A week ago, I was sitting in my room in the base hotel, the night before my family’s final departure back to the States, sipping wine out of a Styrofoam cup and reflecting on the last three years living on a US Army base in Germany.
On one hand, the tour was a grand adventure. We climbed the steps of the ancient Coliseum, laid on the heather covered hills of Ireland’s county Kerry, ate our Thanksgiving turkey in a remote French farmhouse in Loire Valley, snuggled under a bearskin while riding a carriage through the streets of Vienna, and hiked among wildflowers and cowbells in the Swiss Alps.
On the other hand, with every tour, we leave family and friends behind, put spouse career plans on hold, store treasured belongings, cram into government quarters, tolerate extremely long work hours at mediocre pay without overtime, endure frequent separations, and for some, report for potentially hazardous duty downrange.
So why do we do it?
My husband, an intelligence officer, has enough years in to retire, so why not hang up the khaki uniform, grow a nice moustache and a gut, double his salary working for the private sector, and start living it up?
Just before we moved out of our base housing in Stuttgart, my government-issue oven broke one night in the midst of making chocolate chip cookies. Despite the fact that I had packed up most of our kitchen supplies and was surviving on paper plates and take out, my daughter promised her social studies teacher that she would bring chocolate chip cookies in for the entire class the next day.
The dough was taking forever to cook, when finally we realized that the lower element was not heating properly. By this time it was nearly 11:00 pm, so we took a culinary risk and turned on the broiling element to heat the oven to the proper temperature, watching the cookies closely. It seemed to work, and we only had one batch left to bake.
My daughter put the last batch in, and came back to my room to ask me if I would watch them while she got ready for bed. I agreed. Seconds later, the fire alarm went off. I ran to the kitchen to find smoke billowing from the oven. Hurling the oven door open, I saw that my daughter had put the cookies on the uppermost rack of the oven, just under the red-hot broiler element.
I threw the blackened pan of cookies onto the open window ledge and ran frantically around the base apartment, hoping to avoid setting the building alarm off, which would require all 11 families in the building to vacate and the fire department to come.
But then I heard it. Ear-piercing sirens from the stairwell, and confused voices shuffling in the halls. I knew there was no fire, but the alarms made it intolerable to stay inside the building so everyone was headed for the parking lot.
There they all were – the groggy residents of Building 2500 Patch Barracks. Men, women, children, cats, and dogs. All with crazy hair, wearing embarrassing bedtime clothing, staring up at our humble abode, looking for signs of fire.
“Uh, Howdy neighbors!” I waved nervously. “There’s nothing to worry about, it’s just a burnt batch of cookies!”
With sleep in their eyes, they all stared at me. At first, I was worried about bitter backlash due to our stupidity. I mean, who bakes cookies under the broiler? And at 11-o-clock at night?
But instead, they all yawned and laughed. Teenagers took the late night opportunity to steal away to their own corner of the lot and shoot the breeze. Little children warmed themselves in cars, and the rest of us chatted as if it was one of our weekend building barbecues.
Not only was no one mad at me, we all seemed to enjoy ourselves and light laughter could be heard bouncing off the walls of the nearby buildings.
After about 20 minutes or so, the serious German firemen arrived on their serious fire truck, suited up for a Towering Inferno. They marched seriously up four flights to my apartment, entered, and came out a few seconds later with smirks on their serious faces. We giggled at how mad they must’ve been to see that they had to come all this way for some “silly Americans” and their beloved chocolate chip cookies.
I offered my last apologies to my neighbors and friends and we all bid each other good night. It was actually a good time, and I was happy that my boneheadedness ironically resulted in one last fun Building 2500 get-together.
Reflecting on the past three years, I see what keeps us coming back to this way of life. Despite its hardships, life in the military offers job security and opportunity for adventure, but the most unique aspect of this lifestyle is the almost instant camaraderie among military families.
Sitting in the hotel awaiting our next tour of duty, I raised my Styrofoam cup in gratitude for the memories, experiences and friends we have acquired over the years, and I look forward to the good times to come.