Today we kick off Episode 5 of the 7-part Guest Post series: Military Life: Two Perspectives
In case you missed the introduction to the series: Military Life: Two Perspectives with Leto and Avalune
The topic today is Moving in the Military, from Avalune’s perspective. Next Saturday, we’ll hear Leto’s perspective on military life and family.
You said “we’ll go through this together”
When you fly won’t you
Won’t you take me too?
The Boy and I pile into a U-Haul with Leto’s dad. His mom is in the house pretending we do not exist. The cold shoulder is lost on The Boy because he’s too young to understand the nuances. The Boy and I weren’t supposed to move for months yet, according to the recruiter, but it turns out that once the newly minted military member has settled into technical training, they are allowed to move out of their dorms and into a house with their dependents. So, despite objections and a campaign to get military friends to talk me out of moving, his dad backs the truck out of the driveway and his mom declines to stand in the street to wave us off.
Our first home is a tiny house, in an area since destroyed by a hurricane. Leto spends much of the morning sleeping and all evening and late into the night at school, so The Boy and I are left to our own devices. The neighbors have a pair of Yorkies and talk about how much they loved Germany and want to get back. Mississippi is hot. Stand still long and you’re likely to be covered in fire ants. The coasts are lined with gnarled oak trees and shiny casinos. Lady Luck boasts an animatronic dragon over the water but the buffet is better at the Beau. Ghosts of the confederacy haunt the landscape.
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Leto’s parents are entertaining The Boy, while I stuff our things into commissary fruit boxes. Our only transportation is in the shop and then in the shop again because it wasn’t fixed correctly the first time. I refer to a list of things the military housing inspector will check before we can vacate and work through each item. Leto is finishing his training, so he’s not much use and the stress makes us both edgy. We’re moving to our first official duty station in South Carolina.
This house is a little bigger but the yard is smaller. The Boy attends school across the street from the military base. We hear rumors about drug and gun sales in the military housing outside the fence, but the only thing anyone tries to sell me are absurdly expensive Longaberger baskets, scrapbooking supplies and Pampered Chef. Our van is still acting up and our bicycles are stolen within the first week. The neighbors are vexing.
It is here I attend my first Hearts Apart meeting but like many things in this area, I find it lacking. Instead I turn to the other military wives met through our husband’s love of soccer and people I’ve met in the community. I frequent a quilt shop and spend much of my time sewing and working on my first degree. Leto’s parents are not talking to me again, presumably because we can’t agree on parenting practices, but I start to suspect it is easier to deal with Leto’s sand-filled holidays if they feel aggrieved.
It is here, I wake up to a frantic phone call from a military wife. “A” is supposed to be on a plane. I’m confused because this is usually a good occasion – Leto is scheduled to be on a plane home soon too. I obey her directive to flip on the television and see the first of what will be on rotation for years to come – the fall of the twin towers. We do not know if A’s plane is in the air, is in danger. Our men make it home safely though delayed and the War on Terror begins. Leto takes a job as a technical school instructor and we prepare to move again.
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Mississippi is still hot. We live on the third floor of an apartment in a neighboring city to give ourselves some space from the base and vexing neighbor situations. The neighbors here are mostly ok, though we get a little too rambunctious for the downstairs tenants. I finish my degree and move on to the next one. Leto tells me stories about his coworkers, some of whom taught him when he came through here as an airman. He tells me one still has the snarky poem I helped him write about respecting his elders. He tells me about airman antics and instructor generated creative punishments. I graduate and prepare to enter the job market.
Hurricane Katrina hits just west of us. Strong winds and surge rattle the shore but the story is mostly center on Louisiana which is under water. I am in South Carolina, having evacuated with The Boy and Leto’s parents the day before. I watch the swath of destruction on TV. Boats are where boats are not supposed to be. Casinos are relocated. Miles of glorious old oak trees vanish. Leto shelters with his troops while I pace the living room. I flip the channels to take a break from the news and find my cousin telling Maury Povich about his wife’s affair with the bus driver.
Leto is ok but he is not permitted to leave the base and check on the apartment yet. People outside the fence see the military playing basketball to blow off steam. They interpret it as blithe and a suitable focus for their ire. Looters empty out what they can.
Our apartment is far enough up an embankment to be spared the worst damage. Whole floors of buildings just scooped out from underneath like Jenga tiles. Power restored to a nearby hospital saves our apartment from the excessive mold growth which damages whatever the hurricane left behind. I leave The Boy with his grandparents in South Carolina, where he started attending school during our long displacement, and return home.
It is hard to find work unrelated to construction or food service. I sign up with a temp service and test drive an assortment of jobs before landing on a job as a receptionist at a state run mental health facility. They let me adjust my hours to be home for the school bus, when Leto is shipped back to the desert.
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My back no longer wishes to function but we must be out of the apartment and in South Carolina before Leto returns. I drive back and forth between states, packing the one and trying to find a home in the other. A realtor finally shows me a house that ticks most of the boxes and doesn’t look like the set of a 60s sitcom, or like a group of 10 year-old boys built a fort on the side of the house and we’re calling that an addition. Leto scrambles to submit all the documentation while still out of country and we buy our first house before he’s even seen it.
The Boy is in middle school now and he has good friends. Do not give “Ant” Cheetos unless prepared for him to completely lose it in an orange dusted ADHD spasm. They somehow manage to not break multiple bones in their hands and fingers hacking at each other with wooden swords. He’s in a knight phase. He carries a sword and shield. He still likes the real helmet Leto leaves him and sometimes switches to more modern warfare. The younger dog likes to sneak up on the boys when they are distracted but they eventually get used to her trolling. I tell them I’m going to feed them to my pet spider if they misbehave and when they are skeptical I show them the rather large banana spider living outside the bathroom window, so they behave.
It is here that The Boy creates some of his most cherished memories. It is also here where he has some of his most difficult. We attend a funeral for a 14 year-old boy, The Boy’s Best Friend, after he loses his battle with Diamond Black Fan Anemia. It is here where I can’t stand to look at the avatar with “CW’s” orange hair and black t-shirt hanging motionless forever more in my friends list – but I also can’t remove him.
The Boy starts high school and I continue my search for work. Unemployment is high. I adjunct for a while before getting a job with a moving company. I’m sitting at my desk looking at a newly created file of grievances for which my employer has tasked his manager to fire me. The business is tanking and he needs to put people on the chopping block, I’m up first. His manager refuses to fire me with cause as instructed, so we are staring at each other wondering how to proceed when my phone rings. After a surreal phone call, I ask the manager to fire me, without cause. She does.
We avoid Leto’s parents in an attempt to avoid the “pre-move fight.” We are finishing up our last show, where we have starring roles in the local theater production. They fight with The Boy instead. The housing market tanks and we can’t sell the house, so we turn it over to a property manager to rent. The Boy and I are unable to get our visas quickly enough for the short notice orders, so I am sitting in a friend’s living room watching a houseful of dogs chase each other around the furniture. The Boy is self-medicating his stress with video games and pounds of the kind of sugary snacks we never buy. Leto is already on the plane to Italy.
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We are going to live in Italy. I often dreamed of traveling Europe but never expected it would be financially viable. The military is offering to pay for us to live there.
I catch a good case of stomach flu just in time for the first leg of our 10+ hour flight. An airplane bathroom is not a great place to spend an entire international flight – in case you contemplating trying it. I’m excited, scared, stressed, uncertain, and full of virus. What I’m not full of are liquids because I cannot hold any down. By the time I reach the plane change in France, I am almost too weak to move.
I lean heavily on a giant suitcase and the pile of winter clothes I’ve shucked and watch a bunch of French ladies in powdery blue dresses and hats, that remind me of Jackie-O, put their heads together and murmur words I can’t understand. There is an unfortunate amount of scowling, so I assume it is not good.
They tell me we can’t transfer to the plane as planned because the luggage area isn’t pressurized and my dogs will explode – ok they didn’t saying it like that, but that was the general idea. They move me to another plane but tell me there is another problem – they say I haven’t paid for the dogs to go all the way to Italy. I show them my receipt but they insist. I send the boy to find some kind of liquid and tell them I’ll pay more, whatever you want, just get me on a not-dog-exploding plane. It seems they cannot take my money but they also cannot put me and the dogs on a plane. We’re at an impasse. After a long time and many more phone calls, words I can’t understand, and scowling faces, they send me to a far away gate.
I have to get the dogs but I cannot let them out of their kennels. The senior Lab frets and causes her kennel to tip over repeatedly while I struggle with a trolley too small to be useful. My fellow passengers hiss at me through clenched teeth. We manage to get through security and get into a boarding line only to be told again, about paying for the dogs.
I sink into a waiting area. I’ve already called Leto and asked him to turn around because I will not be landing in Venice but Milan. I don’t know where I’ll be landing now, or if I will land at all. I am imagining walking along a French dirt road, dragging luggage and dog kennels along behind me until I hit the border, when a woman tells me her colleague will be able to help me and to follow her. I sigh. I’ve heard this before, I tell her petulantly. I no longer want to have this adventure – I just want to go home.
Her colleague asks to see my receipt. He tells me I’ve paid for the dogs. Yes, I know, I keep telling the Jackie O ladies. He puts me on a plane just about to leave. I worry the dogs will not be on board but I’m herded on to the plane. I will hold a grudge against France forever.
We finally arrive in Italy. Here are the dogs but not the luggage. I am here and Leto is here and The Boy is here and the dogs are here. The luggage is just a box of things and I am too exhausted to care. Our car still hasn’t arrived in country so one of Leto’s new co-workers loads two kennels of dogs, stinking in their own filth, and two sweaty and dehydrated travelers into his truck and buses us to a hotel. We bathe the dogs and ourselves, chug water and sleep.
The next morning is magical.
I completely (okay, obviously not completely, because I will rant about it with little prompting, every chance I get) forget about the endless obstacles getting here. Gelato is descendent from heaven. I am Dorothy, dropped out of the tornado into a strange technicolor wonderland.
I still cannot quite process the wonder that was my European adventure. I didn’t just visit for a few weeks, or a month like a tourist. I lived it every day. I cannot adequately express just how lucky I feel to have had such an experience or how much being so immersed in other cultures expanded my being.
We learned to appreciate the food and cooking. We were surrounded by art and passion and deep history. They tried our language, we tried theirs. We learned to speak with our bodies. We learned what did not translate. We learned they have strange ideas about American bread.
We grew. We tried things. We were brave. We were no longer stagnant – forced so far out of our boxes. We would live in Europe for seven years and continue traveling and learning about others and about ourselves. I would not trade one moment of it for anything (except, of course, when I was stuck in Charles de Gaulle).
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Not all of us adjust. Some are fish out of water, gulping air they cannot breathe. They hide on their little patches of America, rarely leaving the base, driving 90 minutes to buy American processed food, frozen and refrozen, and shipped in from Germany. They may or may not be able to find work depending on the specifics of the SOFA agreement, their credentials, or limited opportunities on base, so they just fester in their homes. Instead of opening up to experience, they close down and focus on the things they lack (the familiar mostly – Target, Wal-Mart, normal sized hamburger buns). Some of us cannot “bloom where planted,” as they often say in the military.
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Outsiders sometimes look upon us with pity – thinking of us as refugees forced to uproot and flee from one place to another. It isn’t easy, the moves. Logistics. Leaving newly made friends. Difficult and sometimes impossible job transitions. The interruption to the flow of education for our children. Missed family. Abandoned pets. The memorabilia lost or broken or sold to accommodate freight weight limits. The houses we can’t sell. The general lack of stability.
But do not pity me. I am not a refugee. I am a migratory bird. Even now I am restless. I feel it in my body. I have learned all I can here. It is time to fly.