‘N is for Never Forget’: No ordinary kids’ book

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If there’s one thing Nancy Polette has learned in her 80-something years, it’s how to educate children through reading. In her lifetime, she tackled the task from every angle. As a teacher, she has motivated her students to read. As a librarian, she provided resources for learning through books. As a conference speaker and college professor, she taught other teachers the techniques she employed successfully.

But it was as a writer that Polette made her indelible mark on children’s education. As the author of more than 170 books, she developed a knack for detailed research and captivating writing. This skill shines in her most recent middle-grade non-fiction book, N is for Never Forget, released December 7, Pearl Harbor Day.

I recently sat down to read Polette’s new work, which is a picture book that follows the alphabet from A to Z, each letter referencing an aspect of the history of American prisoners of war and missing in action. I expected an alphabet book to be juvenile. I expected to see simple illustrations in bright colors. I expected that I would not learn anything new.

I was wrong.

N is for Never Forget is so packed with riveting real-life stories, fascinating facts about POWs and MIAs, and unique art and illustrations, I found myself lost in its pages.

From the dedication page — which features a digital rendering of the 1943 telegram illustrator Paul Dillon’s mother received informing her that her husband, Paul’s father, was missing in action — to the alphabetized stories of lost soldiers and sailors, I was riveted.

With each letter, I learned something new, from D for the devotion of the Angels of Bataan in WWII, to J for justice sought by the international courts for war crimes, to O for Operation Homecoming which brought Vietnam POWs home from Hanoi prison camps, to T for the Tap Code used by Vietnam War prisoners to communicate through walls, to Z for Army Air Forces bombardier Louis Zampernini who survived a plane crash and 47 days in a life raft before being held in a Japanese prison camp for two years.

For a moment, I almost forgot that this book was for kids. But Nancy Polette knows how important it is to hook readers with extraordinary stories when they are at the key ages of nine, ten and eleven. She says, children that age need “something to chew on,” and intense reading will give them much to think about.

“[I]f kids don’t become passionate about reading, they won’t be as well-educated as they should be,” she said in a 2012 booksmakeadifference.com article, noting that it is important to inspire them to read avidly in 4th, 5th and 6th grades because middle school might be too late.

The illustrations in N is for Never Forget do their part to grab readers. Each is a digital painting created by Paul Dillon from surviving artwork and historical photographs of the actual events described. Some of the paintings are purely illustrative, while other like the cover page showing a line of men in a snowy prison camp, are hauntingly thought-provoking.

N is for Never Forget is available through Elva Resa Publishing for $16.95 at www.elvaresa.com/book/never-forget/. Nancy Polette lives in O’Fallon, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

Five bucks can still buy holiday joy

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Every year, there it was. As right as rain. Pop’s gift for me, propped among the branches of our Christmas tree. Always the same rectangular envelope crafted from heavy paper with dainty red curlicues printed on the corners. It reflected the brilliant glow of our incandescent Christmas bulbs in red, green, orange, blue and gold.

After all the boxes were opened, I’d pluck it from between my family’s eclectic collection of ornaments — silvered balls, yarn and popsicle stick creations, glittery musical instruments, and feathered birds. I’d fish it from the tangle of tinsel, careful to not touch the hot lights. I’d slide a finger under the envelope’s sturdy flap, bend it back until I could see Abraham Lincoln’s waxy portrait staring at me through the little oval window. And I would smile.

Pop never forgot to give each one of his four grandchildren five dollars for Christmas. It was something we all counted on, looked forward to, and trusted, from before I can remember, until he couldn’t remember due to old age and dementia.

The complete lack of surprise was part of the gift’s charm. The envelope always held five bucks. Nothing more, nothing less. The fun was in deciding how to spend it each year.

In the 70s and 80s, I used Pop’s annual gifts to finance a myriad of typical childhood indulgences. When I was small, it might have been one of those shrink-wrapped dress up sets that included a tiara, plastic high heels, elbow-length gloves and a parasol. Later, maybe a Magic 8 Ball. A movie ticket to see Escape to Witch Mountain. A Bonnie Bell lipgloss and some frosted purple eyeshadow. A Squeeze cassette tape. A pair of rainbow suspenders. A new curling iron. Shared chimichangas and fried ice cream with my high school friends at ChiChi’s Restaurant.

It didn’t matter that Pop’s five dollar bill didn’t go very far, never increased for inflation, and wasn’t picked out at a store just for me. Regardless of its plainness, Pop’s gift was a reliable communication of his love.

On his modest income, Pop, a widower, would have had to put forth considerable effort to send gifts to his grandchildren. After an economical lunch of fried baloney and Veg-All, he would have put on his signature bow tie and a newsboy cap, to make the trip to his local bank. After flirting with the tellers, he would have withdrawn a wad of crisp five dollar bills. With a wink and a wave, he would have driven his big sedan to the stationary story to buy the special envelopes with the little oval windows. At home, he would have stuffed one for each of my cousins, my brother, and me.

Decades later, as Pop lies alongside my grandmother in a cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, holiday gift giving has undergone a dramatic transformation.

Nowadays, gift lists are long and require subsets, contingencies, and sometimes, spreadsheets. We buy for everyone from Aunt Millie to the school janitor. We troll the internet in search of discounts, coupon codes, and free shipping. We browse for just the right gift until our eyes cross and our fingers bleed. When online shopping fails us, we are swept into the swirling sea of retail consumerism at malls and superstores. We read the fine print of the sales flyers. We elbow our fellow shoppers to grab the best bargains. We stand in infuriating check out lines, only to be told by the irritated salesperson that the “buy-one-get-one-half-off deal only applies to last season’s merchandise.”

And when the holiday rolls around, these gifts that were acquired under extreme duress are given, appreciated briefly, then soon forgotten, their meaning lost in the gift-giving frenzy.

Pop had it right. Ironically, his annual present stood out among the heaps of boxes under our tree, because it was simple, given without fanfare, glitter or bows. To me, that envelope contained not only Abraham Lincoln, but also, dreams and possibilities. The cost to Pop was only five dollars, but the value of his gift of dependable love was always priceless to me.

Black Friday flunkies, we’re not alone

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As much as I’d like to think that Black Friday is a greedy retail industry conspiracy to fleece gullible consumers out of their hard-earned cash, I can’t deny the fact that it offers shoppers really good deals.

In fact, Black Friday has become so popular — last year, over one million shoppers braved the crowds to get average in-store “doorbuster” discounts of 37 percent — that similar retail events have cropped up such as Singles Day, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Green Monday, and Super Saturday. It seems like every retailer is grabbing for a chunk of the $1.05 trillion in sales predicted for the 2017 holiday shopping season.

As trendy as these retail events are, I’ve never been motivated to shop so soon after Thanksgiving. I’m too busy trying to get the burnt bits off of the bottom of the roasting pan to care. Besides, the puzzle isn’t done, there are more football games to watch, and I promised everyone I’d make tetrazzini with the leftover turkey.

I prefer to wait a couple more weeks to start shopping in earnest, just long enough for abject panic to set in. Why get everything purchased, packaged and shipped, when I could pay top dollar after the competition slows down, then stand in line for an hour at the post office only to be told that my package will arrive too late for Christmas?

Perhaps I’m a Black Friday flunky because of my upbringing. I grew up in a small town where the only shopping done on Black Friday was for pork products and beer. This is because the day after Thanksgiving was when men and boys left to go hunting. Every year, my father and a dozen of his friends ensconced themselves in fluorescent orange and headed out to our hunting camp — a small cinderblock cabin on a wooded pond in rural Western Pennsylvania. Everyone in those parts had school and work off on Monday and Tuesday for deer hunting season, so for five days, they tracked deer, ate like kings, watched football and played poker.

Even though I was left at home with my mother, she wasn’t much for shopping for the latest trends. I was encouraged to wear thick yarn hair ribbons, saddle shoes, and polyester dresses with white cardigan sweaters until I was in the seventh grade. By adolescence, any burgeoning fashion sense that I was developing had withered and died, apparently asphyxiated by those stifling cardigan sweaters. I had to master the basics if I was going to survive high school, so I armed myself with simple color matching skills, lots of denim, and a pair of brown shoes. My most fashion-forward outfit was an orange wool sweater, a knee-length denim skirt, matching orange knee socks, and those brown shoes. That was as good as it was gonna get.

After marriage, I was still the last one to clue in to the latest trends among my peer group. In the 90s, while the other navy wives were toasting pine nuts, wearing distressed jeans, painting their walls “Claret,” and listening to Alanis Morrissette, I was obliviously content in my shoulder-pad-reinforced sweater, drinking a Zima in my Williamsburg blue kitchen with the duck toaster caddy.

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep up with trends. Just when I thought I’d discovered the latest craze, it was already on a clearance rack at Big Lots or on the buffet at Golden Corral.

But there is good news for unsavvy shoppers like me. Apparently, the numbers are on our side. According to PwC market research, shoppers are becoming disenchanted with Black Friday. Only 35 percent plan to shop the day after Thanksgiving, down from 51 percent in 2016 and 59 percent in 2015. Eighty-one percent of consumers feel that holiday shopping is stressful, and 45 percent mark Black Friday as the most nerve-racking time to shop. So this year, the largest group of consumers plan to do their holiday buying during the second week of December to avoid the Thanksgiving week rush altogether.

I guess, after all those years of being a Black Friday flunky, I’m finally a trend setter after all.

New treatment for ‘Invisible Wounds of War’ gives families hope

In my 24 years as a Navy wife, I never lost sleep worrying that my husband had been injured in combat. Due to the nature of his job, he was mostly shielded from danger, and thus, his service to his country did not come with a huge price tag.

We were lucky.

Many of the 2.7 million post-9/11 veterans are not so fortunate. Over 540,000 have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). However, these “invisible wounds of war” are often hidden from the veterans themselves, so it is believed that the figures on PTSD are actually much higher.

The afflicted cannot cope with the resulting emotions, anxiety, and depression. Relationships are ruined. Substances are abused. Warriors self-destruct. With a veteran suicide rate of 20 per day, the stark reality of the sacrifices paid by our service members is truly alarming.

I am embarrassed by our military family’s oblivion, when many are struggling. So, when my neighbor — who works for a Boston-based clinical treatment facility for veterans with PTSD and TBI — offered to show me his workplace, I jumped at the chance.

Home Base is a veteran and family care program founded in 2009 by the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital. It is one of four such facilities at academic medical centers — the others are Rush in Chicago, Emory in Atlanta, and UCLA in Los Angeles.

They offer both outpatient treatment, as well as inpatient Intensive Clinical Programs (ICPs) funded by Wounded Warrior Project. Home Base’s ICP involves two weeks of residential treatment at no cost to veterans. Ten injured warriors at a time enter ICP as a “cohort.” Since the pilot program in 2015, twenty-seven cohorts have gone through ICP with promising results, according to Home Base’s CEO, Brigadier General Jack Hammond (Ret.).

The cohorts attend individual and group therapies, exposure or cognitive processing therapies, wellness activities, and coping skills training. They get one year’s worth of therapy in 14 days.

In art therapy, veterans create masks. On the outside, they show what the world sees. Here, camouflage.

Inside the mask, veterans draw what they try to hide. Here, fear, anxiety, stress, sadness, hatred.

I visited on day 15 — Graduation Day.

I was taken to a small, quiet space that had been neatly lined with folding chairs. A table held yellow flowers, challenge coins, and graduation certificates.

From the back, I watched the cohort file into the front row. Clinicians, staff, and a few of the veterans’ family members took the seats behind.

In ICP, veterans can invite one family member to attend the program for two days during the second week to receive coping skills training and attend group therapy. It’s an integral part of recovery, according to General Hammond. “The family members have been injured by virtue of their own stress of having a loved one so far away, or by the service member coming home and disrupting the family ecosystem. In either case, you can’t just treat the veteran, you have to heal the entire ecosystem,” he said.

Members of each cohort are given symbolic tokens of their accomplishment. Here, a custom-made Home Base challenge coin and a biker's guardian bell.

Members of each cohort are given symbolic tokens to commemorate their finishing the intensive course of treatment. Here, a custom-made Home Base challenge coin and a biker’s guardian bell.

After heartfelt speeches from clinicians and staff, members of the cohort stood to speak to the group one final time.

A gruff warrior with a salt and pepper beard could only squeak out, “Thank you,” before being seized by emotion.

A woman veteran who they referred to as their “den mother,” showed her appreciation for the simplicity of the process. “Here, you wake up, you set your soul free, then you go to sleep. You get up the next day, and do it all over again.”

A quiet veteran stood with his PTSD assistance dog and admitted that his treatment might be too late to save his marriage. “But that’s okay. It’s reality, and now I have other people I can reach out to. I have friends. I’ll be okay.”

The jokester of the group surprised everyone with this frank confession: “When I came here, I thought this was it. I had a gun to my head. But I’m leaving here with hope for my future. You literally saved my life.”

General Hammond encourages other warriors to consider treatment. “I like to tell veterans, you are not alone, every one of us has gone through these challenges, me included. The key is to get care, start the process. We can give you hope for a better life.”

Veterans and their families can get more information at www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/warrior-care-network or at www.homebase.org/ICP.

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The Hare, the Tortoise, and the Hairy Retiree

My husband, Francis, poised for action at the starting line.

My husband, Francis, poised for action at the starting line.

Let’s face it — nothing packs on the pounds like getting out of the military.

After years of being weighed, measured, poked and prodded by Uncle Sam in the name of combat readiness, newly-separated service men and women are abruptly set free from fitness standards. They swap uniforms for stretchy civilian clothes, embrace hair growth, and eat without fear that a side of fries will jeopardize their careers.

My husband, Francis, has been thoroughly enjoying this freedom for almost a year now, so it was no surprise when he recently announced, “I’ve signed us up for the Pell Bridge Run so I can get back into shape.”

Most people enter races after they’ve gotten fit, but not Francis. He subscribes to the theory that committing himself to a race that is well beyond his physical capabilities will shock his self-discipline back to life. He has huffed, puffed and chaffed through triathlons, bike races and full marathons with hardly any training. While these events temporarily boosted Francis’ self-esteem, his motivation was always short-lived.

At least the Pell Bridge Run was only four miles, and included racers of all fitness levels. He had signed me up too, and I liked the thought that we might embark on an exercise routine together.

On the morning of the race, we huddled in the dim chill near the free coffee tent, eyeing our competition. There were runners wearing moisture-wicking spandex and state-of-the-art gel soles. They obsessively stretched their hip flexors, checked the split timers on their sports watches, and breathed in through the nose and out through the mouth.

“C’mon honey,” Francis called as I exited a Porta-potty, “time to line up!”

We scanned the mass of people behind the starting gate, organized in groups by speed.

“Seven minute mile… Nope. Eight minute mile… Nope. Nine minute mile… Nope,” Francis said.

“There it is!” I exclaimed. “The twelve minute mile sign is back there!”

There they were. People wearing t-shirts emblazoned with, “Bacon is meat candy.” People with vapes dangling from their necks. People who haven’t stretched since the Ford administration. People so in tune with their physical limitations, they wore khakis and loafers.

Finally, we had found our people.

Francis, who wore his track pants cinched up too high, decided to stretch. Like a Broadway actor, he made a dramatic production of bending at the waist, reaching his hands past his shins toward his quadruple E feet. His knees buckled, and I heard a grunt. His fingers had stopped cold, six inches above his laces.

“Nice effort, honey,” I chuckled.

Our plan was to walk the first two miles uphill to the top of the bridge, but as we passed the starting line, we broke into an adrenaline-fueled trot. By the time we jogged up the first expanse of bridge, we had already run a mile and didn’t feel like stopping. The crisp fall air, the sun rising over the bay, and the excitement of the crowd carried us effortlessly along.

Propelled by camaraderie with our fellow racers, we kept going, even as a twinge of nausea set in and sweat began to pour. “Do you want to walk a bit?” I puffed to Francis, whose breathing had become alarmingly labored.

“No,” he sputtered, “let’s … get … to the top.”

We may have been wheezing and stumbling, but we made it to the apex of the bridge that morning, 215 feet above the sparkling bay. The pride in our accomplishment kept us running, albeit slowly.

In fact, a four-year-old in pigtails whizzed by us, squealing, “Step on a crack, break your mamma’s back!” But we were not deterred. Even as we passed by the cemetery on the last stretch to the finish line, we didn’t let the morbid reminder of our mortality stop us.

Instinctively, we knew this four mile run was a metaphor for the progression of our lives, and we were determined to keep going, up and down, slowly and steadily. And as we crossed the finish line, we were reminded that the challenges we’d faced along the way were what made life’s rewards so sweet.

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Hey Mom, tricks (and treats) are for kids

Dress rehearsal ... Hayden had no idea what why this was hilarious.

Dress rehearsal … Hayden had no idea why this was hilarious.

It was October 1997, and our first child was two years old. When he was an infant, I didn’t want to be like those parents who dress their babies up as pea pods or puppy dogs and parade them house to house. Everyone would know I was just showing off … and collecting candy for myself.

But now that Hayden was walking and talking, there was a plausible excuse to go trick-or-treating.

Admittedly, Hayden would have been perfectly happy spending the night at home watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” on our VHS tape player in his footed pjs. Furthermore, we lived in a village near my husband’s duty station at JAC Molesworth, England, where no one trick-or-treated on Halloween anyway.

But I wasn’t about to let English custom ruin my fun.

I took advantage of Hayden’s happy oblivion, and formulated a costume idea without his input. In a pathetic ploy for laughs, I decided to transform my chunky little boy into a perfect replica of Elvis Presley. A battery-operated microphone and toy electric guitar would ensure that Hayden would play along.

Before Halloween, I measured, cut, and pieced together lilac polyester gabardine into wide bell-bottomed pants, an open shirt with huge tab collars and flared sleeves, and a purple metallic lamé cape. My grandmother’s old costume jewelry produced a tacky medallion necklace to complete the ensemble.

On Halloween night, I wrestled Hayden into the outfit while he whined for the comfort of his Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls. The shirt I’d sewn didn’t quite cover his toddler belly, but this added authenticity. He was portraying 1970s Elvis after all, when pills, booze and too many fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches had widened the icon’s girth.

After I slicked Hayden’s fine hair back with gel and drew pork-chop sideburns on his cheeks with an eyebrow pencil, he was ready.

We headed to the American military housing on RAF Alconbury, where trick-or-treating had been planned. Once there, our friends could not stop laughing at Hayden’s retro get-up. They snapped photos, while Hayden gazed obliviously at their jack-o-lanterns, and I grinned with self-satisfaction.

Hayden’s interest in the whole charade piqued early, when our friends gave him a King-sized Milky Way to kick off his first trick-or-treating experience. Although Hayden had eaten plenty of birthday cake, he had never tried candy. We peeled the wrapper down and handed the bar to him. Like the toy microphone, Hayden did what toddlers do — he put it in his mouth. His eyes widened and his chubby fist gripped tighter around the bar, where it would remain the rest of the night.

By the time we left our friends’ house, it was 7:00 pm. Normally at this time, Hayden would be in my lap, sleepily twirling his fingers through my hair. No sooner did we approach the next porch, than Hayden whined to be carried. Not wanting melted chocolate in my hair, I buckled Hayden into his stroller and we carried on.

Try as we might, Hayden would not say, “Trick-or-treat!” So, we did it for him, while he sat, semi-reclined with chocolate around his mouth, one hand twirling his own sticky hair, and the other one still gripped around the half-melted Milky Way.

Elvis would be so proud.

At the fourth or fifth house, I realized that it would be cruel to go on. Hayden had mouthed the Milky Way down to a gooey nub, and was whining for his binky and teddy bears.

Hayden fell asleep on the ride home, where I carefully peeled the costume off his pudgy frame, and used diaper wipes to swab away melted chocolate, sideburns and hair gel. Finally in his beloved footed pjs, I lowered him gently into bed.

In the glimmer of his Winnie the Pooh night light, I paused a moment to wonder if I’d been a bad mother. As if on cue, Hayden’s heavy eyelids opened, and he smiled up at me before nuzzling back into his teddy bears.

“Love you, too, punkin’,” I whispered, silently promising him many Happy Halloweens to come.

Don’t be a moody foodie

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I’ll try anything once. Well, maybe not cliff diving … or running with the bulls … or a Mohawk hairdo … or silicone lip injections. But when it comes to food, I’m totally adventurous.

Every time our military family moved to a new place, I couldn’t wait to try the local cuisine. Most of the time, we loved the native dishes, incorporating local recipes into our regular meal routine.

Early in our marriage, my husband was assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. At first, we were disappointed to find that pizzas in California had foo-foo toppings such as sprouts, gorgonzola, fennel, and pears. And the wait staff wore trendy glasses, thumb rings and Greenpeace t-shirts. What ever happened to good old-fashioned pepperoni and “mootz-a-rell”, served by someone named “Ang” with bad highlights and a mustache?

However, once we tasted the local foods — fresh-caught squid, Gilroy garlic, Castroville artichokes, and tangy sourdough bread hot from the oven – we were hooked.

Similarly, our next tour in England added delicate crumpets and hearty Shepherd’s pie to our repertoire. Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs and plump Virginia peanuts became staples after back-to-back tours in Virginia Beach. Germany brought us countless European delights including schnitzel, beer, goulash, beer, spaetzle, beer, chocolate, and beer.

Oh, and did I mention beer?

During a tour in the Deep South, we became connoisseurs of fried chicken, hush puppies, shrimp and grits, and biscuits. And Rhode Island has blessed our palates with rich chowder, sweet brown bread, lobster rolls and traditional rum drinks made with spicy ginger beer.

However, for every delectable indigenous morsel that passed favorably over my taste buds, there were countless other native foods that triggered my gag reflex. Our mobile military life has taught me that every region has its share of really bad foods, and I’m not such a foodie that I will pretend to like them.

Over the years, I’ve learned to look out for certain “red flags.” For example, if someone tells you that you have to “develop a taste for it,” that means you will need to consume copious amounts of the substance to desensitize your taste buds to its wretched flavor.

A peanut lover, I couldn’t wait to try southern boiled peanuts, until I discovered that the slippery, mushy nuggets tasted like mutated potato. It took several tries before I was able to eat them without shuddering.

If someone tells you, “It tastes like [chicken or some other familiar meat],” beware that you are about to be served mysterious animal parts.

Whilst in England, I was served black pudding and told it was a variety of sausage. A tiny nibble filled my mouth with the distinct taste of vital organs. In Scotland, I was offered a sliver of haggis and told that it tasted “just like pork and oats.” One swallow and I felt as if I’d just licked the underbellies of a herd of sweaty sheep. At a cafe in France, the waiter encouraged me to try an Alsatian delicacy called, “Sauerkraut Royale.” I spent the next hour sorting through hunks of cartilage and fat tangled with pickled cabbage. In Munich, I made the mistake of ordering the local favorite, Schweinhaxe, only to be presented with a huge roasted pig’s knuckle joint, translucent sinew and all.

And, if someone tells you, “it just needs a little hot sauce,” they are saying that you will need to distract yourself with pain in order to ingest this foul tasting dish. At the risk of igniting another Civil War, let me say that greens are not as good as southern folk proclaim. Collards, mustards, chards – isn’t it suspicious that they are all slow cooked in bacon fat and disguised with Texas Pete?

But don’t be discouraged, foodies. There are still certain universal truisms in the world of local cuisine upon which you can depend. For example, even though you can never trust anyone who tells you to “suck the juice out of the head, it’s the best part,” you can always believe the person who says, “it’s good with butter.”

After all, what isn’t good with butter?

Football parents guilty of excessive celebration

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Ever since our kids’ peewee soccer days, my husband, Francis, and I have loved watching them play sports. Despite their average athletic skills, we planned our entire week around a Friday night football game, a Saturday morning cross country meet, or a Wednesday afternoon tennis match. We wore spirit wear, baked cookies, volunteered, and bellowed chants.

Some might label us as doting parents; others might say we need to get out more.

Regardless, I must admit, there have been times when our enthusiasm for our children’s competitions has gotten us into trouble.

Each sport has its own unwritten rules governing the behavior of spectators, and problems can arise when parents don’t conform to the unique standards for each sport.

For example, our son played high school football at three different high schools. By the time he went off to college, we had mastered football’s spectator rules.

On Friday nights, we proudly wore our 100% nylon mesh replica jerseys, emblazoned with our son’s number. We never ate before the game, preferring to get dinner from the concession stand, where a balanced game night meal consisted of a hot dog (protein), chips with nacho cheese (dairy), and ketchup (vegetable). A blue raspberry Sno Kone rounded out the meal (fruit). Once seated in the bleachers, we tried to resist aerobic activity, other than arm flailing and  strolling to the restroom at halftime.

During the game, we were encouraged to exaggerate any feelings of pride, exhilaration, disappointment, or anger. Football parents were expected to hoot, holler, and shout expletives that might otherwise be considered obnoxious or unkind.

Some examples included, “Hey, that’s MY kid! Woohoo!” yelled while pointing repeatedly at the player. Or, “Take that you LOSERS!” directed to the opposing team while making rude spanking gestures. Or, “Hey Ref — I’ve seen potatoes with better eyes than you!” most effective when screamed with a mouthful of half-chewed hot dog.

But when our daughters joined cross country teams, we realized that we might need to modify our spectator habits.

As virgin cross country parents, we hated getting up in the middle of the night to be at an 8:00 am away race, arriving at the course groggy and confused.

There were no bleachers to sit on — just hoards of leggy teenagers milling about on tarps in a grass field. We couldn’t help but notice the absence of foam fingers and tacky nylon mesh. The other parents looked like runners too, wearing trendy, moisture-wicking spandex and micro-fleece sportswear. We heard no cowbells or air horns – only two-finger golf clapping and the faint tweet of birds in the distance. We could smell no grilled pork products or locker room odors – only fresh air and a hint of cappuccino.

We never felt more lost and alone.

We heard the crack of a starting pistol, and suddenly, our daughter whizzed by us, among the pack. No sooner did the runners pass, than the crowd of parents started sprinting through a trail in the woods. We weren’t sure if there was a grizzly bear attacking us, or a clearance sale at Pottery Barn, but we followed along.

The jog led us to our next observation point, where Francis and I breathlessly yelled, flailed and gestured, “Hey, that’s our kid! C’mon Sweetie! Make ‘em eat your dust!”  The looks on the other parents’ faces made it clear that our exuberance was not appreciated.

After two more sprints to observation points, the race was over, and we found ourselves two-finger golf clapping with everyone else. All that sprinting left Francis and I famished and in search of the nearest deep-fat fryer. But the only food available was granola bars, and unfortunately, they were for the team.

On the way home, while waiting in the drive-thru for a #7-With-Bacon-Go-Large, I realized that we’d learned valuable lessons about becoming cross-country parents: First, spectating the sport requires either an all terrain vehicle with GPS navigation, or a personal defibrillator. Second, until someone starts deep-frying granola, one should keep a bag of Funions and a six-pack of Mountain Dew in the glove box to combat hunger.

The other men (and a few women) in my life

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In my 23 years as a military spouse, I have regularly had relationships with individuals other than my husband. Often several times a day.  Some have been veritable strangers to me, while others are men I have come to know quite well. And, believe it or not, a few of them have been women.

Most of these relationships have been light and friendly, a few have been business only, but all of them have had a certain intimacy. It may have appeared to others that we were mere acquaintances, but make no mistake about it — these men have peered deeply into my psyche and revealed my secrets.

The men, and a few women, I am referring to are the military base gate guards.

It all happens quite accidentally. As my minivan inches forward in the line toward the base gate, I am unsuspecting. I chew my gum. I listen to the radio. I glance down at my commissary list. I casually pluck a flosser or tweezers from my console and use the flip-down mirror to groom myself. I don’t realize that the gate guard is about to peek into the intimate corners of my life.

“Hi! How’r you today?” I ask after stopping at the guard shack. I fumble for my ID, which is always jammed too far into the pocket of my wallet. “Darnit,” I mutter, licking my thumb in order to get a decent grip on the plastic.

“There you go!” I finally produce my ID, hoping he won’t scrutinize the black and white photo that was taken the day my hairdryer broke last year. Without a word, he accepts my ID, and after swiping it through his little hand-held machine, he stares at it and the machine’s display. Back and forth, back and forth, analyzing whatever has been revealed.

All at once, I feel vulnerable, exposed, guilty for something I haven’t done.

He looks directly at my face, too. I smile nervously, wondering, what is he thinking? Is he trying to match my double chin to the one in my ID picture?

He leans over a bit and inspects the interior of my minivan. His flashlight scans each row of seats, the floor mats, the dark spaces under the dash. His eyes pause a moment on Moby, our 2-year-old yellow Lab, panting and seated in the second row on a furry blanket.

I see the corner of his mouth rise a little, and I detect a reaction in his eyes. Is it a twinkle?

There have been several times over the years when the gate guard has ordered me to pull my van over so that he could conduct a random vehicle search. Without a doubt, random vehicle searches have taken our relationship to another level.

In these instances, I follow the gate guard’s orders to exit my van, and get ready for him to pat me down. But instead of frisking me, he directs me to stand aside and watch, while he searches every inch of my vehicle, looking under my hood and using mirrors to peek up my undercarriage.

Once, while stationed in Germany, the guard even had his drug detecting shepherd sniff  the junk in my trunk.

On one hand, I am embarrassed when he shines his flashlight into every nook and cranny — I prefer it with the lights off — but at the same time, I desperately seek his approval.

“You’re good to go, Ma’am, have a nice day,” he has told me countless times after our little encounters. I smile and wish him well, until next time.

As I head for the commissary to buy turkey burgers and fiber supplements, I know that between us, there are no illusions, no commitments, no secrets. The gate guard has looked into the intimate details of my life, and he is fully satisfied.

All joking aside, our military gate guards provide an invaluable service to our military community. Standing watch rain or shine, no matter how monotonous or hazardous, they protect every military installation around the world. Thank you, military base gate guards, for your service and dedication to our safety and security.

No excuses: Visit your military spouse during R&R

Francis and I, crouching in a smokey Masai dung hut in Tanzania during his R&R

Francis and I, crouching in a smokey Masai dung hut in Tanzania

“There’s no way I can go to Africa,” I told my husband, Francis, over a bad Skype connection. He was halfway through a year-long deployment to Djibouti, East Africa, and wanted me to meet him during his R&R for a Tanzanian safari.

“C’mon, Honey, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Francis pleaded between internet blips.

I sighed heavily, thinking of all the reasons why I couldn’t go.

Who would watch the kids? Hayden had football on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with games on Saturday afternoons. Anna had select soccer on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, with games on Saturday mornings. And Lilly had pee wee Soccer on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, with games also on Saturday mornings, but on a different field across town. To make matters worse, I had snack duty almost every week, and carpooled to practices with another military mom.

Add Hayden’s speech therapy twice a week, Boy Scouts on Monday nights, and piano lessons for all three kids on Wednesdays, and our schedule was a logistical nightmare.

Dinghy, our 110-pound Labradoodle, was sweet, but he had recently been dropped by his normal dog sitter because he earned a “D” on his doggie report card. Apparently, she had to chase him around her kitchen when he ran off with an entire rotisserie chicken he stole from the counter. Where would Dinghy go if I galavanted off to Africa?

Plus, I would need shots for typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, hepatitis A and B, rabies, meningitis, tetanus, diphtheria, measles and influenza; and pills for malaria. When would I have the time to make all those clinic visits?

Furthermore, our circa 1981 house had a lot of quirks. The original Florida Heat Pump sputtered away, despite being several years past her recommended lifespan. What if she finally gave up the ghost? I had jury-rigged the refrigerator’s ice maker after it broke. What if someone else wouldn’t know how to make it work? I babied our fragile garbage disposal. What if someone let a spoon slip down the drain? What if someone didn’t know how to get the toilet tank flapper to seal like I do? What if someone ran the mower over one of the sprinkler heads?

Even if I solved all the “what ifs,” there was still the problem of our budget. We didn’t have funds for a trip to a Motor Lodge in Schenectady, much less an African safari.

Surely, meeting Francis for his R&R was an impossible dream.

But suddenly, there I was. In row 53, sipping a Baileys on ice, on a flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport to meet Francis.

It was something Francis had said. “Once-in-a-life-time chance …” had rattled in my brain, eventually giving way to the adage, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

My mother traveled to our house to watch the kids for ten days. Friends and neighbors helped with car pools, practices, grass cutting and dog walking. I received 14 shots and popped my malaria pills. Flights were booked, safari excursions were picked, and a new credit card was procured to pay for it all.

After reuniting with Francis in Kilimanjaro, we spent the night under a mosquito-netted bed in a tiny coffee plantation cottage, were kittens mewed from their nest in the thatched roof. In the days that followed, we traveled with our guide, Mussa, staying overnight in rustic tented camps. We watched elephants and leopards in Tarangire National Park. We spied rhinos and flamingos in Ngorongoro Crater. We squatted in a smokey dung hut with a Masai tribal chief. We gazed at wild animals and incredible sunsets in the Serengeti. We visited a dirt-floor orphanage to play with children and make a donation.

The impossible dream had become a reality, and surprisingly, our household did not fall apart. Not only did we recharge our deployment batteries, reuniting with my husband allowed me to share in his military adventure.

Although I try not to think about how much interest we accrued on that credit card debt, the trip to see my husband was, quite simply, worth every cent.

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