“This ol’ thing? Only cost me $39.99 at Ross,” I bragged to other military wives in the ladies room of the Naval Station Newport Officer’s Club last weekend. Despite my seeming candor, I wouldn’t admit that I’d actually spent a lot more on the torso-girdle-contraption I was wearing under my ball gown.
The Navy Ball is held each year to celebrate the birthday of the seagoing branch of the armed forces, and it is pretty much the same every year: cocktails, photographs, dinner, speakers, cake cutting, and dancing one’s face off to a band of Navy musicians wearing “crackerjack” dress blues.
This year’s 239th Navy Birthday Ball is not really unique; all five branches of our military celebrate their respective birth dates with similar events. The Army held their 239th birthday ball in June, the Coast Guard’s 224th birthday ball was in August, the Air Force’s 67th birthday ball was in September, and the Marine Corps will hold their 239th birthday ball next month.
My yearly tradition always begins with the hunt for a decent dress to wear. Mine was cheap, fit like a glove, and covered all the things that, at 48 years of age, I didn’t want to worry about — my lunch lady arms, my armpit chicken fat, and all the other wiggly bits, which I tucked neatly into that girdle contraption. I felt like a million bucks.
Well, considerably more than $39.99, at least.
We walked to the Club from our base housing neighborhood, me in sensible flats, carrying my heels, which I knew would make my feet feel like they’d been fed through a sausage grinder if worn too long.
Entering the lobby, swarming with Navy folks dressed to the nines, I slipped into my heels and hid my flats under my husband’s cover on the coat rack. Sipping wine and chatting with friends while waiting in line for the professional photographer, I suddenly felt self-conscious about my bargain basement dress and the fact that, arriving home late that afternoon from our daughter’s JV soccer game, I’d gotten ready for the ball in exactly 27 minutes.
My insecurities were eased when another “senior” spouse told me that she’d thrown on one of her “sock drawer gowns” — dresses that she whips out at a moment’s notice, gives them a good shake, and slips into without any need for ironing or alterations.
Seated at Table 13, I got a little misty during the parading of the colors and the national anthem, because, after 21 years as a military spouse, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll get to be a part of all this.
We settled into our seats, under the warm ballroom light, to listen to the keynote speaker. The soft sounds of glasses clinking and hushed conversations could be heard as the President of the U.S. Naval War College, Rear Admiral P. Gardner Howe, approached the podium. Normally at these functions, I would feign interest, half-listening while secretly people-watching. But this time, motivated by the sense that unique military experiences like this are precious and fleeting, I was all ears.
With all the honor and authority expected of a decorated Navy Seal, and a bit of unexpected charm and familiarity, Admiral Howe spoke to us.
“… The Navy is, at times, about spit and polish, about formal uniforms and ceremonies. But we must never forget that we are also about steel, and fire, and precious blood … expended in righteous combat against intractable enemies. It is this warrior spirit, this Navy ethos, that sets our profession apart from the citizens we serve. …”
Not again, I thought, my eyes pooling up. You sentimental fool, get ahold of yourself! I blinked rapidly to disperse an oncoming tear, and applauded the Admiral for his poetic and patriotic words.
An hour later, I was barefoot, sweaty, and doing my own middle-aged housewife rendition of “The Cupid Shuffle.”
With our Navy friends both new and old, we danced the night away, happy in the knowledge that, no matter how long we’ll be in the military, our traditions, our experiences, our pride and our honor will stay with us forever.