Military Life: 70 Years of Stories I Wish I Knew

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We are officially moved into our home at my husband’s first duty station as an Army chaplain. It’s been a crazy few weeks getting settled, but posters and pictures are on the walls, the kitchen is functional, and we all have clean beds to sleep in. I call that success.

It’s been a strange transition moving onto a military post. Other than a brief stay at Fort Jackson for Caleb’s graduation from chaplain school, I haven’t spent much time on military bases. I made a few trips to the base commissary with my grandma when I was little, but what seven-year-old actually pays attention? I read The Army Wife Handbook in preparation because yes, I’m that wife. I googled everything I could find on our post, the amenities, and the house itself. I’ve joined Facebook groups and scoured internet forums for advice. The truth is you just have to experience it.

There’s a special rhythm to life on post. My husband disappears for PT every morning and returns almost before I realize he was gone. I hear bugle calls for reveille, retreat, call to quarters, and taps (there are others, but my boys make too much noise for me to hear them all). I woke up to practice fire on the artillery range, and I heard it again as my oldest played on the playground. The neighborhood comes alive each evening with kids shrieking and riding their bikes. Families chat across their fences, some soldiers still in uniform as they flip burgers or pet the dog. It’s PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season, so many of us are packing or unpacking.

And through all of this, I keep thinking of Papa.

Last summer my beloved grandfather went home to heaven. After Caleb resigned from the Kansas church, we ended up living in Papa’s empty house. You would think it would be hard living in my grandparents house, and sometimes it was. I had small daily reminders of both my grandparents as I moved through my day. I’d open a cabinet, and the sugar bowl would send me back in time until I was kicking my short legs beneath the kitchen table and munching toast with red plum jam. I’d whistle along with the birds as I did dishes and break down crying because my whistle sounds nothing like my grandma’s. I’d see Papa’s cap collection and think of a funny story I needed to tell him until I remembered he was gone. But those moments were usually brief because the house was comforting in its familiarity. I’d spent nearly as much time in it as my own home growing up. It was a safe place to be sad, even if it hurt.

Here on post, I’m keenly aware of the side of my grandparents that I didn’t know.

Papa was a pilot and bombardier in the Air Force and fought in World War II and Korea. I knew this my whole life, but in high school I discovered he had flown two missions on D-Day. He said it was foggy that morning. He worried the weather would throw off his targeting and accidentally hit his fellow soldiers instead of the enemy. He was a man of few words, so that was the end of the story and I didn’t push it. I now know Grandma was invited to every party on base in the Philippines, their first duty station as a married couple. I know that the silver and blue dress with the mandarin collar was handmade for her in Hong Kong. I know Papa loved to bring her trinkets from all his trips overseas. I know my mother and uncle remember Papa coming home in a flight suit, sometimes carrying his helmet. I know they lived at several different bases in the US before retiring to Oklahoma. But these are all just facts without the warmth of memory.

Now I live across the road from the golf course, and I wonder which base my grandfather first picked up the clubs he came to love so much. I wonder what it was like to blast through the air in huge bombers and scrappy fighters. I wonder if he liked being a flight instructor later on and what he missed most about spending his days in the sky. I wonder what Grandma served at coffees for the other wives. I wonder what her strategy was getting to know each new place. It seems like every new thing I experience brings questions I didn’t know to ask. I think I feel their loss more keenly now because of this sudden insatiable curiosity. There are so many stories I never heard, so many missing pieces and snapshots with no captions.

I wish I had known the right questions to ask.

My grandfather’s plane from his service in WWII

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An Easier Way

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I always smile when I think of the lady with the amethyst ring.

In the days after I graduated from college the only jobs available were retail, so I found myself behind a counter ringing up clothes in a department store at the local mall. It was definitely an interesting place to work from a people-watching standpoint. When the store was mostly quiet I would take notes on the conversations I heard and the funny stories customers told me.

One evening a woman walked into my department. Her white hair, glasses, and large beige purse reminded me of a younger version of my grandmother. Her husband wandered behind her making a series of bad jokes about the clothing she was browsing while she pretended not to be amused. Eventually he moseyed off in the direction of the men’s department, a terrible pun and a boisterous laugh echoing behind him. She sighed with mock relief and continued looking through the blouses.

I took a “hands-off unless you ask” approach to sales, so it wasn’t until she came up to my counter that I noticed her ring.

“That is a beautiful ring,” I said. “It looks very special.”

She wore it on her right ring finger. It was an amethyst heart surrounded by tiny diamonds set in a delicate gold band. The deep purple was striking against her pale skin. She grinned and gave me a very slight eye-roll.

“Well, my husband was wounded in the war, and they gave him a Purple Heart for it. A few years ago he said that after being married to him for so long, I deserved one, too,” she said. Her lips turned up in a wry smile, and she raised an eyebrow.

“I told him there had to be an easier way to get a purple heart.”