive cricket problem (the crickets were massive, not the problem), and water that smelled quite pungently of fresh dirt. While lying in bed on our first night there, one of our cricket friends decided to perch on my forehead and my husband, in a sleepy stupor, attempted to karate-chop it. We weren’t there for long.
The Army knows you don’t want to be in Lawton, which is why they make it their business to keep you occupied. Everything an Army wife needs is providedincluding a social lifebecause, hey, what else are you going to do here? I hadn’t perched in my new roost for 24 hours when the inevitable happened: I was invited to an Army Wives function. A convoy of tiny school buses edged the invitation, which welcomed me in that shameless ‘Curlz’ font to the Back-to-School Wives Coffee. RSVP to Cindy Jamison.
Do I go? I listened intently as the little extrovert on my right shoulder bickered with the hand-wringing introvert on my left. How will you meet people if you don’t go? Who said I want to meet people? Don’t be a loser, you need some friends up here. What if they make me drink coffee? I don’t even like coffee. I wonder if they’ll have tea
The decision was made for me, however, when my husband picked up the invitation.
‘Jamison ,’ he read, ‘That’s the Colonel’s wife.’
‘The Colonel. Is he your boss?’
‘No. He’s my boss’s boss’s boss.’
I rang the bell at the Jamison residence, fidgety and already bored. The door cracked open and for a few precious seconds, I wordlessly gawked at my hostessa rare purebred PTA Mom. Not to be confused with Soccer Mom (who is allowed a few gray hairs and a certain degree of dishevelment), PTA Mom can usually be distinguished by her perfectly bobbed gloss of hair, her tasteful and consistent makeup, a wicked lisp that makes her impossible to take seriously, or her ability to discuss Snickerdoodle recipes and carpooling ad nauseam. PTA moms also make handy calendars. School bus sweater and apple earrings? It’s September. Candy corn necklace? October. The telltale turkey broach means it must be November. I wait on bated breath as the Christmas season brings us ever closer to the third level of fashion hell.
By the time I stepped over the threshold, I was caked in cute.
Mrs. Jamison introduced me to a roomful of chattering girlies, all of whom carefully balanced their paper plates filled with crudités, party wieners, and a Dixie cup of soda as they took a moment to stare at the new girl. Beyond them was our back-to-school bounty: a bouquet of pencils and rulers served as a centerpiece, surrounded by an immodest spread of finger foods. Dessert was served in brown paper lunch baggies with our names magic-markered across the top in flawless kindergarten teacher handwriting. I resisted the urge to get the mat out of my cubby and take a nap on the floor.
This party was a festival of kitsch. The atmosphere reminded me of my first day of second gradecomplete with nametags, icebreakers, and construction paper cutouts. I don’t know what they did to me, but at the end of two hours, I was bubbly. I had a new recipe for macaroni and cheese. A smile was smeared across my face, looking like the Grinch as he returned his stolen booty to those irresistible Whos. My heart was three sizes too big. I stood proudly as I was presented with an official Coffee Group pin. I barely blinked as I dashed off a check for five fundraiser cookbooks. I merrily volunteered to make four gallons of chili for Saturday’s Annual Hot Dog Extravaganza.
At the end of two hours, I was one of them.
But woman cannot live on Hot Dog Extravaganza alone. Three months ago, I started looking for a more lucrative way to pass my hours in Lawton, specifically as a civilian employee at Fort Sill. I still don’t have a job, despite my bachelor’s degree (a foregone conclusion where I come from, but a standout quality around here) and several years of incredibly valuable and relevant work experience. Apparently the wheels of federal employment long ago choked on their own red tape, because I’ve been sitting on my duff waiting for someoneanyoneto call and give me something to do, but to no avail. One day in a fit of desperation, I blanketed the town with applications to various and sundry retail centersVictoria’s Secret, Michaels, Borders Books even Sears, God help meand have not received a callback. I assume that’s because I snottily indicated on each application that I refuse to work weekends. Their loss. But there’s nothing quite so humbling as being asked to indicate on a job application whether or not you had the wherewithal to finish high school.
A very good friend later confided that she was glad I hadn’t heard back from Sears, because then I would have a real dilemma. If I’m to be exploited at minimum wage, it should be at a place where I might use the employee discount.
‘I was just watching the news and is Steven going to Iraq?’ It’s my mother. Or my mother-in-law, or my second cousin, or one of the great number of people who call us with these questions because they think military families might somehow know something that those dogged 24-hour news networks missed. The truth is that Army families must make plans for their lives in a great sea of question marks. Here is what I’ve been told: He may or may not be going to Iraq. He is going to Louisiana for a month to be trained for this possible Iraq deployment on the 29th of December Oh wait, make that the third of January, but know that it might be moved up to December 26th, so don’t make any travel plans for Christmas. If not deployed to Iraq, he may or may not go to Kosovo for four or six or eight months instead, where he will be required to watch movies and play basketball and generally be separated from me. Estimated date of departurenot the foggiest idea.
As for us, we aren’t so concerned about war, for we’re kept busy with more important endeavors. For example, my husband and I were completely entrusted with the planning and execution of our Annual Halloween Festival and Potluck Dinner in October. I donned a Statue of Liberty costume and smiled, smiled, smiled as his many bosses complimented me on snagging such a responsible and personable guyone who could pull off such a feat with competence and aplomb. My husband worked the room as Uncle Sam (for all of Lawton’s shortcomings, we do have a bang-up Salvation Armyreliable source for red & white striped pants and other tacky costume fodder). Two weeks later, we both received special recognition for our party-planning achievementshim for his formidable powers of delegation, and me for designing the flyer and helping to hang construction paper leaves from the ceiling. With so much going on, who has time for Iraq?
The Army changes everything. It changes where you live. It changes the way you watch the news. It changes where you shop for groceries. It even changes the way you talk. During our courtship, my husband would rattle off acronyms and other military-speak, then continue chugging along on this train of thought, leaving me confused and pouting at the station. Now such jargon flows like water in our house.
What am I doing on Tuesday? I’ve got a 3-6 FRG meeting from fifteen thirty to COB.
Are we having that new macaroni recipe for dinner tonight? Affirmative, if you’ll stop at AAFES and pick up some cheese.
Yes, the military changes you, but most of all it brings you closer to people you love. There are long separations, uncertain schedules, and so many sad goodbyeslots of reasons to cry together and to laugh at yourself. You’re reminded every day of what you have, and what you have to lose. If only everyone were so lucky.