The Poetry of ‘Taps’


One evening in 1981 while I was at summer camp, I took a deep breath, and blew a little too hard on the bugle’s mouthpiece.

The counselor who played “Taps” each night to signal “lights out” to the campers had agreed to let me be the substitute bugler that evening. Using only one semester of French horn lessons, I blasted the first note, temporarily silencing the cacophony of crickets and frogs rising from the lake.

I relaxed my diaphragm to soften the sound and continued, measure by measure. Just before the high G, I squeezed my eyelids shut and thinned out my lips. Would I make the note?

Those whose loved ones died in war while serving in the US military know the sound of that high G all too well. In fact, they probably remember every one of the song’s 24 notes, because it is the somber bugle call played at all military funerals.

But many don’t realize that “Taps” didn’t start as a military burial tradition. The refrain we know today was created in 1862, on the back of an envelope at a weary Civil War encampment along the James River in Virginia.

After seven hard days of fighting, Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield decided he didn’t like the formal French bugle call (Napoleon’s favorite) known in Army manuals as “Extinguish Lights.” He felt the rat-a-tat tune needed to be more melodic, so after his aide translated Butterfield’s inspiration into notes scribbled on the back of an envelope, he enlisted the help of the brigade bugler Private Oliver Wilcox Norton to play it at camp that night and each night thereafter.

Nearby infantries heard the resulting melody, which some called “Butterfield’s Lullaby.” Soon, this new version of “Taps” spread throughout the Union Army, and eventually, to the Confederate soldiers as well. Shortly thereafter, commands began using the bugle call while burying fallen Civil War soldiers, instead of the traditional three volleys of rifle fire, because they worried that the sound of gunfire might be mistaken for an enemy attack.

In 1891, Army infantry regulations officially included “Taps” in military funeral ceremonies.

Another lesser-known fact is that “Taps” has lyrics. Although several authors have been attributed to the simple poetry, the true author of the words is officially unknown.

General Butterfield may not have envisioned that the bedtime melody he hummed to his aide along the James River on that steamy summer night in 1862 would be associated with the tragedy of death. However, the words that accompany “Taps” marry sleep with death in a beautiful metaphor that must offer some comfort to the grief-stricken families of fallen heroes.

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the hills, from the lake, from the skies.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.

Go to sleep, peaceful sleep,
May the soldier, or sailor, God keep.
On the land, or the deep,
Safe in sleep.

Love, good night, Must thou go,
When the day, and the night, need thee so?
All is well. Speedeth all
To their rest.

Fades the light; and afar, 
Goeth day, and the stars, shineth bright.
Fare thee well; day has gone,
Night is on.

Thanks and praise, for our days,
'Neath the sun, ‘neath the stars, 'neath the sky,
As we go, this we know,
God is nigh.

That night in 1981, after two flat misfires echoed from my bugle into the dusk, I finally made the high G note. As I finished the song, I felt as if I might cry. Unsure if it was selfish pride or something else, the melancholy tune tugged dolefully at my heart.

At age 15, I didn’t know that “Taps” had accompanied the burial of countless fallen American military heroes. But undeniably, the notes conveyed a sense of something simple, yet complex. Something ceasing, yet eternal. Something comforting, yet sorrowful.

The tragic yet peaceful call of “lights out.”

Five Reasons I’d Never Win Survivor


I could claim that I have fencing lessons, or that I have tickets to La Boheme, or that I’m attending a lecture on the sustainability of agricultural practices in Machu Pichu. But I’d rather admit what I’m really doing on Wednesday night.

On May 24th, I’ll be watching the two-hour season finale of Survivor. Our family has seen every season since the show premiered on May 21, 2000. While stationed in Germany, we tuned in on Armed Forces Network. And today, we still pile on the couch to watch every week.

During commercials, we fantasize about winning the million-dollar prize and never emptying our own dishwasher again. As for me, I could subsist for days on the fat stored under my chin, so you’d think I’d be a perfect Survivor contestant. However, I’d never win and here’s why:

First, I never shut up.

Put me on a bus, in a waiting room, in a check out line, and I’ll strike up a conversation with anyone. I’ll tell long anecdotes and add unnecessary details. Before you know it, people are trying desperately to get away from me.

Picture this: After building a water-tight shed for my tribe, I start a roaring bonfire and cook the fish that I caught for everyone. Feeling confident, I tell a story about the time my car broke down in Cincinnati.

An hour later, I’m describing the mechanic’s coveralls, while one of the cast mates stands behind me, silently mouthing to the others, “She’s outta here” as he scrapes the last bites of fish from his coconut shell.

Second, I’m a slave to my digestive tract.

Without the comfort of my morning routine, which includes coffee and time to stare out the kitchen window, my digestive tract shuts down while traveling. There’s no escape, if you know what I mean.

Picture this: On day six, I can’t take it anymore. I’m found beached at the water’s edge like a whale, weakly chewing palm fronds for fiber, mumbling something about needing coffee. My tribe mates, put off by my deliriousness and suspicious of my growing paunch, vote me out that night.

Third, conflict makes me cry.

With an emotional range limited to happy and sad, I react to anger with an embarrassing chin quiver, blotchy neck, and blubbering tears.

Picture this: While my tribe mates are tanning on the beach, I begin to tell them about a blind date I had with a guy named Jethro. Hangry, the tribe bully snaps, “Nobody cares about your boring life, old lady!” My alliance waits for me to defend myself, but I can only muster an ugly cry face. Sensing weakness, they blindside me at tribal council.

Fourth, I am a scavenger.

When I go to the beach, I am compelled to scan the horizon for shells, sea glass, flotsam and jetsam. If it washes up, I’m determined to find it, take it home, and put it in a jar.

Picture this: Two tribe mates find me gullible enough for an alliance. They search for me to make plans, but I am miles away, engrossed in a pile of smelly seaweed. We go to tribal council before they’ve had a chance to find me, and I am voted out.

Lastly, my two-piece days are over.

Wobbling flesh started and ended with “Naked Guy” Richard Hatch in Season One. Nowadays, you could bounce a quarter off most Survivor contestants’ stomachs. Birthing three large babies has turned my figure into something of an old deflated inner tube. If you tossed a quarter at me, it would disappear into one of many rolls.

Picture this: Jeff Probst announces the start of a challenge, and we all start running. My tribe mates are propelled by lean sinewy muscle, but I am hindered by jiggling body parts. Crawling under a set of barriers, my bathing suit top is ripped off. The cameras zoom in on what looks like two fried eggs and a stack of pancakes. That night, the vote to cast me out is unanimous, and the director instructs that the footage be cut from the scene as not suitable for viewing.

That said, I’d better go empty the dishwasher.

50 Shades of Mattress Shopping

matress shop

I stepped out of our car and squinted up at the sleek, tall building. It seemed more like a tech company, or a global banking institution, or the corporate headquarters of something really important.

Not a furniture store.

Francis and I hiked across what seemed like acres of parking lot toward the enormous entrance with its gliding automatic doors and gleaming blue “Cardi’s Furniture” sign. We stopped inside and stared, mouths agape, at the massive lobby before us.

The ceiling soared five stories overhead. Outdoor furniture was everywhere – wicker, teak, canvas and cotton stripe. Ahead, criss-crossing escalators chugged hoards of shoppers up and down to floors filled with furniture displays.

“How can I help you?” a salesman said, appearing out of nowhere. He was balding and wore a lilac open-collared shirt, a silver pinky ring, and grey slacks. I avoid hard-sales pitches, but Francis can’t resist the opportunity to have someone’s undivided attention. He widened his stance, crossed his arms and began.

“Thanks for your help, uh,” he squinted at the name tag on the man’s lilac shirt, “Joe. My name is Francis, and I just retired after 28 years in the Navy. My wife Lisa and I are  …”

“Well, thank you for your service,” Joe schmoozed, glancing at both of us.

“I appreciate that, Joe. Truthfully, it was my honor. When I showed up for Aviation Officer Candidate’s School down in Pensacola back in 1988, I never imagined that I’d end up making military service a career. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Even my last deployment to …”

“Joe,” I interrupted, “do you have mattresses?”

Francis took the hint, and fast-forwarded his life story to the end. “Our last military move is next month, Joe, and we need a new bed.”

“Right this way,” Joe said. He led us to the elevator doors and said, “Press three.”

The third floor displayed mattresses as far as the eye could see. We didn’t know where to begin. For the first half of our marriage, we used low-budget mattresses from the military PX. Then, in 2011, we found a Sears clearance center in Jacksonville, Florida, where we bought a slightly scuffed, queen-sized pillow-top that was leaning against a wall between a scratch-and-dent refrigerator and a reconditioned lawn mower.


“How can I help you today?” Another salesman appeared magically. This one was named Pete. He had comb-lines in his hair and wore a blue open-collared shirt, a gold pinky ring, and black slacks. Francis widened his stance and squinted at Pete’s name tag.

Here we go again.

After Francis finished his life story, Pete led us through the sea of quilted polyester. Like Vanna White, he motioned for us to lie down on the first luxurious king-sized bed.

“Which side do you prefer?” he asked me. It seemed odd, exposing my bedtime preferences to a complete stranger, but I took the left side, and Francis flopped onto my right, groaning loudly with pleasure.

“Oh, yeah, Pete, that’s what I’m talking about!”

Pete showed us three more models, each time hovering over us, asking intimate questions. “Do move around a lot? Do you get sweaty? Do you like to have your legs raised? Do you prefer soft or firm?”

I felt cheap and violated, but I noticed other couples testing mattresses too — bouncing around, spooning, and flopping from side to side. I decided I was being silly, and finally surrendered to the process.

Mind over mattress, I told myself.

“I like this one,” I announced, “so how much does it cost?”

Pete gestured to a felt flap over the end of the bed. Like Vanna revealing the Wheel of Fortune Bonus Puzzle, he flipped the cover to reveal the price.

I nearly choked on my uvula.

Pete tried to snap us out of our sticker shock by offering 60-month no-interest financing. This weekend only, of course. When this didn’t work, he led us directly to the economy section, where we spooned and flopped until we found a decent mattress in our price range.

I guess you could say, we slept our way to the bottom.

Never Say Never

Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it.

I swore I’d never do it.

But there I was on a gurney, begging my doctor to please, for the love of God, give me a flipping epidural right this minute. It was the birth of our third child, Lilly, and up until that point, I had insisted on enduring labor pains without medication.

Ridiculous, I know. Something a crunchy California nurse had said during my first prenatal classes had me believing that epidurals caused prolonged contractions and emergency C-sections. However, twelve hours into labor number three, I discarded my fears, scruples, and dignity, and begged the doctor to inject me with something — morphine, vodka, battery acid, anything! — to stop the pain.

Life is funny like that. One minute, we think we have it all figured out, and the next thing we know, we’ve changed our own rules. Milestones like marriage, childbirth, military service, teen parenting, and financial responsibility present us with new sets of circumstances requiring new standards.

Before marriage, I rolled my eyes at those couples who I’d see canoodling in public. “They’re faking it,” I thought, and believed that people in real relationships didn’t give each other eyelash kisses and lick ice cream off each other’s noses. I thought I’d never be corny like them.

But then, I met my husband, Francis.

Within weeks, we became one of those annoying couples who couldn’t be in each other’s presence without fingers laced or limbs intertwined. We would stare into each other’s eyes, sniff each other’s hair (Francis had hair in those days), and pick little bits of lint and crumbs off of each other’s clothing.


During pregnancy, I proclaimed numerous “I nevers” that were eventually abandoned. I said I would never nurse my baby in public, change his diaper while in an airplane seat, let him cry it out, strap him to a toddler leash, let him watch two Disney movies in a row, give his binky back after he dropped it in the dirt, or scream like a lunatic at his pee-wee soccer games. Oh, well!

Military spouses make rules to stay organized and deal with stress. Some proclaim they’ll never live on base, join spouses clubs, or let the kids eat Fruit Loops for dinner during deployments. But at some point, “I never” tends to turn into “Don’t knock it ‘till you try it.”

Desperate to make new friends after moving overseas, I did something I never thought I’d do — I joined an Army spouses’ bowling league. A typical Navy wife, I thought bowling was just a cover for to chitchat, beer and pizza. Little did I know, Army wives were serious about their bowling. After one wife complained that I stepped into her lane and laughed too loudly, I straightened up. Ironically, my team, which we named “Great Balls of Fire,” came in second place at the end of the season, and I had made new friends after all.

Parenting teenagers crushed my edicts like walnuts. Despite my many prohibitions, I eventually gave in and let them use electronics in their rooms, watch R-rated movies, and wear jeans to church. And I’ll admit it — I often use my cell phone to call them for dinner, even when they’re in the same house.

Now that we feel the pinch of college tuition bills, I’ll push my Aldi cart a half mile across the parking lot in a torrential downpour just to get my quarter back. I’ll wait around at the commissary for a rotisserie chicken to be reduced to $3.99. And after going to the movies (using a military discount, of course) I’ve even found popcorn in my bra, and eaten it.

Reality drives us to do things we previously thought tacky, lazy, or negligent. But we must remember that life’s challenges and milestones can also reveal courage, strength and character we never thought we had.

So, whether pondering whether to eat a smoked turkey leg while wearing a bathing suit during a family outing to a water park, choosing between a minivan or a sports car, or deciding whether or not to stay in the military for twenty years, experience instills this simple life lesson: Never say never.

Birds, Bees and Brats: Exposure to culture breeds curiosity in military kids

Kids in Berlin

April 30th is Military Brat Appreciation Day!

“Time for gelato!” I blurted, pulling our kids away from a statue at the Vatican City Museum during a family trip to Rome. We had stopped on our way to the Sistine Chapel to take a closer look at the strange female sculpture that we initially thought was covered in some kind of fruit…were they mangoes?

The plaque on the adjacent wall explained that she was Artemis, the goddess of fertility, and she was adorned with severed bull testicles.


While stationed in Europe, my husband, Francis, and I tried to expose Hayden, Anna and Lilly to art, history and culture as much as possible. Typical military brats, they had no idea how fortunate they were to live a minivan ride away from Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Florence, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Prague, and other European cultural meccas. Sometimes to their chagrin, we took them to see paintings and sculptures in every city we visited.

And, as it is with art, many of the renderings were explicit, causing our children to giggle, gawk or grimace in embarrassment. We indulged them — they are kids, after all — and hoped that someday, when it mattered, they’d remember standing before the original works of Manet, Michelangelo, Klimt, Matisse, Botticelli, Cezanne, Donatello and other greats.

However, some pieces were so detailed, they caused our children’s mental wheels to spin. “Wait a minute … what is that, and what’s it for anyway?” their disturbed looks seemed to say.

After fielding many awkward questions, Francis and I got good at knowing which masterpieces we should breeze by quickly.

We shuffled the kids past explicit nudes in Paris’ Musee D’Orsay on our way to see classics like Monet’s Blue Water Lilies and Whistler’s Mother. We didn’t let the kids linger too long at the base of Giambologna’s The Rape of Sabines in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, opting to find Michelangelo’s anatomically humongous but relatively benign David instead. And as soon as we found out that the Vatican City Museum’s statue of Artemis was not covered in mangoes after all, we used the oldest bait and switch in the book — ice cream.

However, on our final trip in Europe before moving back to the States, it became clear that I could no longer avoid the curiosity of our youngest child, Lilly.

It was the end of our three-year tour. Francis had already moved to his next duty station at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, and I stayed behind so the kids could finish out the school year. Regretting that we’d never had the chance to visit Greece and Croatia, I booked a last-minute cruise with port calls in Venice, Bari, Corfu and Dubrovnik.

“Perfect!” I thought, looking forward to checking the rest of the boxes on my family’s travel wish list.

But of course, things were not perfect.

Lilly, Anna and I got seasick after departing Venice. After a long night of tag-teaming in our state room’s tiny bathroom and rationing the remaining scraps of toilet paper, we wandered around Bari the following morning, dazed and queazy. In my weakened state, I didn’t have the energy to censor what the kids were seeing. All I could do was sip shakily from a cappuccino while they gawked at nude statues and giggled at paintings.

I could tell that Lilly’s head was spinning with questions.

Later, while Anna and Hayden visited the arcade, I took Lilly for a mother-daughter dinner at the ship’s buffet. Even though my parental judgment was still somewhat impaired from lingering seasickness, I decided to seize the opportunity to enlighten my daughter.

Sitting there in a booth on that Italian cruise ship, using breadsticks and rigatoni noodles as my visual aids, I told Lilly all about the birds and the bees.

Too stunned to finish her pasta, Lilly just sat there, her brown eyes wide. It was as if she was trying to process all that she had seen during our three years in Europe. Whether this bombshell made things easier or more difficult for her to comprehend, I couldn’t say.

All I knew was, if Lilly asked me any follow up questions, I was armed with the perfect answer – “Let’s get some ice cream!”

Artemis, fertility, vatican city

Artemis, Goddess of Fertility

Late Blooming


A few days ago, I made my usual school drop off, then took our two-year-old lab Moby on his regular morning walk. While we trudged around the local reservoir, I listened to my latest audio book and focused my eyes on the path, dodging the many goose deposits.

At some point, I managed to lift my head and look out toward the sea. The sight stopped me in my tracks.

While the rest of the hemisphere had been raving for weeks about balmy temps, sprouting buds, and baby animals, here in New England I’ve been straight-jacketed into a ridiculous full-length down coat since last October. The kind I swore I’d never buy because it makes me look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow man.

Moby stood dripping, patiently waiting for me to throw his raggedy tennis ball into the water again, while I paused to take in the scene before me.

It was finally, undoubtedly, splendidly … spring.

Although the grass seemed a little greener that morning, there had been no obvious signs. No happy tulips, no ducklings beating to stay in line with their mothers, no tender chartreuse shoots on the trees. The air was still a chilly 44 degrees, and despite Moby’s willingness to swim in it, the water was frigid. Beyond the path, the tall reeds between the reservoir and the beach appeared pale, brittle and lifeless. And, there was no foliage on the prickly rose hips lining the coastline.

But I saw that just beyond the dunes, the ocean was glimmering. Juxtaposed against the pale morning sky and the seemingly dormant landscape, the sea was a beautiful blanket of flashing silver sequins.

Suddenly, the day seemed fresh and full of promise. Even Moby’s slimy tennis ball appeared a brighter shade of yellow, as I tossed it into the clear, cold water.

I continued down the path with a new spring in my step, as I remembered the long winter our family had endured. It had been particularly challenging, because my husband Francis had just retired from the Navy after 28 years and was transitioning to a civilian career.

Based upon the positive responses Francis received from various hiring managers, we thought he’d get a job before his terminal leave was over on November 1st. But come winter, we realized that the transition would take longer than we had expected.

Not wanting to give up on his dream of working in corporate global security, Francis continued to beat the pavement, networking relentlessly and applying for a wide range of positions in his field. In the meantime, we rearranged our finances to adapt to military retirement pay.

That winter, as I tromped, the icy local dog walking paths each morning with Moby, bundled in my down coat, I pushed away fears of long-term unemployment and prayed for good news. The bright civilian future we had imagined appeared dim and foggy.

“You’re overqualified,” Francis heard from two companies. “We need someone with corporate experience,” others said. All those years of military service, working on missions that made a real difference in the world … was it all coming down to this?

“Every company wants to help the military, until you ask them to help the military” one mentor astutely pointed out.

Finally, after many months of networking, phone calls, meetings and interviews, Francis landed the corporate job he was looking for all along, but it is located out of state and requires us to live apart while our daughter Lilly finishes high school. As a military family accustomed to the “geobachelor” lifestyle, we’ve simply adapted to this new routine.

It hasn’t been easy, but we realize that our transition is not complete — we are still cultivating our future. Just like spring in New England, the transition from military to civilian life cannot be rushed.

Even if we can’t yet see them, the buds of our new life are there, growing invisibly under the surface. Like the persistent little snowdrop that I noticed flowering beside the reservoir path that chilly spring morning, the seeds we are sowing will bloom brightly in due time.

As long as we keep our sights focused on the hopeful, glimmering horizon.

shimmering sea3

The Relevance of Jellybeans


When holidays like Easter and Passover roll around each year, I can’t help but compare my childhood to our fast-paced modern life. My memories pass before me like an 8mm film, with a jumpy picture and the clicking sound of spinning reels.

On Easter morning, 1972, I was peering over the balcony’s banister at the congregation below. I was wearing a white dress and hat that my aunt crocheted for me, with a label inside that read, “Made especially for you by Aunt Char.”

She even made me a matching purse, using the bottom half of a white Ivory dish soap bottle with a crocheted draw-string top. When I pulled the top down over the soap bottle like a skirt, a doll’s torso was revealed, turning the purse into a tiny replica of me.

I sat ever-so-patiently in the church pew, playing with my doll purse and jingling the charms on my mother’s bracelet. After the final hymn, I tried to avoid scuffing my patent leather shoes as my older brother and I weaved our way through the crowds to our station wagon.

The vehicle hadn’t come to a complete stop in our driveway before my brother pushed the enormous, simulated-wood-paneled door open, and leapt out like an escaped inmate. I tried to follow, but the giant door nearly knocked me over on the rebound.

It no longer mattered whether my hat stayed bobby-pinned in place, because the egg hunt was on. I didn’t stop to wonder how the Easter Bunny had broken into our refrigerator to hide the eggs we had dyed with food coloring and vinegar the night before. I just ran like hell.

My brother didn’t particularly like hard-boiled eggs, but the competitive nature of an egg hunt always sent him on a wild rampage. He whizzed past me in his miniaturized polyester suit, swooping right and left. When all the eggs had been found, my mother lead us to hidden baskets laden with jelly beans, marshmallow peeps, and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. 


My parents allowed us to gobble our spoils, provided we would eat an obligatory slice of ham and plop of scalloped potatoes at supper. However, I always squirreled my treats away, rationing them one by one until some went stale. In retrospect, I wish I had feasted, because a few years later during my chunky phase, the Easter Bunny inexplicably filled my basket with sugarless gum, icky raisins, and sunflower seeds.

At supper, we said a blessing that began, “For food and health and happy days, accept our gratitude and praise.” My brother and I toasted with our milk in fancy pressed glass goblets. After dessert, we gathered in front of the console TV to watch the annual broadcast of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner.

There, in our avocado and gold living room, I was truly content.

Nowadays, I wonder, has our hectic 21st Century lifestyle obscured the meaning of holidays?

According to a Pew Research Center 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, fewer Americans today attend religious services regularly. Even though 77% of American adults are still affiliated with some faith tradition, only about half attend religious services.

I’ll admit, sometimes weeks go by without our church-going family seeing a pew. I haven’t bothered with the messy process of dying Easter eggs since the kids were little. Simple jellybeans no longer reign supreme – the kids reject those candy dinosaurs, preferring flashy foil-packaged miniatures in every brand. And frankly, I’m afraid to force “The Ten Commandments” on my family, because the kids will probably balk at the 1950s special effects that allowed Moses to part the Red Sea.

As the 8mm reel of my memories slows to a film-flapping stop, I realize that the meaning of a holiday is not in the traditions, but the principals observed. As long as we honor the tenets of Easter, Passover and other holidays in our own way, it doesn’t really matter whether we dye eggs, wear itchy dresses, or eat jellybeans.

(But just in case, “The Ten Commandments” is airing on April 15th at 7:00 pm on ABC.)


The Outsiders: Can military families ever be ‘locals’?

My home town

On a recent drive to take our two eldest kids back to college after spring break, I didn’t mind when Anna commandeered the minivan’s satellite radio.  But halfway through the Berkshires, my elbow hurt from fist-pumping to Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and I was bored with pop lyrics. 

Mercifully, Anna fell asleep, her head cocked back and mouth wide open. So, I tuned in a couple of New York City DJs who were debating what makes someone a “real New Yorker.” After considering qualifications such as being mugged, enjoying the sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and crying on the subway, the DJs asked callers what they thought. One caller with a thick accent opined, “You aint no Noo Yawkuh if yous some military brat dat moved heah in high school.”

I nearly choked on my seltzer. Did I hear him right?

The caller had struck a nerve. I was incensed that military personnel and their families, who volunteer to serve their country no matter where it takes them, might never be accepted as locals in the towns they eventually settle into after their commitment is done.

As former military brat, David Tracy, writes in “What It’s Like Growing Up As A Military Brat” on,

The question that many civilians find so simple, “Where are you from?” isn’t so simple for us Military Brats. And without a true “home,” many Military Brats struggle in the civilian world. They often bounce around between jobs looking to find a place where they feel comfortable. Some are never successful and always feel like outsiders.

In a blog post on titled “The Lost Ones”, former military brat Dawn Risas agrees: “We will always feel like outsiders to civilians … As adults we cannot even answer the simple question at a dinner party, ‘So, where are you from?’”

In her book Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress, Mary Edwards Wertsch, an expert on military brat subculture, explains the “rootlessness” of military brats, who as adults don’t know where they belong and seek connectedness to places and people. While Wertsch recognizes that overcoming the “outsider syndrome” is difficult, she says that military life also breeds unique strengths — “resilience, good social skills, a finely honed intuition, the ability to observe, learn, imitate” and “a spirit of open-mindedness, and tolerance as well as a lively sense of curiosity that embraces the world as a marvelously stimulating place.”

“Stable balanced lives can be ours,” Wertsch says. “We can even come to understand alien concepts such as continuity and permanence.” But how is this possible unless the locals are accepting of military families as equal members of their communities?

Military retirees experience similar “rootlessness” when they separate after a career of service. Some end up staying in the location of their last duty station, others go wherever their civilian jobs take them or look for jobs in their desired final destination. Regardless of where retirees go, they must still deal with being “outsiders.”

In an attempt to find roots, both military brats and military retirees often turn back to the familiarity of the military. Military brats are significantly more likely to join the military than civilians, and military retirees are more likely to settle in or around military bases where they can stay connected to military subculture and routines.

My own newly-retired military family has decided to make Rhode Island our permanent home. We may be outsiders to the locals, because we weren’t born in one of the Irish-Italian working class neighborhoods, we don’t know how to cook Quahogs, and we don’t go to Dunkin’ Donuts twice a day. But our three kids will have all graduated from high school here, we are buying a house within sight of Naval Station Newport, and we are ready to lay down roots after 28 years in the Navy.

Besides, our lab Moby has marked every fire hydrant on Aquidneck Island.

“Locals” should put aside arbitrary measures when military families settle in their communities and remember that, those who bear arms in service of this country deserve to be welcomed home with open arms.

From Rags to Ratchet: Are there no riches in military life?


“What the …?” my 16-year-old daughter, Lilly, stopped herself short in front of our minivan on a blustery, rainy morning before school this week. There, on the driveway, was a pile of shattered black glass. Just above the shards on the passenger’s rear side was a gaping hole where the window used to be.

“Holy … cow!” I adjusted the expletive to accommodate my teenage companion. Two days prior, I had noticed that the rear window had detached from the mechanical arm that opened it, and made a mental note to do something about it, having no idea that it might blow completely off the side of the van.

I peeked inside the hole left by the absent window and saw gum wrappers floating in rainwater collected in the cup holders. “Good Lord,” I muttered helplessly, and told Lilly to get in. Of course, my husband Francis was away with our other car, so I had no choice but to drive the minivan to school, rain and all.

After dropping Lilly off, I headed straight to the auto body shop to plead my case.

“She’s old,” I told Tiego the mechanic. “We really don’t want to plunk too much money into her.”  Our minivan, which we bought used in Virginia Beach eleven years ago, had almost 200,000 miles on her. Even though her headlights were hazy, her body was pitted with chips and dents, there was a crack running across her dashboard, the alloy wheels were corroded, the carpeting was worn bare in spots, and the various school stickers on the rear window were peeling — her engine ran like a top. We were waffling about whether to keep her for a few more years to save money, or trade her in for an upgrade.

I explained to Tiego that I had to take my daughter to Pennsylvania for college visits that weekend, but he wasn’t sure he could get a replacement window in time. I envisioned Lilly and I pulling up to a group of visiting prospective students on an ivy-covered campus, and jumping out of our old minivan with a pizza box duct-taped over the window.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Tiego said.

I walked to a nearby coffee shop to wait for the verdict. Tiego called just as I burned my tongue on a cup of green tea. “Well,” he paused, indicating that the news was bad, “I can get the replacement window today, but it will cost $300, $450 with labor.”

“Why am I driving such a hunk of junk, anyway?” I thought. “Francis served in the Navy for 28 years, and all our family has to show for itself is two used cars, credit card debt, a bunch of Polish pottery and a paltry savings? Is this all you get for dedicating your life to military service?”

I wondered whether I should tell Tiego to put our old minivan out for scrap.

But then, I remembered that our minivan was a beauty when we bought her, gleaming white, with only 8,000 miles and lingering new car smell. Through three tours in Virginia, she carted us to soccer games, school pick ups, speech therapy appointments and the commissary. She gave me no mechanical trouble during Francis’ yearlong deployment, and didn’t complain about all the dog hair, up chuck, stray french fries and fruit snacks that we dropped on her carpeting.

In 2008, she moved with us to Germany, where she safely negotiated winding roads in Austria, Italy, France, Czech Republic, Spain, Poland, Belgium and Switzerland. When we moved to Florida, then Rhode Island, she zipped over US highways and byways, taking us to visit friends and family up and down the East Coast.

I realized, regardless of our modest budget, our military life had been quite rich all along, and told Tiego to replace the window after all. “She’s got a few more years in her,” I said, suddenly appreciative of our family’s unique lifestyle.

I was a little bummed that I wouldn’t be able to embarrass Lilly with a duct-taped pizza box, but I was grateful for whatever adventures our military family would encounter on the road ahead.

Still rolling along.

Still rolling along.

Confessions of foolish military spouses


Twenty-four years ago, when I became a military spouse, I was pretty clueless.

“Honey,” my husband Francis delicately explained through clenched teeth two weeks after our wedding, “the reason you should NOT lose your new military ID, is that you will need it for everything!” I thought the silly laminated card was an unnecessary formality. I had no idea that it would actually become more important than my spleen.

I went on to make more stupid mistakes. During our first move, we didn’t inventory or label anything, and had no idea that we needed to keep track of  “hardware” and “high value items.” We were nervous, however, when just before driving off with our belongings, the truck driver told us about the time he drank a fifth of Wild Turkey while hauling a load, and had no recollection of driving through six states.

While stationed in Stuttgart, our daughter needed cookies for school the next day, but the heating element in the oven of our Patch Barracks stairwell apartment wasn’t working. We thought baking the cookies under the broiler was genius, until the smoke alarm went off at 11pm, and the building residents had to stand outside in their pajamas waiting for the German firetrucks to arrive.

With April Fool’s Day upon us, I am reminded of my buffoonery, and wonder, “Am I the only foolish military spouse?” I recently reached out to others, and found out that nobody is perfect.

One Navy wife confessed that after two decades of going to formal military ceremonies, she still forgets to put her hand over her heart during the national anthem, and then spends the rest of the song thinking, “Is it too late? Is anyone watching? Can I do it now?”

An Army spouse once berated a man who rear-ended her car just outside the base gate. When he asked why she had stopped, she shouted, “Because there was someone on a bike in the cross-walk, you @$%&!” Turns out, that man was the General.

A Marine wife was at a formal tea for new pilots’ wives during the first year of her marriage. Someone passed around a bowl of foam earplugs for a tour of the hangar. She thought they were marshmallows and tried to eat them.

A Navy spouse was in a rush to get to the Fort Myer commissary, and impatiently honked and gestured at a car that had stopped in front of her. Little did she know, the driver was allowing a horse-drawn caisson to pass by on its way to Arlington Cemetery. “It’s safe to say that I have NEVER honked my horn on base again,” she said.

Several spouses were not adequately trained in commissary etiquette. They violated the directional arrows on the floors, cut lines and stiffed baggers. One Air Force spouse survived all the dirty looks and made it to the cashier, only to realize that there were no checks in her checkbook. She promptly burst into tears and left, humiliated.

An Air Force spouse was incensed early in her marriage, when a base hospital only required her husband’s social security number for her pre-natal registration. She demanded that they write her name boldly across the top of the form, which they did, in pencil. “They probably erased it right after I left,” she realized.

Many spouses relayed embarrassing moments at military functions. One burst into the ballroom laughing when the MC was solemnly explaining the symbolism of the Fallen Comrade Table. Another was yucking it up with guest speaker Tommy Lasorda at a dining out, when both began giggling uncontrollably during the prayer. And, an Admiral’s wife took me aside at a command holiday party to tell me I had a blob of chocolate fondue on my chin.

Back when she was ignorant of the ranking system, one Navy spouse pinned one of her husband’s oak leaves on upside down during his promotion ceremony, all while smiling obliviously at the crowd. The General took pity on her, and pinned the other oak leaf on upside down to match.

Turns out, we all make mistakes from time to time. The only foolish act would be denying it.

%d bloggers like this: