What does riding the bus teach kids?

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This month, many American military children home and abroad are boarding busses for their first, excited days of school. Despite the iconic yellow vehicle being the subject of happy nursery rhymes and jolly cartoons, taking school transportation is not always a stress-free experience.

In fact, riding the bus to school each day can seem like a gauntlet, a survival test, a rite of passage. School buses are tiny microcosms of society, where kids must quickly master small group dynamics just to find a seat. And thereby, find one’s place in the complex social hierarchy.

As a squishy little second grader at East Pike Elementary School, I thought the bus stop on Chestnut Street seemed like a huge, unruly mob.

By the time the bus arrived at 7:23 am, the kids at our stop had already climbed trees, thrown chestnuts, knocked books to the ground, acquired fresh grass stains, and executed several wedgie attacks. Much of the shenanigans were prompted by the older boys, which included my brother, Tray.

Boarding the bus each morning, I found my seat so as to attract the least amount of attention. Most days, I kept a low profile (literally, since I was short and could hide behind the green vinyl seat), but one particular fall, I was forced to take my turn as the subject of harassment.

Tray and his buddies had been ordered by the driver to sit in the first rows due to their boisterous behavior. But rather than serving as a penalty box, the front seats acted as a podium, effectively making the gang of boys our sadistic morning dictators.

Snorting, giggling, and kneeling on the seats, the boys led chants and jeers targeting riders in a twisted game of Russian roulette. One morning, the barrel of their gun was pointed at me, and the chamber was full.

Quite fond of nicknames, Tray had a vast repertoire of epithets for me based on my chunky frame. I was called Bubbs, Bubbs McGraw, Chunk, Chunky Dinners, Skunk, Chung King, and, quite simply, Pig.

A summer trip to Hawaii to visit our grandparents inspired Tray to add a Polynesian nickname, “Lee Lae Lon,” to his inventory. It was meaningless, but I hated it, which was exactly what Tray wanted.  Unable to come up with an effective retaliation other than, “Shut up, you big meanie!” I had learned that incessant whining was my only recourse.

That morning, after the gang of boys tired of their normal rowdy routine, they turned their attention to me.  After some conspiring, Tray’s hulkish friend, Jimmy, yelled, “Gimmie an L!”

Everyone looked confused, so Jimmy yelled the order again, and the crowd hesitantly responded, “L?”

Jimmy and the gang continued, “Gimme an E!” Even I repeated, “E!” and the chant gained momentum.

Jimmy added another “E,” then another “L,” and so on, until he screamed “What’s it spell?!” No response was forthcoming from the confused riders, but Jimmy’s gang yelled the pre-planned answer: “Lee Lae Lon!”

“Who’s a pig?!”

“Lee Lae Lon!”

“Louder!”

“LEE LAE LON!”

Except for the snickering troublemakers, no one understood the chant, but it soon became a well-known part of our fall morning regimen.

Thankfully, I passed the test — I didn’t cry or tattle — and was not singled out again after that fateful season. Other than my middle school years, when our bus driver played the same outdated AC/DC “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” 8-track tape in excruciating repetition, the rest of my school bus experiences were relatively torture-free.

Our children rode the bus, too. They endured rumors, scuffles, mooning, name calling and wedgie attacks — and, there was the time when Anna ran home from the bus stop crying because the middle school boys were using the F-word. But all three kids survived without major incident.

Whether school bus experiences will train our children how to throw spit balls and use the F-word, or teach them to be brave and kind, we don’t know for sure until they run the gauntlet themselves. We can guide them, but all we know for certain is that the wheels on the bus go round and round.

One year out of the military, and the ride’s still not over

wood coastA year ago, my husband, Francis, stood on a stage before our family and friends in his Navy dress uniform and spoke about his 28 years of service in the military. The audience looked on curiously as the band played “Old Glory” and the flag was passed slowly, methodically, from rank to rank. When “The Watch” was recited, men blinked and cleared their throats, and women dug for tissues in their purses.

After speeches were said and flowers were given, I grabbed Francis’ arm. To the lilt of the bosun’s whistle, we walked briskly up the burgundy-carpeted aisle, and past the rigid side boys, Francis giving his final salute as an active-duty US naval officer.

That symbolic moment in time felt emotional, powerful, wonderful. Despite our uncertain future outside of the US Navy, we were focused on the last 28 years of Francis’ military service and how thankful we were for it all. The experiences, the challenges, the opportunities, the adventures, the honor, and even the hardships and the strength built therefrom.

We floated through the weekend on pride and gratitude, dancing like sweat-soaked fools at our party.

Reality came like a rickety wooden roller coaster. The kind you aren’t initially afraid to board, because, well, how bad could it be? People have been taking this old ride forever, right?

Once you lock yourself in, you start feeling queasy as it tick-tick-ticks its way up the slope. Then suddenly, it dives and your stomach drops into your shoes. You think you might be hurled to your death, or at least hurl up the corn dog you just ate, but as the centrifugal force pins you into the seat, you realize that you’re in for the long hall. As the momentum carries you up the next hill, you look out and see the peaks and valleys and twists and turns to come. You know you must stay to the end, when in great relief, you will stagger toward the funnel cake stand.

That’s what reality feels like after the pomp and circumstance and open bar of a military retirement ceremony.

A couple months after our friends and family went home with rolled up programs and sweaty party t-shirts in their suitcases, we moved off base into a tiny temporary rental, where we spent the long, dark winter searching for our new place in the world.

Our pillow talk was initially laced with nervous excitement. Will Francis make more money in the civilian world? Will we attend swanky corporate parties? Will we make new friends who golf and meet at wine bars on Fridays? Will we finally turn in the minivan for an SUV with that new car smell?

In our naiveté, we believed what everyone told Francis: “With your experience, you’ll write your own ticket.”

Turns out, that ticket was harder to write than we realized. It took many months of gazing wall-eyed at LinkedIn; writing and rewriting resumes; networking with Tom, Dick and Harry; pouring over application questions; rehearsing for interviews; tsking about unreturned calls and emails; and trying desperately to not take “sorry, we chose someone with corporate experience” personally.

Finally, it came. The job offer was located out-of-state from the high school our youngest attended, but what the hell, it’s a great job, take it.

Our original vision of a cushy-post-retirement lifestyle had to be amended to include living apart during weekdays, negotiating the hopelessly tangled ropes of corporate politics, making due with our old minivan with over two-hundred-thousand miles and a leaky roof, and missing our military friends.

One year out, our metamorphosis from military to civilian life is still in the gooey larval stages. We remain very much a family in transition.

As we navigate the peaks and valleys and twists and turns of this extended roller coaster run, we’ll hold tight to the military pride that welled up in us last summer on the day of Francis’ retirement ceremony. Our military foundation will keep us grounded, so we can sit back, raise our hands in the air, and enjoy the ride no matter where it takes us.

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[With much thanks to Francis’ cousin, Marianne Mangan, for taking over two thousand photos during our retirement weekend last year. Also, thanks to our friend Suz Drgon for taking photos, too … love the sweaty dance shots, Suz!]

Catching crabs, the respectable way

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Many hungry vacationers will seek out the rich sweetness of Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs this summer. Arguably, you haven’t lived until you’ve cracked fresh-steamed crabs over a newspapered table.

However, unless you plan to second mortgage your house to order pricey steamed blue crabs for the whole family at a restaurant, you might want to consider catching these feisty critters yourselves.

With a few supplies rummaged from home, fishing blue crabs can save a military family budget about $18-20 per pound of prepared crabmeat. Simply dig around in the garage and your kitchen junk drawer to find a net, a long string with a sinker and hook tied on one end, and a cheap cooler with a lid. A quick poke through the trash will yield your bait – smelly chicken necks and fish heads work best.

But be forewarned: A myriad of secondary supplies are required, depending on the tolerance level of your family. Your crabbing expedition may involve lawn chairs, smelling salts, cards, a badminton set, Jenga, a full length copy of War and Peace, ear plugs, a brown paper bag, ointment, bandages, aloe vera, tweezers, and an enormous cooler of cold beverages.

[Note: Do not use the beverage cooler to store your crabs unless you like them marinated in Dr. Pepper. These nasty critters may be small, but they’re mad as hell and can pierce an average beer can with a snap. Moreover, the minor convenience of bringing one cooler is not worth the risk of the severe puncture wounds you will suffer as you reach in for a cold one.]

Haul your supplies to a suitable location — any old dock on the bay will do. Place one rotting chicken neck or fish head firmly on your hook, making sure to have smelling salts nearby in case you pass out from the revolting odor. When fully conscious, hold one end of the string, and chuck the baited hook several feet from the dock. Tie the string to the dock, take a seat in your lawn chair, and open a cold beverage.

Ahh, crabbing’s not so bad, you’re thinking, right? But please, be aware that it may take anywhere from thirty seconds to a full 24 hour and 52 minute tidal cycle to catch a crab. This would be a good time to make use of the cards, Jenga, badminton set and full-length copy of War and Peace.

Every so often, check your string for vibrations indicating that a blue crab is nibbling your bait. When you feel a twitch, pull your string ever so slowly, luring the unsuspecting crab toward the dock. Your prey is no Einstein – its pea-sized brain will think the putrid chicken neck is trying to escape and will grasp it even tighter.

Once you are able to see the crab, do not remain calm. Gasp, jump, knock your beverage over, and exclaim loudly, “I got one!! Grab the net!!” If you have not scared your catch away, have a family member scoop up the crab while you yell, “Get the darned thing for Pete’s sake!!”

You will inevitably fail at your first attempt to deposit the crab into the cooler, resulting in it scrambling around on the dock while your family emits blood-curdling screams at high decibels. Earplugs and brown paper bag may come in handy.

Once you manage to secure a crab in the cooler, repeat the aforementioned steps 34 times, yielding a half bushel of crabs – just enough meat to feed a family of five, as long as you also have corn on the cob, watermelon, bread, hamburgers, salad, beans and a half-dozen pies.

When you are done crabbing, properly dress your crab nip wounds with bandages, treat your bug bites with ointment, apply aloe vera to your sunburn, and pull out dock splinters with tweezers before heading home to steam and pick your catch.

And by the way, good luck with that!

[For more information on blue crabs and crab fishing on the East and Gulf coasts, see these helpful sites: www.chesapeakebay.noaa.gov/fish-facts/blue-crab, www.instructables.com/id/Crabbing-For-Beginners/, www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ9cT9_3ASg.]

The princess and the pee

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When you’re a military family stationed in Timbuktu, you can’t rely on relatives to watch your pets when you’re on vacation. Our military family has learned that trading pet care favors with friends isn’t always the best alternative.

Except for the time I completely forgot to feed a fellow military spouse’s cat over a long weekend (the kitty lived and somehow we’re still friends,) we happily exchanged pet-related favors with our military friends for many years.

That is, until we met P’Nut.

We we stationed at Naval Station Mayport, Florida, and P’Nut was a 7-pound pomeranian-chiuaua mix owned by our base neighbor, Tara.

P’Nut ate a quarter cup of kibble a day and Goldfish crackers as doggie treats. During the day, she lounged in a skillet-sized doggie bed, and thought a long walk was to the mailbox and back. At night, P’Nut was carried to a pink crib beside Tara’s bed.

By contrast, our labradoodle, Dinghy, was 110-pounds, with a perpetually dripping beard. He scarfed five cups of food a day, along with whatever he found while rooting through the bathroom trash. His four daily walks were measured in miles, and Dinghy was infamous for dragging his walker when he spotted a cat, lizard, sand crab, bird or butterfly. His favorite place to sleep was curled around the cool base of the toilet.

And as Tara learned the week she agreed to take care of him while we were on vacation, Dinghy had a surprisingly delicate digestive system. Apparently, Dinghy’s “business” was the consistency of Grey Poupon the entire week were were gone.

By the time we returned from our trip, our entire base housing neighborhood was talking about Tara’s ordeal, so when she asked me to walk P’Nut one afternoon, I jumped at the chance to return a favor.

Following Tara’s specific instructions, I opened her garage door and entered the laundry room at exactly 5:30 pm, then carefully scooped exactly one-quarter cup of kibble into P’Nut’s tiny food dish.

As instructed, I informed P’Nut that it was “time to go outside” and led her into the open garage. While making soothing noises, I approached P’Nut with the tiny, rhinestone-studded leash.

Just as I was thinking what a piece of cake this favor was turning out to be, P’Nut’s minuscule black lips peeled back from her needle-like teeth and she lunged for my fingers. I sprung backward and let out an embarrassing shriek.

Chalking the incident up to a fluke, I cooed, “Does widdle P’Nut wanna go on a wiky-walk? Oh, yes you do, you sweet little th…. AHHHHH!”

Relieved to find my fingers intact, I decided to ask the next door neighbors for assistance. I told them how sweet little P’Nut was attempting to sever my limbs with her razor-sharp teeth. The husband, a burley Navy helicopter pilot, stepped confidently toward P’Nut, declaring, “Oh, I’ll pick her up – how hard can it be?”

What happened next can only be described as mayhem. P’Nut flashed her fangs and dashed around the garage squealing like a pig while the pilot, his wife and I gave chase. When the dust settled, the pilot was back on his porch, yelling, “I don’t think she likes me!”

Considering P’Nut’s extreme obstinacy, we gave up the on the walk, and tried to get the little diva back in the house. For 20 more minutes, we ran around like the Keystone Cops. I feared that Tara would return to find her petite princess gone for good.

And then, I remembered the bag of Goldfish. I desperately grabbed a handful of the cheesy morsels from the laundry room shelf and, like a court jester who’s been sentenced to the gallows, I bowed before Her Excellency to offer the bribe.

Thankfully, P’Nut accepted.

The life-threatening nature of my experience with P’Nut had arguably paid my debt of service to my friend Tara. However, I decided that it was time for me to get out of the pet care business.

Next week, our dog, Moby, is going to a kennel while we’re going on vacation. It’s not free, but peace of mind is worth every penny.

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[At each duty station, ask for “the gouge” on kennels and pet sitters. Get references from people you know to back up online databases like yelp.com, care.com, rover.com, or petsitters.com. Visit facilities before taking pets to stay. Many kennels allow dogs and cats to interact with other friendly pets, and only crate the animals during feeding or sleeping times. Take your pet’s food, medications, and a favorite blanket or toy. As always, ask for military discounts, and enjoy your vacations!]

A tale of two studies: What story would your space tell?

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“Dear Lord,” I prayed recently while lifting another heavy cardboard book box from the pile left by the movers, “please don’t let one of my organs drop out onto the floor.” Since our move two weeks ago, I’ve been unpacking every day. Despite the danger of torn ligaments and internal damage, I’m determined to finish decorating my new study.

In all the homes we’d lived in as a military family over the last 24 years, I’ve never had my own dedicated office. In Monterey, California, my husband, Francis, and I plucked at our respective laptops in our base housing bedroom, looking over the crib in the corner where our first baby slept.

In England, the spare bedroom in our village house was frequented by too many visitors from the States to be used as a study, so we put a desk in the family room where we could keep an eye on our first, and then second, babies while they tried to jam cookies into their mouths and the VCR.

In Virginia, the room over the garage was too filled with our three kids’ toys to be an office, so the computer stayed on a desk in the kitchen where I could hear the oven timer and the dryer buzzer. And in our stairwell apartment in Germany, I regressed to working in our bedroom again, at a desk nestled among Francis’ kicked-off boxer shorts and slippers. In Florida and Rhode Island, I shared spaces with Francis and the kids again, always pining away for a study of my own.

But now, after our eleventh military move, we found a house with two extra rooms – one for Francis and one for me. When the movers brought in the “pro-gear” boxes (the serviceperson and spouse are given a weight allowance for professional gear during each permanent change of station move), we excitedly told them to take my boxes to the room off the laundry, and Francis’ boxes to the yellow room upstairs.

After years of holding back to accommodate the rest of our family, Francis felt free to fill his new study with his many awards, medals, souvenirs, and “Yeah, Me!” tchotchkes, earned during 28 years of active duty service in the Navy.

Francis’ décor is all pomp and circumstance. Glossy cherry, polished brass and braided gold ropes. A monogramed cigar box, a glass globe, a framed picture of Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, a leather chair, and a Persian rug.

Francis in a smoking jacket with a snifter of brandy is all that is needed to complete his vision.

I couldn’t wait to display my own personal selection of stuff.

Managing to lift the book box without losing any organs, I heaped dozens of cookbooks onto the shelves, alongside my favorite classic novels by Steinbeck, Updike, Salinger, Vonnegut, Hemingway, Lee and other 20th century American authors.

Another box held my antique typewriter, which I placed on the writing desk I bought while stationed overseas. I filled the misshapen clay pot that our middle child made in 3rd grade with pens and pencils, and placed it beside the computer. I hung my collection of vintage aprons like a valance above the window. And put the old goose-necked rocker — where each of our three children were swayed to sleep when they were babies – in the corner under the Art Deco wall lamp I bought at a garage sale.

I left a space on the wall for my law degree. Even though I only practiced for a few years before military life’s frequent moves and solo parenting made freelance writing a more viable career, I plan to hang my law degree prominently. On the days when I forget long division, or that my sunglasses are perched on my head, or that I already fed the dog, it will serve as a reminder that I am no dummy.

His looks over the sea. Mine looks over my vegetable garden. His is shiny. Mine is cozy. His is all about service and honor. Mine shows a focus on home and family.

We fought to have our own individual spaces, but ironically, both his and hers reflect one basic attribute – dedication to our shared military life.

Redux: Feel it in your rear

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We universally accept that 16-year-olds don’t know much about life, so why is it that we allow them to propel two-ton combustion engines over concrete at high speeds? After many months of pumping the phantom break and digging my fingernails into the armrests, our youngest daughter, Lilly, got her driver’s license this week.

And I breathed a sigh of relief.

I never understood my parents’ plight until I had to teach each of our three kids to drive. Now I feel their pain.

It was June 4, 1984, my birthday, and I was twirling the barrel of my curling iron through my bangs. I heard my mom’s voice calling from outside our brick ranch, “Sweet pea! Come here, would ya?”

I tsked loudly, rolled my eyes, and ignored.

“Honeybunch? C’mon, it’ll only take a sec!” she continued, eventually appearing at my bedroom door. In classic teenage style, I sassed at her, annoyed by what I saw as her rude interference with the crucial task of heightening my bangs.

Eventually, I succumbed to her pleas, but not without attitude. I appeared outside, slump-shouldered and eye-rolling, where the cause of the hubbub was revealed. On our lawn sat a pale blue 1974 Volkswagen Beetle tied up with an enormous yellow bow.

I offered no apology for my embarrassing behavior. Instead, I screamed and ran to claim the gift, which I assumed I wholeheartedly deserved.

That day, I had to deliver pizzas with my Dad for a school fundraiser, and he thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn to use the Beetle’s manual stick shift.

My hair properly coiffed, I jumped excitedly into the driver’s seat and awaited my father’s instructions.

A gruff, ex-college football player, Dad was not delicate. He operated on pure instinct, street smarts, and gut feelings. I, on the other hand, had no innate abilities. Instead, I relied on conscious analysis. My father didn’t use maps, instructions or cookbooks. I relied heavily on them. He was not articulate, using facial expression and volume to communicate. I spoke in great detail to explain my thoughts.

So, when it came time for me to learn how to drive a stick, we were not exactly compatible.

After several stalls, I eventually got the Beetle onto the road. I made every first-timer mistake — revving the engine, sputtering and stalling, rolling back after stopping on an incline, riding the clutch, and lurching. Each time, Dad bellowed, “Easy, easy! No, not now! There, now! Shift! The clutch, the clutch! Feel it in your rear!”

I couldn’t process the words he was blasting in my ear, and I soon began to cry.

“Can’t you feel it in your rear? That’s how you know when to shift!” he shouted in frustration. I had no idea what he was talking about, and continued to grind, lurch, and stall.

I was able to hide my tears during the first few pizza deliveries, but after more yelling and a near-catastrophic stall downhill from a barreling coal truck, I was soon a blubbering, red-eyed, snotty mess.

“Hello (*sniff*) Ma’am (*snort*) I, I, I, (*rubbing nose with sleeve*) believe you ordered two (*hiccup*) pepperoni pizzas?” I managed to choke out after ringing doorbells.

“Oh, Sweetie, sure! Would you like to come inside and sit a while?” one customer offered upon seeing my pitiful condition.

I somehow managed finish the deliveries without anyone calling child protective services, but was devastated at my failure to understand my father’s instructions. Later, I took the Beetle out alone on the road in front of our house. Even though I still didn’t feel anything in my rear, I was surprised at how quickly I taught myself.

Decades later, I realize that riding in the car when my kids are driving is sometimes a huge pain in the butt. Perhaps that’s what my father was talking about.

Regardless, my experience taught me to hold my tongue when our teenagers are driving. My instinct may be to scream, “Holy Mother of God! Brake! Brake! Brake!” But I’ll sit quietly and let them think for themselves.

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Eee O Eleven, and Done

20170613_125117 (1)The day had finally come. Our eleventh, and last, military household goods move. The Navy’s final retirement gift after 28 years of active duty life.

The sun was up and burning bright when the trucks’ brakes hissed outside our new house. Despite the fact that daily temperatures in Rhode Island had averaged in the fifties all month, the forecast was calling for a hot, humid day.

I glanced around at our empty house. The hardwood floors were clean and unscratched. The recently steam-cleaned rugs were perky and smelled faintly of vanilla. Our freshly-painted walls and trim gleamed smooth and flawless.

After 23 years as a military spouse, I knew that, by the end of the day, our house would be transformed into a war zone. I took in one last breath of calm, disinfectant-scented air, and walked outside, hoping I had the stamina to make it through one more move in.

On the porch, I heard a hacking cough followed by the crew leader, Bill. While the others finished morning smokes and busted chops in the street, Bill went over a huge stack of inventory sheets with me. He gave me the kind of glare that said, “You have way too much stuff, lady.”

The rest of the crew was a ragtag bunch. Stanley, Frank, Jose, Lou, and a 22-year-old rookie they called Smarley. Over the course of the long day, I would get to know them all very well.

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I spread the inventory sheets out on a folding table like a deck of cards, as the movers started hauling in boxes and yelling out inventory numbers from little orange stickers.

Frank was the talkative one, but ironically, the hardest to understand thanks to his thick Italian-Portuguese-Rhode Island accent. He mumbled something about music, and I soon heard Sinatra blaring from his portable speakers, “These little town blues, are melting away!”

The music was a pacemaker, electrifying the process, keeping the rhythm of boxes pumping steadily in and out of our house. As the morning temperatures reached into the eighties, everyone followed the pace of Frank’s Rat Pack mixtape and fell into a sweaty routine.

Bill made me feel culpable with every look, as Sinatra belted, “That’s Amore!”

Stanley, a tall Nigerian immigrant, smiled cheerfully as Martin quipped, “Aint that a kick in the head!”

Jose worked tirelessly in silence, as “I did it my way!” wailed.

Lou performed playful imitations of his coworkers, as “I’ve got you, under my skin!” hummed.

Frank mumbled unintelligibly, as “Hey, mambo, mambo Italiano!” boomed.

Smarley tried to avoid working, as “Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars!” echoed in the eaves.

Mid-day, Francis arrived with lunch. As the crew munched deli sandwiches on our porch and swapped stories about slipped disks and reconstructed joints, Francis made a scene of carrying two cases of water from our minivan — huffing, puffing and heaving dramatically as the crew looked on. “Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try!” blared.

In the afternoon, the sun hid mercifully behind a cloud, and a playlist of Pavarotti soothed. The respite gave the moving crew the energy they needed to haul our huge armoire up through a second story window. We all hoped that the miserable work would soon end.

And it did, just after 6:00pm. Each room of our house was piled high with little cityscapes of cardboard skyscrapers. The formerly pristine walls and floors were scuffed and scattered with scraps of paper. I tried to not think about the endless unpacking to come, as I sat with Bill on the porch to sign the final paperwork.

Sammy Davis, Jr. channeled my thoughts through Frank’s speakers, and crooned one last encouraging tune into the humid evening air.

“Yes, I can, suddenly, yes, I can,” he sang, right on cue.

Heartbreak Fridge

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The summer military moving season is upon us, which means it’s probably time to say good-bye to some very good friends. There will be farewell fire pits, hugs on the driveway, and even a few tears.

But moving requires cleaning out the pantry and refrigerator, so this otherwise sad occasion may also come with parting gifts.

Admit it, you have a bottle of mustard, a can of cooking spray, a block of creamed cheese, or some other food item in your kitchen that you did not purchase. We know you didn’t pay for that jar of Spanish olives, did you?

I’m not accusing anyone of being a thief. To the contrary, I’m merely pointing out a unique aspect of military spouse culture: It’s all about giving.

You make friends at each duty station, and even if friendships are brief, each friend bequeaths to you fond memories of afternoons chatting on the patio during deployments, of the time she took care of your dog when you visited your parents, of the night you brought her wine and Dove Bars because she was crying over her husband’s new orders.

But her final gift to you is something that, even though it will last for many months to come, seems so thoughtless, perfunctory and random: that bottle of cocktail sauce that was on the door of her refrigerator.

What gives?

Receiving a bag of turkey meatballs may seem like an insult, but this simple gesture between spouses is actually quite poignant.

You certainly don’t need her half-used tub of margarine, but it’s a lasting symbol of her appreciation for your support and friendship. She gave these things to you because that’s what we do — we share travel tips and power tools, hairdressers and babysitters, laughter and tears, the challenges and rewards of military life.

And, we share leftover Shake’N Bake.

Your military spouse friend didn’t mean to offend you with that jar of capers. In fact, she tried very hard to salvage the food in her kitchen by concocting strange casseroles and feeding them to her family. She layered them with melted cheese and cracker crumbs to disguise the can of French-style green beans, that pack of hot dogs with freezer burn, and that bag of stiffened mini-marshmallows.

But her family eventually got fed up with her magical mystery meals, and that’s when she thought of you.

Funnily enough, I can’t remember the countless duds and delights I gave to neighbors and friends before our last eleven military moves. The stress of each move has a way of blurring those details. In my haste, if I gave away old bottles of Worcestershire or moldy blocks of cheese, my sincerest apologies.

Ironically, I have an uncanny memory of the many kitchen items given to me in my 23 years as a military spouse. I never did manage to find a use for them, but I was nonetheless grateful for the cocktail onions my friend Natalie gave me. I was touched by the frozen chicken tenders from Eileen, the maple syrup from Michelle, the grapeseed oil from Bud, and the homemade spaghetti sauce from Mercedes.

Useful or not, I recognized each item given and received for what it was: A tiny memento of our friendship.

So, when you see that bottle of Catalina dressing on your refrigerator door that no one in your family likes, don’t be annoyed. Instead, remember that in our military community, when you give understanding, camaraderie, and support, that is exactly what you will get back.

Well, that, and a jar of horseradish.

Sure, watching your friend’s toddler while she goes to her prenatal appointments can be a pain. Yes, the monthly potlucks can sometimes be a bore. No doubt, getting a phone call from a worried squadron wife right in the middle of the Bachelorette can be really annoying.

But think of it like this: She may have given you a lousy that bottle of ketchup that only cost about a buck-seventy-five, but the unspoken understanding and support your fellow military spouse offered when you were in need was nothing short of priceless.

The Poetry of ‘Taps’

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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

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.

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